maandag 1 februari 2016

The güiro and reggae

The “Güiro” is the name of a Cuban musical instrument, more specifically a scraped instrument, or “scraped idiophone”, producing a rasping sound. The Cuban güiro (pronounced gWeeroh) is made from gourd. Many people may know it vaguely from music they’ve heard, even if not knowing the instrument’s name. There are similar, scraped instruments throughout the world, to be sure, such as the “reco-reco” (often with metal) in Brazil, to give just one example. According to historians, such scraped instruments have long histories and traditions in parts of Africa, such as among Bantu-speaking peoples in what is now the DR Congo and Angola, as well as in the region of Nigeria.

Knowing about the origins of many African slaves forcibly brought to Cuba - relatively many from the Congo and Nigeria regions -, an African origin of this Cuban instrument seems thus probable. Yet, comparable scraped instruments were found to be present among Amerindian, indigenous peoples as well. The Aztecs – for instance – reportedly made scrapers from bones. The Arowaks in Cuba probably had scraper instruments too. Other scrapers (used in the US) were made of jawbones, and others of course from flora (trees and plants). Etymologically, the word “güiro” is also of Amerindian origin, referring also to a tree and its fruit.

What’s typical for the original Cuban güiro, anyway, is that it is made of a gourd/calabash, and played with a small wooden stick. Its total length tends to be between 30 cm and 50 cm. Other scraped instruments are made of other material, or have different sizes, of course. Metal variants (including metal scraping stick or device) can be found in the Dominican Republic, where a scraped instrument called “güira” is used in the Merengue genre, and in some parts of Cuba a metal “güiro”-like instrument called “Guaya” is used in a specific subgenre of Son called 'Changüi', found mainly in the far eastern province in Cuba called Guantánamo. There are scrapers made from different kind of trees (e.g. from coconut trees in Colombia, or hardwood a.o.), and scrapers made from bamboo are found in both Africa and in Brazil. I myself employ also (both in my compositions and when jamming) a “wooden agogo”, made from hardwood, which consists of wooden bells/blocks of different lengths, doubling as a güiro scraper, with added tonal variety. Added to all this, household items have also since long been used as scrapers, such as washboards. Etcetera, etcetera..

There are different theories about the güiro and its origins, but an African, especially Bantu/Central African, origin with some other influences in Cuba, seems most plausible. Its historical place in the Son and Salsa music genre – heavily Congo/Bantu-influenced – and related genres in Eastern Cuba, as well as other folk music in Cuba, seems to confirm this origin as well. The cultural Congo/Central African heritage is strong in Eastern Cuba.

Cultural anthropologist and author on Cuban musical history Fernando Ortiz pointed at its early presence in rural Cuban folk and traditional music, while another author on Cuban music, Ned Sublette, noted in his work ‘Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the Mambo’ (I mentioned this same book in earlier posts on this blog), that around 1852 the güiro also started to be used more in dance orchestras (i.e. in concert halls), at that time as a novel instrument for upper classes. The classical composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) from New Orleans, but residing in Havana, was according to Sublette the first one to use the güiro in concert music (along with also typically Cuban “maraca” shakers), in a concert he gave in Puerto Rico in 1858. Its folk use is much older, of course.

Either way, the güiro has an important place in specifically Afro-Cuban music genres, such as the originally East Cuban Son, which in turn gave much of its base characteristics to what we know as Salsa music, wherein the güiro is likewise much used. This goes – as can be expected – with specific patterns, to fit the “clave” (old Spanish for “key”): a rhythmic key pattern (2/3 or 3/2) forming the structure of traditional Afro-Cuban music (and much traditional African polyrhythmic music). There is within the whole of Afro-Cuban music variety, as well as space for improvisation, with the güiro, but mostly its patterns are relatively “fixed” or standard, because it has to fit a clave-based frame.

Considering the different tonality the güiro offers – long, extended scrapes and short ones, by moving up and down with the stick – a common pattern in Cuban genres as Son is for instance: long-short-short-long. Thus: a long “scrape” on the One and Four, of a 4/4 bar, interchanged with short ones in between, on the 2 and 3, sounding like: Trrrrrrrrr Tr Tr Trrrrrrrrr. Or the long scrapes on the 1 and 3, when you count in double time (One-AND-Two-AND-Three-AND-Four). Some may recognize this common “long scrape-short-short-long” pattern from e.g. Son, Salsa or Latin songs. Other Caribbean/Latin American genres have other patterns, in Puerto Rican Bomba (4/4 based), the long scrape is at the end of the bar, after three short ones, for instance. The güiro and related scrapers have also an own place and patterns within Colombian music genres, such as Cumbia.

It is somewhat simplified, I admit. This because I will not delve in its many variations and uses in Cuban or Latin American music too deep: there are for those interested many instructional videos on YouTube, or theoretical studies elsewhere regarding the use of the güiro in Latin American music. This basis is still necessary here, however, as a point of departure for the main theme of this post, I wish to expound on: the use of the güiro in Jamaican reggae music.


It is also used in reggae music, and in fact quite commonly. It is not so remarkable that Cuban instruments are heard in other genres. After all, the well-known instruments of Afro-Cuban origin, the bongos, congas, maracas shakers, and other instruments, have spread globally, including throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, but also to the US, Europe and elsewhere. These instruments by now can be found in many genres, also in the Western world.

Jamaica is moreover even in the same region as Cuba, as a “bordering” island, and with a population with mainly African roots (like many Cubans, and known Afro-Cuban instruments). People who know something about the history of Jamaican popular music might know that Cuban music influenced reggae, since the Ska genre developed (around 1960), and in earlier folk genres in Jamaica (Mento). Cuban musical instruments travelled to Jamaica. Partly because of its relative proximity, but there also were many Jamaican migrant labourers in a period (earlier 20th c.), working in Cuba’s sugar industry, and returning to Jamaica. Some of the Skatalites band members, influential in Ska, were born in Cuba, or even had a Cuban parent (like Rico Rodriguez), as were other Jamaican artists active since the 1950s and 1960s, like Laurel Aitken. Rita Marley was also born in Cuba. Mortimer Planno, a known Jamaican Rastaman, was born in Cuba too. In other words, linkages were there, even beyond a select group of travelling musicians, or music spread through media (discs, radio).

Even without such proximity or extra linkages, Cuban music itself of course has travelled to the US and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, influencing genres and musicians. This occurred already since roughly the 1930s. Besides this, percussionists in Jamaican music were, like those in other genres, often internationally and broadly oriented: the Brazilian “Cuica” drum – a friction drum, pulled with a rope – can also be heard in a number of reggae songs since the 1970s.

Cuban music thus travelled internationally since the early 20th c., but not just throughout Latin America, leaving also influences in US Black music genres as jazz, rhythm & blues, funk, soul a.o. For that reason, the güiro can be heard on occasion in these genres as well, sometimes to add a Cuban, “latin” or “salsa” touch, sometimes even in structurally rhythmic roles: It can be heard for instance in songs by Curtis Mayfield (e.g. 'Superfly'), several Motown songs, songs by Marvin Gaye, and others. The güiro even found its way in European classical music; it can be heard in ‘Le sacre du printemps’ (1913) by Stravinsky.

In British pop music (albeit influenced by Black music) it is also found, such as in David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, where the güiro seems to follow a basic salsa pattern during the verses of the song.

All interesting, but what about reggae? A genre I more or less specialized myzelf in over the years. I wrote already that it is quite commonly used in Jamaican and reggae music, because I heard it in several reggae songs by different artists. I also know of its use in older Jamaican genres (Mento, Ska, Rocksteady..).

An early example of its use in Ska was in the Wailers song, sung by Bunny Wailer, a slow ska tune called ‘Let Him Go’ (1966). A güiro is used (alongside other Afro-Cuban percussion) in this song, although quite “buried in the mix”, so to speak, so not very prominent, yet softly audible. The musicians were the Skatalites, and it was recorded at Studio One. What’s interesting is that later versions of this song, such as by Bunny Wailer himself, still faithfully maintained this (subtle) güiro use.

The Cuban connections of the Skatalites notwithstanding, the güiro use in Jamaican music became even more prominent after the Ska period, since Rocksteady developed (around 1966), and especially when Reggae arose, since about 1968. This can, I think, be related to a certain musical attitude increasing since the early 1970s, when Rastafari began to influence Reggae more strongly.

What has this to do with specifically the scraper/güiro? Well, in the so-called Roots Reggae period from around 1973 onward, a focus on African roots and Rastafari translated in lyrical messages, but also musically in several ways: in the increased use of hand drums and other percussion, for instance. Musical experimentation, and perhaps simply Reggae’s tempo slowing down, influenced the space for more percussion. I also think that active, talented percussionists of name like Bongo Herman (Herman Davis), Skully (Noel Simms), Sky Juice (Chris Blake), Sticky (Uzziah Thompson), and others came at their peak in this period. These percussion players were very active session musicians playing on many Jamaican records in especially the 1970s and 1980s. These percussionists were broadly, internationally oriented, while also connected to Africa, Rastafari, and local, acoustic folk music and percussion/drumming.

All these factors combined can explain, I argue, the increased variety and presence of percussions in Jamaican records since the 1970s. The Nyabinghi, kete-based hand drums, used among Rastafari adherents, became very commonly used in Roots Reggae music and on records, but also other hand drums of Afro-Cuban origin (conga, bongos) or Afro-Jamaican origin, African djembe’s, as well as other rhythmic, percussive “Africanizing” folk-like sounds like rattles, shakers, wood blocks, bells, the cuica, and, yes, also scrapers and güiros.

Interesting is that some noted, by the way, that the Cuban güiro (made from gourd/calabash) became most often the scraper of choice on Jamaican records. Metal scrapers like used in Merengue or Brazilian reco-reco’s are heard in comparison much less in reggae, for some reason. Indeed this may be simply because internationally, the Afro-Cuban calabash-based “güiro” as such is the best known scraper, maybe because of its links to Salsa.

Anyway, this güiro scraper appeared on many Jamaican reggae records of the 1970s and 1980s, and not just on a few, or as a novelty thing. In fact, it became commonly used on recordings of many bands and artists, including the better-known ones: Culture, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Hugh Mundell, the Twinkle Brothers, the Wailers, Max Romeo, the Congos, Israel Vibration, the Itals, Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Lee Perry etcetera etcetera. Not in each song, but it recurred regularly. This leads to the assumption that the best-known percussion players at the time (Bongo Herman, Sticky, Skully, Sky Juice and others) usually at least had a güiro at their disposal during studio work. Alongside of course other types of commonly used “professional” percussion instruments (e.g. tambourines, wood blocks, agogo, kete/binghi drums, bongos, djembe’s, shakers, rattles, vibraslap, shekere, cabasa etcetera).

That is what I appreciate about percussion playing: the variety of sounds possible from different smaller and larger instruments, with diverse, multicultural origins. Africa, as musically the most “percussive” continent, is the source or roots of most percussion instruments, but many can be found in other continents as well (Asia, Americas, Europe..).

It is interesting to note that specifically the Cuban güiro is used in many reggae songs, as is its historical cultural context. On the other hand it is not that remarkable: like I said: percussion players tend to use different, and several, percussive instruments in many genres, and many musical influences travel internationally, especially also relatively influential Cuban music.

Therefore, from now on, I will move away from detached and abstract theoretical elaborations, and focus more on where the enjoyment of music ultimately lies: in concretely experiencing music and songs. Getting in the groove, so to speak. Through examples I will illustrate some differing uses of the güiro in Jamaican reggae songs: how it fits in the rhythm and whole song. This I can compare to its use in e.g. Cuban or Latin American music.

Not just for his post, but also out of personal interest, I have studied before what “güiro patterns” I encountered in reggae songs. This had an educational as well as practical purpose for me: I compose, but also play with other musicians, adding percussion to reggae-based jam sessions, on occasion. Trap drummers, bass and guitar players, often keyboard players or horns as well, tend to play on such occasions, often existing reggae songs (or improvizing around them). When I take a scraper, like my wooden agogo or a güiro, it is therefore good for me to know some common patterns in reggae.

Yet, the question is: are there actually recurring güiro patterns in reggae from, say the 1970s and 1980s? Or is its use more whimsical and unfixed? The instrument was used so commonly in reggae, that an exhaustive study would require much more than a blog post or even an extensive article: a voluminous book would be required.

I can therefore not be exhaustive here, but will give some examples in reggae (especially from the 1970s and 1980s) of the use of the güiro scraper, and will hint at some common threads.


Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry is an extravagant and influential artist, who had an own studio for a period in Jamaica, called the Black Ark, wherein he stamped his own mark on albums and records by many Jamaican artists recording there, with a peak in the later 1970s: the Roots Reggae period. With some artists he came in conflict (related to finance or otherwise), but artists (even these) recognized him as a genius - even if also as a person also at times strange or “mad” - and saw the Black Ark as a haven of musical creativity and freedom. Perry, though, said in a recent documentary I saw that musicians had to follow fully his musical frame in his studio.

Anyhow, I liked that Perry in his musical productions seemed to favour more percussion use than other producers. He even mixed it quite prominently in the mix (not buried amid other sounds, as other producers). A well-known reggae song included a güiro quite prominently, and was produced by Perry: Max Romeo’s ‘Chase the Devil’ (1976). This was part of an album ‘War Ina Babylon’, that also in other songs (such a the title track) included the güiro scraper. Interesting is that the güiro, to the basic “bass-drum-rhythm guitar” reggae rhythm of ‘Chase the Devil’ adds a simple, but effective rhythm pattern (three short scrapes on One-AND-Two..), creating a “swinging” polyrhythmic feel. Listeners feel this, so the güiro is part of the appeal of this quite popular song. On the album ‘Heart of the Congos’ (1976), by the Congos – by many regarded as a classic -, also recorded at the Black Ark, the güiro joins the varied percussion, being especially prominent on the song ‘Solid Foundation’.

On the finely produced album Colombia Colly (1976) by Jah Lion, also recorded at Black Ark, the güiro is quite present, most notably on the song ‘Bad Luck Natty’. Just another example, but overall Perry productions can be said to favor the use of güiro. Interestingly, along with, but also compared to, other percussion instruments.

Perry’s work with the Wailers is also interesting. The early version of ‘Small Axe’ (recorded in 1970), sung by the well-known Bob Marley, later rerecorded for Island records, included an interesting güiro rhythmic pattern throughout, also crucial for the rhythmic feel of the song. This güiro pattern did – unfortunately – not survive later versions for the Island label: the güiro can thus no longer be heard in later versions of ‘Small Axe’, notably the one on the Wailers’ album ‘Burnin’ (1973).

Often rather “drowned in the mix”, güiros can also be heard in important albums by another reggae icon: Burning Spear: such as on some songs of the 1978 ‘Social Living’ album (percussion by Sticky), on the “jazzy” ‘Man in the Hills’ album from 1976 (on which Burning Spear/Winston Rodney plays also percussion himself), on which I especially liked the güiro pattern on the song ‘Groovy’, where it helps shape the riddim/groove. It plays a three-two pattern around the snare drum accent on the 3 (of 4/4), with a long scrape as tasteful finish.

Likewise around the snare drum accent in reggae on the Third beat (or on the Second, when counting in double time) is the nice güiro in Gregory Isaacs’ classic ‘Soon Forward’ (1979), a varying, multifold güiro pattern, ending with a longer scrape. Somewhat soft in the mix, but still crucial. Here, a “metal” scraper seems to have been used (as well).

It furthermore varied per album, artist, or producer how often the güiro sounds can be heard on reggae records. Like I already mentioned, the way it is mixed also influences how “prominent” the güiro sounds, dependent perhaps on personal mixing preferences in the studios. The legendary Culture band, with the late Joseph Hill as singer (and occasional percussion player), made quite often use of the güiro, though on some albums more than others. The same can be said of the Twinkle Brothers (e.g. to crucial effect on a groovy song like ‘Big Bam Bam’ from 1975), and the Wailing Souls. The latter’s classic album (one of my favourites, by the way) ‘Fire House Rock’ (1980) figures the güiro quite prominently on great songs like ‘A Fool Will Fall’, and ‘Kingdom Rise, Kingdom Fall’, mostly with crucial, “swinging” counter-rhythms, adding to a nice, polyrhythmic feel. The güiro pattern on ‘Kingdom Rise, Kingdom Fall’ is not too complex and threefold and circular (long scrape-short scrape-long scrape), but what is funny is that it seems to fit the lyrics: the short scrape on the AND between the 2 and 3 (just before the snare drum accent) consists of an upward motion (Kingdom Rise!)., after which follows a longer downward motion. So.. rise and fall, haha.. This can of course be coincidence.

Quite well-known songs by the band Culture, then, like ‘Jah Rastafari’ (1979), ‘It a Guh Dread’ (same period), ‘Land We Belong’, ‘Cumbolo’, ’Love Shines Brighter’ (and other songs), also have likewise crucial roles for the güiro in the whole musical, rhythmic whole. These tend to add rhythmic patterns around the drum accent, though often a longer scrape rests on this drum accent. Again the güiro on these songs is crucial for their feel, to differing degrees, depending (again) on its relative audibility in the mix, or distinctiveness. On ‘Cumbolo’ a guitar partly does the same pattern as the güiro, making it less unique, for example.

The beautiful song ‘Jah Is The Way’ (1981) by Israel Vibration also has creative, varied güiro patterns (interchanging faster and slower/short and long scrapes), making this strong, emotive song even more interesting. Also a strong song is the Mighty Diamonds ‘Africa’ (1976), wherein a güiro is also important. Intestingly, here the güiro “departs” from the snare drum accent.

Whether playing around it, toward it, or departing from it: that snare drum accent on the Third count remains crucial of course, in structuring the song: the drum is the heart beat of reggae music, and it is not called an “accent” for nothing. In several songs, nonetheless, a güiro scrape falls on the same Third drum count, but without disturbing it.

Peter Tosh’s ‘Glass House’, from the 1983 Mama Africa album, has a 2-4 (short scrapes) güiro pattern, with the 4-part directly after that Third Count snare drum accent. It starts on the AND between 3 and 4..

I can give many more examples, but I cannot fail to mention a particularly great example of güiro use in reggae: Leroy Sibbles’emotive, soulful tune called ‘Jah Soon Come’ (1980). The güiro is quite prominent in this song (and relatively loud), contributing to the song’s strength. It is a bit similar, though, to a güiro pattern used before on Culture’s ‘Jah Rastafari’, but that does not spoil it.

As I write this, recently Jamaican reggae artist Trevor Junior deceased. He is not the best known artist, maybe, but made some great Roots and Early Dancehall tunes, especially in the 1980s. His good ‘I and I Time’ (1984) also included the nice and crucial contribution of a güiro: adding a “swinging” feel and going “toward” the drum accent. Its pattern finishes, as other ones, with a long scrape.

Like I mentioned, the güiro is often used throughout reggae. The digital era that influenced reggae increasingly since the later 1980s was of course not so dominant that live music recording (including percussion) halted, but it diminished it somewhat. Somewhat modernized Roots Reggae kept being made (New Roots), and percussionists Sticky or Skully played also on 1990s and 2000s albums by younger artists like Everton Blender, Richie Spice, Sizzla, Etana, Bushman, Luciano etcetera. Percussion can still be heard in reggae riddims since 1990, including on some songs the güiro, though more often “buried” in fuller mixes (including since the 1990s more digital effects and sounds). A later album by Culture, namely ‘Payday’, from 2000, still makes much use of the güiro, for instance.

Another example: a “big tune”, actually a hit in the reggae world, Richie Spice’s ‘Earth A Run Red’ (first released in 1998) also features the güiro instrument among other percussion (by Bongo Herman). Again, somewhat “drowned” in the mix, but audible.

Besides these later records, I probably did not mention some other crucial reggae songs from the 1970s or 1980s, or even from before, that had crucial roles for the güiro. I think my overview is nevertheless a quite representative sample. The use of the güiro on another classic reggae album ‘Africa Must Be Free by 1983’ (1975) by Hugh Mundell, is finally also worth of mention, I think. Fun fact: it is the first instrument - after the drums - heard on the album’s opening song (‘Let’s All Unite’). More often the güiro appears early on (“opening” as it were) in reggae songs.

It is further important to point out, I think, that globally still the best known reggae artist, Bob Marley and his band the Wailers, did unfortunately not make much use of the güiro. Also other “percussion” was relatively subdued on later Bob Marley albums. This might relate to commercial considerations by Island and Chris Blackwell, perhaps deeming foregrounding such Afro-Caribbean acoustic percussion not appropriate for the tastes of Western Rock “cross over” audiences. It is their loss, I would say. Bob’s percussion player (Alvin “Seeco” Patterson) therefore found most of his contributions (often still nice on occasion) very soft or “buried” in the final mixes of songs. Anyway, even in many Bob Marley songs with more audible percussion, more often e.g. wood blocks, or shaker instruments (incl. the cabasa) can be heard, and the güiro relatively less.

Still, there are some “later” Bob Marley songs that have an audible güiro in them, even if not very loud in the mix or a bit “drowned” sonically. Examples I can give are ‘Africa Unite’ (from the Surival album), and several songs from the Uprising album (‘Bad Card’, ‘We and Dem’ and others).


What can I conclude from this examination? This especially in relation to an earlier quetion I posed: are there “fixed” or even recurring güiro patterns in reggae, as is known for Son/Salsa, Merengue, Bomba, Cumbia and other Latin American styles? Not that in these Cuban and other genres there is never variation or improvisation with the güiro, it is just a bit more common that set patterns are followed per genre (Trrrrrrr-Tr-Tr-Trrrrrrr in Salsa, for example); it has to be relatively tighter to follow the rhythmic “clave” frame.

The answer can be short: there is no such “fixed” or prescribed pattern for the güiro in reggae. It simply has a freer role in reggae. Yet, I noted that per song there are patterns that are set and recur throughout the song in proper timing. In most reggae songs with the güiro a tight pattern is followed from the beginning to the end of the song, differing perhaps from verse to chorus, but repeated. There is thus a structure behind this güiro in each song and tightly followed patterns: only..these patterns differ per reggae song. It is not fixed throughout the entire genre, as applies to e.g. Salsa.

Overall, the güiro scraping sound adds (obviously) “texture” to reggae songs and riddims sonically, increasing variety in sound and depth. Jamaican percussion players like the mentioned Sticky, Skully, and Bongo Herman in interviews made an analogy between their percussive contributions to reggae and the adding of spices and seasoning to food: to make its flavour “nicer” and more complete.

Moreover, the güiro’s function tends in most reggae songs to be rhythmic more than for “effect” or “mood”, explaining the repeated (rhythmic) patterns that relate to the main (One Drop or Rockers) rhythm set by the drum, bass, and rhythm guitar in reggae music. Interesting is that the güiro use differs a bit per song: on some songs it provided “counter/cross rhythms”, “answering” to (yet interlocking with) other rhythms, in the age-old sub-Saharan African polyrhythm tradition (that also influenced the “clave” and Afro-Cuban music). A tradition also coming from the Bantu-speaking areas in Africa, or Southern-Nigerian-Benin regions, where the predecessors of the Cuban güiro (probably) came from.

On the other hand, in its origins Jamaican music was also influenced by the more “swinging” traditions of Rhythm & Blues, and Jazz, including “off-beat” phrasing, around main rhythms. This tradition relates according to some more to the Griot parts of Africa (Mali, Guinea) influencing the Blues in the US, with Islamic and string instrument influences mixed with African rhythmic traditions (see my previous post). This is still a bit “polyrhythmic”, you can say, but in another, moderated way. Anyway, it led to the musical concept and term “swinging”, playing around the main beats, characteristic of Rhythm & Blues from the US in the 1950s that once influenced Jamaican Ska. Such swinging or “shuffling”, can be found in reggae. So..also on how the güiro is used on some reggae songs, including “off-beat” accents (i.e. on the AND between counts ) throughout, giving a kind of “R&B feel”.

In certain cases, the güiro partly follows the bass line, which is another possible use, such as on Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Cool Ruler Come Again’, whereas on ‘Mr. Know It All’ (1979) by the same Gregory Isaacs the güiro has a more prominent, as well as independent and improvizing role.

All this differs per reggae song, however, and this variety (cross-rhythm or swing?) is yet another intriguing aspect of the güiro use in reggae music.

On a final note: even I as a percussion aficionado must admit that it would be too simplistic to state that merely the use of a güiro – or other added percussion, for that matter – makes a song by itself better: it depends of course on its use within the whole. In most cases I find it tends to add nice "spice", though. I do sincerely opine, furthermore, that the use of the güiro in reggae songs is mostly to good effect, and that several great reggae songs – some of those I consider “classic” – include the güiro as quite prominent. At least as a nice “touch”: or even: a “finishing” touch. That must mean something..

vrijdag 1 januari 2016

From Walter Rodney to African origins

‘The groundings with my brothers’ (1969) is an insightful book by Walter Rodney, that I enjoyed to read. For several reasons. Walter Rodney was a Black Power activist from Guyana, also a scholar, and known as Left-wing/Marxist. Besides that the book, dealing with Walter Rodney’s views in relation to Jamaica (and the wider Caribbean) in and around the 1960s, is in itself in my sphere of interest, actually reading it, it engaged me even more. The book itself was originally written in 1969.

First of all, Rodney’s analyses of broader world politics and White dominance, colonial history and neo-colonial present, at the detriment of the Black and other coloured peoples of the world, are eloquent as well as intelligent. He associates this de facto White Power with Capitalism, which shows his ideological stance, perhaps. In the same vein he applauds Cuba, describing Cuba since 1959 as a place where White Power has been defeated. While there are some arguments to be placed against this, most other analyses by Rodney in the work seemed to me correct, well-informed, and realistic. I also liked his way of expressing and writing. I never felt I was reading a one-sided, ideological hardliner with a vindictive, narrow mind – even common among some self-proclaimed Left-wing or “humanitarian” activists –, but rather a rebellious yet open-minded, intelligent, sensible, and emphatic thinker, with a good sense of humour, making his writings very readable. Rodney is also a good writer in the literary sense; he knows how to conjure images well, for instance.

He points at contacts with Rastafari adherents in Jamaica in this book, respecting them as representative of suffering and rebellious Jamaican Black people, oppressed historically by White Power, and now by Black leaders and politicians also essentially serving this global White Power structure. He points at censored “Black Power” books in Jamaica. Several works were forbidden in Jamaica, not just Malcolm X’s Autobiography.. the same applied to works by Stokeley Carmichael or Eldridge Cleaver. This ban was oddly ordered by the government of a Black prime-minister, Hugh Shearer. Walter Rodney himself, incidentally, was also forbidden entry into Jamaica after he returned to Jamaica (he worked at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica), after a trip to Canada, also for spreading such unwelcome Black Power ideas. He refers to his ban to return in this work as well.


An insightful and recommendable book, therefore, ‘The groundings with my brothers’. Besides this, parts of the book surprised me pleasantly. Strictly speaking parts of the book can be deemed “departures”, although they remain relevant to the overall theme of Black consciousness and pride of African descent. In one chapter, chapter 4: ‘African history and culture’, Rodney seeks to contradict European claims of Africa as uncivilized as opposed to Europe, as part of a pro-White propaganda, and therefore elaborates on historical evidence of developed civilizations on the African continent, before slavery and Europeans. He relates the history and characteristics of ancient civilizations in Africa: Ethiopian Christianity, Kush, Egypt, but also other ones. This I found interesting, and in a sense original. Not totally original, but quite, and appropriate, I think. Walter Rodney was focussed on both Africa and the Americas, and - before him - Marcus Garvey already connected mentally the parts of the world strongly, Africa being of course the motherland/the roots of Black people in the Americas.

This sometimes took the form, though, of abstract – albeit positive – symbols of the African roots, with not always very detailed studies of different African regions, countries, cultures, and internal differences developed over time, landscapes or other aspects. Even among some Black nationalists such knowledge stayed behind of knowledge of other regions of the world, though this is not always their fault. In a British colony as Jamaican much was taught about Britain and Europe, and less about Africa. Many Black people also often tend to know more about the geography of the place where they actually live (e.g. Jamaica, USA), which to a degree is understandable.

I myself have by now studied and read many scholarly works on Caribbean history, specifically also on people of African descent in the Caribbean, social development etcetera. I have read a lot about slavery and other historical aspects in the Caribbean, also to a lesser degree quite a lot about the same topics in Brazil, Latin America, or the US. I found and find this an interesting theme, and I learned a lot.

There was, however, one “elephant in the room”, as the expression goes, that went not totally unnoticed, but still was ignored too often, I think. I am referring to the African origins. The situation in Africa as it developed before enslaved Africans ended up in the West: not just generally or abstract, but more detailed. Walter Rodney’s more detailed attention to the long history of Africa, and differences within – and similarities throughout - Africa, was therefore refreshing. I found it educational and insightful. Not all was new to me, but some things certainly were, or explained better than what I read/heard before. For instance the difference between the savannah or semi-arid “Western Sudan” regions between Senegambia, through Mali, Guinea, and northern parts of Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria on the one hand, and on the other: the area with tropical rainforests more to the South of this, notably on the coasts of Ghana, Benin (Dahomey), Nigeria, Cameroun, as well as the large Congo region. In these latter dense forest areas, distinct, more isolated and small-scale societies developed, quite logically, than in the more accessible parts. The latter, more Northern-lying parts had more cosmopolitan societies, with more travelling (by horse) and contact possibilities over longer distances, including with Northern Africa. Islam penetrated this part also much more than the more South-lying “forest” parts, like Congo or southern Nigeria for instance. This fact, while logical in a sense, still intrigued me. Mainly because I know – and learned - that enslaved Africans to the West came from both these areas – or border areas between them.

To put it shortly, after having read about and studied what science has up to now found out about the numbers of slaves forcibly brought to the West, their region of origin or at least embarkation in Africa, relative differences etcetera, I think it is time for me now to know more about those regions within Africa beyond this. More specifically, in its relations with surviving African culture in the Americas, a theme which continues to hold my interest as well.

Walter Rodney discusses this African history primarily to point out that Africans should not be ashamed of their roots, as they were not less-civilized than the boastful European colonizers claiming this. ‘The groundings with my brothers’ is not a very extensive work, and is partly a manifesto, so it should be placed in that context.


I have read other works, though, that have more detailed, and very insightful elaborations on the different parts of Africa where enslaved Africans came from: slaves came from different parts of Africa, depending on time period, colonizer (British, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Dutch etcetera), and even specific colonies or region within these. Portugal had “access” to Angola for instance, colonizing it prior to the development of Brazil. That many of the slaves going to Brazil came from the Angola region, thus comes as no surprise, but also in Brazil African slaves came from a variety of regions. The English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese and others got their slaves from different parts of Africa. Sometimes slaves from specific African regions concentrated in specific areas in the Americas, or time periods.

Rodney for instance mentions famous, influential – if relatively unknown – African kingdoms in both the Western Sudan and coastal regions (Mali, Benin, Kongo, Buganda, as already mentioned Axum/Ethiopia, Egypt a.o.), yet he also states (I cite from the book):

However the majority of Africans lived in small societies and these must also be seriously studied. Sometimes, it is felt that only in large political states one can find civilisation and culture, but this is wrong, and in the great political states of Europe and America today many human values have been destroyed; while even the smallest African village was a place for the development and the protection of the individual. Certain things were outstanding in the African way of life, whether in a small or large society. These distinctive things in the African way of life amount to African culture. Among the principles of African culture the following are to be noted : hospitality, respect (especially to elders), importance of the woman (especially in cases of inheritance), humane treatment of law-breakers, spiritual reflection, common use of the land, constant employment of music (especially drums) and bright colours”. (Rodney, ‘’The grounding with my brothers’, p. 36/37).

Quite a lengthy citation, but I find it crucial and interesting for this essay. I really recommend to read the entire work by Rodney. Written in 1969, these statements were quite ahead of their time, at a time when many Black people in the West knew little about Africa.


I also quote it to point to one African cultural aspect, studied in another, more recent book I would like to discuss: music. Specifically Cuban music and its African origins. I mean the book ‘Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the Mambo’ (2004), written by Ned Sublette (himself a musician).

I have mentioned this book already on my blog here and there, but here I focus on the attention Sublette gives to ancient African culture before it came with slaves to the West. He places the emphasis on enslaved Africans ending up in Cuba, but compares with other places in the Americas. Moreover, he describes African cultures, including the differences per region within Africa (Western Sudan versus “forest” Africa) Walter Rodney also alluded to. Sublette focuses here on music, which is one of my passions too, and I found it an insightful and good read.

Notably, Sublette (who is from the US) compares (historical) Afro-Cuban music with African-American (Black US) music, noting differences. He explains this partly because of different colonial policies. Drum use was more strictly forbidden for African slaves in Protestant (US, British) slave regimes – seeing it as a way to communicate rebellious messages (justly), while authorities in Cuba were a bit more lenient about continued drum use (in specified organizations and under conditions): drum music could therefore continue and live on in Cuba more, leaving traditional percussive African music relatively more intact among the different African ethnic groups in Cuba (Yoruba, Congo, Calabar a.o.).

This ban on drums is only a part of the explanation of musical differences, Sublette stresses. He also indicates that the region of origins of enslaved Africans ending up in different parts of the Americas played a cultural role. He argues that to what is now the US relatively more slaves came from Western Sudan Africa, what he also calls “griot Africa”, more Islam-influenced, stretching from around Senegambia, through present-day Southern Mali to Northern Nigeria, whereas slaves in Cuba came relatively more from “forest” Africa, the area from around Yorubaland (now Southwest Nigeria and Benin) to Cameroun and further to Bantu-speaking areas, such as the Congo area, down to Angola and Mozambique. According to slave trade figures, he has a point, but simplifies or generalizes it a bit: there were parts of the southern US where quite some slaves came from the “forest” Congo or Igbo (SE Nigeria) areas, but on a general level he seems partly right.

There is an interesting irony here. The Spaniards were shortly before engaging in colonialism - spurred by Columbus’ “discovery” - for a period Islam-influenced and even Islamized (not all, but many local Spaniards converted to Islam in that period). Spanish culture remained Islam-influenced after this (the Christian reconquest), even if outwardly fanatically Catholic. Spanish authorities at one point, however, for religious reasons sought to avoid importing too many slaves “raised with Moors” as it was formulated – i.e. too Islam-influenced (like those from the Mali and Senegambia areas)- , preferring those from “forest” areas further South (present-day South Nigeria, Benin, Congo, Angola). This policy was not always maintained – and of course religious zeal was a cover-up for economic, colonial goals for these Spaniards, as it was for other European colonizers. Nevertheless, it caused that the more percussive “forest African” cultures of the Yoruba, Congo and others – with a bigger emphasis on drums musically/culturally – entered Cuba more, whereas Africans in the US came more from Islam-influenced cultures, with less drums, or polyrhythms, and more string instruments. Like the griots used.

Also this is partly true, but again a bit too simplistic, I opine: looking at musical structures the different parts of Africa still share musical values (revolving around rhythm itself, for instance) – as well as other connected spiritual values – that are found less outside of Africa. In other words: musical principles are shared between the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, in a region as wide as from Southern Mali to Angola and Southern Africa - part of a broader, shared African aesthetic – that neither the Islam nor European colonialism or Christianity could fully replace. Nor slavery, for that matter. Walter Rodney also referred in general terms to these shared African values throughout the continent.

There were different influences within Africa though. Broadly speaking, though, it seems to explain well why some differences exist between more percussive Afro-Cuban music (genres like Son and Rumba) - giving the world well-known, now globalized African-based drum instruments like the Conga and Bongos – and US Black music, such as the Blues, more based on string instruments (and with the Black US folk use of the Banjo and the fiddle). String instruments in Cuba tend to be more often associated with Spain or Moorish culture. Beyond instruments, also the structure differs: Cuban music is based on the “clave” (old Spanish for “key”) as a way to connect several simultaneous rhythms. US music – like in the Western Sudan area – is less polyrhythmic, depending more on “swing”. “Swing” is of course, simply said, playing around the beat and bars, which in a way is also a polyrhythmic tendency. Such “swing” is originally absent in Cuban genres as rumba or blues, now only found in US-influenced mixed styles. Perhaps Afro-Cubans had enough in their music itself to be polyrhythmic (basic rhythm, several “answering” rhythms etcetera) and needed not to “play around” the beats/rhythmically with each instrument. That is also a way you can look at it.

Another aspect Sublette’s distinction seemingly fails to take into account is that drum music in the form of common Djembe’s (goblet-shaped, goat-skinned drums) combined with two-sided large bass drums called “Dunduns”, as well as other less known drums, can be found in this Western Sudan region as well. These tend to be played with more polyrhythmic patterns, and exist besides the “string” and other instruments associated more with the Griot caste (the Djembe tends not to be), in the same region. The Djembe’s origins are associated with the Mali Empire region, stretching from Senegambia to Guinea and South Mali. In an earlier blog post on the Ashiko, I noted that there seems to be no evidence (that I found, at least) of Djembe-like drums (with that shape) transported to the Americas, while other traditional African drums have variants in the Americas (even if under different names). I still wonder why, though it can depend on several historical factors surrounding enslavement, or the Djembe’s own history.

Interesting to read, Sublette’s book, though I find Sublette exaggerates his point at times a bit, and is regarding some aspects deficient. His writings in this 2004 book are however overall definitely interesting, especially also regarding the musical and cultural (and spiritual) differences between main African ethnic groups in Cuba: the Yoruba, the Fon/Dahomey (the Fon also had a large influence of Haitian Vodou, by the way), the Congo, the Calabar and others, which he sketches insightfully. These cultures helped to shape Afro-Cuban music genres, along with Spanish (and a few French) influences. Interesting facts I thus learned (assuming Sublette had good sources), and did not know yet: “Congo” slaves in Cuba more often came from more Northern-lying parts of the Congo region (e.g. what is now D.R. Congo), when compared to those in Brazil (more from what is now Angola). To be sure, Angolan slaves also went to Cuba, historical evidence shows, only apparently relatively less. Also the fact that Yoruba slaves in Cuba, tended to come (mostly) from other parts in Yorubaland than those ending up in Brazil was new for me.


A third work I can mention is also one that I referred to already in other blog posts: ‘The aesthetic of the cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music’ (2011), by Robert Farris Thompson, actually a collection of several of Farris Thompson’s writings on African culture and its continuity in Afro-American cultures. He focuses more on the shared characteristics throughout Africa and a shared African aesthetic, part of which he describes as “mystic coolness” as a crucial concept: combining contradictions through transcendence, simply put.

In light of this specific post, it is relevant to note that while Sublette emphasizes the differences between, say, Blues from the US, and Cuban genres like the Rumba and Son, Farris Thompson emphasizes their deeper, cultural similarity. At the same time, however, Farris Thompson pays more attention to what Sublette termed “forest Africa”, especially from the Congo region, also as being foundational for Afro-American cultures, more – he argues – than cultures from e.g. the Western Sudan (Mende-speaking for instance). So he makes a distinction in a way too. Overall, he points at shared characteristics throughout African music, which I think makes sense. Even the most Islamicized ethnic groups or regions in the Western Sudan region (Senegal, and the Hausa for instance) never fully abandoned underlying African cultural principles, tending to develop an own “Africanized” variant of Islam, such as the Marabout (e.g. Baye Fall) movements in the Senegambia and other regions. On the other hand, to be topical, the recent extremist Boko Haram terror in the Hausa area of Northern Nigeria, however points in another, more “Arabophile” or politicized variant of Islamic fundamentalism, away from African values.

Justly, Farris Thompson describes the entire sub-Saharan African musical culture as “percussive”. Also the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition includes drums and rhythm, for example. Non-drum or –percussion instruments, like string or other instruments, tend to be played rhythmically as well in sub-Saharan Africa, differentiating it from European musical cultures (more based on harmony and chords), or Asian musical cultures, according to some more centered on “melody”. A perhaps useful, yet partly simplistic distinction: music from all cultures know the three basic elements of harmony, melody, and is a just matter of relative emphasis.

Walter Rodney pointed out in general terms, in the earlier citation, that “the constant employment of music (especially drums)” is important in both larger and smaller African societies. Interestingly, Farris Thompson, from arguably another entry point (he is a White scholar, with no explicit social or activist agenda), elaborates on what this importance of music in Africa in detail consists of, what values are behind it. Sublette, more a musician than a scholar, is more detailed in a geographical sense, in the said book, focussing on Cuban musical history, with some wider comparisons.

These three people thus all write (or: wrote) on Africa and its culture, from different perspectives. All three are not necessarily always right in every single fact or analysis, though seem overall correct and seem to have studied what they make public, and checked the veracity. Such mistakes in Walter Rodney’s manifesto can be forgiven more easily, in my opinion, than works presented as scholarly by White, privileged scholars assuming authority. This is the irony: that someone shows he is really intelligent when he admits ignorance on certain matters, and acknowledges a need to learn more.


Finally, I return to Jamaica, also central in Walter Rodney’s ‘The groundings with my brothers’. Rodney describes the Jamaican situation in and prior to 1969 mainly sociopolitically – of course. The same applies to the Rastafari movement he mentions: this movement stems certainly from Black Power ideas, and from Marcus Garvey’s ideas on Black pride and resistance, social aspects Walter Rodney relates to. Rastafari, however, also has spiritual and cultural aspects that cannot be caught by political ideologies or “isms”, commonly eschewed by most Rastas.

This, and the studies I mentioned before this in this post, begs the following question: is Afro-Jamaican culture more influenced by “griot/Western Sudan” Africa, or more by “forest” Africa? Several historical aspects must be analyzed when answering this question. Jamaica was a British colony, and drums tended to be banned more strictly by the British, when compared to e.g. the Spanish in Cuba. Overall, historical evidence generally confirms this, although also among Jamaican planters there were some differences or exceptional cases of leniency where drums were (under conditions) allowed to be played by slaves in certain periods.

Another aspect is the African origin of the slaves in Jamaica. An interesting theme in and by itself. Historical records show that about 40% (estimates differ a bit per historian) probably came from the Gold Coast area (now Ghana) speaking mostly Akan or related languages. About 25% probably from the Igbo area around what is now Southeastern Nigeria. Many slaves in Jamaica spoke Igbo. Also about 25% came from the Congo region, speaking Bantu languages like Kikongo, Benguela and other. The remaining (about) 15% came from other areas, such as the Senegambia, or Dahomey region. Yoruba were present in Jamaica too, but relatively less than what is known for Cuba.

In conclusion, most enslaved Africans in Jamaica came from what Sublette called “forest Africa”, though parts of Ghana are a border area with the Western Sudan. Most of Ghana was however never Islamicized, even if the Akan and Ashanti at times adopted some aspects from Islamic cultures to the North (yet not the religious complex). Present-day Ghana is nominally mostly Christian, with a minority of about 17% Muslims, mostly living in the North of Ghana (North of Akan-/Twi-speakers).

Polyrhythmic traditions, one can thus conclude from this, these Africans from forest areas mostly brought to Jamaica. Yet the British colonial authorities and most planters in Jamaica forbade using drums. Polyrhythmic drumming could however live on secretly in cases, and among the Maroon settlements of free, escaped slaves in remote areas, as well as among other groups, such as indentured Africans after formal slavery.

This influenced spiritual/religious music in Jamaica, like Kumina, Burru, Pocamania, also outside the Maroon areas. It partly also shaped popular music, even those genres that developed under Black US influences in urban areas: the genres Ska (appearing around 1960), and Rocksteady, and Reggae. The latter two in turn partly derived from Ska in the later 1960s. Common knowledge holds that Ska was a Jamaicanized version of R&B (especially the New Orleans variant) Jamaicans heard on radios and in sound systems. This “Jamaicanization” includes own folk, percussive traditions, naturally, making it thus more polyrhythmic. The Africa-centered Rastafari movement later would influence Jamaican popular music toward a more African musical aesthetic, including in percussive patterns. Kete and other drums used in Rastafari drumming and chanting gatherings - called Nyabinghi - influenced Reggae music in its drumming and rhythm. Rastafari (a social and spiritual movement) and Reggae (a “secular” Afro-Jamaican popular music genre) remain separate things, but keep influencing each other.

Finally, in its formative stages around 1960, Ska was shaped by several musicians before this playing jazz, Mento or other Jamaican folk styles, as well as Cuban-influenced music. Some of these early Ska musicians (of the Skatalites band) were even born in Cuba, such as Laurel Aitken, Roland Alphonso and Rico Rodriguez, mostly born from Jamaican parents (or at least one of them) migrating to Cuba for work in a period. These Afro-Cuban influences added in some way also to a developing polyrhythmic feel in Jamaican popular music since the 1960s, or to the more rural Mento genre, found more in rural Jamaica before this.

If there is any sense to Ned Sublette’s distinction (a bit too sharp in my opinion, I already said) in his book, it can be concluded that Jamaica is, musically, somewhere “in-between” the griot/Western Sudan” tradition, like the Blues culture of the Black US, and the “forest African”, more polyrhythmic and percussive tradition, also found in Afro-Cuban genres. Perhaps the same "in-betweenness" applies to other parts of the Caribbean region as well.

Most significant, however, beyond all these relative differences, is that this shows that a broader African culture and identity has survived in the Americas, in spite of deracination, attempts of cultural annihilation, dehumanization, oppression, and extreme hardships. Of course this is also rebellion and resistance.

woensdag 2 december 2015

Black emancipatory movements : documentaries

Recently (27 November 2015) I saw the documentary ‘The Black Panthers: vanguard of the revolution’, as part of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) of 2015.

The documentary in itself was good. I found it informative in a broad way. Good documentaries, I find, ultimately answer questions while at the same time raising them. Perhaps it is better to say “arouse interest”, because there is not much use in raising questions if you do not answer them.


The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 in Oakland, California, and represented one of the several groups and movements in the US, part of Black Power: resisting against White structural racism, oppression and racial inequality. These movements came especially to the fore in the 1960s, although Marcus Garvey’s movement and large organization, the U.N.I.A. (Universal Negro Improvement Association), set up in the US since 1917, pioneered Black Power much earlier already.

The specific aims of the Black Panther Party were quite practical. There were connections of the founding members with other Black movements, and founding members were inspired by Malcolm X. Yet, at first the Black Panther Party used the “right to bear arms” in US law to defend themselves, and specifically to patrol against police brutality against Blacks in Oakland. In time, of course, this goal broadened to addressing all social injustices and oppression with armed response, underpinned by a socialist, Marxist philosophy of anti-capitalism. Overthrowing the US capitalist government became one of its stated goals. The Black Panther Party functioned and existed from 1966 to 1982. During this time there came more and more internal conflicts, and not least the harsh repression by the FBI and US government (and police forces). Edgar B. Hoover of the FBI had a cynical role in this, as he had toward other Black Power movements (including earlier in Garvey’s).

The documentary portrayed this turbulent history well, including interesting images and historical film fragments, and interviews with members in this period. I personally got more insight in the Black Panthers’ history; I knew much less about the Black Panthers than about Marcus Garvey and his movement – which I studied much more -, but also less than about the civil rights movement, or the Nation of Islam. A welcome addition to my knowledge, you can say. As racially motivated police brutality in the US persists today and has become more of an issue recently – i.e. reached more media – the said origins of the Black Panther party is relevant again.

The documentary stayed superficial in certain regards, perhaps inevitably, but still a pity. The very core was explained very good though, and especially the repression by the US government and FBI was worked out well. Other parts less. What inspired the founders (e.g. other Black leaders and ideas) got scant attention, as did the aftermath (what and who the Black Panthers eventually themselves inspired).

The Black Panthers were not religiously inspired, looking mainly at social conditions. They were also more activist than “cultural”, you might say. They were, however, ideologically inspired by Marxism in their goal of revolution. Black upliftment was, beyond this, their main goal, though it intertwined with Marxist, anti-capitalist goals. Of course “race” and “class” intersect, and it can be reasonably argued that the Western capitalist system is by definition oppressive and exploitative of Black people. Still, as Marcus Garvey already noted, the mixing of race and class interests can obfuscate deeper race-based inequalities.


I note that a main difference between the Black Panthers and other Black movements, is the Black Panthers’ lack of focus on either the cultural and spiritual aspects of Black people. The Nation of Islam is of course more religious, though the choice of the Islam as source of Black/African identity can be deemed inappropriate from a historical point of view. Long an Arab-led religion, Islam for a long time discriminated against Black Africans, and enslaved them over time in great numbers. It came from outside of Africa, did not develop organically within it. To this day, lighter, Arab looks (as the ones who brought the Islam) are more favoured in countries like Egypt and Sudan, whereas African traits are often culturally despised.

On the other hand, Martin Luther King’s Protestant branch of Christianity was likewise non-African in essence (though Christianity in itself was longer present in Ethiopia than in Europe).

The Nation of Islam (NOI) took in fact a distance from Africa, the ancestral continent of Black people, among other things by abandoning the goal of repatriation to the motherland, unlike the earlier Marcus Garvey movement. Like the Black Panthers, the NOI chose to focus on US conditions and contexts, whereas Garvey kept thinking international and geopolitical: with the African continent as crucial for both identity and upliftment.


It is this last aspect that continues in the largely Marcus Garvey-inspired Rastafari movement, which arose in Jamaica (where Garvey was from), since the 1930s. Jamaican poet and intellectual Mutabaruka described the Rastafari movement as a “Black Power movement with a theological nucleus”. That “nucleus” being the worshipping and adhering of Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia, following Garvey’s prophecies of a redeeming African King that would be crowned. Rastafari developed along with this also other, own spiritual ideas, that – like other spiritual ideas – gave people meaning and support in their lives.

Some atheists, nonbelievers – or believers in other faiths - criticize such spiritual/theological ideas as irrational or escapist. This is what I call “opportunist arguments”. Why are such ideas more irrational than supernatural ideas like those of a higher being – God - somewhere in the sky (apart from man kind), the notion of – or rather: “belief in” - a heaven after death, the Bible as true and holy, the Pope as God’s representative on Earth, or the worship of Jesus as son of God (with little “hard evidence” of his actual existence as historic figure)?

Besides this, they miss the point. The interesting thing about Rastafari in relation to other spiritual/religious movements - but also in relation to other Black Power movements - is that it centers on and upholds Africa in hailing and worshipping Haile Selassie, and by upholding Marcus Garvey. Also, by still clinging to the goal of, if often eventual, repatriation to the motherland Africa. The Nation of Islam does not do this as much, focussing on the US context, though it recognizes the African origins of Black Americans. Also other movements, focussed more on local events, combined often with for instance localized (Black US) forms of Christianity.

Yet, the local and practical is real life, you might say. Indeed, in the documentary it became clear that the Black Panthers were not really “culturally nationalist”, nor spiritual, in that sense, but were involved in (effective) social work and aid for Black people, including improved housing, employment, economic improvement, getting out of poverty etcetera, as part of its programme. Certainly recommendable and praiseworthy. Its focus on Marxism, and Black Power, however, made achieving such goals impossible in the White, Capitalist-dominated US. Hence the repression as detailed in the documentary.

It can be argued that Communism is also foreign to Black people. Marcus Garvey called Communism (something along the lines of) “a White man’s solution to problems created by the White man”. He seemed to favour capitalist methods. Later “anti-capitalism” as it came to the fore in Rastafari did not take the form of Communism, but rather of natural living and self-sufficiency on a small scale (Garvey pleaded for self-sufficiency, but on a large scale).


It seems to me sensible that “racial pride”, and self-respect and self-love of Black people, cannot be separated by the continent of origins, Africa. It is the most appropriate source of identity. Certainly, throughout the Americas, African-derived religions like Vodou, Santería, Winti, and Candomblé celebrate the African heritage culturally, but not in a broader political or socially critical way. While members of Vodou-like groups tend to mutually aid one another, it is not a broader, comprehensive social, activist response to social depravation and poverty of Black people in societies and nations. They tend to be solely spiritual, which of course is valuable and supportive for people in and by themselves.

I find it therefore unfortunate that when such comprehensive, more activist Black Power movements did develop, notably in the US, the African cultural heritage was more or less abandoned, especially after Garvey. It is true, that individually many African-Americans focussed culturally on Africa, retraced their origins, adopted traditional African clothing, food ways, or other African cultural customs (wearing the dashiki, African drums), especially also in music. This is however mostly fragmented and not concerted. The geographical focus remains on the US or the Americas.

Marcus Garvey said that “a tree without good roots cannot bear good fruit”, as well as “if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future”. He promoted self-love and love for the Black people’s race and African origins. Rastafari’s distinction among other Black Power movements pays homage to that philosophy, by focussing on Africa. Crucially: not just as something of the past, but also of the present and future.

Rastafari hereby remains a source to draw on, harassed by “Babylon system” (as Rastas call Western oppressive forces), but loose enough to avoid being “squashed” by it. That’s in a sense the power of spirituality that purely materialist (capitalist, Marxist) or activist movements ultimately lack.


Back to the Black Panthers: Wikipedia and other sources had much more detailed information on Black Panther founders Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and later prominent member Eldridge Cleaver, when compared to the documentary. Both Newton and Cleaver found in certain periods exile in Castro’s Communist Cuba. Also Malcolm X showed in words respect for Fidel Castro.

My own study of and experience in Cuba (where I also have been several times between 2001 and 2006) taught me that there were policies in Cuba under Fidel Castro that advanced large parts of the Afro-Cubans. This limited racial inequalities in some ways, and improved – albeit with differing degrees of success - food security for poor Cubans (to which most Afro-Cubans belonged), as well as housing. That is in itself positive. At the same time, like all Cubans, Afro-Cubans were kept very “dependent” in the Communist police state, with a dictatorship, censorship, and moreover, a subtle racial inequality favouring white Cubans, that still persisted, and persists to this day. The Castro brothers look phenotypically White (and are mainly of Spanish – Galician/Canarian descent), and many others in high Party circles are still disproportionately White as well. So racism and discrimination against Afro-Cubans persists in present-day Communist Cuba, also in specific (“egalitarian”?) Communist activities as such.


A writer who gave much attention to this continuing racism in Communist Cuba since the 1959 Revolution in Cuba, and in the course of Castro’s reign, is the Cuban-born Carlos Moore. He is Black and his parents were migrants from the British Caribbean (Jamaica a.o.), but he was born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1942.

As happened more often, he first sympathized with what the Revolution promised to improve for poor and Black people, yet during his participation he noted that racism and discrimination against Afro-Cubans persisted. He even argued that this was supported by Castro’s “integrationist” policies. After incarceration, he fled to France in the 1960s, and later settled in Brazil. In his book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’, from 1988, Moore elaborates his critique of Fidel Castro’s use of the “race” issue in his foreign policy. Mostly, he regards this pro-Black stance of Castro more as co-optation and opportunistic powerplay, rather than as a totally sincere commitment. This is a serious accusation, of course, going against the grain of the idolizing of Fidel Castro by many of the “fashionable Left”, even some Black people. Moore spoke with Malcolm X, and even the latter said that he sadly did realize that even in Communist Cuba White Cubans did not let Black Cubans get to the top. Yet, Malcolm X despite this still thought strategically about how to use Castro’s stated policies and aid, such as in Africa, truly in the favour of Africans and Blacks. Use Castro before he uses us as Blacks, so to speak..

On the exile of Black Panther leaders Elridge Cleaver and Huey Newton in Cuba, Moore gives some attention in the mentioned book, though not much. He points out that Cleaver also objected to the racism in Cuba when he lived there (he settled there in late 1968), and like Newton he over time fell out of favour with the Castro regime (official reason: ties with the CIA though Black Panther members), and went to another country after that (Cleaver went to Algeria). Politics is a vicious game.

Apparently the “white man’s solution” Communism can be as oppressive and exclusionary toward Blacks as Capitalist systems.


Another documentary I saw during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) of 2015 related to one specific African country, Burkina Faso. It was called “The siren of Faso Fani‘ (2014), and was set in the city of Koudougou in western Burkina Faso, where a locally maintained textile company was a period successful, resulting in wealth in Koudougou (the third city in size of the country), and economic improvement. All that was based on local products and skills. One must realize the political context, then. Thomas Sankara, the progressive, Marxist-inspired president from 1983 to 1987, set in motion policies independent from former colonizer France, the IMF, and the World Bank (the Western Capitalist world, so to speak), by nationalizing industries. Koudougou, with the large Faso Fani factory, became the textile capital of Burkina Faso.

How this industry waned in Koudougou was the subject of the documentary. After the coup against Sankara, and his murder in 1987 - he had local middle-class and foreign interests as enemies - the country in time came in a recession. In this context the IMF and World Bank supplied their well-known (notorious) “aid/loans under conditions”, to release Burkina Faso from a debt. Even a European country, like Greece, knows this burden now, like many developing countries did and do. The textile factory in Faso Fani came also under foreign control and was “modernized”: most workers in it suddenly lost their job. Many among these were in an advanced age, and became poor and in insecure conditions. Several went back to rural towns. What came across well in the documentary, I thought, was the sensed importance of “job security” for the workers. United workers of Faso Fani even offered to work under lower wages just to keep their job. The bosses however already had decided, and did not need the workers, as they could produce more cheaply with modern machines. They did not care about the future of these workers.

The example of self-sufficiency by Faso Fani (before it all changed) admittedly bore a Marxist mark, yet the textile factory then seemed to function and provided income and security in Koudougou. Sankara imitated some practices from Cuba, but I do not know whether the rigid Communist “low maximum wages” (as in Cuba) was also adopted, or that workers could earn more money. Sankara can either way be praised for several beneficial developments in Burkina Faso he set in motion, even if not long in power, regarding women’s emancipation and equality, for instance. Yet, as said, the IMF, dominated by Western Capitalist countries “took over”, and changed the course, benefitting their own interests.

This historically grown worldwide inequality is likewise a result from the colonial history, and European (later also US) colonial dominance. This hampers the self-sufficiency of developing countries, and hinders a true independence that also Marcus Garvey promoted for Africa.

Other documentaries at the IDFA had as topic (as documentaries in other years) “other” types of African dependence on Europe and the West, namely through foreign aid and international cooperation (poverty alleviation). While seemingly less “interested” or egocentric than the IMF and such, it is argued that such foreign aid also keeps Africa dependent.

All this shows the significance of an international Black Power perspective (like Garvey’s and Rastafari’s) in fighting race-based inequalities, preferable over a too limited, local one, as the Black Panther Party had (especially in its early stage). The local should on the other hand not be ignored entirely, of course.


Another documentary that I very recently saw also deals with race and, well, Black people. It was not as part of some festival, and one did not need to buy a ticket. It was a short documentary made public on the website of CNN ( since Monday, the 30th of November of 2015. It is called ‘Blackface’, and is made by African American filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. The documentary is about a Dutch holiday tradition known as Sinterklaas, a “carnivalesque”, bishop-type figure giving presents to children each 5th of December. This festivity includes a dressed-up “Blackface” figure called Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), being “helpers” (servants) of this Sinterklaas.

This Blackface portrayal of Black people is stereotypical and racist. The connotations with slavery are evident. As Blackface (minstrel) theatre stereotyping Black people, have been discredited in other countries like the US and Britain (though such racist “minstrel” shows were still on TV only some decades ago in Britain), the maker Williams was shocked to still find such blatant racism in a country he thought to be relatively progressive. Williams investigates this further in this documentary, speaking with people against it and defending it.

See it here:

As I live in the Netherlands, this was hardly new to me. The critique against this racist caricature has been formulated before by Black Dutch activists like Quincy Gario and others, in recent years also through the larger Dutch mass media. What is new is the international perspective by Williams (who lives in the Netherlands with a Dutch man, by the way), in English, and on the CNN website. Maybe this international exposure brings about change.

In the context of this essay of mine, it can be seen as an objection against a local practice of racism, like the Black Panthers objected against police brutality and profiling in at first Oakland, California. It deals however more with “image” and culture, in this case a specific holiday tradition. In comparison to worldwide racial inequality, actual brutality and violence, and racist power structures, it may seem a bit trivial.

Yet.. what is trivial? When one looks at what this tradition represents and symbolizes, it is in fact quite serious. Essentially, such stereotypes degrade and “dehumanize” Black people, portraying them as half-witted slaves. This is a remnant of the likewise “dehumanizing” colonial past, including slavery. Also the Netherlands was of course as a colonial power once involved in slavery of Africans. The Netherlands further has quite some “Black” inhabitants, that understandably feel offended by this tradition of Blackface, and even in a sense excluded from the Dutch nation, which apparently is only defined as White. The “Black Pete” figures at least seem to confirm this, not aided by the fact that this tradition is hardly adapted, even after Black protests. The fact that Black people, including children, were and are teased (better: “bullied”) by some Dutch people calling them “Black Pete”, shows that the tradition is not that innocent. It furthermore, as said, alludes to stereotypes of Black people from the slavery era.

This same history of slavery kept Black people back up to this day, and which - along with wider colonialism - perpetuates in the racial inequality we find in the present-day world: Africa for instance still being economically largely dependent on the West, as the example of Burkina Faso showed. Perpetuating such stereotypes is therefore lamentable, especially as part of a party for children. At the very least, it is insensitive. In this sense, this local issue surely relates to international racial inequality and racism.


All these movements I discussed in the above text – either social, activist, cultural, or spiritual - are responses. Much human behaviour is of course, but in these cases they consist of responses of Black people to (historical and present) “dehumanization” and discrimination. The goals being emancipation, justice, and redemption. Goals consist further of regaining humanity, equality, and self-love, in order to achieve mental well-being, essentially, through (regaining) confidence in self. In this, identity, spirituality, ideals, and psychology somehow come together, as part of a very human quest for both meaning and harmony. Also, the need to belong to a larger group of like-minded people is all too human.

Some of these movements over time received increasingly (sincere) sympathy or even support from non-Black people. Perhaps inevitable in today’s world of globalized culture and media. The Black Panthers, in its time, also got some liberal White professed sympathizers who considered their cause to be just, for instance.

This understandably met and meets with mistrust among some Black people in these movements. Especially, because it is not always clear whether it is just that, sincere sympathy and support (beyond race), or whether it is rather “co-optation” by more powerful groups in society, otherwise in a position to “switch” back at any time to their more privileged, comfortable lives. If the latter is not the case, and e.g. White people sincerely feel empathy and also find meaning in their lives by joining or supporting such movements.. if they, as part of this, truly try to connect with and understand these Black people and Black (and African!) history, I think it only can be seen as positive.

zondag 1 november 2015

Reggae in "andere" talen, waaronder Nederlands

Reggae is uiteraard “gone international” sinds lange tijd. Dit geschiedde met name sinds de internationale populariteit van Bob Marley & the Wailers sinds de jaren 70 van de 20ste eeuw. Deze populariteit was wereldwijd, en bereikte ook plekken waar de taalbarrière – of taalkloof - een rol kan spelen. Die speelde ook een rol, maar niet overal waar je dat zou denken. Ik heb begrepen dat het optreden van Bob Marley met het grootste publiek ooit, Bob’s concert was in het grote stadion San Siro in Milaan, Italië was: 27 Juni, 1980. Meer dan 100.000 mensen (!) waren aanwezig. Milaan is in een modern, welvarend deel van Italië, maar toen met per gemiddelde inwoner veel minder kennis van het Engels dan bijvoorbeeld Nederland of Duitsland.


Ook in Frankrijk raakte reggae snel populair, ondanks een taalbarrière. Er ontstond ook relatief snel Franstalige reggae om die taalkloof te dichten. Alpha Blondy is uiteraard een bekend voorbeeld, hoewel deze zijn songteksten heeft in afwisselend het Frans, Engels, Afrikaanse talen van zijn achtergrond in Ivoorkust (met name Dioula, een Mande taal), of andere talen zoals Herbreeuws/Ivriet in zijn bekende song ‘Jeruzalem’. Alpha Blondy trok overigens ooit naar de VS om beter Engels te leren, maar dat terzijde. Tiken Jah Fakoly (ook oorspronkelijk uit Ivoorkust, tegenwoordig woonachtig in Zuid-Mali) is wat exclusiever Franstalige reggae, en ook populair in Franstalige gebieden. Dat men de songteksten verstaat, vergroot toch de relatieve populariteit. Het is wellicht niet bij iedereen bekend dat de meeste “francofone” mensen in de wereld tegenwoordig in Afrika wonen.

In Spaanstalige gebieden leek Bob Marley in eerste instantie wat minder massaal populair te zijn, hoewel verschillend per land. De taalkloof speelde hier beslist een rol, alsmede economische en culturele omstandigheden. Ook politieke omstandigheden vaak: in dictaturen met censuur kwam buitenlandse, Engelstalige cultuur – vooral als deze wat alternatief en rebels was, en met marijuana geassocieerd werd – wat moeilijker bij het volk terecht. Dit dus naast de taalkloof. In Spaanstalige gebieden, en ook Portugeestalige gebieden als Brazilië (hier zelfs wat eerder), werd reggae uiteindelijk ook populair. Er ontstond toen ook aardig wat Spaanstalige reggae.

Ik kan nog wel even zo doorgaan, maar anno 2015 bestaat er reggae (zowel Roots Reggae als Dancehall) in vele verschillende talen. Inmiddels ook langzaam toenemend in grote/bekende talen als het Chinees, Japans, Arabisch, Hebreeuws, Hindi, Russisch, Indonesisch, of ook talen als het Fins (een artiest als Jukka Poika – hij heeft een fijne zangstem, maar ik versta uiteraard niets van zijn Fins), Zweeds, Pools, Servokroatisch, Roemeens e.a. Dat talen hier wellicht ontbreken (een zoektocht naar reggae in het Iraans/Farsi zal bijvoorbeeld vermoedelijk niet veel zin hebben, maar ook dat is niet onmogelijk) heeft met culturele en politieke belemmeringen te maken. Als het er is, kan het ook heel “underground” aanwezig zijn.

Ook in de taal het Amhaars in Ethiopië – het heilige moederland van de Rastafari – bestaat er al een tijd reggae. De niet lang geleden (Augustus, 2013) helaas op 37-jarige leeftijd overleden Eyob Mekonen was een beroemde artiest, met goede, catchy songs in het Amhaars, die door de taalbarrière heen aanspreken. Ik ken meerdere nummers, met name in Afrikaanse reggae, die ik leuk vind, maar niet of nauwelijks versta (hoogstens een enkele zin), meerdere nummers van Alpha Blondy in het Dioula, bijvoorbeeld. Goede songs gaan uiteraard door de taalbarrière heen.

Reggae is verder heel populair in sub-Saharaans Afrika, en er zijn veel Afrikaanse reggae-artiesten, die echter toch vaak in het Engels (of dus Frans) – of het Jamaicaanse Creools (van Engels afgeleid) - zingen, vaak is het Engels een officiële taal uiteraard in voormalige Britse koloniën als Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, of Kenia.


Ik wil me in dit bericht echter vooral richten op het land waar ik woon: Nederland. Dit lijkt mij om een aantal redenen interessant. Dit vooral bij het vergelijken met andere landen.

Om het maar meteen duidelijk te stellen: er bestaat anno 2015 weinig Nederlandstalige reggae. De meeste reggae-artiesten in Nederland hebben hun teksten in het Engels, of (deels) Jamaicaans Patois, en volgen in die zin de Jamaicaanse modellen. Denk aan de wat bekendere artiesten als Maikal X (ex-Postmen), Joggo, of Ziggi Recado. Recentelijk kwam Kenny B. met Nederlandstige reggae, en kreeg ook een hit. Hij sprong dus in het gat in de markt. Doe Maar – volgens reggae-puristen niet eens echte reggae – maakte de originele move door reggae(-achtige) muziek in het Nederlands te zingen, in de jaren 80 van de 20ste eeuw. Dat sprak toen aan. Nederlandstalige reggae kwam echter daarna niet echt tot bloei.

Dat de gemiddelde Nederlander veel beter Engels verstaat dan Franstalige of Spaanstalige mensen – en dus het vertalen voor het begrip veel minder nodig is – is ongetwijfeld een deel van de verklaring. Dat er ook gewoon een grotere markt is voor Franstalige en Spaanstalige muziek, dan voor het Nederlands, is weer een ander deel van de verklaring. Commerciële redenen spelen vast een rol: je weet nooit of je een hit krijgt buiten Nederland. Zo houd je de markt breed, uiteraard. Gentleman zou het ook minder hebben gedaan internationaal als hij in het Duits zong, of Alborosie in het Italiaans.

Daarnaast denk ik dat het ook een soort culturele code van respect is, van enigszins puristische aard: reggae komt uit Jamaica en blijft ook het echtst als het in het Jamaicaans Engels is. Anders wordt het al snel te nep, is een (soms terechte) mening. Aan de andere kant wordt er ook betoogd dat juist in het Jamaicaans Engels zingen, als Nederlandstig iemand die geen Jamaicaan is, nep is, en minder authentiek. Het ligt eraan hoe het gedaan wordt, denk ik zelf. Zoveel mensen leren nieuwe talen, immers.

Daarnaast is er ook de mening dat het Nederlands gewoon te “lelijk” klinkt voor teksten in Reggae.


Toch.. het zijn verschillende genres, maar een vergelijking met hip-hop wijst op duidelijke verschillen in dezen. Ook onder Nederlandse “vroege” rappers werd in de vroege jaren 80 eerst gedacht dat om echte Rap te maken, je in het Engels moest rappen, liefst met een accent zoals zwarte mensen in de VS (vooral New York) hadden. Dat was een soort norm. Het leidde tot internationaal succes, zoals de nummer 1 positie in 32 landen (ik herhaal 32 landen!) van de ‘Holiday Rap’ (1986) van de Nederlanders Miker G & DJ Sven. Iets wat ik overigens nog steeds niet begrijp, zeker vanuit muzikaal perspectief. De rap-vocalen van het tweetal “vloeiden” naar mijn idee niet echt lekker, en waren af en toe zelfs uit de maat. Het was grappig, maar niet veel meer dan dat. Het werd echter een wereldwijde hit.

Dit succes ten spijt, en ook ondanks kritiek dat het Nederlands niet zou passen/te lelijk zou zijn om in te rappen, ontstond uiteindelijk toch veel Nederlandstalige hip-hop en werd de term “Nederhop” al in de vroege jaren 90 een begrip. Vertalingen naar het Nederlands spraken al snel aan en zorgden voor succes van bands als Osdorp Posse, Spookrijders, Extince, Brainpower, Lange Frans, Raymzter, en weer later Flinke Namen, Opgezwolle, de Jeugd van Tegenwoordig, Fresku, Rico (hoewel sommigen van deze artiesten ook door reggae beïnvloed zijn), Typhoon, Gers Pardoel, Kempi, en vele andere rappers en formaties die enigszins bekender zijn geworden, of zelfs heel bekend, zoals Ali B.. Nederlandstalige hip-hop is in die zin doorgebroken bij een breed publiek in Nederland, en deels België.

Voor reggae geldt dat na Doe Maar niet. Er verschijnt – naast Nederhop met reggae-invloeden, zoals van Rico recentelijk - wel wat Nederlandstalige reggae, bands die zich er een beetje in specialiseren, soms sommige nummers op albums met verder Engelstalige tracks. Reggae-artiesten van Surinaamse afkomst wisselen soms songteksten in het (Jamaicaans) Engels en Sranan Tongo af met een Nederlandse tekst. Het blijven uitstapjes of een soort experimentele, grappige projecten. Denk aan Jah6, dat reggae-covers van André Hazes-songs brengt. Een band als Luie Hond maakt dan Nederlandstalige reggae (-achtige) muziek, maar probeert soms wel heel erg Doe Maar na te doen, zelfs in de zangstijl en songteksten.

Serieuze, maatschappijkritische reggae – of zelfs door Rastafari geïnspireerde reggae – is er zeer weinig in het Nederlands. Toen Kenny B in het Nederlandstalige reggae-gat sprong, was dat met een soort luchtige “Doe Maar” dan wel “zomerhit” vibe, waarbij maatschappijkritiek naar de achtergrond verdween. Vrolijke liefdesliedjes dus.

Ikzelf versta prima Engels en zelfs Jamaicaans Patois tot op grote hoogte, en ik ken meerdere goede Engelstalige nummers van Nederlandse reggae-artiesten als Ziggi Recado, Joggo, van wat minder bekende artiesten als Rass Motivated, Heights Meditation, Barka Moeri, Priti Pangi, of andere artiesten, die ook gewoon Nederlands kunnen praten. Ik zie dat niet als bezwaarlijk op zich, en zie een Nederlandstalige reggae-tekst soms ook als een gimmick (ligt eraan).. weer zo’n grappig uitstapje, leuk als experiment. Ik heb niet per se een heel sterke behoefte aan Nederlandstalige Reggae, wil ik maar zeggen, hoewel het leuk kan zijn.

Het valt me alleen op dat Neder-Reggae – naar analogie van Nederhop – nooit is ontstaan, ondanks de populariteit van Doe Maar in de jaren 80. Dat wijst erop dat hip-hop commerciëler is dan reggae, als genre. Hip-hop bereikt ook in Nederland een veel groter publiek, en Nederlandstalige hip-hip werkt dan ook in commerciële zin goed: artiesten als Lange Frans, Extince en Ali B verdienen goed met hun muziek.


Een vergelijking met Franstalige gebieden en ook met Spaanstalige gebieden is hierbij denk ik ook interessant. Alpha Blondy, Tiken Jah Fakoly e.a. maken serieuze reggae met veelal serieuze, kritische en beschouwende teksten – in het Frans -, deels door Rastafari beïnvloed (hoewel Tiken Jah Fakoly nominaal nog steeds ook Moslim is).

De Spaanstalige en Portugeestalige wereld is hierbij ook wel interessant. Waarschijnlijk vanwege de veel beperktere kennis van het Engels is voor de meeste reggae-artiesten in Spaanstalige landen het Spaans de hoofdtaal van hun teksten: soms met een uitstapje naar het Engels, met tweetalige Engels/Spaanse songs, of Engelse of Jamaicaanse termen/zinnen tussen het Spaans. Gondwana, uit Chili, of los Cafres, uit Argentinië, zijn wat bekendere reggae-bands uit Latijns-America, alsook bijvoorbeeld Cultura Profética uit Puerto Rico.

Overigens, om politieke redenen – en ook wel economische – is reggae in het raciaal en cultureel – vergeleken met Puerto Rico - “zwartere” Cuba wel aanwezig, maar vooral alternatief en “underground” gebleven. “Echte” Jamaicaanse reggae bereikt het nabij gelegen Cuba wel degelijk.. zo hoorde ik, in 2006, opeens in een volkswijk van Santiago de Cuba een nummer van de Jamaicaanse artiest Richie Spice uit een gebouw komen. Daarvoor hoorde ik vooral varianten van lokale Salsa en Son, andere Cubaanse muziek, Latin pop a la Ricky Martin en Enrique Iglesias, en hip-hip of reggaeton-achtige muziek in verschillende delen van de stad. Daarom verbaasde het me dat ik echte Roots Reggae, en specifiek Richie Spice, hoorde in Santiago de Cuba, in 2006 dus. Ik weet zelfs nog welk nummer van Richie Spice op dat moment dat wij langs kwamen speelde: ‘Folly Living’ (aka Blood Again).

In Spanje is er inmiddels ook aardig wat Spaanstalige, serieuze reggae, met maatschappijkritische teksten, met ook een aantal enigszins bekende artiesten die al een tijd bezig zijn, zoals Morodo, Ras Nattoh, Ras Kuko, Little Pepe, Cañamán e.a., vaak autochtone Spanjaarden die zich serieus lijken te identificeren met Rastafari. Uit sommige songteksten blijkt wel degelijk een verdieping in Rastafari, en dat ze niet slechts “fashion dreads” zijn die graag weed roken en reggae (en verwante symbolen) cool vinden. Het sterke ‘Revelación’(2004) - wat “openbaring” betekent in het Spaans - van de Madrileense toaster (soms rapper) Morodo is daar een voorbeeld van. Ik versta Spaans, ook vanwege mijn achtergrond (ik ben half-Spaans van mijn moeders kant), en ik kan de songtekst dus volgen. De tekst gaat erover dat niemand van het oordeel van Jah kan vluchten, de zondaars die stelen, vermoordden, verkrachtten en slaven hielden, kunnen niet tegen de wijsheid van Jah op. Een militante Rasta-tekst dus, een beetje in de lijn van artiesten als Sizzla en Capleton, waarvan de laatste ook qua vocalen Morodo lijkt te hebben beïnvloed. Andere songteksten van Morodo zijn iets minder militant (of gaan over marijuana), maar maatschappijkritiek en Rastafari zijn terugkerend in zijn lyrics.

Andere wat minder bekende reggae-artiesten in Spanje hebben ook serieuze of filosofische songteksten in het Spaans, met - net als Morodo - Rastafari begrippen (al dan niet vertaald) die ook in Jamaicaanse Roots Reggae gangbaar zijn. Vaak ook fijne, positieve filosofische teksten in recente Spaanse reggae, die mogelijk aanspreken in Spanje, dat op dit moment naar verhouding veel meer (jeugd)werkeloosheid en armoede kent dan Nederland. Hoe je het ook wendt of keert: reggae is ontstaan als muziek van Jamaicaanse “sufferers” in arme wijken.

Welnu, in Nederland heb je dat minder, hoewel de opkomende artiest Dutch Natty – met serieuze, spirituele Rasta-teksten in het Nederlands, in een laid-back stijl – nog wel te noemen is, evenals enkele Nederlandse songteksten van nummers van andere artiesten. In Vlaanderen heb je een reggae-artiest als Campina Reggae, die met zijn songteksten vaak wel dieper gaat.

Meestal is Nederlandstalige reggae echter wat oppervlakkiger, poppy Doe Maar-achtig, met veelal vrolijke liefdesliedjes.


Toegegeven, veel Nederhop heeft ook dat soort songteksten, maar inmiddels kent ook Nederlandstalige hip-hop veel kritische, diepere teksten over de maatschappij, zoals racisme, vanuit bepaalde invalshoeken. De interessante raptekst ‘Zo Doe Je Dat’ van Fresku is daarvan een voorbeeld, nummers van Typhoon ook wel, en Rico is tekstueel ook interessant..

Daarnaast heb je de nodige egotripperij, misdaad-verheerlijking en agressieve stoere mannen-taal, zoals je die helaas ook in een deel van de Engelstalige hip-hop hebt. Sommige artiesten hebben ook weer teveel seksistische of seksuele innuendo’s van een matig, flauw niveau in hun lyrics, of praten gewoon onzin. Ik herinner me een matig – zeg maar: slecht – concert van Lange Frans dat ik ooit bijwoonde (Uitmarkt in Amsterdam, meen ik), dat mij om muzikaal/ritmische redenen niet aansprak (ik voelde de flow niet), maar ook wat vervelende en onzinnige pornografische “grappige” teksten had (over “blowjobs”, dacht ik). Onzin dus. Lange Frans is redelijk populair in Nederland.

Er zijn echter ook genoeg andere geluiden en diepere songteksten binnen de Nederhop. Het verschilt per Nederhop-artiest.

Voor Reggae uit Nederland geldt dat dus minder. Des te verwonderlijker omdat er aardig wat “kruisbestuivingen” zijn tussen deze twee zwarte muziekgenres. De “overlap” in fans van beide genres is redelijk groot, hoewel niet vanzelfsprekend. Het zijn toch ook verschillende scènes met deels verschillende code’s (en enkele raakvlakken). Vooral met de opkomst van Gangster Rap boorde hip-hop nieuwe groepen fans aan die je bij reggae wat minder vond.. bij de Dancehall variant van Reggae weliswaar wat meer. Al met al bereikte hip-hop ook wat meer media, en werd eenvoudigweg commerciëler dan reggae. Dus ook meer publiek en fans.

De songteksten van Nederhop hadden ook veel invloed, temeer omdat je daar geen goede kennis van het Engels voor nodig had. Onzinnige en negatieve teksten, die bijvoorbeeld haat of criminaliteit promoten, zijn er zoals gezegd ook in de Nederhop.

Ik ben bang dat vooral jonge, beïnvloedbare pubers zich door Gangster Rap laten beïnvloeden (als ze wat Engels verstaan), of anders door onzinnige Nederlandse teksten. Veel VMBO-dropouts van Marokkaanse afkomst, bijvoorbeeld, zoeken dan een legitimering voor hun cynische keuzes of gedrag in muziek die criminaliteit verheerlijkt, zonder vaak overigens meer kennis van de geschiedenis van zwarten in de VS, de Crips en Bloods etcetera. Het blijft hun keuze en verantwoordelijkheid, maar het doet ze wel naar die muziek luisteren. Overigens ben ik van mening dat veel meer nog dan Gangster Rap gewelddadige Hollywood-films of ook de films van Quentin Tarantino criminaliteit bevorderen. Mensen uit een etnische minderheid associëren zich echter mogelijk sneller met “coole” zwarten in de VS.

Verder, veel reggae-fans houden ook van hip-hop, en ook experimenteren meerdere artiesten met beide. Veel hip hop-liefhebbers zijn zich wel degelijk bewust van een van de wortels van rap in het Jamaicaanse “toasten” sinds de jaren 70. Brainpower maakte daar wat songs over, en ook het album van Rico genaamd Irie heeft heel wat “old-school” reggae-invloeden. In de muziek en verwijzingen in songteksten. Deze rappers bleven echter vooral “rappen” in plaats van “toasten/chatten”. (Er is immers een verschil in hoe in de Jamaicaanse muziek “ritmisch gepraat” wordt over muziek (vroeger Toasting genoemd, nu Deejay-ing of Chatting), en het “rappen” zoals we dat uit de hip-hop uit de VS kennen sinds de jaren 80. Maar dat is een ander, zij het interessant, onderwerp.

Al met al is dat dus een duidelijk verschil: er bestaan weinig Nederlandstalige reggae en veel Nederlandstalige hip-hop. Is dat echt onmisbaar, Nederlandstalige, echtere Reggae? Veel mensen kunnen Engels volgen en daarmee ook de teksten van in Nederland gevestigde artiesten als Ziggi Recado, Joggo, Rapha Pico etcetera. Veel van deze artiesten hebben ook een (familie)band met het Caraïbisch gebied of een deels verwante taal en cultuur aan Jamaica (zoals de Creools Surinaamse), en zingen in het Jamaicaans staat dus dan niet eens zo ver van ze af. Blanke Nederlanders die in het Engels zingen is voorts in andere genres (Rock etc.) even gangbaar en als deze blanken in het Jamaicaans zingen kan dat raar zijn, maar dan volgen ze gewoon een culturele norm.

Mogelijk is er bij veel Nederlandse reggae-fans niet echt behoefte aan specifiek Nederlandstalige reggae.

Aan de andere kant.. ik vind het wel jammer dat mensen, zoals jongeren, die veel beter Nederlands dan Engels verstaan, niet wat meer diepgaande songteksten van reggae-songs horen… over de maatschappij, wat Rastafari voor mensen betekent, racisme, armoede, zwarte geschiedenis, Haile Selassie en Marcus Garvey etcetera.. Hoe plezierig de tekstueel opgeroepen sferen van zonnige feestjes, palmbomen, marijuana, of (nieuwe) liefdesrelaties ook kunnen zijn..

Dit ook als tegenwicht tegen het onzinnige en negatieve deel van de Nederhop songteksten, vaak ook populairder dan de diepgaandere of kritische, zoals vaker voorkomt. Het vervelende van dit soort dingen is soms dat het bevestigen van stereotypen commercieel rendabeler lijkt: het stereotype van de gewelddadige, criminele donkere mensen zoals met Gangster Rap verspreid werd (en later versimpeld). Aan de andere kant het zonnige, Caraïbische, vrolijke en zorgeloze stereotype, zonder teveel diepgang of echte maatschappijkritiek (dus niet nep-maatschappijkritiek zoals van criminelen..die zijn namelijk welbeschouwd deel van het systeem).