zaterdag 2 juli 2016

Music, rhythm, and health effects

Recently, I added subtitles to a documentary I made in 2015. That documentary was on the Didgeridoo musical instrument, and was kind of experimental. I have never really made a documentary before, but still I wanted to take it seriously, approach it as professionally as possible.

That documentary was thus on the Didgeridoo instrument, neither an instrument I play. This way, in making it – I reasoned – it was also educational for me. I am very interested in (World) Music and instruments, so it was still somewhat “up my alley”. Musical instruments I play are mostly percussion instruments, and occasionally mbira, harmonica, balafon, flute, MIDI keyboard, or guitar.

The documentary included - or should I use present tense? -, includes, an interview with a Didgeridoo player I met once (Nick Bastiaansen), having seen him perform with a didgeridoo a few times.

This post is not an indirect, “sneaky” way of self-promotion, as some might see it: quite simplistically and negatively of course. Okay, perhaps a bit, I admit. Yet, I don’t make money with this documentary. Furthermore, in my experience, the “ego trip” accusation is sometimes just, but often also used selectively for people you already don’t like for other reasons. For people one likes it suddenly becomes “justful pride in one’s effort/work (or skills)” or “self-expression”.

Let’s just say that I learned more than I knew before about the Didgeridoo, making this documentary, and I am satisfied with the results. People can judge for themselves, and I hope many people want to see it too (subtitles switched on with button, first on the right below).

This post is not about making a documentary. Neither is this post about the activity of “adding subtitles” or “translation”. I translate texts quite a lot, mostly between Dutch, English, and Spanish, both professionally and personally. Then, “subtitling” is a specific skill and activity that has its specific issues (timing with film/images, didactics) even beyond “translation” as such. To be honest, though, I think translation and subtitling are not themes I find interesting enough for my blog.

Instead, I choose to focus on a theme discussed in the said documentary, specifically in its last part, involving the didgeridoo player Nick Bastiaansen. Especially, at the very end of the documentary.

I end the documentary with a short “jam” of me (with the Ashiko drum) playing with Nick Bastiaansen on Didgeridoo. I interrupt/interchange this with final questions regarding any eventual “healing” or “medicinal” properties of the Didgeridoo. That is a theme Nick Bastiaansen knew something about, he mentioned before. It is found after 40 min. and 32 sec. into the documentary (direct link to that part: https://youtu.be/0o-hMdD8w24?t=40m31s).

Nick’s answers were interesting, though maybe a bit difficult to grasp at once. Translating/subtitling it made me grasp it more (again), I must say. He mentions the effect of the Didgeridoo sound and playing on health: physiological: on brain waves (having a calming effect), on blood vessels, better blood streaming, and other aspects..

RHYTHM

This made me think. I sense there is definitely also a (positive) health effect of dancing to rhythms, when one allows oneself to come in a trance created by (poly)rhythms. When playing percussion myself, in songs/percussion instrumentals I made myself, but of course also in other music by others, even if primarily consisting of drums and percussion. This last is common (at least traditionally) in some cultures (parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example).

Not everything needs to be, as an expression goes, “analyzed to death”, I realize this well. You just feel beter after you danced and got a time in a groove. You might even feel “renewed” or with a new perspective of life. Take it for what it is, one might argue: no need for complex, semi-academic, “textual” scrutiny.

On the other hand, I think a proper analysis would do it more justice. The danger of “over-analyzing” should besides not be exaggerated. After all, in my opinion there is a positive correlation between knowledge and enjoyment, not a negative one, as others state.. Perhaps, this is different for each person.

Some analysis I find appropriate, anyway. Just like Nick Bastiaansen analysed the effects of the Didgeridoo on human health, beyond just “fun” and “nice vibes” with the Didgeridoo.

One aspect in this is rhythm. Instruments I play are mostly rhythmic in essence, albeit with often secondary melodic or harmonic aspects. The Didgeridoo, however, is not really a rhythmic or percussive instrument as such. It is a single-tone/key “sound” instrument, that admittedly can be played in a percussive, rhythmic way on occasion. This made me wonder: are there health effects of “rhythmic music” or “drums” that are comparable, or in turn quite different but also positive for humans? On the brain and/or body? Psychologically and physiologally? I imagine there must be. I have read something about it in the past, seem to experience it as such, but decided to study it further for this specific post.

What I studied more up to now is the cultural function of percussive music and drums, especially in African music. That is a field of interest to me. I discussed it on this blog here and there already. The trance-like possibilities of polyrhythms in African or African-derived cultures and religions (Vodou, Santería, Kumina), as part of “spirit possession” in some way. Such rituals and practices relate to health aspects, even explaining their cultural existence. This seems to me self-evident. Drum music can have community and not just individual functions, but even “harmony in the community” has health or psychological aspect, of course. African world-views – especially traditional ones – tend to be more collectivistic than modern Western ones. This has valuable aspects as well. It might cloud, however, individual effects of percussive music, that are interesting to know about, I opine. Even in very collectivistic cultures, or extreme variants of “group” thinking, there are still individuals who cannot fully deny their own needs, thoughts, and feelings.

Moreover, in most sub-Saharan African cultures – more focussed on drum and polyrhythmic music, compared to other parts of the world – within the “collectivism” there still is a derived place for ïndividual tendencies and difference, part of the same culture, even if fitted in community senses. Like in other cultures, special, “different” indiviuals are imbued with a special, important “spiritual” roles, venerated and respected. Arguably, such individual difference is allowed relatively more in traditional African culture when compared to other “collectivistic” cultures, e.g. in parts of Asia, or even in parts of the Islamic or Western world.

MUSIC THERAPY

In the modern, developed - and according to many “overly” individualistic and socially fragmented - Western world such individual health effects of music have been studied academically a lot. From the psychological, neurological, biological, or medical perspectives.

”Music therapy” is furthermore a quite developed field in several Western countries, often part of wider therapy contexts. Music therapy has been used succesfully in cases of autism, other brain disorders, motoric disorders, after strokes, cardiovascular conditions or disorders etcetera. Psychologically also in relation to “antisocial” behaviour, dealing with traumas, concentration and didactics etcetera.

Scientists have found in recent times “neurons” in the brain essentially there just to respond to music, rendering music an inherent phsiological or neurological (say: “biological”) effect, beyond psychological “inventions”, so to speak.

BRAIN WAVES

Also, as Nick mentioned in the documentary, the response of “brain waves” to music has been discovered, though the most common scientific terminology recognizes besides the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma wave types: Alpha waves (soothing, low frequency), Beta waves (activating, higher frequency), and Gamma waves (highest frequency), also Theta and Delta waves (even of lower frequency than the relaxed Alpha one, and not always relevant to adults).

In the following article “brain waves” and their characteristics and effects are explained clearly, I find.

http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2014/04/15/5-types-of-brain-waves-frequencies-gamma-beta-alpha-theta-delta/

Similar therapy applications of music – and distinctions - have been found, though, in Indian culture traditionally, in Yoga, notably in what is called ‘Nada Yoga’.

“Music” is broad, and includes of course melody, harmony, and rhythm, as well as different sounds (low, medium, high), frequencies, or speeds. I would find it interesting to know if “rhythm” (beats, cadence, “grooves”, metrums, steady beats etcetera) as such has different health effects than “tone” (e.g. the Didgeridoo), melody, or harmony. Drums in particular. Also, how about other percussive instruments like shakers, bells, scrapers, blocks, berimbau’s? Or semi-percussive xylophone/balafon-like or mbira/kalimba-like instruments, found in several parts of Africa traditionally as well?

Well, the studies I could find, seldom were that specific regarding instruments, especially not regarding “small percussion” instruments, as they are known. In a broader sense, though, rhythm, percussion, and drums or drumming have been studied also academically quite a lot. As I mentioned, it also has been put to use in therapy (including e.g. “drum circles”) in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Still, not yet in most “mainstream” therapy, must be pointed out. It is accepted more and more in Western therapy, both medical and psychological, that much is true.

All this – the present state of music therapy, in short - can be deduced from scrolling through the recent contents of the (authorative) academic journal Journal of Music Therapy (Oxford journals), specifically looking for rhythm, drumming and/or percussion.

http://jmt.oxfordjournals.org/

This journal represents, however broad and academic, still a mainly Western perspective, notable in the relatively limited number of articles on percussion, and even less on “polyrhythms”, being a common base of traditional sub-Saharan music, feeding of course into “Black” music genres created by African descendants in the West. Elsewhere, this one (for example) could be found about that: (http://www.irietones.com/drumtherapy-article_5.htm).

This causes that biased perspectives arise, such as the popularized notion that Classical Music heard by an unborn child is good for its mental development. Read: Western Classical music. Polyrhythmic or other music might have the same positive effects, but are simply studied less. Moreover, what is “positive” is subjectively, and culturally determined. The same applies to intelligence or IQ tests. Contrary to what some might think, IQ (like education) is largely a culturally specific construct, aimed at specific cultural goals (to function in an industrialized Western labour market context, notably).

http://www.cerebromente.org.br/n15/mente/musica.html

The above “summarizing” article, argues that what makes music beneficial is “order” (math), going on to give (predictably), as representative of this, examples from “high-brow” Western classical music.

Well, I argue that “forest” African polyrhythmic, (“clave-based”) music also has inherent “order”, as does African, “swinging around the beat” Griot music. African polyrhythmic music influenced as well as Griot music influenced Afro-American “popular music” genres as Blues, Jazz, Reggae, Calypso, Son, Rumba, Salsa, Merengue, Samba a.o. in different ways. For the untrained ear, Didgeridoo music might not have that apparent order: yet is proven to be beneficial and soothing. It’s thus all relative.

RHYTHM IS EVERYWHERE

When in studies, also the academic ones, the health effects of rhythm are discussed, it is often pointed out that rhythm is everywhere in our lives as humans, and in nature: our heart beat (One-Two), breathing, pulsating of blood, day to night, seasons changing, singing of birds, ways of animals, plants etcetera. The heart beat is what we first hear when conceived and in our mother’s womb: the heart beat of our mother. This makes rhythm so essential and original, that by definition we need rhythm to be complete, balanced. Returning thus to a focus on rhythm, if needed to improve our well-being and health. That is why it is said that, among other things, drumming boosts our immune system.

Nice that scholars confirm this, but it can be considered also as just “common sense” that we can imagine for ourselves: rhythm is nature, we start and live with rhythm (heart beat), so it must be beneficial.

All the more surprising is thus, I find, that in modern Western societies, “rhythm” is actually oppressed and devalued, obfuscated in the life of people. This can be explained by industrialization, for a large part. The increased distance of “nature” in modern Western life: the seasons, plants, animals, natural regeneration.. in short, the balance with nature has been lost. A cliché, but a true one. In its stead came unnatural rhythms making you work productively for the economy – a control measure, basically -, or commercialized “rhythm” for monetary gain, such as commercial music forms, though here it is a bit more egalitarian and with at least partly artistic/entertaining aspects.

Still, some music forms sound more like “corruptions” of rhythm than actually real rhythm and yet became popular, partly by media manipulation. This last aspect disturbs the ideally egalitarian, democratic idea of enjoying art and culture and creates injustices: it’s easier to make money with it (House, Disco, Techno), than with complex music (with polyrhytms, jazz, other Black music). Of course, genres like Reggae or Funk have quite some fans, and at times enter the mainstream (though not structurally), yet are relatively much less popular, and thus less profitable.

On a personal level, the "loss" of rhythm - or perhaps better: the detachment of it - is noticeable among individuals who usually do not dance to music, not even to particularly rhythmic music. Many do not even "feel" or "sense" the basic beat or rhythm yet move ("dance") to the music, but not the rhythmic parts. This is often noted - or joked about - by Black people about White people. Similarly, White people do in many cases - at least at first - not "get" polyrhythmic music, finding it just chaotic. This is of course not a crime against humanity: tastes and cultural preferences differ. One is entitled to enjoy music in one's own way, even if at times it seems a lack of respect. I wonder though: do they really enjoy it as best as possible? Do they get out of it all that there is to get, notably the health effects inherent in rhythm?

One crucial lesson one learns in a.o. the Nada Yoga tradition, is that positive health effects of music can really only be achieved if one truly enjoys the respective music for its own sake, not just the derived social power (negative identity, sense of belonging) or atmospheric issues associated with it. Then they would be just "pretending", for some reason. Again, this is their choice and no crime against humanity (at most confusing or annoying), but culturally "fitting" clothes, hair or stated enthusiasm is not enough for it to be "real". This even applies sometimes to people in looks or genetically from the "same culture", yet with no real interest or love for certain music. All this is comparable to good food or beverage: just smelling it - or even tasting it - is not the same as actually fully digesting it within your body. The European tradition that developed made listening to music something of only the "ears", so to speak, and dancing circumscribed and marginalized. In the African tradition on the other hand, one "listens with the whole body": ear and brain for sure, but also the rest of the body, as music is meant to dance to.

That's, in my opinion, the real test of musical affiliation: if one can enjoy it according to its own terms and intentions. For the same reason that a love relationship with a person whose thoughts or opinions you do not care about is not "real".

Anyhow, returning to experiencing real, natural rhythms - and willingness to do so! - can be healthy and beneficial in response to absence of rhythm (in society and/or persons), or in response to the unnatural or disturbed, corrupted “rhythm” use.

RHYTHM AND HEALTH MORE SPECIFICALLY

The following article I also found interesting, especially the part on “synchronizing brain activity” and the link made between drumming and meditation. The last aspect I already imagined from own experience (a bit related to “Trance” as is a known effect of repetitive rhythmic music). The “synchronizing brain halves” part was new and insightful to me. Also, it goes beyond the arguments promoting “music that helps to relax, thus to concentrate and be more healthy”, that is not totally untrue, but a bit too obvious or better said: simplistic. Music therapists point out, that for some people in fact “activation” (like of the Beta brain waves), rather than "relaxation", is more helpful to their well-being and sense of health improvement. It differs per person and need. "Depression", often sadly triggering suicides, stems from too much of the "low frequency" brain waves (Alpha or lower).

http://healing.about.com/od/drums/a/drumtherapy.htm

Certainly worthy of mention in this regard is Cornell Coley, a drummer specialized in health and education drumming, basing himself also on the mentioned scientific evidence on health effects of drumming, such as the boosting of the immune system (including by creating cancer-fighting blood cells!), in dealing with disorders, with traumas (by focussing on the present), the also mentioned synchronicity between logical and creative brain halves, and other aspects.

In the lecture underneath (from min. 7:50) he summarizes these health benefits, and also his website is interesting to check out ( http://www.afrolatin.net/ ). He uses the significant term "preverbal connectedness" (with nature and universe a.o.) as one of the benefits of drumming.

Dancing to relatively fast-paced, rhythmic music can thus be beneficial too, inducing trance in a positive way, such as in rituals of Afro-American belief systems like Vodou or Santería: typically polyrhythmic songs (chants and drums with specific percussive patterns) meant to “heal” or “resolve” community or personal problems (often via possession by a specific spirit or “forefathers”, as added cultural aspects). Such rhythms can, to some ears, be too “busy” (even if relatively mid-tempo or slow), chaotic, or “boring”. The rituals are in many cases, however, meant to and accepted as “healing” or “resolving”.

Generally, African-(based) polyrhytms combine not only different independent rhythms, but also different tonalities and pitches (high or low, deep or dull, round or sharp etcetera), and different tempos.

Ritual, Nyabinghi drumming music by many adherents of Rastafari (an Africa-focussed movement arising among Afro-Jamaicans in the 1930s) has, in a restructured way, these same aspects, in that while the emphasis is on drumming a kind of (natural) One-Two “heart beat”, this is varied with “cross-rhythms” in the African tradition. This was originally influenced by surviving polyrhythmic African music traditions in Jamaica (Burru, Kumina). The drums used in Nyabinghi derive largely from Kete-type drums from the Ghana region (used before in Burru music in central Jamaica), whereas the played rhythmic patterns of Nyabinghi are influenced by Kumina patterns, originating in the Congo/Central African region. Rastafari is further Christian- and Bible-influenced (albeit from an own African perspective), which is combined with these African musical aspects.

Anyway, Nyabinghi certainly is used not only for beneficial community functions, but according to many also for personal (mental) health improvement, improving focus and concentration, and for “meditation”, similar to how Yoga functions for some. Rastas use the interesting term "grounding" or "groundation" for the positive effect of this joined "heart beat" drumming of Nyabinghi.

RHYTHM AND RELIGION

In Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church services there is also drum music (unlike in mainstream European Christianity or Islam): basic, “deep”, repeated beats aimed at inducing a spiritual mode or “mild trance”. Only the Suffi, more spiritual variant of Islam (influential in Islamic parts of West Africa as well) tends to use rhythm and drumming somehow in its spiritual/religious practices, though as part of other (melodic, harmonic) music. Drums and rhythms are used in Islamic countries outside of Africa or Suffi influence, but not as part of Islamic practice as such (i.e. in secular, folk culture). Early folk Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic) in some parts of Europe had a bit more attention to drums and percussion, before later the Vatican’s or Protestant rigidity took over. Remnants can be found in rural traditions in part of Eastern Europe (e.g. Ucraine), and parts of France and Spain.

In Ucrainian traditional culture, they tend to have (for European standards) relatively many percussion-like instruments (like rattles, sticks, drums) that were partly also used in Orthodox Church activities. This also because bells (now used a lot by churches, of course) were not used by Christian churches before the 10th century.

Likewise, the Basque, wood-based Txalaparta percussion instrument (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Txalaparta) has according to historians been used in early Catholic churches in that part of North Spain and SW France, maintained perhaps because of the territory being not really conquered fully by the Islamic Moors in the 8th c., unlike for a period much of more Central and South Spain.

The Castanets (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castanets) are further a well-known percussion instrument, commonly used in most of Spain, including in some Flamenco genres of South Spain, as in (Central Spanish) Jota genres. The Castanets, according to historians, predate however most probably both Islam (it was in Spain before the Moors) and Christianity, probably dating even back to pre-Roman, Mediterranean or North African influences in Spain, by Phoenicians, from Ancient Egypt, by Carthaginians. Interesting to learn..

Industrialization (or “Capitalism” if you want) as well as organized religion, thus, worked against rhythm and nature in our lives in profound ways. Making us even forget what “life” is essentially about. This causes disorders, illnesses, unbalance in humans that “rhythm therapy” might solve or heal. Also the “didgeridoo” I made a documentary about, is probaly “healing” because it is a relatively very “natural” instrument: wooden, and originally not fabricated but rather “found” in woods by Aboriginals, as (eucalyptus) tree branches, hollowed out by termites (insects that only live in more tropical areas of this world). Even the way of playing (with a certain way of using mouth and breathing) seems to fit well, and be in balance with human biology. See the documentary for more information on that (more “self-promotion”, haha).

TO CONCLUDE

Some studies have by now been done in the "developed world" on the health effects of rhythm, psychologically and physiologically. This led to some interesting insights: on brain activity responses, relations of health to rhythm-induced "trance", or social effects. Although the studies are relatively limited in number, it led to the use of "rhythm" and "drumming" in therapy, sometimes as part of even formal health care. Partly still experimental, but hey..

I would welcome more scientific studies on the psychological, physiological, or neorological effects on human health of specifically African percussive music. Especially polyrhythmic music. This can lead to even more insight. This because even though, as I mentioned above, rhythm and percussion are used traditionally also in Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia, this use was and is rarely polyrhythmic: that’s a specific (sub-Saharan) African approach to rhythmic music. Health effects of it could be researched more in modern universities in the Western world.

On the other hand, ancient cultural and spiritual traditions in Africa and the African Diaspora have in practice already revealed and demonstrated that knowledge or wisdom about the beneficial health effects. This lacks only the Western urge toward categorization, fixation, written text, or terminology.

donderdag 2 juni 2016

Rastafari in Cuba

An interesting, quite recent documentary I saw focussed on the rise of the Rastafari movement in Cuba. It is called 'Ras Cuba', and was released in 2003. The Rastafari movement as such arose in the 1930s in Jamaica. It meant a focus by mostly disadvantaged Afro-Jamaicans on ancestral Africa – culturally and spiritually -, the veneration of Marcus Garvey and worship of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia as divinity or important person. These origins have been quite well described by now, also on this blog. Not necessary to repeat it here, I think.

What’s interesting about the said documentary, however, is the different context: Cuba. Cuba is in fact the island most neighbouring Jamaica, the most closest at about 100 km (90 miles). The colonial and other histories made them in some ways quite different though. I wrote on this on this blog before. What I wish to focus on now specifically is the Rastafari movement in Cuba. This because the documentary raised, I think, some intriguing questions and hinted toward interesting issues. See it here:

Slowly but surely, a Rastafari community has developed in Cuba. This started in the 1990s, and possibly even before. The documentary in that sense documents its development in Cuba: numbers of adherents, how many of “Rastas” are really Rastas in all senses, values, differences with Rastas elsewhere, internal differences etcetera etcetera.

I found interesting from my perspective that with this theme, several other themes I discussed on my (this) blog recur and are touched: Reggae, Rastafari, differences between Cuba and Jamaica, race relations, culture, history, international relations, and - not least – Africa. In what ways, will become clear in the course of this post.

Crucially, some Cuban Rastas in the aforementioned documentary 'Ras Cuba' pointed out that the arrival of a Nyabinghi House in Cuba (the oldest, somewhat “founding” branch within Rastafari) helped Cuba’s Rastafari movement to acquire proper information and appropriate knowledge on aspects of Rastafari, its way of life (Livity), ideas, and otherwise. Before this, information obtainable in Cuba was scarcer and at times flawed among even seriously aspiring adherents to Rastafari. Information seemed partly derived from Reggae and Bob Marley lyrics reaching Cuba. This was often also limited simply because of relatively little knowledge of the English language among most Cubans.

Beyond this – of course – the dictatorship played a role. Dictatorships usually come combined with censorship against both international and external “adversary” forces and information, ideologically and otherwise. Added to this is the fact that, along with other countries, marijuana use or cultivation was and is illegal in Cuba. Its association with Rastafari and Reggae is of course simplified and partly mistaken, yet that association is common, and used as motivation (or excuse?) to persecute those who seemingly associate with Rastafari. In authoritarian dictatorships – moreover – repression can be more total and strict, without limiting considerations of such things like civil and human rights.

Jamaica recently underwent a legal change, effectively decriminalizing the use of “ganja” (as marijuana is also known), while it was long illegal. When I went to Jamaica before this recent decriminalizing, Jamaicans told me that marijuana use in private, and when, as it was termed, “off the road”, was mostly condoned and “safe” in Jamaica. However, Jamaican government authorities regularly opportunistically wanted to make a repressive point by suddenly persecuting in cases also private use (e.g. on or close to private grounds, in one’s home or yard). Several Rastafari adherents argue that especially the “rebellious” and socially critical Rasta movement was targeted by this (including known reggae artsist like Peter Tosh, as the latter’s biography relates). Something similar - with the same opportunistic, repressive use of marijuana laws - occurred in Cuba.

As with many other phenomena in this world, the reasons for the belated and relatively limited spread in Cuba of Rastafari are complex and multifold.

What I will focus on here, however, is less superficial than merely a language barrier, or the predicatble fact that in Cuba marijuana is illegal and persecuted (as after all still in many countries in the world). No, I choose to go deeper to analyse these reasons. I will firstly focus hereby on the authoritarion, totalitarian character of the Cuban communist state. The fact that it is a dictatorship.

I am well aware that different ideas exist on the Cuban Revolution – victorious in 1959 and still ruling in Cuba (first as leader Fidel Castro, later taken over by his brother Raul). Some find the overall effects positive, particularly in relation to what was before 1959 in Cuba: huge class differences and poverty, racial discrimination, corruption, and the mafia cynically using Havana, Cuba as a playground since the 1940s. This last mafia influence came in part because of the alcohol prohibition in the US for a period. Added to racial inequalities stemming from a slavery past (as other countries in the region, of course), class inequalities, there was therefore corruption and crime. The 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara (and others) was therefore welcomed and applauded initially by many sectors of the Cuban population, especially the disadvantaged and many Afro-Cubans.

This popular support was especially due to the policies that Revolution espoused: it was a Left-wing, progressive (later called Communist) revolution specifically claiming to advance social equality, getting rid of class differences, and racial discrimination. Some policies were indeed advantagous to many poor Cubans and wealth got much more distributed. Education was strongly stimulated, even in rural areas, and illiteracy over time strongly diminished: at present Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates of all of Latin America. Black (or Afro-) Cubans could, for instance, more easily own houses, felt for a part included in society, while racial discrimation in public spaces was eliminated. Up to then, like in some states of the US, Afro-Cubans were in some places (popular beaches, important parks, some bars, restaurants or hotels) still banned from going in solely because of their race.

DEMOGRAPHICS AND RACE

The Afro-Cuban population of Cuba –relevant for this entire post of course, as Rastafari started as a Black, Afro-Jamaican movement - is oddly a matter of debate. Since the rise of DNA studies (in the 1950s) much more can be precisely known regarding ethnic origin. This matter was long “ideologically contaminated” however, and partly still is. Particularly, the percentage of White Cubans of the total Cuban population has been exaggerated. As elsewhere this is partly due to historically grown self-hate or inferiority complexes among a part of the Black or mixed/Mulatto population in Cuba, preferring to “pass as white”, even if having some (even visible) African blood. Elite/political maniplation of official figures also plays a large role, though.

In some way this is comparable to what occurred in the nearby Dominican Republic. For all intents and purposes, the Dominican Republic is, ethnically, a country with a mixed population: most Dominicans combine African and Spanish (and some other European) blood, which is mostly visible.. There was long a tendency – at least among the political caste – to emphasize the Hispanic origins of the Dominican population, the “Whiteness”, culturally and if possible physically. This helped to stimulate harsh, repressive treatment of “darker”, more African, poor Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. The dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (roughly between 1930 and 1960), reputedly went as far to lighten his skin for public appearance and photos. Trujillo had some African features and ancestors, but had a similar anti-Black policy as some later Dominican presidents, like Joaquín Balaguer, who was indeed White and of European, Catalan-French, descent (via Puerto Rico). Trujillo looked however a bit more “Mulatto”, so he tried to hide this.

Such ridicule extremities were also present, but a bit less in Cuba: there has historically always been a current of Black and African pride among Afro-Cubans, even if dormant among some. In the same manner, by the way, many Dominicans made and make no fuss of the African part of their biological and cultural heritage, even in some forces in their country wanted this.

So, it’s for a large part an “elite thing” that the Afro-Cuban proportion of the Cuban population has been downplayed. This occurred up to even recent times (until the 1990s). Official (!) figures from around the 1980s tended to claim that about 26% of the Cuban population was of African descent. The rest presumably of European origins, with some percentages Chines and other blood. The truth is quite different. Even later adaptations like, okay about 45% are either Black or Mulatto , is not the reality, though a bit closer to the truth. Even the current (May, 2016) Wikipedia article states this (i.e. a White majority), though it can be questioned.

Most recent studies of a more objective, factual nature have concluded that a majority of at least about 65% of the Cuban population – now at somewhat over 11 million - is at least partly of African descent. Of this 65% at least half is probably of European descent (being mixed, lighter or darker “Mulattoes” so to speak). I personally have met in Cuba’s Eastern Oriente province Cubans who knew they had African, Chinese, and Spanish blood. A well-known Cuban to which this mix also applies is the painter Wilfredo Lam; he combined Chinese, African, and Spanish blood in him, with the surname Lam being of Chinese origin (meaning something like “wood”, I believe, in Cantonese).

About 25% of Cuban people are mostly Black or Afro-Cuban, concentrated more in some provinces than others (Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo in the East/Oriente, for instance, parts of Matanzas and Havana regions). Probably about 40% of all Cubans are mostly European (“White”) in origin, many look mostly South European, as their mostly Spanish forebears, but even among many of them “racial purity” is debatable, with possibly some distant African connection. When I went to Cienfuegos, a town on Cuba’s south coast, the guide told that White people in Cienfuegos have more than elsewhere in Cuba blonde hair and blue eyes, because of French and German presence. French presence was also here and there elsewhere in Cuba, so not all that is “white” ethnically in Cuba is associated with Spain, though most is.

A large group of Spanish immigrants from early on in Cuba were furthermore from the Canary Islands. This partly has as reason that they were knowledgeable about the sugar cane industry that developed in Cuba: mainland Spain had less experience with this, despite experiments in warmer parts of Spain as the Valencia and Seville regions. Canarians historically have some North African Berber blood as well, by the way, and there were sub-Saharan African slaves in the Canary Islands even before this became widespread in the Americas.

Later, even after Cuba became independent from Spain in the early 20th c., Spaniards migrated to Cuba, as part of a deliberate, racist policy of the Cuban government to “Whiten” the population. Many people from Spain went to the former colony, as they were rewarded with land and privileges. While the earlier Spanish immigrants in the early 1500s – say directly after Columbus’arrival - were relatively more from South Western parts of Spain, close to where Columbus ships left from Spain (Andalusia, Extremadura, but in part also Basques from North Spain, who had a seafaring tradition), and shortly after that from the Canary Islands, the later immigrants from Spain after 1900 came often from other marginal regions in Spain: relatively many from rural Galicia.

The African population were forcibly brought from different parts of the African continent, as is the case for other Caribbean islands. Perhaps, in the context of this post, it is good to compare with Jamaica.

Jamaica has a population - with presently about 2,9 million inhabitants - of mainly African descent (over 90%), with less white people than in Cuba: Cuba is much more mixed or Mulatto than Jamaica, of course. Either way, the enslaved Africans brought to Cuba came from various parts of Africa, but with some relative concentrations: especially many slaves from the Yoruba part of Africa (now SW Nigeria, Benin) came to Cuba, as well as relatively many from the Congo region, the latter a bit more concentrated in the Eastern half of Cuba. Also many Africans from the Calabar region (now SE Nigeria, Cameroon) came to Cuba, and somewhat smaller percentages of Africans with Akan-speaking, Fon, Ewe, Mande/Senegambian or Moçambique origins.

Some similarities as well as differences with Jamaica: scholars estimate that in Jamaica about 25% of Africans came from the Congo/Angola region, in Cuba close to 40%. Interestingly, Congo cults and traditions in Cuba are known for folk medicine and herbal/natural knowledge, something of course valued among many Rastafari as well, and possibly consisting of a Congo influence in Jamaica too. A difference is further that the strong Twi/Akan presence among the enslaved Africans in Jamaica (about 45% of the Africans in Jamaica, is assumed) is not there in Cuba, while Yorubas were in turn less present (though not absent) in Jamaica. Igbo-speaking Africans were on the other hand quite present in Jamaica.

An important difference, however, beyond these intra-African differences, is that a main intellectual current that developed in Cuba is that it is “mixed” racially and culturally: Spanish-African. From some perspective this is partly true, but it is terribly simplified and often misused by politicians to hide persisiting racial inequalities within Cuba, by boasting about an unproblematic racial harmony, that everyone supposedly is Cuban, before Black or White.

SLAVERY REGIME

The slave trade increased strongly in Cuba at a somewhat later date than in British, Dutch, French, or Porrtuguese colonies, that is after 1800. Cuban proponents of increasing the slave trade had these other slave trading nations as economic models. There was a fear among some Cuban planters that too much Africans in Cuba would cause another “Haiti-type” of Revolution against Whites, though Cuban planters argued that they had “milder” and “more enlightened” slave laws. Some non-Cuban or non-interested groups or even historians argue this as well: while still dehumanized and repressed, the slave population in Cuba had some laws that protected them, and gave them some (marginal) rights. Notably, the possibilty to buy one’s own freedom seemed to be larger than in British, Dutch, or French colonies. Africans were allowed some space for cultural expression, such as in Catholic Church-related but autonomous “cabildo” organizations. In cabildo’s, Africans of the same “nation” (ethnic origin in Africa: Yoruba, Congo, Calabar etc., including slaves and freed) joined for festivities and rituals. Such cultural space was much less allowed in stricter Protestant colonies, such as Jamaica, where even the playing of drums was fully outlawed. Perhaps the reason why African-based percussion instruments like the Conga’s or Bongos could develop in Cuba.

The Cuban slavery system in Spanish colonial times was nonetheless still dehumanizing, of course, and Africans had limited rights, even to a degree those that were free. Public places were segregated, and in colonial Cuba, Afro-Cubans - also those formally free - could not walk in central parts of parks, for instance, and were barred from several privileges or specific rights.

The relatively many free Black Cubans (while others were still enslaved) in Cuban cities like Havana and Santiago made the society gradually more mixed. Some historians contend that also Spanish (and Portuguese) attitudes toward race mixing were more lax than among the tighter Anglo-Saxons or Dutch, relating this to the ethnically varied Moorish past of Iberia. Though in Moorish Spain (8th c. to 15th c.) unfortunately race also played a role (lighter-skinned Arabs , Berbers, or converted Iberians had higher positions, while the sub-Saharan Africans present were mostly slaves or servants), it also knew ethnic variety or flexibility.

Anyway, Cuban society became a bit more racially mixed and flexible when compared to other slaveholding areas. In the US South, for instance, the Black and White worlds remained largely separate (up to today!), with laws that even forbade formal interracial relations. Rape by White masters and overseers of African enslaved women was however, as in other slaveholding parts (including Cuba and Jamaica), common, but was not known or reported as rape (slaves were, cynically, “property” after all). Especially among lower-class Whites in Cuba, however, formal, more equal relationships with (part) Afro-Cuban people became more accepted. This made society more mixed, along with the fact that there were relatively more Whites alongside Blacks in Cuba historically.

JAMAICAN MIGRATION

Certainly relevant for this post is the fact that with a sugar industry boom after 1900 – when Cuba was under strong US influence – many migrants from other Caribbean islands, like Haiti and Jamaica, went to Cuba, especially the Eastern part of the island around Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, to work as labourers in the sugar industry. A quite sizable Jamaican and British Caribbean community developed there at that time.

This in part explains why Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement had many chapters in Cuba, in fact relatively the most in number after the US. Historians state, however, that Marcus Garvey’s popularity in Cuba lied with the English-speaking population, mostly the Jamaicans and British Caribbeans that lived in Cuba. According to these historians, the Back To Africa notion of Garvey attracted the Jamaicans more than e.g. the Afro-Cubans supposedly sensing they belonged more in their respective nation Cuba. A Garvey-ite influence on Afro-Cubans seemed probable, nonetheless, and in light of the founding role of Marcus Garvey within Rastafari, this is of course interesting. Moreover, while many Jamaicans left Cuba after a period again, a part of them have remained and became integrated within the Cuban population. In Santiago de Cuba, for instance, there are still quite some people with family ties to British Caribean islands like Jamaica.

Despite all this, inequality remained certainly there throughout, and Afro-Cubans were kept in a lower, disadvantaged position, even after the quite late date of formal abolition of slavery in Cuba (1898). Racial discrimination remained also common, along with a general socioeconomic disadvantage for historical reasons.

All this background is relevant, I argue, to understand the way the Rastafari movement spread in Cuba in more recent times.

CULTURAL RESULTS

Culturally, either way, it synthesized in an interesting culture in Cuba. Cuba is Spanish-speaking, but the Spanish of Cuba is of the so-called Caribbean variant, with differences per island. Largely the Cuban type of Spanish is a mixture of Southern Spanish (of many early South-Spanish, Andalusian and other settlers), there is a noticeable influence from Canary Island Spanish as well, and also influences from African languages. Loanwords from African languages (Yoruba, Efik, or Bantu) are commonly used in especially popular Cuban Spanish, but African languages themselves survived also in Afro-Cuban religious contexts: in Santería, the Yoruba language is partly used, in the Abakuá societies, a creolized variant of the Efik-Ibibio language (now spoken in SE Nigeria, SW Cameroon), and in the Palo Monte religion, partly a KiKongo-based language, mixed with Spanish.

These Afro-Caribbean religions survived up to this day and are widely practised among a part of the Cubans, of course a relevant point in the context of this post.

Cuban music eventually got world fame, and East Cuban Son (with partly Congo/Bantu musical origins) largely shaped what would become known in the US by 1980 as “Salsa” music. Rumba (formed around Havana and Matanzas) is also internationally known. Spanish and some French influences are more dominant in other genres that developed in Cuba, the Danzón, and the rural Punta Guajira, the latter betraying Canarian and Andalusian (Flamenco) influences. Even in these latter genres African influences and percussion are not absent, by the way. Music in Cuba became also largely mixed.

The classical Spanish guitar (as such arising in Andalusia, Spain, under local, Moorish, Persian, and Gipsy influences) soon came to Cuba, as well as Canarian folk instruments. Despite later Galician and Asturian migrations, I haven’t heard about a Spanish bagpipe (“Gaita”) being used in Cuba, being a folk instrument still used in these Northwestern parts of Spain. Some Andalusian and Extremaduran instruments seemed to have reached the Americas, though.

Of course, Afro-Cuban culture also gave the world a few well-known percussion instruments, notably the Conga and Bongos drums (both originating in Cuba but based on Central African/Congo models), the Guïro rasp/grater, and the Timbales, though the latter was also French-influenced.

The more total ban on drumming in historical Jamaica, made that drumming was even more hidden among Afro-Jamaicans, though also among Afro-Jamaicans drumming and percussive traditions survived in the Burru, Myal, Pocamania, and Kumina traditions, including own drums. The common Cuban instruments (conga’s, guïro’s a.o.) are however also used in Jamaica, as I related before on my blog. There is even some Cuban musical influence on Jamaican music genres, such as Reggae, alongside predominant creolized African, and some British influences.

1959 REVOLUTION

That is the culture that was left in Cuba, because of its history, and a large part of the social situation. Yet, then came the 1959 Revolution, led by Fidel Castro and others. As the word “revolution” implies, this meant a radical change. Or did it?

Apologists or adherents of Castro’s rule might argue that after 1959, poverty and inequality diminished strongly in Cuba, that Blacks regained their dignity as an equal and contributive part of the Cuban nation (yes, nothing less than this!). Everything changed for the better, in short, when compared to the corruption- and inequality-ridden era before 1959 when Present Fulgencio Batista was president (since the 1940s).

Ironically, Batista was, unlike Castro, not a White man (Fidel Castro being of Spanish, Galician and Canarian, descent), but Batista was of mixed African, Chinese, European, and even Amerindian descent. Not uncommon such a mix in Cuba, and moreover Batista came from a poor family. Batista, though, – after some initial progressive policies - later became a corrupt end repressive leader, befriending US mafiosos in order to become rich, and a puppet of US influence in Cuba. So the history is often related by Batista’s opponents. Some truth to these accusations of corruption and repression seems to be there.

However.. did everything improve to such a degree, in particular for the poor Afro-Cuban population of Cuba, under Castro’s rule?

For ideological and partisan reasons some might want to believe this. Antagonists/opponents of Castro, such as those from the elite who went into exile, or some anti-Communist people in the US, take an opposed, yet often also ideological and partisan view, claiming that everything got worse and unbearable in Cuba after 1959.

Others still, luckily, try to analyse more objectively and academically, and have more nuanced, moderate views on this, not so much blinded by simplifying ideologies, and just trying to grasp how ordinary, e.g. poor, Afro-Cuban people lived in Cuba since 1959.

CARLOS MOORE

One of these latter views, I argue can be attributed to the author Carlos Moore. Some may beg to differ, though. His opponents argue that Moore is not imparcial at all and exaggerates. Carlos Moore is a Black Cuban (of British Caribbean descent, part Jamaican..hence the surname), and was at first sympathetic toward the Revolution of 1959, and even worked with Fidel Castro himself (as interpreter, for instance). In time he got disillusioned. He also left Cuba and ended up living in Brazil. Moore relates his disillusion not least to Castro policies regarding the Afro-Cubans. Moore argues that Castro in the end did not do so much for Afro-Cuban improvement as he or the Revolution promised, and even stifled them through his paternalistic, undemocratic approach to the race issue.

In his 1988 book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ Carlos Moore elaborates on his critique, by reviewing Castro’s policies regarding race and Blacks in Cuba, but also Castro’s foreign policy regarding Africa, being the motherland of Afro-Cubans. Cuba under Castro engaged in several aiding policies and military operations on the African continent, precisely because the Cuban population was for a large part of African origin. At least that is what Fidel Castro espoused openly as motivation. Moore argues however that Fidel Castro, as a Hispanic White man, could only think in White Hispanic terms, rendering his policies both regarding Afro-Cubans and Africa, inevitably, paternalistic and condescending: not trusting Black or African people to decide for themselves. The latter was of course also hindered because of the authoritarian government.

Thus, while from the outset in 1959, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara stated to support Afro-Cubans and help them progress, this approach was reverted soon after, and turned out – Moore contends – not to be sincere, but rather opportunistic.

For me it is hard to evaluate or judge Moore’s objectivity, but I get the idea from this book that he might be correct, partly because he does not take a one-dimensional approach, looks at history and events from all sides, while pointing at successes and positive aspects as well. Moore’s overall balance is however that Castro’s policy regarding Afro-Cubans and Africa was too socially and culturally “White”, and paternalistic, and too opportunistic as well, for it to be really genuine or effective.

Moore attributes this to a lack of cultural connection of Castro with Afro-Cuban culture, as well as of the other, mainly White leadership of the Revolution. For a vanguard group aiming to uplift Afro-Cuban, the Cuban revolutionaries remained remarkably White (about 40% of the population, as mentioned), especially in higher positions. This smells of hypocrisy, of course. Something which, by the way, Malcolm X also thought to “smell”, when he was first approached by Castro for an alliance against the both “racist and capitalist” US. Malcolm X after hesitation, also for strategic reasons, did tighten contacts with Castro, though, as did other Black Power advocates in the US, though most temporarily and several later came into conflict with Castro. This also made Moore suspect opportunistic insincerity on the part of Castro, seeking only strategic alliances for his own gain, funnily a bit mirrored by Malcolm X, who sought strategic alliances as well.

Moore further discusses how Guevara, Castro, and other White Cuban revolutionaries had some difficulties with African culture in Africa itself (“tribalism”, Guevara complained about some African societies), yet also with Afro-Cuban culture in Cuba. The Revolutionary government actually repressed Afro-Cuban religions and traditions like Santería and Abakuá. It even criminalized these, as in the Spanish colonial past. On a personal note, Moore even seemed to know that Castro disliked music by drums, as a further illustration of his European, non-Black cultural outlook. The repressive policies regarding Afro-Cuban religions and culture under Castro’s and Revolutionary rule of course more cynically demonstrated that.

Practising those religions was allowed mostly under strict, limiting conditions. Only in recent times these limiting ties were relaxed. Santería was therefore practiced quite secretly for decades, but continued to thrive nonetheless.

Thus, Blacks/Afro-Cubans had to be emancipated on Castro’s/the governent’s terms and not their own. In addition to this, the economy in Cuba got worse in time, making many Afro-Cubans feel more and more dissatisfied with the socioeconomic situation in Cuba by the 1980s and 1990s. Some say racial tensions increased because of this. Some gains were made, but some racial inequalities definitely remained in Cuba, throughout and up to today.

Even if Carlos Moore exaggerated or was partisan/subjective, other sources and studies confirmed this too. In such a context of discontent and “hidden inequality”, a rebellious and cultural pride movement in favour of “truths and rights” like Rastafari would – one would assume – find fertile ground.

BACK TO THE DOCUMENTARY

Returning to the documentary ('Ras Cuba', 2003) on Rastafari adherents in Cuba then. Indeed, Rastafari as a movement increased its influence in Cuba, as the documentary showed: slowly but steadily over the last decades. The reasons and explanations the adherents give in the documentary often somehow relate to the historically shaped context I sketched above.

Sista Benji, a pioneering Rastafari adherent (a female “elder”, as Rastas call it) in the Netherlands, this year (2016) told me that she just came back from Cuba, and was surprised to find a quite developed Rastafari scene and movement.

A pity it was not translated/subtitled to English to reach a larger audience, but I saw an interesting episode in the Spanish language, of a tv programme (broadcasted in 2014), apparently by and for Cuban Americans (Cubans in the US), that commented on the rising Rastafari movement in Cuba. It was partly based on this same documentary. Interestingly, the guests associate the rise not so much with decreased active persecution in Cuba since about 2000 (giving e.g. also other religious/cultural groups in Cuba more free space than before), but also with persisting inequalities, also socially. As can be expected, these US Cubans are anti-Castro and anti-Communism, yet also criticize the persisting racial inequalities in Cuba, the disadvantaged position of Afro-Cubans, to which Rastafari’s rise in Cuba seemed to respond. Some arguments stated by the guests and invited experts were comparable to those of Carlos Moore, such as on Castro’s “paternalistic, White” approach to helping Africa and Afro-Cubans, but not on their own terms.

As explained before, Reggae lyrics played a role in this rise, and became an important conduit for Rastafari ideas to Cuba, though not the only one. As in Jamaica itself and elsewhere, Reggae and Rastafari, while separate things, partly spread in tandem, and recently more Rastafari-themed or conscious Reggae songs appeared in Cuba as well, sung by seemingly sincerely Rastafari-adhering singers or bands. Singer/artist Arubo (Alugbo Eliazar Achanti) is an interesting example of this, as he is a relative veteran (active in Cuban Reggae since at least the 1990s).

Experienced “reggae author” David Katz wrote this quite recent, 2012 article on the Reggae scene in Cuba, noting its marginality, but that is the case in many countries. It is often harder to find than other musical genres, even if there are quite some Rastafari adherents in a country, so that does not say all. It is interesting to read, though. See:

http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-116/do-cubans-do-reggae#axzz4ABhuWkHy

In the documentary, personal reasons for adhering to Rastafari are given, but often indirectly or directly related to inequalities in Cuba. Of course, the choice for Rastafari is often the result of a complex, individual trayectory, and not all adherents solely or directly want to make a one-dimensional, activist point. Rastafari is perhaps more “individualistic” in character, when compared to religions like Christianity or Islam, and furthermore tends to eschew “politics” as such. I argue, however, that the broader social, political as well as cultural context can influence its relative appeal, such as in this case Cuban society.

Differences with Rastas in Jamaica, or elsewhere, were also elaborated upon in the documentary. These can be explained I think.

The widespread Afro-Cuban religions like Santería (with mainly Yoruba roots) or Palo Monte (with mainly Congo roots, mainly found in Eastern Cuba) also remain valued by many Cuban Rastafari adherents as somehow shaping thair identity, alongside Rastafari. That’s a difference with Jamaica. “Vodou”-like, spirit possession religions survived somewhat in Jamaica as well, found in traditions like Burru, Obeah, Pocomania, Myal, and Kumina (the latter also largely Congo-based, like Palo Monte). These were however criticized by many early Rastas, deeming these devilish or at least backward and/or divisive, even if they were culturally connected to ancestral Africa. Most Rastas chose instead a more Biblical approach: albeit rereading the Bible from a Black, African and Ethiopian perspective. Kumina and Burru traditions influenced Rastafari, but mostly musically (drums, drum patterns) and organizationally: not so much spiritually.

I think that this centrality of the Bible stems partly from the fact that Jamaica was the colony of a Protestant nation, namely Britain, and the resulting influence from Baptist and other churches. While some local, Black churches in Jamaica adopted African ideas on spirituality, the traditional condemnation of “spirit-based” religions (still called “witchcraft” within Protestantism), influenced Jamaican Christians as well. The same Protestant influence is noticeable in Africa itself, such as in Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Much older Christianity in another part of Africa, though, the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, adopted relatively more African ideas and aspects (such as drums during church services). Ethiopia is of course important for Rastafari adherents.

Rastafari in Jamaica used and uses drums as part of its spirituality as well, so it seems overall a bit between the Euro-Protestant “purity” and Biblical, textual values on the one hand, and African “spiritual” retentions on the other. Also other Rastafari values and ideas, such as the important “I and I”-notion of connection with other beings, have more in common with traditional African spiritual beliefs than with European ones.

The Rastafari in Cuba seem, according to statements in the documentary, to tip the balance relatively more toward such “spirit religions” than those in Jamaica. They at least show more acceptance of it, while still upholding the same core values as other Rastafari, in Jamaica and elsewhere: pride of an African, Black identity, an overall focus on Africa and Ethiopia, the importance of Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey, a “natural” vegetarian-based way of living, self-sufficiency, dreadlocks, and for many the use of marijuana as a sacrament. Not totally surprising, many like Reggae music too, but many Cuban Rastas also play Nyabinghi drums and songs. If possible even with the same drums: I heard Kete drums used for Nyabinghi in Jamaica, are not always available in Cuba, so local drums are used instead, and Cuba has indeed relatively many own African-based drum types.

The documentary, and other sources, by the way, showed that as Rastafari rose as a movement in Cuba, it (like the Afro-Cuban religions) faced repression by the Cuban authorities, up to the present. The same occurred (and partly still occurs) in Jamaica, by the way.

Overall, I would say that there seem to be many similarities with the Jamaican Rastafari "mainstream" (if there is such a thing), but with different accents. If one goes back to to the origins of the Rastafari movement since the 1930s, the reasons for its origination (pride of an own African identity, self-worth against colonial indoctrination and oppression), those different “accents” are in my opinion just marginal.

maandag 2 mei 2016

Humour and comedy in culture(s)

What is humour? A definition can be given as extensively as one wants. On the English-language Wikipedia article – of course quite extensive - it is summarized as “the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement”. That is quite broad. The Wikipedia article discusses in addition, though, different theatrical and rhetorical techniques, but also psychological, historical, as well as physiological aspects. Any one can read this article for themselves, but what I wish to select for this post are the 4 basic psychological types this Wikipedia article distinguishes: affiliative type of humour (social/socializing function), self-enhancing (e.g. coping with stress), aggressive (e.g. racist jokes), and self-defeating (self-disparaging jokes aimed at acceptance).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humour

I also select from the article the methods comedians use to perform humour.

If somewhat rigid and simplified, I think these categories and this whole article can serve as departing point, for the main theme of this post: cultural differences regarding humour. I came to this because I like to watch stand-up comedy. Many others do too, often also in English (US, British) or translated, or also in Dutch, like me.

It happens to be the case, though, that I understand English well, but in addition also Spanish mostly well enough to comprehend comedy directly in that language as well. In the Netherlands many people (though not all) will understand English well enough to get linguistic and comedic nuances, but Spanish relatively much less. And often Spanish or Spanish American stand-up comedians are not translated/subtitled for English speakers.

Recently, in Spain (where my maternal roots are) – I noticed - stand-up comedy (called “comedia en vivo”, literally: “live comedy” or in certain cases “monologos”, monologues) has increased in popularity (since the late 1990s); relatively late when compared to other countries where it thrived earlier, notably the Anglo-Saxon world.

Both in Britain and the US, stand-up comedy, or related forms, have a longer history, even as far back as to the 19th c., being mostly part of broader theatre or burlesque contexts.

While I depart from the Wikipedia article in English, I do not think it is that good an article. It’s okay, but it could have been better and more complete, and I found some things missing: especially regarding the social and political roles of humour. Anyway, departing from it I will relate this to themes and national and cultural contexts I know best from my life experience.

DUTCH CABARET

The Netherlands has for a longer period a quite developed comedic tradition called “cabaret” or “kleinkunst” (literally: “small art”) which has gotten quite varied, although the quality is also varied. It is humour, stand-up comedy or “jokes” only partly, combined with aspects from serious theatre, longer stories, and music/songs. It developed within theatre circles in the Netherlands, and I find it quite interesting how this Dutch “cabaret” develops, due to its relatively unique features. Not every performer I like, but at least it is an unique Dutch way of comedy mixed with theatre. Apart from someone talking, there is as said often music (often songs penned and sung/played by the comedians themselves), and often also impersonations, such as of famous people.

Compared to this, US and British “stand-up” comedy is more snappy, faster, and to the point, with generally shorter bits and jokes (anekdotes, observations or even one-liners). This differs a bit from the European mainland, with broader “theatrical comedy”, the mentioned Dutch cabaret, but also e.g. German or Italian (“commedia dell’arte) comedy traditions.

In a way, the stand-up comedy tradition isolates verbal jokes from a wider theatrical frame. This “stand-up comedy” tradition from the US and Britain either way by now has reached all of Europe, and even other parts of the world, like India, Nigeria, Ghana, and Latin America. Especially the international fame of pioneering standup comedians, like Bob Hope, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddy Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Robyn Williams and others (known also for internationally spread films or television programmes) may have increased the popularity of the stand-up comedy genre since the 1980s globally.

NOTHING SPECIAL

The funny thing about both humour and comedy (pun intended) is that they are in essence nothing special. It is just human behaviour and socializing. People talking with each other, to tell something interesting from their perspective, to bond socially, on what is of importance to them, to learn, get to know, tell something what they found amusing.. Hereby “humour” or “comedy” is always – intended or not – sooner or later present. Therefore, listening to some stand-up comedian and his observations is not always so different from people talking and joking around about people or society with each other in a bar or club. That every person has its own character, way of expressing, and life story, makes it nonetheless interesting.

Yet, it is so plain and ordinary that one can at least understand that in many cultures “a person telling funny stories, only on a stage” was just not enough te be considered real theatre. It was seen as more akin to simply storytelling. I can understand that to a point, though not entirely. I think, that from some perspective, also a person “only” talking and telling some funny stories, or sharing his observations on what he/she finds absurd – without more artifice or aids -, can definitely be seen as art. “Art” in the sense of “art of living”, in the sense that every single person has his own ”art” and personality, making it psychologically interesting.

Observations by some comedians about expiration dates on certain food products – for instance - can be interesting for several reasons: we recognize it from our own experience, for one, but also the comedian just looks at such a daily, mundane matter from an unusual, distinct perspective, and chooses his/her own words, making it also linguistically interesting, and as a form of parody or satire regarding social issues. This satire and parody have a longer history in mankind, among the Ancient Greeks and Romans for instance, only now in other forms, with less artifice in the case of stand-up comedy.

POLITICAL SATIRE

Political satire has a quite long tradition as well, but freer “socially critical” or “political” comedy developed relatively later in stand-up comedy in the US or Britain, especially since the 1970s. US comedian Lenny Bruce as a comic discussed socially problematic issues already in the 1950s and 1960s, Geoerge Carlin was relatively early, and Richard Pryor can definitely also be seen as a pioneer in this regard, especially with regard to issues like race and social inequality. The same applies to Paul Mooney, who wrote some of Richard Pryor’s material.

Political freedoms in a society determines what is accepted, of course. Not every society has as much democratic free speech, and even in the 1950s and 1960s US comedians could say what they wanted, to which court cases against US comedian Lenny Bruce (for using “dirty”words) attest. In private, people still made fun of dictators, also in repressed societies, just not in public. Still, even today, comedy as public art form still did not develop as free as it could in certain countries with repressive governments or dictatorships, or with totalitarian interpretations of religion. The very nature of something like “satire” or “stand-up comedy” makes it require free speech.

There exist – and have existed - “public comedians” in dictatorships, but these were very limited in scope, focussing on maintaining/confirming the status-quo and dominant values, confirming a group (racial, political) sense, or being of the aggressive type (attacking “other”, outside groups), to refer to one of the categories in the Wikipedia article. Anything beyond this would soon became repressed. Even in Nazi German or Fascist Italian publicized propaganda films – around the 1930s - “humour” as such was not absent. Negative humour, self-aggrandizing and putting down others – for sure – but “humour”. Also Dutch “cabaret” had it’s negative sides, such as came to the fore when Nazi Germany also occupied the Netherlands in 1940. Public cabaret and comedy kept being made, such as by Jacques van Tol, member of the Nazi-collaborating (but Dutch) NSB party, who expressed anti-Semitic views in his radio comedy show, even after most Jews were deported from the Netherlands, around 1944. Present-day (Jewish) Dutch comedian Micha Wertheim pointed at this in a recent piece (of 28 april, 2016) in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.

Again, “humour” as such is just human behaviour, people interacting: this can be positive or negative, collectivistic or highly individual, upsetting, philosophical, simple and basic, colourful, prejudiced, unintelligent or intelligent, or intellectual,.. as varied as all human utterances. Some comedians you might like more than others, just like many remember some conversations in pubs, bars, or clubs as funnier than others, dependent on themes, people involved, and expression modes. Each individual finds different things funny, often.

CULTURAL AND SOCIAL DIFFERENCES

Since it is nothing more (or less) than human interaction, beyond personality differences, also cultural differences definitely play a role in what is considered funny. This also because individual personalities are often shaped in part within specific cultures or ethnic groups, along with life experiences. Sarcastic, put-down humour by members of a dominant ethnic group in a society, is seldom considered funny by members of minorities in such societies, recognizing the negative (exclusionary/discriminatory) sentiment behind it all too well. There are exceptions, of course, such as when irony or deeper layers are involved.

We return to the psychological functions of the Wikipedia article on humour, such as the “self-enhancing” function. Members of minority groups often (though not always) use their “different” background in their (stand-up) comedy, also new and upcoming comedians. Though comedic quality may differ, I can understand this to a degree. That is respectful to the person of the comedian as well, who will talk about him or her, and what he/she knows. If you’re not interested in that person and what makes him/her tick, you should not have an ongoing relationship, not even as an audience. It is as simple as that: people will talk about what they want. Expecting anything else is kind of bossy or authoritarian.

SARCASM

I argue that sarcastic, put-down humour is mainly the terrain of the insecure, socially prejudiced or frustrated, but often also of the socially privileged. Pointing at cultural differences – generalizing these – is not quite the same, especially when the group criticized is the dominant, privileged group. That White people cannot dance as well to the beat as Black people, is one such topic used by several Black US (and other) comedians. Too generalized, perhaps, but on the other hand elucidating interesting cultural differences. Some may find some such generalized humour offensive, but if you give you must receive, you can also argue. During the Minstrel tradition in the US (and Britain too, by the way) up to the 1950s, Black characters were constantly dehumanized and ridiculed, also regarding their supposed cultural traits..by White people. Remnants of the Minstrel tradition continued up to this day, in popular culture or festivities (including in the Netherlands: the Black Pete figure).

Another type of sarcasm is personal attacks, such as on famous personalities, found in several countries. Here you can argue that their very public fame or power warrant those attacks. It can be excusable, and on occasion funny.

On the other hand, I personally do not like too much another type of sarcasm, which is also quite common in the Netherlands (both in comedy and society), as well as in other countries: sarcasm, putting-down “weak” and uncommon individuals (foreigners, minorities, fat people, handicapped, those with “strange” clothes or hair a.o.), with no real power in society. That’s basically kicking a horse when it’s down. That is again the “aggressive” type of humour. More aggression and depreciation than humour, even though it might not always appear this way. In the Netherlands, as well as to a degree in public comedy-rich Britain, this type of sarcasm seems remarkably hip and progressive. Seems..

Comedians talking about their “minority” background can on the other hand be shared under the rubric of “self-enhancing” or self-upliftment humour, or in cases the “affiliative” type . Perhaps not always everyone’s cup of tea, but more positive.

Other stand-up comedy is more observational, relating about daily, mundane issues, such as shopping, or expiration dates on food products (Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about that) that many, irrespective of background, might relate to. Seinfeld does not seem to use too much his Jewish, New York personal background, focussing mainly on outer observations on daily matters, seemingly devoid of his cultural identity perspective (at least in part). He does this well, though. Bill Cosby also seemed to avoid his specific background in his comedy, being of course mainly known for more or less universal “family life“ observations, also seemingly irrespective of his background.

British comedians, especially those belonging to the White English majority, do not use their background in their comedy as much, at most sometimes regional origins or their hometown, though not as much as Irish or Scottish comedians, while Black British (or other minority) comedians tend to discuss their background more, sometimes quite well and funny. Lenny Henry has some genius comedy bits from this perspective (he has Jamaican parents, and grew up in the British Midlands), as does someone like Gina Yashere (who has a Nigerian background, and grew up in London). It is appropriate as art, I think, because only they can tell such stories well, as they lived them. That is both educational and entertaining, as in the age-old, world-wide storytelling tradition.

METHODS

Cultural differences in humour also relate to specific techniques. My impression is that sarcasm is relatively more present in the Netherlands, in Germany, as well as to a degree in the US and Britain. It seems to me less common in Spain, both in daily usage as in comedy. Comedy in Spain tends to focus a bit more on "the absurd", or on exaggeration, but of situations. In Italian "humour" sarcasm seems a bit more common. In several countries, anyway, it is often confused with Irony. In daily speech, people use “sarcasm” and “irony” interchangebaly, though they are different things. Sarcasm is basically “biting” or “criticizing” humour – chastizing if you will -, whereas Irony has to do with the humourous combination of contradictions.

Other techniques are exaggerations (hyperboles) or “reframing”, showing the absurdity of certain situations by placing them in another light. Spanish comedian Agustín Jimenez for instance related in a comedy bit that the cartoon series the Ninja Turtles is such an odd concept that it must have been invented under the influence of hallucinogenic substances/drugs. This is a form of both reframing and satire, with (perhaps) some exaggeration. US comedian Dave Chappelle said in a funny comedy bit that characters from the children’s series Sesame Street seem to represent pimps or hard-drug addicts to him, making it, along with other aspects, a show with bad role model for kids. Both reframing and exaggeration, and both I found funny.

What Chappelle also does well (along with other comedians) is using, what seem to be, conspiracy theories – such as regarding White powerful racists - for comedic effect. Other Black comedians do this too, like Chris Rock, especially regarding race issues. Even if some conspiracy theories seem very absurd (some even seem somehow plausible, must be said) or very much exaggerated, they still make an interesting point about social and racial inequality, and thus have a function. The function to make people laugh, but also beyond that.

In Dutch comedy (cabaret, and a bit more recent also Dutch stand-up comedy), sarcasm is common, because it proved to be more popular. Philosophcal or ironic comedy performers were and are there too in the Netherlands, but became less mainstream. Dutch comedians with a minority background (black, Surinamese, Moroccan, Jewish, South European or otherwise) tend to use this unusual background, as in other countries.

A few of the Dutch comedians went on to perform in English (such as at the famed Edinburgh festivals), including Hans Teeuwen, though not many.

Cultural differences relate also to style of speech and humour. The same applies to daily conservations in the same cultures. Raising one’s voice (publicly) is not in every culture respected or even accepted. In Northern Europe less than in Southern Europe, generally speaking. In most talk shows I see in the Netherlands, if someone raises his/her voice – during a heated debate, say – the microphone is taken away from that person, or someone else (not screaming) is allowed to take over. In other countries (Spain, Latin America, parts of Africa and the Caribbean) there are talk shows where screaming is continued relatively less interrupted.

Also, in “Latin” cultures, France, Spain, Italy a.o. “colourful” language and long, elaborate, “overly literary” sentences are considered in cases “funny”, which shows in some comedy as well. Luis Piedrahita is a Spanish “monologuista” (like stand-up) specialized – not totally unlike Jerry Seinfeld - in observational comedy about daily, small matters, but jokingly analysed with elaborate, “literary drama” wording, and semi-philosophical connotations. This way Piedrahita discusses for instance the annoyance of non-absorbing tissues in bars, or products left before the register at supermarkets. It is not so tedious as this seems, and Piedrahita achieves being funny and maintain interest with this material quite well.

PERSONAS

Many comedians – in different cultures – present a “type” of person, a persona, bringing stand-up comedy after all back to original theatre. US comedian Katt Williams presents thus a slick, Black street hustler (“pimp”) persona who loves to have fun, other comedians a likewise struggling, but less “slick” and more philosophical, reflective persona (e.g. Richard Pryor). In Jewish comedy, the “schlemiel” traditional folk character, known in Jewish Askenazi culture: a socially unsuccesful, insecure and “weak” man is known, personified by among others Woody Allen in his work. In British comedy you have “working-class” or “middle-class” types/personas among performers: some genuine, some acting as such. Some present (as some comedians in the US) a lazy, and happy-go-lucky persona. In Spanish comedy there is also a “working-class” persona among several comedians (e.g. Agustín Jimenez from Madrid, who combines this with big-city, “street-wise” aspects, a bit similar to Katt Williams), while also Dutch comedy knows these class-related personas (Youp van het Hek is from, but also jokes about the higher classes, though his comedic quality is not always so good, I think).

This (seeming) self-depreciative humour is found in many cultures, and can be very good from a comedic point of view. It is the “self-enhancing” type of humour, to refer again to the Wikipedia article, while it is also pleasant as the comedian in some way associates with the weak and powerless in society. Such a comedian shows his/her vulnerability, humility, and humanity, mostly working well with a diverse audience. I do not think a truly boastful, “know-it-all” person will be funny beyond the aggressive sarcasm type, or the “affiliative” type (i.e. only funny because “one of us”), but someone who pretends to be but really is ironic, might well be funnier. Again this shows, that combining contraditions is at the core of much successful comedy.

Not locking oneself up in a cultural or national frame broadens also the audience, making comedians connect to diverse audiences and people, even “educating” people from other cultures about theirs and their background. This differs per comedian, some have a more “in-crowd” humour, others a more universal appeal, though to differing degrees. The same applies to other art forms as well, of course.

Essentially, good comedy makes art out of “telling something” or “giving opinions with humour”, by detaching it from personal bias, insults, and taking it higher and to a next level. Many people who talk negatively: bullying, being racist, putting down, expressing stereotypes and prejudice, degrading or excluding others etcetera, often present this as “humour” or “comedy”, as some may know from (bitter) experience. Good comedy, however, takes humour away from such personal bias and abuse, you might say. A truly good thing can be abused but never fully corrupted.

One of those good things, I find, about comedy in general - and stand-up comedy in particular - is that it can allow to look at reality from a different perspective. This can be rebellious to and subversive of the powers that be. Comedy therefore tends to have a progressive, Left-wing image.

History has shown, on the other hand, that this is too simplistic. Like I mentioned as examples, there existed anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist comedy, but also pro-Nazi and pro-Fascist comedy – with succesful humour and comedy programmes publicly broadcasted, supported by Nazis or Fascists – in several European countries in the 1930s and 1940s: thus reactionary rather than subversive. Even today, some seemingly “hip” and progressive comedians – even broadcasted by Left-wing/liberal broadcasting agencies – at times express racist or otherwise stereotypical cliché views (such as about certain ethnic minorities, or women), with not always so much irony as one assumes. That Moroccans steal a lot, Surinamers are lazy or often late, and women cannot drive well are for instance such overly repeated stereotypes in Dutch comedy. Still, maybe that is all in the game, and as long as people can object to it and present counter-views, it is bearable.

JAMAICAN MUSIC

Finally, I would like to focus on comedy in Jamaican music. Mainly, because Jamaican music is an area that I developed some expertise and knowledge in, as readers of this blog might know. I have been a reggae fan at this point for about 30 years now, gathering much knowledge about Reggae, Jamaica and Jamaican music throughout this time. At the same time, I also followed comedy (internationally, I learned English quite early in my life) for also quite some time by now.

In the English-language Wikipedia article I departed from, about humour, there is also an interesting quote by an artist of Mento music (an older Jamaican folk genre, preceding Ska), called Lord Flea. Mento has some similarities with Trinidadian Calypso, though they are different genres. They share, however, a “humourous” social comment function, a type of storytelling or journalism. Not everyone knows this about Calypso, especially when only aware of the “party” and “Carnival” roles of Calypso (and Soca) in Trinidad, but Calypsonians tended – as in other Caribbean genres – to comment on social reality, often (politically) satirical, critical and from an Afro-Trinidadian perspective: politics and social changes were all discussed, along with daily and sexual matters, that too. Not all lyrics were always very progressive, or very militant or rebellious, but some Calypso lyrics definitely were. Many lyrics had the “double entendre” (double meaning) as culturally typical: often with hidden, indirect sexual “jokes”, or “biting” if playful sarcasm, satire, or critique as well. This is known as “picong” There was, in short, quite a lot of humour in Calypso lyrics.

The same applied to old Jamaican Mento (especially popular up tot he 1950s). Sexual “double entendre” joking songs are known in Mento (the song “Dont You Touch Me Tomato”, covered later), so there is that type of humour, that is a form of comedy, using the same techniques (reframing, similae, metaphors, puns, hyperbole etc.). Other humourous lyrics with such techniques – not only about sex – were also found in mento lyrics, that at times commented as well on social inequality, poverty, and injustice. Humour and playfulness recurred however throughout Mento lyrics.

Jamaican popular music genres that followed (and were influenced by) Mento, originating in the 1960s - Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae – maintained some of this Jamaican folk music tradition. Ska was known as joyful, dance music, but also had “commenting” lyrics. The same applied to the slower genre Rocksteady, known for romantic lyrics, but also with many socially critical lyrics. Reggae, especially Rastafari-influenced Roots Reggae since around 1972, had much more socially critical, or even Black Power and militant lyrics. Originated among poor Black people in Kingston ghettos, this is not so strange. Rasta artist Bob Marley, even if he reached more or less the mainstream, maintained largely such “serious” and critical lyrical content, which shows integrity and character, I think.

Reggae became even known as “sufferers music”. Was there still a place for humour in all this? Lord Flea said in the Wikipedia article that even serious, dramatic stories were imbued with some humour in Caribbean/West Indian lyrics. Roots Reggae lyrics often deal with ghetto poverty, the history of slavery, violence, racism, social inequality, oppression, as well as with Africa, and spiritual themes. It furthermore protests against Babylon oppression. Dramatic or philosophical themes that seem by themselves “heavy” or “serious” content.

Too heavy and serious for humour or comedy, perhaps? Sometimes, the matters discussed are too sad and serious for too much humour within those specific lyrics. Some artists still know or knew how to combine this with lighter, joking notes within lyrics as well, without disturbing the militant, critical message. The reggae band Culture with Joseph Hill for instance, Peter Tosh is another example, other examples: the Gladiators, Don Carlos, Ini Kamoze: humour was not absent in even their lyrics about serious themes. Not to mention producer “Lee “Scratch” Perry, described as “mad genius”, and known for his erratic, “extravagant” behaviour, yet who wrote Rastafari-themed lyrics as well.

Mentioned can also be “word play”, or “puns” – a common device in all comedy - , in the case of reggae often found in song/track titles of Dub versions of vocal songs. The title of the original song (with vocals) is then taken and renamed for the instrumental, remixed “Dub” version. Lee “Scratch” Perry was quite creative and funny with this renaming, but others as well.

SPIRITUAL

That “humour” and religion (Islam, Christianity ao.) do not go together too well, is stated by many, also in response to recent events. Yet, Rastafari adherents do not consider theirs a religion, more a “way of life”, or perhaps a spiritual movement. Yet, overall, Christianity and the Bible has influenced large parts of Rastafari. One can even argue that the Protestant Christian notion that religion should be serious and sober (or “pure”), present in Jamaican society, may have influenced Rastafari originating – in the 1930s - in the same context. Yet, Rastafari arose at the same time in a wider Afro-Jamaican cultural context, with many remnants of African spiritual values. These values contain more “play”, contradictions, “irony”, “parody”, and “satire” in a general sense, as part – and not so much against – this spirituality. This is a recurring conflict and contradiction, on several continents: large, established and powerful religions (Christianity, Islam) versus traditional African spiritual values. Sometimes a middle-ground seems to be found – combining aspects of both, e.g. the interpretation of Islam in African countries like Guinee, Senegal, in North Ghana and South Mali. Increased, more “Arabic-focussed” fundamentalism within Islam now however tries to “correct” this violently, as the Boko Haram movement in Northern Nigeria sadly shows. In Senegal a similar tendency is developing, I recently read.

The conflict between Protestant Christianity and African values is also there in Jamaica, but not so violently: a middle-ground seems to have been found. This includes Afro-Jamaican percussive music historically also in Christian churches in Jamaica, as well as several tenets of the Africa-focussed (yet partly Biblical) Rastafari movement. I argue that the same applies to “comedic” or “theatre” aspects that are more frowned upon in the Bible and the Quran. It is not in the whole of these books, but a general tendency in both these “holy books” is that “laughing” and “joking” tends te be placed in negative terms, disturbing a serious, totalitarian mission to convert and upholding the fidels against the infidels, and to strive to “purity”..

Spirituality, even apart from these overvalued books (that is a personal opinion of mine), still needs to be serious at times, I do realize and understand that. Spirituality is a deeper consciousness, with undeniable serious aspects. Yet, true consciousness needs putting things in perspective as well, combining contradictions, looking “from a distance” at what might be seen as absurd.. the very function of humour and “comedy”.

TOASTING

The history of Reggae music in Jamaica, the importance of Dancehalls (see my previous blog post) as local, also for performance in the development of Reggae.. all this shows that “having fun” and “creating joy”, also by Dee Jay vocally “toasting” over intrumental records is there. The very origin of the word “Toasting” in the Reggae and Dancehall context is funny in and by itself. Beth Lesser, a writer on Reggae, researched it (for her 2012 book ‘Rub a Dub style : the roots of modern dancehall’ see: http://www.bethlesser.com/publications/rub-a-dub-style-the-roots-of-modern-dancehall/ ), finding that it comes quite literally from the tradition in British and other cultures of someone offering a “toast” with drinks at a gathering, with a speech addressed at those present. Taken from somewhat elite wedding ceremonies, “toasting” in a funny way thus got a new meaning at the Dancehalls, as Dee Jays with a microphone “give a welcome” or a “toast” to the audience, only in this case of course rhythmically/musically.

The early Dee Jay’s like King Stitt and Sird Lord Comic (note also this moniker) and others employed a lot of joking when chatting on records, and the same applies to the Originator, U-Roy, the first Dee-Jay putting “toasting” on record. Partly, U-Roy imitated (or parodied) Black US radio presenters talking “jive”, heard in Jamaica. Many in U-Roy’s wane continued fun and parody in toasting, even if they expressed Rastafari consciousness, Biblical or not, (as did I-Roy, Prince Fari, Trinity, Dr. Alimantado and others), humour, joy, and a funny way of relating recurred interchanged with serious subject matter. Later, “slackness” (lewd, explicit) dee-jays like Yellowman and Shabba Ranks, also focussed on humour – in their case often sexual jokes. A good example of “self-enhancing” humour ( as the Wikipedia article termed it) is the overt joking of Yellowman about his unusual “yellow” albino looks in Jamaica; this could have made him a paria (and it did for a part of his life), but he boasts about his success with women (chatting “All of them have yellow children..”). Also artist Eek-A-Mouse comments often comically in his lyrics on society in his own way, using parody of certain phenomena (gun fights, cowboy films, him being tall, how he got his nickname “Eek-a-Mouse”). As a form of story-telling.

This humour would remain in Reggae, especially common among Early Dancehal dee-jays, and to a degree also in later Dancehall. As the slackness lyrics got harder, and Jamaican crime also more violent in the 1980s and 1990s, though, Jamaican “humour” in lyrics by people like T.O.K., Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Konshens often got “harder”, as well as more sexually explicit. Humour remained there in this type of Digital Dancehall, sometimes mild, though more than before also a bit more cynical or boastful: “jailhouse humour” is how I can describe it. Exaggeration is a technique used here, and as said can still be playful and truly funny at times, though it differs per artist: not all humour is negative. “Carnivalesque” humour - as part of a Caribbean cultural code – also recurs regularly, such as in the performance of an artist like Elephant Man.

Moreover, artists who kept making Conscious Dancehall and Reggae to this day, included humourous notes between spiritual and serious subject matter at times in their lyrics. I can mention “playful” and satirizing songs by Don Carlos, Culture (on a party in hell for instance: the song ‘Good Times’), Junior Kelly, and several others including humourous notes as part of social comment in their lyrics. Too many examples too mention really.

This again goes to show that humour or “comedy”, at a more “abstract” level; not sarcasm or personal insults in humour form, but more detached focussing on the contradictory, “the absurd” and ironic in society and among people, certainly contributes to a deeper consciousness. The better examples of “socially critical” stand-up comedy by the likes of Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and others, also proved this.

zondag 3 april 2016

Defining dancehall

This is in essence a post about definition. Specifically in reggae music. Jamaica’s reggae music originated in Jamaica around 1968, developed from earlier Jamaican genres Ska and Rocksteady. Such a complicated genealogy covering only one decade (Ska arose around 1959, Rocksteady around 1965, Reggae around 1968) points at the vibrancy of Jamaica’s music industry. This is especially the case considering Jamaica is a small island with then maybe about 2,4 million inhabitants.

Yet many things began to happen in Kingston and Jamaica in the 1960s and after. Many people invested in the music industry as a way out of poverty and ghetto living, investing either with saved money, or – when without money - with effort and/or talent. Considering the island’s size, remarkably many recording studios arose in Jamaica, with the emphasis on the capital Kingston. Over a 100, increasing (with also home studios by those having funds for it), so I heard, up to around 200 “recording studios” as such in the present.

SOUND SYSTEMS

This very vibrancy depended on recording possibilities, but just as well on the phenomena of “sound systems” – simply put: mobile discotheques – and “dance halls”. What Jamaicans call(ed) Dancehalls were in fact outside, open-air patio-like squares surrounded by walls and buildings, so were not “halls” in the very literal sense. Sound systems played at dance halls, being thus the place where local music was first tested with a local audience. Organically and from the ground up, the way I think it should be. Quite different (and better, I opine) from what in time developed in Western (US, Europe) pop music cultures: big companies manipulating tastes and publicity to get certain promoted musical acts sold, for more profit. Local audience’s tastes or input are in this latter system virtually ignored and gagged. The good thing about the Jamaican Dancehall tradition in turn is that it procures an authentic connection to local tastes. Record spinners (selectors) of Sound Systems adapted to the audience’s response at dancehalls, eventually.

This is where there also may be the only down side, I think. There is music, are songs that are inherently of high quality, in my opinion. Those songs may at the time not fit that particular audience’s mood or expectation, but with a different mind-set, the song can become enjoyable. The selector spins for the audience and patrons, that is true, but the audience must cooperate a little bit as well. This being said, I overall can understand that over time selectors at dancehalls adapted in the music they play to what the audience seemed to want. That in itself is okay and democratic, preventing too much elitarianism in tastes.

DANCEHALL AS PLACE

So, the Dancehall is an important “place”, a locale in Jamaican music. Later it became applied to a separate genre within Reggae or, as some put it, a separate Jamaican genre derived from Reggae. I noted in Jamaica (where I went in 2006 and 2008) that public media discussed regularly songs in the Reggae Chart (songs deemed most popular at the time), while there was another Dancehall Chart. Thus, these were treated as clearly separate genres. It seems, therefore that in Jamaican culture – among many people, at least – the distinction between Reggae on the one hand, and Dancehall on the other, as separate genres was well-defined and clear-cut, by 2008.

Of course, Dancehall as separate genre (or subgenre, or however defined) developed earlier. Important, informative reference books about Reggae and Jamaican music (I can mention the comprehensive guide ‘The rough guide to reggae’ – 2001 - by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton) describe the history of it tracing it partly back to the course of the 1980s. Different works mostly trace it to the 1980s at least, sharing often the mentioning of Wayne Smith’s then innovative digital, Casio-based ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ (1984) song as starting point of Digital Reggae or Dancehall.

Yet, not so much of Dancehall as genre. That is where the definition turns out to be not so clear-cut as thought. The mentioned ‘Rough Guide To Reggae’ has separate chapters on Roots Reggae, Dub, and on Dancehall (non-digital Dancehall) and also Ragga (the digital phase). Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton associate the Dancehall genre’s development as such as Dee Jays (not record spinners, but rather rhythmic talking/"Toasting" vocalists), putting their improv vocals on existing instrumental versions at Dancehalls, as part of Sound Systems. This went on already in the 1970s, with U Roy being the first to actually record such Toasting on existing music on in the early 1970s, but preceded by many Toasters at Sound Systems and Dancehalls, even already in the 1960s. This had become common by the 1970s, when what became known as Roots Reggae - often with singing and Rastafari-inspired- or “cultural” - held sway and was popular in Jamaica, even at the same venues. Roots Reggae was then played and appreciated at the Dancehall, making terming the subgenre after a place all the more problematic. Or problematic.. maybe it’s better to say “confusing” or, more positively, “flexible”, as Selectors and Dee jay’s had to be flexible to please the audiences. Dancehall is, after all, a “place” more than a musical genre with specific musical characteristics.

DANCEHALL AS MUSICAL GENRE

Or it was in the past, at least. In the later 1980s one can say, but still with nuances, a distinctive style, musically had developed, independent of where played: instruments used, rhythmically, melodically, lyrically, studio aspects, etcetera etcetera. This became known as Dancehall music.

However, even then – and up to now – it is not such a clear-cut definition . In the remainder of this post I focus on how Dancehall as Jamaican genre (or subgenre) is defined in some major works and by main reggae scholars (these actually exist). I try to answer the question that consciously or subconsciously lives in the minds of many reggae fans, I imagine: the difference between Roots Reggae and Dancehall. Some reggae fans think they know (at a rational level) the difference between these types of Reggae/Jamaican music, others more or less, vaguely “sense” or “feel” that difference. Still noting that difference and preferring the one over the other, always or during some moods or life stages.

RUB-A-DUB AND RAGGA

In fact, the distinction is not that clear. One development instrumental in Dancehall as genre, most writers agree on this, is that already existing music, from songs recorded in the past being reused/recycled – read: sung over – again, inaugurated a new period in Jamaican music. This became more and common, relating as much to creativity as to economics, since it was cheaper. Studio musicians remained active in the 1980s – the Roots Radics became influential for instance – but often repeated or reworked existing rhythms, or were at least influenced by new technologies. Sugar Minott was around 1980 one of the first to do a “do-over” album, singing new songs on already existing music/riddims, from Studio One in this case. Other artists followed: some more singing, some more rhythmically Toasting: Yellowman, Barrington Levy, Eek-A-Mouse and others, all coming up in the 1980s.

Interestingly, in the article/chapter on Jamaican music, ‘The loudest island in the world’, by Gregory Salter, part of the 2000 collective volume ‘World Music : the rough guide’ (with chapters on different countries/areas world wide and their popular music), on Jamaican music, Salter points at the crucial role in this development of producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes, who worked with Yellowman, Sugar Minott and others, though he produced some great Roots Reggae records in the 1980s as well.

In the already mentioned work ‘The rough guide to reggae’ by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton the importance of Lawes as well as others is mentioned as well. Also, Barrow and Dalton describe how “deejaying” or singing over often existing riddims (Lawes also helped develop “new”, or original riddims/instrumental music, must be said) led the way to what would become the genre Dancehall. They point out that this was not that new, as reuse of riddims occurred also in the 1970s in Jamaica. In general, though, they indicate that from the 1980s the “riddim” (reused) and the producer became more important, whereas the 1970s Roots Reggae era in Jamaica was relatively more “artist-centered”. Several works point out that the Dancehall phase in Jamaica was also a focus away from the more internationally oriented Roots Reggae era of the 1970s (with Bob Marley and others of course having reached international fame), toward the local, Jamaican dancehalls.

As much is described in the very readable book ‘Reggae and Caribbean music’ (2001), by Dave Thompson. This book devotes a “genre profile” to Dancehall, explaining in it how lyrical changes toward less-than-conscious or –spiritual themes, were in time balanced by a “return” to Rastafari-inspired and “conscious” lyrics. These are broad lines and not incorrect per se, but it must be pointed out that some artist kept their lyrics “conscious” throughout, at times adapting in a musical sense to Dancehall or Ragga.

“Relatively” is an important term here. Over time other changes took place, reflecting inevitably social and political changes within Jamaica. “Slackness” lyrics, about boasting, sex, or (gun) violence - though often more humorous than cynical – became common among many artists, including Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, and General Echo. Many criticized this as a moral downturn, away from Rastafari inspiration and “roots and culture”.

Yet, in the same decade many Rastafari-inspired, “cultural” lyrics still were recorded in Jamaica: only, again, “relatively” less, and less popular among parts of the audience, more in search of either spectacle or fun. That many of those artists associated with Slackness still occasionally used Rastafari or “socially critical” terminology, was seen as inauthentic or fake by some, while others conclude that boundaries cannot be drawn that sharp in Jamaican culture, or perhaps in humans in general.

People, individuals change furthermore. Both Capleton and Buju Banton (and others) started out mainly with party or Slackness lyrics, before turning more to “conscious” Rastafari-inspired lyrics in later stages of their career. They were part of the New Roots movement lyrically, along with Sizzla and others.

DIGITAL

Meanwhile, there has been further digital influences and other strictly musical changes within Jamaica, irrespective of lyrics. Purely technically and musically, a genre as Digital Dancehall had developed: this also became known as “Ragga”. In a work aimed at musicians (drummers) named ‘Jamaica: your pasport to a new world of music’ (2009) by Pete Sweeney and Nathaniel Gunod, the authors describe the basic drum and rhythm characteristics of both Dancehall and Ragga. Regarding the latter they point at the “syncopated” snare drum (with similarities to Soca and Calypso) as a characteristic of Ragga, which is furthermore, they say, exclusively electronic (Dancehall only partly). Live drummers playing Ragga therefore have to be “computer-like” tight and precise, they hereby stress.

More – too – simplified they in turn describe the preceding stage of Dancehall mainly on the basis of Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ (1984), I already mentioned. So, mainly electronic. They describe Dancehall as relatively more “dance-oriented”.

This again goes to show the difficulty in defining Dancehall. Early 1980s songs by Barrington Levy or Eek-a-Mouse were according to many Dancehall, or called “Rub-a-Dub”. They were, however, not that much more digital than what came before. Sly and Robbie with e.g. Black Uhuru and Ini Kamoze made some classic songs, with already some more digital influences.

ROCKERS RHYTHM

More interesting, I think, is how the Rockers rhythm played by drummers - developed in the later 1970s - eventually helped shape early Rockers rhythms, giving a different rhythmic feel, that nonetheless still combined well with the Rastafari message and spirituality (notable in Black Uhuru’s lyrics, later Hugh Mundell lyrics, Mighty Diamonds a.o.).

The Rockers drum pattern basically adds a bass drum beat on the first count of a 4/4 beat, combining with a sharper snare drum beat on the Third count (already there in earlier “One Drop” reggae rhythms since the early 1970s). This gave the Rockers rhythm a more insistent, dynamic feel. Later in the 1980s some producers made the Rockers rhythm faster to increase this effect, with more beats-per-minute. Therefore some describe electronic Ragga as faster and digital, but rhythmically still Rockers Reggae-based. No matter how “digital” and computerized it sounds. One only has to count faster.. that’s the trick.

Before this, Rockers rhythms – inaugurated by musicians Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare – began around 1976, still with a Roots Reggae vibe. The Mighty Diamonds’ album ‘Right Time’ from 1976 is known as the first reggae album with a Rockers rhythm as drum pattern. Few would consider this a Dancehall-like album, and not just because the Mighty Diamonds sing with harmonies and don’t deejay, or because the riddims are original, but also because the “feel” or “vibe” is overall of Roots Reggae.

Changes in time, however, and experiments with the Rockers rhythm: - making the music “sparser”, more strongly focussed on drum and bass, Dub effects, more digital effects, making rhythms faster, more Deejaying than singing - eventually would give these Rockers Reggae-based rhythms a reworked place in what would be known as Rub-a-Dub reggae, Dancehall, but also Ragga (Digital Dancehall). I think this purely rhythmical approach in analyzing this change is interesting. Listening from this perspective, there is a musical connection (apart from vocal choices, lyrics or production aspects) between the songs ‘Right Time’ (1976) by the Mighty Diamonds (backed by Sly & Robbie), Yellowman or Eek-a-Mouse songs from the later 1980s, say Eek-A-Mouse’s ‘Wa Do Dem’, backed by the Roots Radics, and – with a leap in time – purely digital tunes from recent times: by the likes of Ward 21, e.g. Capleton’s ‘Who Dem/Slew Dem’ (on the 1999 Bellyas Riddim) and other songs. All are built around a Rockers Reggae base, with emphasis on beats 1 and 3 (of 4/4), with the bass drum on the first count.

This may not be obvious to all. Yet, this Rockers base is what makes the Digital Dancehall rhythm distinctive from other Caribbean “digital” genres (Soca, Zouk), and connects it to earlier Reggae. This difference one also “feels” when dancing to it.

AFRICAN AESTHETIC

What I find most interesting about this is that it shows an underlying African aesthetic. This seems in line with the Rastafari movement, that arose in Jamaica (in the 1930s) to regain an African pride and connection, away from European enforced dominance. Despite some Slackness and non-Rasta lyrics, it is in another way a reconnection to African musical principles. Of course, also Rastafari lyrics are now sung/chatted on such digital Ragga/Dancehall riddims, but even if lyrics are not so conscious or socially critical, do not talk about Africa or Blackness, or are even negative and enunciating clear non-Rasta values (materialism, violence, crime), an African musical and cultural aesthetic is still there. Despite this, one might say. Not just the basic (rockers) rhythm, but also the syncopic elements and “counter-rhythms” have African origins.

DANCE

Also the fact that music (Dancehall) is “dance-focussed” is African. Music and dancing are traditionally in sub-Saharan Africa intertwined. Music is meant mostly to dance to. The separation between listening to music on the one hand, and dancing to it on the other, stems from European, not African culture, anthropologists have explained again and again. Sure, African music has not just rhythm, but also roles for melodies and harmony, yet is normally strongly percussive/rhythmic and meant to dance to. This applies to the polyrhythms-based musical cultures of “forest Africa” where many slaves came from who were brought to the West/Caribbean (Ghana, South-Nigeria, Benin region, Congo region), but also more subtly to “Griot Africa” with more string instruments and (reworked) Islamic influences, i.e. the Mali, Guinee and Senegambia regions. I mentioned these differences in other blog posts of mine. Comparing traditional music from Islamic countries like, say, Iraq, Iran, or in North Africa to traditional Griot music by the Bambara people in the also mostly nominally Islamic South of Mali, one notes a few similarities, but even more differences, especially regarding rhythm and what can be called “percussiveness”, being more emphasized in the case of the African South Mali or Guinee regions. Common drum instruments like the Djembe or Dundun (a two-sided bass drum) in/from the Guinee region have also become internationally better known by now.

Roots Reggae came to include of course more types of musical instruments, more melody, and a European-derived chords/harmony-focus, yet also a maintained, crucial role for rhythm. The same applies to earlier Jamaican genres like Rocksteady. Many Rocksteady songs have good melodies and instrumentation, as does much 1970s Reggae, but at the same time the same “good melodic and harmonic songs” are rhythmically very good too, and certainly danceable (maybe slower, but danceable).

The distinction that some within the reggae world make between valuable, “spiritual” music on the one hand, and “music just to dance to” is problematic, I find. Such distinctions are made in other genres as well. Often is meant that the “rhythm” is better or more interesting than the lyrics or melody, which at times can be the case. I know examples of such songs too, with cliché or nonsensical lyrics, but with strong rhythms.

As a generalized statement, however, I think it is too simplified. Also when looking at present-day Dancehall and Ragga from Jamaica. Artists like Capleton, Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason (and others) have musically Digital Dancehall/Ragga songs, but with Rastafari and conscious lyrics. Certainly danceable, musically and vocally more rhythm-focussed, as well as the dynamic, faster tempo of the Digital Dancehall riddim, adding some “energy” to the lyrical message. Interestingly, this expresses an African retention returning, namely of the connection between dance (rhythm) and spirituality.

Such a connection is much less known in European/Western musical culture (certainly in this form), which also influenced Jamaican music a bit.