dinsdag 2 juni 2015

Cultural coolness

Of course “cool” has become a quite well-known "slang" term with a meaning beyond a moderately low temperature. Even another common meaning of “self-control” or “not emotional” in several languages and cultures (including European and Asian ones) is not enough to capture what “cool” as a slang term came to mean.

Cool in the slang meaning came to mean less just “calm”, or not emotional, but more something like “great”, “fine”, or “awesome”. These latter meanings have their origins in African American culture, in turn to be traced back to ancestral Africa. Scholar Robert Farris Thompson speaks of a specific African aesthetic in which the “cool” or “coolness” is important in artistic and social/cultural expressions.


Essentially Farris Thompson describes it in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa as “complex balance”, in the sense of combining contradictions, which includes the mystical and spiritual. Or: the “transcendental”. This makes “cool” as an African aesthetic more complex in its meanings than the meaning in European languages of remaining calm under stress. Especially because this mask of coolness is also there in African expressions relating to “pleasure”, thus combining responsibility and play. The (now South Nigerian) Yoruba and Igbo age-old concept of “Itutu” – or “mystic coolness” – relates to this, and was transported with slaves to the Americas.

Crucially, Farris Thompson also relates the “cool” attitude or pose to a (transcendental) response by Black people to racism.


Yet, in several global languages “cool” has a meaning beyond the literal one of “moderately low temperature”, namely symbolic ones referring to control, calm, or rationality. This might have also affected art. In Italian culture “sprezzatura” – “studied carelessness/nonchalance” - (the expression of Mona Lisa on the well-known painting is an example of this) can be mentioned, as – with some reserve (since it basically is a code against “snitching”) - the Sicilian, more mafia-affected term “omertá”. British aristocratic reserve can be somehow connected to it, and William Shakespeare in his writings mentioned the word “cool” also in such symbolic meanings of “calm” and “rational”.

All this information can be found on the Internet and on the Wikipedia article(s) on this matter, so I think it is useless to repeat this all further. To this knowledge I can add - and recommend - a more specific work I read called ‘Aesthetic of the Cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music' - see: http://www.amazon.com/Aesthetic-Cool-Afro-Atlantic-Art-Music/dp/193477295X - by the mentioned Robert Farris Thompson, a Yale professor, which is a bit summarized in the Wikipedia article.

I will use this available knowledge, however, as a starting point for the remainder of this blog post. To analyse the complex meaning of “cool” in areas and cultures less studied with regard to it. These include my personal cultural interests and backgrounds, that are partly – but not totally – covered in the Wikipedia article or even Farris Thompson’s book. I set out to fill some voids, so to speak.

I am a reggae fan, for instance. I am also interested in Rastafari. Further I have connections to several European countries: notably Italy and Spain, and I live in the Netherlands.

I think it is interesting how the meanings of “coolness”, which differ widely as already known, can be found in cultures and languages not mentioned so much in the Wikipedia articles.

Reggae, and also other European countries than Italy or Britain, are mentioned here and there in a general sense in the studies of Robert Farris Thompson, who further focuses broadly on African and Afro-American culture. This last focus – the African Diaspora - I find very interesting, and I am going to largely specify on it rather than diverge from this focus.

How is the concept of “cool” mentioned in the lyrics of the African Jamaican music genre Reggae for example? I will analyze that later on.


First, however, I explore if a country like Spain, has cultural “cool” meanings, similar to those mentioned for other European countries, or even to African concepts of it. It sometimes it forgotten that the country Spain is only about 12 kilometres at its closest (the town Tarifa, somewhat south of Gibraltar) to the African continent, thus almost bordering it.

Some similarities with another Mediterranean, “Latin” country like Italy seem however not too far-fetched, though the similarities even here should not be exaggerated.

I also know the Netherlands well. Many, if not all, countries have internal “images” or stereotypes regarding regional/internal differences. These tend to be derogative, often showing that people from other regions feel themselves to be better, but other such “images” are even embraced by the people associated with it. I even suspect that some overly positive images are started by the people stereotyped themselves (industrious, tolerant, artistic etc.).

Dutch people are known as “cheap”, like e.g. Scottish people. Within Spain, the people from Galicia and Catalonia are also known as “cheap”, among other Spaniards.

Some regionals/nationalities called “cheap” do not like this stereotype or find it unjust, while others more or less embrace it and build their identity around it. Such occurred in the Dutch national image, I think. Even individual Dutch people with not very economically “cheap” tendencies may in fact change themselves to fit the national image. The same occurred among some Catalonian and Scottish people.

This can be explained because “being cheap” may seem derogatory, but has something inherently “cool”. It may sound like being tight and boring, but being cheap points at rational self-control – “cool” in that sense – while having to be cheap points at poverty, having to struggle, which gives a “cool” image in another way. Strong Protestant, Calvinist influences may explain this in part in the case of Scotland and the Netherlands (though less in Catholic Galicia and Catalonia), but perhaps “poverty” became “cool” later due to some Socialist movements, or even because of certain music genres with lyrics about it, such as Black music like Blues, or Reggae, especially since the 1970s popular among many Europeans as well.

This is more image than reality, in light of the fact that the Netherlands fares economically relatively well within Europe, and so does Catalonia, being economically one of the wealthiest parts of Spain.

To return to “cool”: another generalizing Dutch self-image, many Dutch people seem to have embraced is that of being “nuchter”, as it is called in the Dutch language. “Nuchter” can be translated into English as sober, but also as “calm”, “with self-control”, “down to earth”, or “reserved". Even more positive it can be translated also as "sensible".

Many Netherlands people see themselves without much objections as “nuchter”, which in some sense can be translated as ”cool”. It is also an extension of the self-control found in the “cheap” image. There is a similarity here with the “reserved” image of the (more aristocratic) British, and in some way with the more slow and controlled Catalonian cultural (dance, music) expressions, such as the serene, brass-accompanied Catalan circle dance the Sardana, known as the “national dance” of Catalonia.

This calm, seemingly “formal” Sardana seems a world apart from the “fire” in the Flamenco of South Spain/Andalusia, or from the lively and - for European standards - relatively percussive, castanets-using “Jota” or “Fandango” music/dance from other, central parts of Spain.

Yet.. can these self-images (just or not) really be in some way compared to the “aesthetic of the cool” as found in traditional African culture? Not realistically, I think. The South of Spain is closer to Africa than Catalonia, while the “nuchter” image is said even more of Netherlands people from the North of the country (provinces Groningen, Frysia etc.), when compared to the busier Western parts (Amsterdam etc.) or the Catholic South Netherlands. It is another type of “cool” we are dealing with here, I think.

I mentioned Andalusia and the Flamenco. Andalusians are not seen as “cheap” in national Spanish stereotypes. On the contrary, some even joke that Andalusians do not only spend what they have, but even what they don’t have. This stereotype of (financial) irresponsibility is also applied to South Italians by wealthier Northern Italians. Also the Greek got such accusations recently. Northern vacationers noticing the long siestas – afternoon “naps” - in these regions seem confirmed in their prejudices, ignoring that offices/workplaces close later than in Northern Europe… and that the climate is hotter.

Neither are Andalusians or Southern Spaniards known in stereotypes as “calm” in and by itself, but rather as “temperamental”. Positively they are known as “humorous”, or, less positive, as boisterous and exaggerating.

Within the Flamenco music genre, originated in Andalusia among both gypsies and non-gypsies, however, some cultural “coolness” can be found, even a kind of “mystic coolness”, a bit like in some African cultures. A certain demeanour in singing, dancing – or even social behaviour – by persons is termed “tener arte”, literally “having art” in Andalusian Spanish, meaning a person “has art”, or is in other words “graceful”. “Tener gracia”, or “having grace” is also said of persons, often in similar instances. “Having art/tener arte” is often applied to the performance of a graceful Flamenco dancer or singer on a stage, who maintains a kind of control and seriousness even in joyful or lively dances or Flamenco subgenres. This kind of contradiction comes closer to the meaning of “cool” as found also in African aesthetic culture.

Perhaps this is in part what appealed Miles Davis – himself according to many associated with the artistic Black “cool” – to Flamenco, as evident from the song title ‘Flamenco sketches’ on Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959) album.


The origins of “cool” in the other meanings of “great” or “nice” have thus their direct origins in African American speech and culture, probably via jazz. The deeper origins can – as explained – be found in several sub-Saharan African cultures, the most of sub-Saharan Africa actually. It would be interesting therefore to analyze this “cool” concept with regard to Afro-Jamaican culture. This is also the case because Caribbean cultures are known to have more African, or less-dilluted, African retentions, when compared to the US. I am going to focus especially on reggae music, its lyrics, and related culture. Reggae originated in Jamaica around 1968, out of older forms ska and rocksteady, and included African, local folk, as well as African American influences.

The lyrics of reggae music are in Jamaican variants of English, or in English-influenced Patois/Jamaican Creole. The word “cool” recurs therefore regularly. In light of the above I find it intriguing to analyze this usage of the word “cool” regarding its meaning: is it used in the common, English meaning of “keeping control”, staying calm under stress, only used by other people (black Jamaicans) in other contexts (e.g. the Kingston ghetto)? Or is there in Jamaican music a reference to the age-old African, traditional/cultural meaning of “complex balance”, with a place for the mystical and spiritual – or ancestral (as Robert Farris Thompson describes it)? Indeed, reggae is strongly influenced by the Rastafari movement, which of course has mystical and spiritual elements, as well as “ancestral” aspects, being after all an Africa-centered movement.

Several reggae songs are, in fact, titled ‘Mystic Man’, such as by Peter Tosh, and the Ethiopians, referring to the Rastaman as a mystic man. This seems to refer to a related cultural complex to “mystic coolness”, at least partly. The word “cool” itself recurs quite often throughout reggae lyrics. Relatedly, it is found in Jamaican parlance as well. The expression “cool runnings” became especially known because of the movie on a Jamaican bobsled team, and is also found in Bob Marley’s song ‘Blackman Redemption’, and in the song ‘Cool Runnings’ (1981) by Bunny Wailer. In these lyrics this expression has a similar positive meaning as in African American parlance: “cool runnings” means here that everything goes well or smooth.

Several songs – by several artists – have in the lyrics “cool down (your temper)”, referring to “hot foot heads” like certain policemen, criminals, or rude boys wreaking havoc in the community with their violent, aggressive ways. Some lyrics advise Rasta brethren to remain “cool”, and don’t let the system make them crazy, but also to stay true to themselves. The Heptones’ ‘Cool Rasta’ (1976), for instance.

Lyrics can further be mentioned by Jacob Miller (‘Mr Officer’), Gregory Isaacs (‘Mr Cop’), and more literally song titles ‘Cool Down Your/The Temper’ by Linval Thompson, Freddie McGregor, U Roy, Freddie McKay, Jah Stitch, Al Campbell and others (all original songs, by the way, with more or less the same title).

Other titles or lyrics with “cool down” or “just cool”, or “cool it” or “play it cool” in them can of course be named – too much too mention perhaps – generally referring to “cool down” in the sense of: take it easy, not so hot-headed and be calm. A meaning, therefore, comparable to the standard meaning in English of “keep cool”, “control your emotions”, and “have self-control”. Yet, hints of the “African” aesthetic meaning of “complex balance” and “positivity” are present in these lyrics here and there as well, beyond just another way of saying “relax!” or “stay calm”. In fact, it is intertwined with it in some lyrics. Israel Vibration’s ‘Cool and Calm’ is a good example of this. Here “cool” does not just mean: rational or calm, but also “true to oneself” or “in balance”. Something preferably to be continued, or, as stated in the lyrics: “so wi a gwaan”.

The debut single (1967), in the Rocksteady era (label Studio One), by Earl Lowe – later better known as artist Little Roy - was called ‘I am gonna cool it’. Here ‘cool’ means also more than just “keeping calm”. Lowe or Little Roy, by the way, was one of the vocal influences on a young Bob Marley. I mentioned this influence already elsewhere on my blog (but is not well-known).


The Jamaican term “easy”, likewise has a broader meaning than the same word in standard English. “Easy” approaches “Irie” a bit in meaning in Jamaican linguistic usage. Both “easy” and “Irie” mean “okay”, “nice/good”, or “balanced”, and is used in response to a question like: “How are you doing?” (“easy”, or “Irie”). Comparably, originally among Afro-Surinamese in the Netherlands the expression “rustig” (meaning in Dutch literally “easy” or “calm”) is answered to the same question: “how are you doing?”. This became part of street slang and is now also used in that sense by white Dutch youth, just like white British youth before adopted Jamaican expressions in their street slang..

Several Jamaican reggae lyrics and song tiles thus have ‘Easy’ in that sense, sometimes combined with Nice, as in ‘Nice and Easy’ (a catchy Horace Andy tune). Also ‘Easy’ a fittingly mellow song (from the album with the same title) by Gregory Isaacs can be mentioned.

Here, and in other reggae lyrics, “easy” – like “calm” - gets comparable meanings as “cool”, sometimes more similar to the standard English meaning of “take it easy” (not too fast or busy), but sometimes more “culturally” as a positive, harmonious state of being, showing with this meaning more direct African retentions.

Reggae knows several odes to marijuana, though some artists have these more than others. These include some nice tunes, that even non-smokers might like. Yet, to return to the topic: the expression “Cool collie” (“collie” being a term for marijuana/ganja herb) is mentioned, and is used also a song title. This gives thus a positive connotation through “cool” to the herb and its effects. Hopeton Lewis has a nice, older (Rocksteady) song with this title (‘Cool, cool collie’).

Use of the term “cool” as “positive” or “”nice/good” is also found in the expression “cool operator” in Jamaican reggae, such as in a song of that title by Delroy Wilson (referring to a “cool” girl he fancies).

Of course, it is not unthinkable that the term “cool” in the sense of “nice” or “good” is an influence from Black US music or culture (soul, jazz, hip-hop) to which Jamaica remained exposed throughout. I argue, however, that - independent of this - similar meanings of “cool” are found in Jamaican culture and speech, be it literally “cool” (such as in the expression “cool runnings”), or in related meanings and uses of terms like “easy”, “calm”, or the own term - originally from Rasta speech - “Irie”.

Also, the nickname of the already mentioned artist Gregory Isaacs, the ‘Cool Ruler’, also the name of one of his albums, has “cool” meaning something positive as part of a balance: “ruling” yet “cool”, combining a seeming contradiction, that conveys – as explained before – an African cultural/aesthetic aesthetic, retained in the West. Earlier, Jamaican singer Jackie Edwards also was said to have a “cool” performative side, being in that sense a precursor to Isaacs.


The “cool” in these latter cases refers mostly to love or “not-so-spiritual” songs, but the “mystic coolness” can, I opine, also be noticed in Rastafari-inspired reggae music and songs. The stage presence, and natural charisma of several Rastafari reggae artists, including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and others have this mystique, quite literally a “mystic coolness”. They embody it, you can say. Musical “joy”, excitation – even magic -, but at the same time keeping control, keeping cool, a seriousness in bringing the art. That is part of the (African) aesthetics of the cool.

Besides performing artists, also other, true Rastafari adherents tend to convey such “ancestral” mystique in their spiritual and/or “conscious” way of being in daily life. Jamaicans are stereotyped by many as being laid-back, but can be quite temperamental (e.g. in traffic, yelling: “you blocking de road mon!”) – and often living conditions make this temperament understandable - , but even those at times temperamental tend to balance it with some type of “cool”. This balance was also my personal experience with at least part of the Jamaicans, including Rastas, I met and knew in Jamaica itself, when I went there.

Also the main inspirers and personalities of Rastafari seem(ed) to embody this “cool”. Haile Selassie’s biography shows he “kept his cool” in several crucial instances: when Fascist Italians invaded Ethiopia, and shortly after this when Italian delegates at the UN whistled and bullied him when he pleaded for support at the UN head quarters: he remained calm and dignified. This was also the case when other Ethiopians fought against him, before he rose to the throne, and when the Communists forcibly removed him from power in 1975. He could “rise above” such difficult situations and the all-too-human rancour it could provoke, maintaining his cool and control, indeed as a “mystic coolness”.

Marcus Garvey seemed to be known as more temperamental in character, at least partly. He also, however, showed “control” and dignified calm in crucial instances, though not always (he at times got angry when he felt betrayed or belittled and showed this openly, and sometimes not very tactically). Overall, he showed effective and “cool” determination throughout, however, in setting up the first large Black mass organization in the US and elsewhere: the U.N.I.A. Against many odds, you can safely say. He was “intelligent” then, and is that in this sense not also “cool”, after all also defined as “complex balance”?

Besides these activities, Garvey liked to write, and also created artistic works. He even wrote a “pop song”, or “popular song”, in 1925, to bring across his message of Black upliftment. This song was named: ‘Keep Cool’. So we come back to the “cool”, literally.

How did Garvey mean “cool” in this song? The expression “keep cool” is standard English, and Garvey of course grew up in a society that was still British colonial. Indeed, as could be expected, part of the meaning is the standard one: “keep cool” or “stay calm”, as a recommendable response to stress and worries. Yet, there is more to it, noticeable when you look at the entire lyrics of this song written by Marcus Garvey. see: http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.nl/2011/06/keep-cool-by-marcus-mosiah-garvey.html

He indeed opposes “cool” in the lyrics to “hot”, but also associates being “brave” and “true” with the "cool" one should keep, despite troubles. True to oneself, in other words.

The song ‘Give Rasta praise’ (1975) by the Twinkle Brothers refers to the lyrics of this Garvey song/poem. A “cool” song, in more than one way..

Both these cases and life stories, of Selassie and Garvey, furthermore, validate Farris Thompson's description of Black, African "transcedental coolness" being a mental response to racism and oppression.

zaterdag 2 mei 2015

Drums of Defiance : Jamaican Maroon music

The Maroons are descendants of escaped enslaved Africans who went to live in relatively inaccessible, mostly mountainous parts of Jamaica, since the later 17th century. The “power vacuum”, temporarily left when the British captured Jamaica on the Spanish in 1655, partly caused the development of these Maroon communities. With the coming British victory, remaining Spaniards fled to Cuba, mostly leaving their slaves behind: these then took to the mountains, instead of being enslaved by new masters. Plantation slavery intensified strongly under British rule, so much more slaves were imported since then. Some of these could escape to the formed Maroon towns.

There – after some wars – the Maroons could fight the British forces off, who then had no other option than to recognize these Maroon towns’/communities’ autonomy, which was even laid down in treaties granting them land in the 18th c. Thus these Maroons secured their freedom. This is an impressive story of rebellion by Africans who were made slaves, but resisted and fought strongly and wisely against a powerful British army. One Maroon woman, called (Queen or Granny) Nanny, was very brave and successful against the British, and became a legendary, and eventually “national” hero of Jamaica.

The treaties between Maroons and the British in Jamaica were made in the 18th c., at the height of plantation slavery. Most Africans/Blacks in Jamaica were at that time, and well into the 19th c., still enslaved, mostly in a (sugar or coffee) plantation setting.

This history is very interesting and has received quite some scholarly attention. The same applies to comparable Maroons (escaped enslaved Africans), elsewhere in the region: Suriname, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, and other territories with relatively inaccessible areas. Geography of course played a role. Maroon communities in Cuba, for instance, developed mainly in the mountainous East (Oriente) of Cuba, for that reason.


Maroons in Jamaica largely retained a relatively pure African culture, with several interesting aspects and dimensions. In this post, however, I will focus on one (important) aspect of Maroon culture in Jamaica: music. Jamaica is of course known for one international genre, called Reggae. It put Jamaica internationally on the map, you can safely say. Especially Bob Marley’s international fame stimulated that since the 1970s, and made it part of common popular music. Granted, reggae is overall still more a niche market than a very commercial one, but it has a wide fan base globally, and specialized markets is a price you have to pay if you want to remain authentic.

Because of Jamaica being the place where the popular music genre reggae originated, around 1968 (following on predecessors ska and rocksteady earlier in the 1960s), I think it is interesting to analyse Jamaican Maroon musical traditions.


Another reason is that in Jamaica also the Rastafari movement originated, earlier in history in the 1930s. Also Rastafari spread internationally in a later stage. Rastafari is anticolonial, focussed on the African roots and repatriation, and foregrounds an own African cultural identity against the enforced Western/European one. The same type of rebellious spirit as found among the Maroons, you might say, and symbolic inheritors thereof.

Jamaica is quite a small island, so interchanges among cultures, peoples, and communities seem inevitable, especially in more modern times and with modern means. Indeed the Maroon communities, or “towns”, located in both Western and Eastern parts of Jamaica, got to interact more and more with the rest of rural and urban Jamaica, adopting practices, adapting them, while maintaining those of themselves as well. This interaction increased since the postemancipation period (after slavery), for obvious reasons. Christianity, but also Kumina, a mainly Central African music and dance, and other Afro-Jamaican practices like Pocomania and Burru are found in rural areas as well, also nearby what are known as Maroon towns. Rastafari is also spread throughout Jamaica, as is reggae and other popular music.

How has this all impacted Jamaican Maroon music over time? Is the latter still maintained as a distinctive tradition? The answer is yes. However: it is not realistic to expect that in a small island, with Maroon towns being in this time more accessible, this Maroon music would remain unadulterated or “pristine”. Indeed it has not remained totally isolated or “pure” in that sense.

It is true, notwithstanding, that certain cultural/musical traditions have remained quite pure, and stood the test of time, also within the traditional music of the Jamaican Maroons. There are gradations of this, though.

As a purer “memory” and tradition from Africa, this Maroon culture has inspired some Rastafari adherents in Jamaica, who sought African retentions to counter an enforced, Europeanized identity. This has also happened with musical (drumming) traditions of the mostly Congo-based Kumina traditions in Eastern Jamaica, influencing Nyabinghi drumming patterns of the Rastafari. Burru and Pocomania likewise influenced (hand and trap) drummers in Jamaican popular music like reggae, and this included Rastafari-inspired musicians. The Kete drums used in Rastafari Nyabinghi drumming directly derive from Burru drums, and further back from Akete drum types from what is now Ghana.

Can the same be said of drums that the Jamaican Maroons traditionally use? That they spread to outside, non-Maroon groups in Jamaica? Not so much. One can conclude that the Maroons were able to maintain certain traditions for themselves in their towns and communities, exclusively taking place in the own, “closed” Maroon context.

A look at the most common instruments used among the Jamaican Maroons will prove this point. We can also look at the deeper meanings and structure of music, of course. In that sense Jamaican Maroon music has many direct African retentions, including in the role of different types of drums, and the presence of drum patterns and songs meant to invoke spirits of ancestors, used in spirit possession, alongside “recreational” music, accompanying specific dances and ceremonies.


This ancestor spirit invoking and possession music is the most “secretive” or “exclusive” you might say, most restricted within Maroon communities, also linguistically (an African Akan/Twi-derived language survived among part of the Maroons). Partly this exclusivity within the community might have been prolonged because it was at odds with the strong Christian and Biblical influence in the rest of Jamaica. Even groups who called on Africa, and indeed incorporated several African traditions, such as the Spiritual Baptists, Revival Zion, or many Rastafari, stopped short of the “spirit invoking and possession” music/dance, soon deemed “devilish”, divisive, or backward.

After early experiments and tolerance for such practices among some of the early Rastafari adherents, in time the Bible became a more powerful guide for Rastafari spirituality, albeit in an own way (with some other influences), and with a “Black” or Afrocentric interpretation. This inhibited very tight connections of Rastafari with much Maroon music and beliefs, or for that matter with the parts of Kumina that also deal with ancestor spirits and/or possession. Some cultural or musical aspects were appreciated and copied by Rastas though, such as the mentioned Kumina musical influence on Nyabinghi drumming, There is also a proven influence from Maroon folk medicine on folk medicine by Rastafari. However.. is there also any musical influence of the Maroons on for instance the Rastafari, or vice versa?

Kumina did influence part of the Maroon traditional music, especially in the Maroon towns in Eastern Jamaica where Kumina was also nearer, Kumina being mostly found in the parish of St Thomas (see map). This influence has been documented and proven. This is for instance noticeable in drumming patterns: a typical mid-tempo to fast, rolling “heart beat” rhythm is therefore found in Kumina, as well as in some Maroon music.

Other aspects are shared and similar as well, but relate more to common African roots and general traditions in Africa, continued in different traditions in the West. One can think of the general polyrhythmic and percussive structures, drums with different pitches, with either leading or improvizing or basic, supportive rhythmic roles, the “call-and-response” principle, the custom of naming drums either male or female – with ritual functions -, the importance of “purity” among players of sacred drums or music etcetera etcetera.


The most common drums among Jamaican Maroons differ a bit across different Maroon towns. In any case, they include the Gumbeh and Printing (also called Grandy). The Gumbeh (or: Goombay) drums have a small, square, table-like form and has a goatskin. It can be considered a bass drum. It most probably has its origin in the Akan (Ghana-area) “Gome” drum, with a similar (if bigger) form, still found in Ghana today. The longer, thin, and cylindrical Aprinting – or Printing - drums are also common. Though the name is similar, the Apinti drum among the Maroons in Suriname is not cylindrical (and broadens in its lower part) and is less tall, though it has a similar tuning method.

Other percussion instruments commonly used among Jamaican Maroons include an instrument made of bamboo hit with sticks – called Kwat -, and a metal piece of percussion. Also used are wind instruments, most notably the Abeng, made from cowhorn. The Abeng is a sort of “national instrument” of the Jamaican Maroons, and has a strong sound. The Abeng horn was used also in the wars with the British, to communicate across long distances and across the mountains. The Abeng has essentially two pitches (tones), but was creatively used to communicate even complex messages. Pitch is changed of the Abeng through the use of the thumb.

The Maroons in Moore Town (parish of Portland) mostly use(d) the Printing drums, while other Eastern Maroons, such as in Charles Town or Scott’s Hall, also use the Gumbeh frame drum, also found in the Western Maroon town of Accompong, generally combined with the Aprinting/Grandy type drums.

Though the Printing drum has to a degree some similarities with the Kete drums used for Nyabinghi (and Burru), the use of either the Gumbeh and Printing drums in strictly Rastafari contexts has not been reported very much, although there are Rastafari-led percussion groups in Jamaica that play on occasion also these and other African drums.

The (Burru/Nyabinghi) Kete drums, but also Afro-Cuban or internationally better known percussion instruments such as the Conga, the Bongos, the Guiro, or the Djembe, have been used by session percussionists in reggae (Scully, Bongo Herman, Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, Sticky, Sky Juice, and others), and are still regularly used by younger percussionists. The more experimental among these percussionists also use specific African or Afro-Jamaican drums that are less known. It seems to fit well with the African, culturally rebellious focus of especially Rastafari-influenced reggae.

I would love to give you some examples of reggae songs with the Gumbeh or Printing used as part of the percussion, but this is unfortunately difficult to research. In liner notes of reggae albums, in most cases is just mentioned: ‘Percussion by…’ etc. (then names: Bongo Herman, Sticky, Scully or others), with rarely more specifications. There are some exceptions of more specific information given (beyond just: “percussion(s)”), such as the sleeve notes for Israel Vibrations’ song ‘Mighty Negus’ (on their 1996 album Free To Move), that percussionist Sky Juice uses a talking drum on it, while another plays the Ket(t)e drums, on this Nyabinghi-based song.

Written down in sleeve notes or not, it is in any case known and documented that several well-known percussionists in Jamaican reggae use different type of drums (beyond the more common Kete, Conga or Bongos), also to broaden their range. Maroon instruments might just be among them, even if Maroon communities long remained relatively somewhat “closed” from Jamaican society. Maroon culture has in any case “symbolic” power, one can say, also for Rastafari adherents.


Thus contextualized, it would be interesting, to further discuss, or “review”, an album or CD I have, which assembles Maroon music from several Jamaican Maroon towns. It is called ’Drums of Defiance : Maroon music from the earliest Free Black communities of Jamaica’, and was released in 1992. The music fragments on it are collected by ethnomusicologist Kenneth Bilby.

In an earlier post on this blog (August 2013) I discussed/reviewed a broader Jamaican “folk music” CD, called: ‘Jamaica Folk Trace Possession’ (2013), see here. This had a similar scholarly, anthropological focus as this ‘Drums of Defiance’ one, including also many “excerpts” or “field recordings”. It included examples of several older Afro-Jamaican folk music, but had no examples of Maroon music: this “Drums of Defiance’ album thus fills that void, you might say.

Sound quality is hereby not perfect: it involves music in a certain social or ritual context, that happened to be recorded: it was not popular or commercial music, perfected in a studio according to certain norms, for the market. The same applies to this CD on Jamaican Maroon music. The sound quality is mediocre, and many “songs” (or excerpts) last only about a minute. These are mainly meant to give impressions of different styles and variations within Maroon music. Subgenres you might say.

See: http://www.folkways.si.edu/drums-of-defiance-maroon-music-from-the-earliest-free-black-communities-of-jamaica/caribbean-world/album/smithsonian

The recordings were made in the period 1977-1978. Most of these in Moore Town, a town in Eastern Jamaica where relatively more Maroon musical traditions continued to be practiced, at that time, while being a bit less present in the other towns known as Maroon towns. Musicians of traditional Maroon music could be found in these other towns, but often had to be specifically sought and gathered. Traditions were perhaps not dead, but dormant, and hopefully not dying.. Other recordings were made during actual community ceremonies (public or private).

The liner notes are a bit general but good, explaining well main types of Maroon music and their cultural context, based on research by Kenneth Bilby. Bilby studied and wrote about other Jamaican percussion traditions as well, including a very interesting study of the influence of African and Afro-Jamaican (Burru and other) hand drum traditions on percussion and percussionists in reggae like Bongo Herman and Sticky. Kenneth Bilby has also done some very insightful research of Maroons elsewhere, namely in Suriname, and other comparative research.

The liner notes, and the names Maroons themselves give to songs and genres within their music, are very instructive as well. The Kromanti dance ritual – involving spirit possession through dance – is the most serious as well as exclusive, as non-Maroons are (safe exceptions) not allowed at these Kromanti dances.

While “Kromanti” refers to Ghana (or: “Gold Coast”) and Akan-speaking slaves (also: Coromantee) etymologically, and also other terms I mentioned point at Akan or related Akan Fanti/Ashanti roots, it is too simplistic to conclude that these Maroons descend only from slaves brought from what is now Ghana or from Akan/Twi-speaking areas. A common misconception is, by the way, that most Jamaicans descend from slaves brought from the Ghana/Gold Coast area. A similar misconception I found among Afro-Surinamese people, by the way. In reality, African slaves in Jamaica came from several parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

It is true, however, that Akan-speaking, Coromantee, Fanti, Ashanti and related groups, were a large part of the slaves brought to Jamaica, but not a large majority. It is studied, and documented that probably about 45% of Africans brought to Jamaica were from the Ghana region, so not even a majority or about half, though it was the largest among ethnic groups. A similar proportion applies in Suriname, by the way. Quite some slaves ending up in Jamaica further came from the Igbo area (now Southeast-Nigeria), from Central Africa (Congo and Angola) – the latter Bantu-speaking Africans estimated at about 20% of the total, and further from Ewe-speaking areas (around what is now Benin and Togo), or from the Senegambia and Guinea region and elsewhere.

There is a strong Akan/Ghana influence on the Maroons in Jamaica – also linguistically -, and the Gumbeh drum is almost certainly a cousin to the Ghanaian Gome, as I already explained, but influences from other parts of Africa are found in Maroon culture as well. Besides from the ethnicities I mentioned, some historians also point at Yoruba (an ethnic group in what is now SW Nigeria and Benin) influences among Jamaican Maroons. The Maroons were slaves that escaped the slave-based plantations, and they came from different African ethnic groups, of course not only specific ethnic groups thought about escaping such a dehumanizing and oppressive system.

The Jamaican Maroons themselves recognize all this as much, in naming specific dances and songs after different African ethnicities. This is the case with specific Kromanti pieces meant to invoke ancestor spirits from specific ethnicities or parts of Africa. These are named by Maroons themselves Kromanti, Papa (referring to Ewe-speaking groups), Ibo (Igbo), and Mandinga (ethnic area around Sierra Leone).

According to the anthropologists/ethnomusicologists, however, this does not mean that a specific Kromanti piece called, say, Mandinga, has actual direct roots in music from Mandinga-speaking parts of Africa. It is a partly symbolic designation, combined with own creative interpretations by musicians, with Mandinga but also other African influences. African musical cultures thus were most probably mixed, and reworked in an artistic way.

Lighter, recreational forms of Maroon music are called Jawbone, while “Tambu” refers to Maroon music showing Kumina influences, as I mentioned before. Examples of all these genres and types are found on this CD/album.

The CD includes examples of both the Windward and Leeward Maroon towns mentioned: especially Moore Town, but also Charles Town, Scott’s Hall, and in Western Jamaica: Accompong. The latter has similarities, but also differences with the Eastern Jamaican Maroons. Spirit invoking is for instance different among Accompong Maroons, the latter paying more attention to funerals and burials. Another aspect, by the way, which many Rastafari eschew: funerals are by many Rastas criticized for impurely celebrating death, a disdain with also origins in the Bible (Levitical code, Nazarene Vow). Besides this, musically and culturally there are further many similarities of the Accompong with the Moore Town and other Maroons.

Apart from the explanatory liner notes, the CD “songs” and excerpts are interesting to listen to in and by themselves. Some background information helps with such a scholarly or intellectual focus though. I can get “in the groove” easily even with complex, drum-based music, but more knowledge about it adds to the experience. At least for me.

In the liner notes it is pointed out that certain types of songs among Maroons have a constant pulse throughout, while others are more “talking drum”-like, mimicking speech, and therefore have more meandering and varying rhythms.

The Maroons refer to a basic rhythm or pulse - mostly by the mentioned Printing drums - as “rolling”, while “answers” and variations on it are called “passing”. The latter “passing” rhythms are often by the lead drums: Gumbeh or other Printing drums or other percussion instruments. Crucially, these separate rhythms “interlock”, as common in the African polyrhythmic tradition.

The examples from Tambu (Kumina-influenced) are dynamic and show clear echoes of the “fast heart beat” rhythm found in Kumina. Jawbone and Kromanti examples often sound just as nice. The Aprinting drum also has an in my opinion a nice, “round” and deep sound.. This drum’s skin diameter is comparatively small (10 inches or less), but it has a “long” shape, affecting of course its sound, making its pitch somewhat lower and deeper than one might expect. Players of it on these excerpts play well and creative. I thus surely “got in the groove” – despite the mediocre sound quality and often short fragments - , even on the songs said to have less of a “constant pulse”. Most songs are certainly danceable, and I liked for instance some of the Ibo songs, and some of the Mandinga songs, while the opening Tambu song is very catchy, also because of the singing.

The Kwat (kind of a bamboo block) or metal percussion further add interesting support – or counter-rhythms - to the whole. The Gumbeh is heard a bit less through all these examples than the Printing, but the Gumbeh drum is also included in several examples, and sounds good and well-played too. The Gumbeh sounds a bit “clearer”, when compared to the Printing/Grandy. The Abeng also appears now and then, and this cowhorn adds a distinctive, atmospheric feel to the music. With the Abeng sound it reminded me (superficially) a bit of the Haitian Rara tradition, also including drums and horns (albeit in Haitian Rara mostly cylindrical bamboo or metal trumpets).


What I further found very appealing were the vocals. Characteristically sub-Saharan call-and-response singing, with a solo singer (often a male, though not always), alternated/answered by group singing by mostly females. Linguistically, variants of Creoles or African/Akan-derived languages are spoken/sung, and I often did not understand what is being sung. Parts I understood from my knowledge of Jamaican Creole (“wah mi gwine do?”, in standard English: “what am I going to do?”). Titles and liner note explanations further gave me clues.

It sounded nice and catchy though: both groovy and atmospheric, as all good call-and-response singing. That the female voices often provide the “choir” or “response” part of these vocals is interesting. In African music this is quite common, and in some areas of Africa traditionally the norm, but in the Jamaican context it has another dimension. In reggae music for instance, as in other Black popular music genres, call-and-response recurs as African retention, but in a modern form. With some differences though: the “response” choir vocals are in e.g. reggae, and other popular genres, often also by men. This reflects the fact that the “commercial music” scene (White or Black music, by the way) in the Western world, is a male-dominated industry. Reggae also to a large degree.

Call-and-response and harmony vocals in reggae (or in soul, salsa, kaseko, and other African Diaspora music genres) are not always less-beautiful or nice because of this, but it is a bit of a change. Not that male (or mixed!) “response” choir vocals are absent in traditional African music, it was present, but female ones (contrasting male “call” vocals) are overall more common. This is indeed also the case in this Maroon music: in it you will therefore hear many female voices singing. Even this aspect, “gender”, adds a nice touch, haha.

Likewise in Reggae, female background vocals do also occur, as well as mixed groups. Bob Marley and the Wailers had of course the female I-Threes as backing singers. Several albums by other artists, like Culture, the Congos, or Burning Spear, include(d) one or more female background singers (often alongside males), while several artists also have mainly female backing singers, also in the more recent New Roots subgenre (Sizzla, Luciano, Tarrus Riley, Jesse Royal etcetera).

It was however stated, by some writers, that the choice of the female ‘I-Threes’ backing singers of Bob Marley and the Wailers, was an adaptation to Western, European tastes. That can be disputed, I think, in light of what I described above: the important (choir) vocal role of women in traditional African music, and in relatively pure African-based music, such as by the Maroons.

The CD ends with a Nyabinghi medley. This Rastafari drumming had apparently by then acquired a place in Accompong, the Maroon town. Already then (this was recorded in the late 1970s), the Rastafari had influenced Maroon communities. Indeed, history shows that over time also many people in Maroon families in Jamaica became adherents of the Rastafari movement. Interestingly, the Accompong Nyabinghi players do not use the usual Kete drums for it. This can be heard, as the drum patterns (heart beat, varying Repeater etcetera) are typically Nyabinghi, and the chosen songs “classic” Nyabinghi songs ('Never Get Weary', 'New Name' a.o.), but the drums sound is quite different from common Nyabinghi:. Here you hear the sound of the Maroon drums Gumbeh and Printing, sounding a bit less ”sharp” than the commonly used Ketes. It gives, however, this Nyabinghi example on the album something unique, as also do certain Repeater patterns varying around the “heart beat” rhythm. These specific patterns probably reflect the Maroon music’s much more polyrhythmic structure (when compared to the somewhat more singular/linear Nyabinghi rhythms).


The recordings of the ‘Drums of Defiance’ album were as said all made in the years 1977 and 1978, and much may have changed since then. It seems probable, though, in light of the past cultural resiliency, that many of these Jamaican Maroon musical and other traditions are still maintained even today, in 2015. Even if partly evolved (as most cultures do).

The influence of Rastafari, reggae, and other Jamaican cultural expressions, on Maroons has increased since the 1970s. That is documented and proven. Some aspects of Maroon culture remained “closed” to outsiders (Kromanti spiritual dance/music, notably), inhibiting perhaps it spreading or influencing other Jamaican expressions, although such influence on non-Maroon Jamaican expressions can somehow still have occurred: in the percussion aspects of reggae music for example: just like Nyabinghi drumming included Burru and Kumina influences (and Nyabinghi in turn influenced reggae).

Reggae is of course in its origins influenced by traditional African music - as all Black music at least partly is. In addition, more direct African musical influences have always entered reggae (or ska and rocksteady) music since the 1960s, through percussion and otherwise, noticeable more directly in certain songs, think for instance of the percussive song ‘Congo Man’ by the Congos, and these might in cases well be influenced by “purer African” music retained among the Maroons, alongside influences from Burru and Kumina. In fact, this song ‘Congo Man’ by the Congos - on their 1977 Heart of the Congos album - reminded me of some Jamaican Maroon music on this album, and might well be influenced by it.

Either way, the symbolic importance of Maroons escaping from and resisting slavery is often expressed by Rastafari-inspired reggae artists, as noticeable in several reggae lyrics, mentioning Queen Nanny for instance.

As could be guessed, the entire album ‘Drums of Defiance’ can be found on YouTube as well, albeit without the informative liner notes (these can be downloaden on the earler link I gave). The video underneath (on the Traditional Music Channel on YouTube) is in fact this whole album I just discussed, and opens (as said) with the Kumina-influenced Tambu music by Jamaican Maroons in Moore Town, continuing then with recreational Jawbone, spiritual Kromanti, and other examples, also from other Maroon towns. It ends in Accompong, and the very final part (after about one hour) is the mentioned Nyabinghi medley in an own “Accompong Maroon” way..

donderdag 2 april 2015

Commenting on the "rude boy phenomenon"

I am not a big fan of Hollywood movies. Overall, I find most commercialised “blockbuster” movies from the Hollywood quarters too superficial, unintelligent, stereotypical, simplistic, and even unrealistic. Many are violent or simply immoral. This is not to say that I never find a Hollywood movie to be somehow entertaining, and in a more indirect way even “educational”. Perhaps educational in the sense of “learning from your mistakes”, but still educational. Some rare Hollywood movies/film go somewhere beyond bad taste or superficiality. For example, in my opinion the movie ‘Philadelphia’ (with among others Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) was such a positive, “deeper” exception.


A recent (2015) US Hollywood movie/film I saw in the cinema was ‘(Never Lose) Focus’, featuring among others Will Smith. The film was entertaining, helped perhaps - as so often - by overwhelming imagery, and by the presence of humour. It had, however, many of the main flaws I mentioned concerning Hollywood movies: it was superficial, immoral, and probably unrealistic. It was a movie about a group of “smart” criminals and thieves, using many cunning tricks to rob money from all kinds of people (no, not only the rich). Definitely not original this theme, and I am afraid that in this romanticizing, clear echoes of Quentin Tarantino’s movies show. I find Tarantino as a filmmaker – despite his hip “cult status” – overrated.

There is a danger in this that has of course been acknowledged before. The movie ‘Focus’ conveyed as main message that “weakness”, apparently defined as being unfocussed – or in turn too attached - emphatic or emotional, had to be punished and profited from. In short, the basic, cynical, criminal logic: weakness leads to victimization. This message might influence life style choices by young, susceptible people who search a solution but lack a solid moral grounding, intelligence, or empathy. Like I said, this has been acknowledged and commented enough in the past, also academically. It has been exaggerated perhaps by some, or criticized selectively with own agendas, but I am afraid such spectacular, if cynical and “criminality romanticizing” movies do influence people toward wrong life choices. Probably many people seeing such movies are intelligent and moral enough to put all this in perspective, but many others are – I think – not.

The same applies of course to the much-criticized “gangsta rap/hip-hop” and the values this seems to promote. I recognize that there is also a danger of “bad influence”, but not less than Hollywood or Tarantino films, I argue. The only added psychological risk is that the “racial underdog” image of this type of hip-hoppers who happen to be black, attract copying by vulnerable (racial/ethnic) “outsider” groups who, for lacking proper moral and social guides, get taken away by this commercialized hip-hip presenting (like Tarantino) crime as a “cool” way of life.

The risks involved in a life of crime – being punishable by law, having to hide etcetera – are a deterrent, but some have not much to lose, or lack other options in life. Some people are more easily influenced by media images and portrayals than others, of course. Even if in such movies, criminals kill, fool, or act violent toward each other, the life style portrayed is one of suspense, spectacular parties, wild and rough sex, instant satisfaction, and fun. All part of the illusive life and false pretence criminals prefer to create around them, perhaps to cloud their shame and guilty conscience. This was also the case in the movie ‘Focus’.


It was also the case in another movie I saw on criminality called ‘Rude Boy : the Jamaican Don’, somewhat older, from 2003. This film portrayed Jamaicans and was set in the US and Jamaica, and featured appearances of some musical artists (Beenie Man, Marcia Griffiths, Jimmy Cliff, and Ninja Man). The leading part was by an actor who I have seen before, called Mark Danvers. Danvers seems to be a fine actor and also has I think a nice, expressive face, which might help.


Meanwhile (let’s say the last two decades) there has developed a whole subgenre of Jamaican or Jamaican-set movies involving criminal life, mostly through the plot of a criminal working himself up in the gangster hierarchy. Movies like ‘Kingston 12’, ‘Garrison’, and ‘Third World Cop’ all deal with criminality and are (more than the ‘Rude Boy’ movie) set in Jamaica itself. They mostly are entertaining, although some seem to be aimed more at the international market, than others (spoken only in Jamaican Patois/Creole). ‘Third World Cop’ - internationally marketed - is for instance worth a watch (it’s on YouTube). It’s probably from his role in 'Third World Cop' that I remember the mentioned Mark Danvers from. There are –admittedly – what some might call “B-movies” among these Jamaican “crime” movies, but also several better or okay ones. A sub-sub genre of this genre are movies involving also Jamaican migrants in the US. That Jamaica is a country with relatively much violent (gang-related) crime makes this – one might argue – realistic, but I ask then: what is the causal relation?

Typically Jamaican developments also find their ways to movies/films. The mixture of partisan politics and crime and violence is one such aspect: political parties JLP and PNP funded (and armed) supporters to “control” certain areas, such as downtown “ghetto” areas of Kingston. This was meant to secure patronage – financial dependency on policians – as well as to ensure votes and loyalty from areas. This is enforced by gangs aligned with certain parties. Eventually, some of these “Dons” (criminal leaders) became more powerful than politicians, or even “the state” in certain parts of Kingston, though political patronage remained.

This following opinion might come close to sacrilege, according to some, but I will state it anyway: I find the first internationally known and much heralded 1972 Jamaican movie ‘The Harder They Come’ – with a young Jimmy Cliff as main actor - not so good or “classic”, as many claim. It was nice and entertaining - the plot was clear, the acting not bad, and the imagery nice-, but in it was my opinion too superficial to be really impressive. I commented before (I believe on this same blog) that one of its messages - or at least what the plot expressed – that an aspiring singer/musician became more interesting because he had become a gunman killing people, is simply immoral. In reality, I found the sound track of ‘The Harder They Come’ – with the “title track” and the good, emotive song ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, both by Cliff, better and more enduring than the movie itself.


In many Hollywood and other films/movies for a long time now (since the time of Western movies), the cheap thrill of an entertaining movie with suspense and spectacle and a clear plot and story, has taken precedence over sociological explanations of crime or violence in the same film.

Overall, Hollywood (including Tarantino) is in this case even worse than that Jamaican subgenre of “crime movies”. In Jamaican films, such social backgrounds of ghetto life and deprivation and exclusion – stimulating crime – are often at least hinted at, albeit seldom very “deep” or philosophical. In that sense ‘The Harder They Come’ reflected a reality: people from rural areas go reside in poor ghettos of Jamaica’s capital, but do not make it as they hoped, and turn somewhat cynical (and criminal). Disillusioned youths turning to antisocial behaviour, or simply crime, is a common fact in Jamaican (and indeed worldwide) history.


The aforementioned movie from 2003 was named ‘Rude Boy (the Jamaican Don)’. The slang term ‘Rude Boy’ has a longer history in Jamaica, as does the term “Don” for a gang leader of the subtitle. The term “Rude Boy” for an unruly, or delinquent, youth goes back to at least the early 1960s in Jamaica. Songs in the Jamaican music genres Ska (which arose around 1960) and Rocksteady (around 1966) attest to this. The next Jamaican genre that developed from these earlier ones, Reggae, continue the discussion of the “Rude Boy” phenomenon in many of its lyrics. .

Interestingly, and many more knowledgeable of Jamaican music already know this, this commenting of “Rude Boys” is often critical of these criminals and criminality. It is true that there are also “glorifying” and “romanticizing” lyrics regarding crime and rude boys (also called “rudies” or “bad boys”), but the balance tends toward critique of it and them. Positively, this critique of rude boys at least points at the presence of a solid, moral and humanitarian foundation in Jamaican culture. Criminals in high and low places – including those with a “criminal mentality” in powerful places – are often specialized in intimidation, manipulation, and power play, and can therefore be more influential in a society. Both intimidation and manipulation (or “lying”) are part and parcel of the criminal life style. Without exception, I would say. Somewhat simplified I can state it like this: not everyone who once in a while lies is by definition a criminal..but all criminals lie commonly. To the people around them, and also to themselves. They also tend to be specialized in manipulating the truth.

This is what I noticed in the ‘Rude Boy’ movie I mentioned before, and likewise in other such Jamaican films on criminals. Rastafari-derived imagery and terminology is used in Rude Boy and other movies, also by people involved in a criminal, gangster life style. This is evidently hypocritical and false. I personally object to it too, and find it immoral.


Still.. There is a deeper sociological layer behind this which is worth to delve into. I am talking about the specific Jamaican social context. Now and historically. The choice for a criminal life style is often related to degrees of poverty and exclusion. This makes sense, though of course not in an absolute sense. There are correlations though. If one could earn enough money (through some regular job) to live well, without having to be calculatedly violent against people, or hide from the police and other criminals, many would not turn to crime. That is self-evident.

The popular music genres that originated in Jamaica – Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae (the latter existing since about 1968) – are interesting lyrically in this regard. I argue that where there is a lack of “depth” and analysis in Hollywood (and some Jamaican) film portrayals of criminals and criminality, in Jamaican music lyrics the contrary is true: crimes and criminality are analyzed with depth throughout the several lyrics. This is helped by the fact that in Jamaican music genres, lyrics tend to be topical and socially conscious, unlike genres focussed lyrically mainly on love, parties, or sex.

Jamaican popular music developed especially among the poorer part of people in the ghettos of Jamaica. In Kingston, but with rural influences: many musicians settled in Kingston ghetto’s from rural parts of Jamaica. Not just musicians, of course. The migration from impoverished rural areas to main cities is a worldwide phenomenon, being more intensive and enduring in developing countries like Jamaica. These migrants sought opportunities for work, and many got disillusioned over time with “mainstream” economy and working as labourer in companies, often lacking stable incomes, or ending up unemployed. This context – or you might say: vacuum – is an intensive and multidimensional one, albeit ruled by despair. Life choices then become more urgent and significant, directly connected with human dignity and survival. There are less “positive progress” possibilities in such a context. Out of pain comes the best art; it is in this disadvantaged “ghetto” context that Jamaica’s music originated and developed creatively, with all its versatility. It is in this same context, that Rastafari provided a moral and spiritual, righteous answer to life’s problems and limitations. Yet, sadly, it also is the same context in which popular crime and violence increased.

The good and bad are thus intertwined or at least close to each other, and this has several dimensions. One is a confusing one: sharing a context/situation, but different life choices. On the other hand, exactly this contradiction improves a genuine and veracious analysis of crime as phenomenon. Better, arguably, than some scholars with a middle-class status who grew up in a family and neighbourhood with likewise a middle-class status, and for whom crime is “something far away from them”, no matter how much “field work” or study partly compensates this.


The interesting question I try to answer in the remainder of this post is this one: what do Jamaican music lyrics (Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae) say about crime and criminals among common people in (this case) Jamaica, and what does this teach us external studies cannot?


Ska arose as one of the first “own” music genres developed and originated by Jamaicans themselves around 1960. There were political changes then that promised social changes: Jamaica became independent of Britain in 1962. This lead to optimism among many common people, including a more assertive presentation of identity. Ska was part of that, and expressed this “joy” more or less in its musical and dance characteristics, especially “Early Ska”. As social inequality however remained, and a new, local elite largely took over from the British, this optimistic feeling largely waned over time. Unruly and criminal youth, despair and violence in poor areas all came to the fore, appearing also in lyrics. The Rude Boys were perhaps a nuisance but were at least part of the common, poorer folks, some artists reasoned. This includes the Wailers who wrote some more or less “apologetic” lyrics about “Rudies” too long in jail, although the first big Wailers hit, ‘Simmer Down’ (1964) warned the Rude Boys also to beware and not disturb anymore.

Another artist starting in the Ska era, the legendary Alton Ellis, objected to this defending of violent Rudies by the Wailers and others. Apparently he found this to be immoral, and advised the Rude Boys to leave violence and criminality and pursue other life choices, boxer, preacher etcetera. Titles of fine Alton Ellis songs like ‘Dance Crasher’ (1965), ‘Don’t Trouble People’ (1966), or ‘Cry Tough’ (1966) say enough. These are musically great “Late” Ska songs, a bit slower and “bluesier” than earlier Ska. I also like Ellis’s soulful singing, of course. .

Stranger Cole’s ‘Rough and Tough” (1963) is known as one of the earliest released, critical lyrics on rude boys in Jamaican popular music, dated 1963.

Other artists like Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, the Rulers, and Derrick Morgan wrote in this period also about “rude boys” (continuing partly in the following Rocksteady and Reggae periods), mostly – but not always – critically. Another nice, later example of lyrics criticizing crime is Bob Andy’s soulful, “Late Ska” of ‘Crime Don’t Pay’ (1966), in which “Rudie” is rhymed with “cops might get moody”..


Later that decade, around 1966, another, slower genre developed from Ska, called Rocksteady, after a transition period. By 1966 the Rude Boy has become a common phenomenon among youth in Jamaica, and became part of the music audience, according to some even shaping tastes. Celebratory, noncritical songs and lyrics were also made and released by artists like Prince Buster targeting (and thus positive) about the Rudie market and audience. Also Desmond Dekker, the Clarendonians, the Pioneers, the Rulers and others had such apparently less-than-critical songs on the Rudie culture (albeit not always explicitly), with a title like ‘Hard Man Fe Dead’ (Prince Buster) showing this kind of rude boy bravado.

Again, this shows that the rude boys belong to the same social (under)class as most of these musicians: both the uncritical identification, as the “fatherly” or “motherly” advise and critique combined with care as one has toward siblings. Either way, criminal and violent youth in a community affect that community most: wealthier people have means and ways to protect and remove themselves from this annoyance. Unfortunately, a common strain in human history is that “crime” and “criminality” (with differing definitions at times) is used by such elite classes to keep lower classes in their place. Jamaican musicians mostly criticize from a lower position, as likewise victims of the system, but prefer to act wiser and more moral when compared to the violent rude boys. Some artists wrote both celebratory and (later) critical songs on rude boys.

One of the first songs in the Rocksteady genre (that title is contested) is by Derrick Morgan, the groovy, catchy song ‘Tougher Than Tough (Rudie in court)’ (1966). Its lyrics seem to defend the rude boys, but Morgan later explained that such positive lyrics were “forced or intimidated out of him” by one notorious gangster or rude boy. Ironically yet tellingly, this particular gangster Morgan wrote the song for, could hear the song played in the dance once, but soon after was shot to death in a dispute.

Several “reggae historians” point out that the rude boys influenced the development toward Rocksteady as a slower, more “cool” music genre. I heard other explanations as well: Rocksteady developed in a studio, strictly among musicians experimenting with slowing down Ska. Another contender for first Rocksteady song, and also a nice one, is Hopeton Lewis’s ‘Take It Easy’ (1966), who attributes this songs then unusual characteristics to music studio experiments, and thus not rude boy demands.

Other sources claim that increased violence in Jamaica, persisting poverty, and disillusion with progress even after independence, changed the musical mood from “joyous” to “reflective” or “sadder”, which sounds plausible to me. This is, I think, one of the explanations, but perhaps the rude boy audiences and tastes and – on the other hand - musicians innovating also had influences. Truth is not always one-dimensional. Besides, explaining the slower Rocksteady beat through rude boy tastes also puzzles me a bit. Are criminals or gangster inclined to “slower” music? I doubt that for some reason.

Still, in the by the way very readable and educational guide to Reggae music (which is much more than a annotated discography) called ‘The Rough Guide to Reggae’ by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton (published 2001) the authors go as far to term “Rude Boy music” as an influential subgenre in the period between Ska and Rocksteady, pointing also at a generational issue, as Ska for some youth had something “adult” in some way. I myself however still insist that Rocksteady originated from different influences, not just rude boys.

Critique of gangsters and rude boys continued in many Rocksteady lyrics – besides love and socially themed songs of course – although there continued to be some celebrating of them as well.


Around 1968 Reggae music developed from Rocksteady, also due to a combination of social and musical influences. Early Reggae from the period 1968 to around 1972 was faster than later reggae. Some “reggae historians” point out that in the transitional period between the end of Rocksteady and Early Reggae a more “pro-Rudie” feel was expressed in songs, probably due to the faster pace reggae had . Reggae was initially even faster than Rocksteady. Later reggae slowed down, and became (lyrically) relatively more spiritual and socially conscious.

Another readable and educational – but broader and more chaotic – guide to ‘Reggae & Caribbean music’ by Dave Thompson (2002) also points at an influence of rude boys on developing rocksteady, but also discusses “Rude Reggae” as part of the faster, Early Reggae, before increased Rastafari influence in the 1970s. The other work I mentioned, by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, and this one also discuss Skinhead Reggae, referring to reggae’s internationalization in Britain. In some way the violent and aggressive “skinheads” can be seen as white, British versions of Jamaican rudeboys, perhaps they copied it, who knows. Skinheads became known as racist and anti-immigrant as well, although this is disputed and applies according to some skinheads only to certain subgroups: other skinhead subcultures in parts of Britain were multiracial, with white and black Britons socializing.

Apparently, the slower tempo, but also the increasing influence of Rastafari, Black nationalism, social critique, and spirituality of later reggae, since around 1973 – known also as Roots Reggae – were not appreciated by most skinheads. I imagine that in Jamaica itself a similar social process occurred, at least among a part of the music audiences and lovers. Rastafari represented a worldview aimed at moral Black upliftment, including spirituality. This was against – an antidote you might say – immoral crime, wickedness among Jamaican people, as criminals victimizing their own people only (at the end) support the oppressive “Babylon” system, ultimately based on violence as well. Justice and law were criticized by some Rastas for anti-marijuana laws or discrimination or unjust persecution of poor ghetto youth, but murderers, rapists, thieves and others attacking (also for political/partisan reasons) and abusing members of their own community were criticized strongly by Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists.

Many, many lyrics of course attest to this of virtually all reggae icons. This shows that crime, gangs, and violence were common problems in poverty-ridden areas of suffering, excluded people in Jamaican ghetto’s. Rastafari provided a better "answer" and identity (based on Black pride) according to these artists and other Rastafari-adherents. This was from the perspective of people from the same poor community thus affected by it, again: not by politicians or others powers that be, using the presence of crime in poor areas as divisive or oppressive mechanism.

I can give examples of reggae lyrics criticizing criminality and criminal ways of life, but in reality there are too many to mention. Some have “Rude Boy” in the title, a term that has proved to be enduring. The recent “club favourite” (at least in clubs I frequent here in the Netherlands) ‘Rude Boy Shufflin’ (1995) by Israel Vibration being a recent example, as is Don Carlos’s 2010 but rootsy song ‘Rude Boy’ (from the album Changes), Culture’s ‘Cousin Rude Boy’ (from the 1989 album Good Things) and Bushman’s (dancehall) songs ‘Rude Boy Life’ (on Bushman's 1996 album Nyah Man Chant), and ‘Rude Boy’.

The term Rude Boy or Bad Man, or broader “bad mind” or “wicked” people, is mentioned throughout much of 1970s and 1980s Roots Reggae, as I said: too many to mention. “Wolves in sheep clothing”, who live as criminals but have taken on Rasta imagery are also understandably vilified. That one wants to join a movement without proper knowledge is odd, that one does not show it too much in one’s life style (working for the system, no dietary restrictions) is a pity and superficial, but false Rastas “fighting against their own brethren and sistren” (stealing, warring and otherwise) are even worse.

Ghetto life and criminality all recur throughout these Roots Reggae lyrics as part of the common social critique in it, crucially: “from within”. It is here that the deeper “wisdom” lies of Roots Reggae lyrics on rude boys and criminality and gangsters, be it by Bob Marley & the Wailers, the Wailing Souls, Culture, Hugh Mundell, Dennis Brown, Bunny Wailer, Israel Vibration, Black Uhuru, Horace Andy, Twinkle Brothers, Junior Delgado, the Mighty Diamonds, the Itals, Mutabaruka, Ini Kamoze or any other reggae icons: “who lives it knows it”.

I can name some classic songs I liked on this theme, but there are so many that an explanatory “bird view” seemed more appropriate. Alright, I’ll name a few: ‘General Penitentiary’ by Black Uhuru, the beautiful 'Are We A Warrior' by Ijahman Levi, ‘Lift Up Your Conscience’ by Israel Vibration, ‘Why Me Black Brother Why?’ by the Mighty Diamonds, or less well-known, Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Way Of Life’, are examples from 1970s and early 1980s Roots Reggae that self-respecting reggae fans should at least know, but these are but examples of many, and I probably still forgot some crucial ones.

These lyrics mostly depict ghetto life, and therefore recur in the lyrics of most Roots Reggae artists, alongside more spiritual and “international” or historical themes (that of course are all interrelated).

Lyrically interesting are in this regard, besides singers and groups, certainly songs by ”conscious” rhythmic vocalizing (“chatting”) “toasters” and dee-jay’s like Big Youth, I-Roy, Jah Stitch, Prince Fari and others.

The extent and form of violence and criminality even increased in severity in the 1980s and 1990s, especially related to gangs with power in certain quarters, aided by political patronage and active in the international cocaine trade, being much more violent and extreme than the ganja/marijuana trade longer common in Jamaica. Of course these changes in social reality reflected in lyrics of musical artists, but Jamaica’s music kept evolving and changing as well.


The earlier 1980s was the period of Early Dancehall – with still much Roots Reggae influences - , and after 1984 Digital Dancehall arose, and the reworking of existing instrumentals/riddims (out of economic restrictions) became more common. These are all musical changes, but lyrically comments on crime and ghetto life continued by some artists, but in this regard came also changes.

Roots Reggae artists, or often Rastafari-inspired artists in later Dancehall, since the 1980s, were as said critical of crime and criminals troubling people of their own community and therefore part of the system (Babylon). This critique of crime and violence continued in fine songs by artist like Barrington Levy, Michael Prophet , Half Pint, Don Carlos, Gregory Isaacs and others. In the later 1980s, however, some artists started celebrating “slackness” and “badness”, which included sexual braggadocio, excessive “bragging” and self-aggrandizing (often with some humour, must be said), but also seemed to glorify violence and crime at times. This often had irony and deliberate exaggeration for effect, but could be called even then “celebratory” of a “Rude Boy” type of mentality or life style.. Such lyrics unfortunately partly reflected the reality of increased and extended (gun) crime in Jamaica by the later 1980s..


Such “Slackness” lyrics remained a time dominant in Jamaican popular music (think of artists like Cutty Ranks, Ninjaman, Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, Tiger, Mad Cobra and others), but as more often in Jamaican and world history the balance kept swinging: action-reaction, and a more “conscious” Rastafari (often of the Bobo Ashanti mansion: a sub-group within Rastafari)-influenced current arose within Dancehall Reggae in the course of the 1990s, including artists like Sizzla, Anthony B, Junior Reid, Tony Rebel, Turbulence, Jah Mason, Warrior King, I Wayne, Lutan Fyah, Luciano, and later converts Buju Banton and Capleton (who actually started with some lyrically Slackness-and Rudie-like songs). This Rastafari-influenced current is called the Rasta Renaissance or Revival in Dancehall/Reggae – some call it: New Roots -, and is still very present and active in Jamaican popular music and among international reggae fans by 2015 (as I write this), represented by said and others artists, both dee jays/chatters as singers. Other artists inspired by Rastafari (apparently not so much associated with the Bobo Ashanti subgroup) like Tarrus Riley, Bushman, Richie Spice, Chronixx, Protoje, Jesse Royal, Jah9, Queen Ifrica (a biological daughter of the mentioned Derrick Morgan by the way), and several others, followed in this current and are active and popular now.

In the lyrics of these latter artists a more ”righteous” moral stance is taken when discussing local conditions, against wickedness and crime/criminality in high and low places, alongside (again) lyrics on related themes regarding history, inequality, spirituality, Marcus Garvey, Africa, and Haile Selassie I.

Other artists still tend to Slackness lyrics (Vybz Kartel for instance), or confusingly mix Rasta terms and imagery with Slackness or “Gangster-like” terms and imagery, but the balance seems to have swayed in this time to another, more “conscious” (crime-condemning) direction, which I think is a positive development. Beyond the Jamaican context, I think it also is a very “human” development, when actions and movements are countered with different actions and movements, including contrasting mindsets alongside shared variables.


On a final note, I come back to my earlier point and argue that studying all these lyrics in Jamaican music overall will provide a realistic, deep, and extensive insight in the development and beackground of crime and criminality among disadvantaged people: its context, complexities, and consequences. Not just in Jamaica, I opine. I further contend that this social insight is better and deeper - not to mention more realistic - than that gained from studying Hollywood or similar movies/films on more or less the same theme.

dinsdag 3 maart 2015

Mapping geographically : comparing adjacent islands Cuba and Jamaica

I have always been intrigued by geographical maps. With “always” I mean: as long as I can remember, since I was a small child. Atlases, maps, at home, at school, or in the library.. they amazed me and got my deep interest. This was largely not too specific regarding country or part of the world. I recall how the way relief was indicated through colours and other signs in atlases and maps made me dream and fantasize about those places. The same applied for the different colours in maps used for arid, semi-arid or green, cultivated or wild land. That opened an intriguing world for me. So did the relative distance between countries, land masses, islands, borders etcetera.

Then there are “political maps”, as they are formally known. These focus more on man-made, political facts about a country: the capital(s), cities, borders (provinces)… in other words how human history gave a certain meaning to natural geographical areas. While I am interested in history as well, I emotionally could not help to make a distinction between the natural landscapes and what man later made of it. In fact, I considered it unnatural and artificial how political, national categories dominated natural geographical areas, even as a child. I not only considered it artificial, it is really artificial. States, nations are political choices, stemming from power relations. National borders were often arbitrary compromises given political weight over time.


One of my areas of interest in this regard is “bordering or nearby countries”: do borders really mean a cultural and geographical change? Also borders within countries (provinces, regions, states) never seized to amaze me, especially the relation (or relative lack thereof) of a cultural, ethnic and historical difference coinciding with borders. In organically, historically developed European countries differences are often (though not totally) clear-cut. Wales is located there because the Anglo-Saxons never really reached that Western area, and Wales largely kept its Celtic identity. The Alps are also interesting. A part of the Alps are in Italy, a large part of these Alpine mountain areas are German-speaking, French-speaking, and a part in Slovenia (or with other languages/dialects and cultures). Not necessarily neatly coinciding with “political” borders, as many may know about the different languages in Switzerland, and the German-speaking South-Tyrol, bordering Austria, but in Italy. Yet anthropologists speak of an Alpine ethnic type, mostly associated with once Celtic-speaking Central-Europeans, albeit mixed with other peoples (Germanic peoples in German-speaking areas, Romans and Italic peoples in Italy and others).

The Pyrenees between France and Spain seem a more natural border, but on the sides the mountains get lower and thus Catalonia is relatively more accessible from bordering France, than Spanish parts west of it (like Aragón), which had predictable historical consequences. Not everyone knows that languages spoken in the Provence in southern France (including around Marseille) – now diminished to dialect and with less speakers – are related to the Catalan language of Catalonia. It is in that sense a linguistic and cultural continuum. On the other side of the Pyrenees the Basque people and language likewise cross borders between Spain and France. Basques used, for instance, to inhabit a larger part of south western France than what is now known as the French Basque country, including the area around the city Bordeaux, of which surnames, toponyms, and genetic studies are still evidences. To a lesser degree Basques also inhabited a somewhat larger part of Spain than what is now known as Spanish Basque country.

Even more artificial or arbitrary are of course the political borders of former colonies of European countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas and elsewhere. These were not even decided by local elites, but by foreign elites. Apart from Ethiopia and a few other areas, Europeans largely shaped the borders in Africa and elsewhere. Note Senegal and how Gambia is “cut out of it”, due to different colonizers, while the two areas have much cultural and ethnic similarities, but different colonizers. Several examples of course can be given of this. Kikongo speaking peoples inhabit former Belgian, former French, and former Portuguese colonies, and Akan-speaking peoples live in both Ghana (which was a British colony) as in Ivory Coast (which was French). Of course Frisians live also in different countries in Europe (Netherlands, Germany), Basques as said in France and Spain, and there are other examples in Europe (Italian-speakers in Switzerland, German-speakers in a part of northern Italy, Dutch-language variants in Belgium, French in Belgium etcetera etcetera), but these had more haphazard, historically developed origins, while in former colonies it was often due to the stroke of a pen by foreign colonizers, a distant and drastic decision, making it even more artificial.


All this - including my interest in maps and geography - more or less comes together in the comparison I will make now between two countries that are very close to each other in the Caribbean Sea: Cuba and Jamaica. Both countries I find culturally interesting, and I have actually visited. I even had a trip in 2006, during which I visited both Cuba for about two weeks, directly followed by Jamaica for one week.

Cuba and Jamaica are former colonies by different colonizers (Spain and Britain) and are islands. This makes them inherently disconnected, some seem to think. Yet, the distance is small, especially at the eastern part of Cuba. The closest distance between the islands of Cuba and Jamaica is just about 140 kilometres. Eastern Cuba, which lies closest to Jamaica is mountaineous, just like a large part of Jamaica, so there is a continuum there too.

My plan for a “island-hop” vacation in 2006 combining Cuba and Jamaica, caused that some made remarks along the lines of: “that must be totally different (Cuba and Jamaica)”. This was by people who actually knew these places well, have been there, but also by others who hadn’t, and responded to common knowledge and facts (communist Cuba, Spanish-speaking, capitalist Jamaica, former British colony etcetera), they picked up here and there.

The question I would like to answer in the remainder of this post is thus this one: just how different are Cuba and Jamaica? In what ways? What are similarities? How can these be explained? All the more interesting, because the countries/islands are so close to each other: they are “bordering islands” so to speak. This way, I return to the contradiction between natural geography and man-made historical and political borders.


The Cuban-American historical scholar Antonio Benitez-Rojo once spoke of “repeating islands”, in referring to the Caribbean islands. Most of the Caribbean islands, whatever the colonizing country, followed roughly the same historical pattern, Benitez-Rojo argued: a slave-based sugar industry and plantation economy benefitting the European country, imported African labour, a white elite, a mixed race, somewhat intermediate class etcetera etcetera. Economy aimed at exports to colonizing country. As colonial constructs – essentially artificial – there are bound to be also similarities between Cuba and Jamaica, despite differences.

Indeed, both colonies knew slave-based plantation economies, with sugar being the main crop. There were also coffee and other plantations on both islands. The climate is of course similar. The development was in time quite different, though. For a period, Cuba was less focussed exclusively on sugar plantations and slaves than Jamaica (or Haiti). Throughout the 18th c. this was less developed in Cuba, but the slave-based sugar industry intensified there during the 19th c., especially after the Haitian Revolution and Haiti’s independence in 1804. Cynically, influential Cuban colonial economists advised to increase slave imports to take over the leading economic role in sugar that Haiti had before (18th c.). That Britain planned on abolishing the slave trade and slavery in the course of the early 19th c. – albeit hesitantly – further stimulated this aim. Of course at the cost of the human dignity (and lives) of many Africans, slave imports from Africa increased, especially expanding in Western and Central parts of Cuba (that were less mountainous, thus suitable for large sugar fields). Spain seemed, moreover, even more hesitant than Britain in abolishing the slave trade and slavery, and seemed to avoid the theme. Illegal slave trade by Portuguese and Spaniards to Cuba also continued, being the theme of the movie Amistad. It was not until 1886 that slavery was formally abolished in Cuba.

So, there is a difference in historical period, but one can conclude that Jamaican and Haitian slave-based plantation systems aimed at sugar, served as models for Cuban developments a bit later. They were indeed “repeated”. That transition seemed not so total, however, other economic sectors continued in Cuba, and demographically African slaves still made up proportionally less of the total population of Cuba than in Jamaica or Haiti. Racially the Cuban society was furthermore much more mixed, while the white population would increase later with Spanish immigration. This was in part a conscious policy by some Cuban politicians, to avoid an “Africanization” of Cuba, for racist reasons.

British white migration to Jamaica, on the other hand, occurred, but was never massive. Cuba became independent from Spain in 1892, after a war between Spain and the USA, much earlier than Jamaica from Britain (in 1962). Later indentured labourers came mostly from China, in the case of Cuba, but mostly from India in the case of Jamaica. Consequently, Havana’s “China Town” was once the largest in Latin America, after the one in Lima, Peru. Those are also differences, although there was Chinese migration to Jamaica as well.

Photo above: the entry gate to Havana's historical Barrio Chino (China Town). I took this photo in 2006


I like nature, but was especially interested in the musical and other cultures of Jamaica and Cuba. Being a long-time reggae fan and being interested in Rastafari, this is predictable. However, also Cuban music and culture had my interest. My travels on both islands had this culture (music and beyond) as focus, though not exclusively. Of course, I also paid attention to nature, climate, and landscapes. Politics had less of my interest, social issues a bit more, but these themes inevitably demand attention. The moment you enter a country, cross borders at the customs office, you enter by definition a certain political system.

The way the people lived their lives under such political systems, and social conditions, certainly had my interest. Along with this, music and culture had my attention. I know there exists a phenomenon called “sex tourism”, whereby Western tourists focus mostly on sex with locals, and aspects like social conditions and culture are subordinated (if useful) to this lust for sex. This has the appeal of being concrete and practical, but seemed, however, too egotistic and, well, vulgar and shallow to me. My pursuits were perhaps more intellectual.


I was already a reggae fan before going to Cuba, for the first time in 2001. I went to Cuba before I went to Jamaica. I knew some Cuban music, but got more into it when I was actually in Cuba. I liked the groove I heard of the many live performances I encountered. Towns in Cuba – large and small – tend to have central locales (music clubs) where local bands performs regularly, mostly acoustically. That’s a good network, keeping live music alive, even with state support. The Communist state’s role in culture and music has negative aspects as well, but seemed to do some good things too: musicians get paid state incomes according to skill, stimulating somehow musicians. These incomes are meagre, admittedly, but more than nothing.

The music genres played in such clubs tended to be Cuban or Cuban-influenced genres like salsa, or its main (local Cuban) precursor, called son. Also, genres like rumba, bolero, or danzón could be heard. Historically, the son genre is associated more with Eastern Cuba (with as largest city Santiago de Cuba), and the rumba more with Western Cuba (with Havana as biggest city). They assume that the origins of rumba is among Afro-Cubans in the city of Matanzas, somewhat east of Havana. What I liked about these Cuban genres were the percussive and groovy aspects of them. Bands I saw tended to include bongos, conga, shaker and other percussion players, and the songs were mostly groovy, catchy or with nice melodies, as percussion combined with guitars or bass guitars, and often also horns. That I understood Spanish helped me to understand the lyrics. It made to me clear that the lyrics had some limitations, with some themes recurring and other themes avoided, probably due to censorship. Love songs were common , or odes to revolutionary Cuban leaders, in these lyrics. That is a pity – real art develops only fully, I opine, if you can express yourself freely and honestly - , but I still heard some nice songs, and heard some great musicianship being performed.

I travelled through a large part of Cuba (sometimes day trips), and spent quite some time in Havana (at least a week in total), Cuba’s biggest city with over a million inhabitants, as well as in Santiago de Cuba in Eastern Cuba, which has over 500.000 inhabitants.

Havana is architectonically interesting and quite monumental, with remnants of the Spanish colonial baroque style, with what the French call “grandeur”, if somewhat decaying. Havana had in my experience a nice, lively, and edgy atmosphere, somehow shaping the vibe in Havana, largely due to the people’s lively spirit. Racially, it is an intensely mixed city, which was then somewhat new to me. Havana had many mulattoes (mixed European and African) people, as well as white people, mostly of Spanish descent, but also many black people, thus mostly of African descent. There were even quite some people with Chinese blood. Interestingly, parts of the African culture (of Yoruba, Congo, Calabar, or other origin) could be maintained in Cuba, among Afro-Cubans, kept alive in cultural centres.

Photo above: another view of (Old/central) Havana. I took this photo in 2006.

They say that the slavery regime under the Spanish was somewhat more mild and lenient when compared to the British or French slave regimes. This must not be exaggerated, as enslaved Africans were still largely dehumanized. Historical records show, however, that also slaves had some legal protection in Spanish colonies like Cuba, and could on free days have own cultural organizations according to their cultural heritage. Some historians describe the difference as such: in British colonies enslaved Africans were treated socially and legally as animals, in Spanish colonies as “lesser humans”. They were dehumanized a bit less, you can say. Still oppressed and at the bottom, but with some recognition of human and cultural rights. It was for instance a bit more easy for slaves to buy or obtain freedom in Cuba. Both free and enslaved blacks tended to come together on certain days in clubs aimed at shared African origins (Yoruba, Efik/Ibibio, Congo a.o.), cultivating these cultures. This had to be partly hidden still, from the Catholic powers, such as the Yoruba deities hidden behind Catholic saints in the largely Yoruba-based Santería religion, that developed in Cuba.

I encountered several Cubans who were active in such more directly African-based cultural expressions (like Santería), but also the music genres rumba and son were evidently African-influenced. I found this to be an interesting aspect of Cuban cultural life. As there was much live music, this could be practically experienced as well.


I had friends in the city of Santiago de Cuba in Eastern Cuba, so I returned there more often, getting to know Santiago de Cuba thus better, during the separate travels I made to Cuba, between 2001 and 2006. Santiago de Cuba is in size the second city of Cuba. I haven’t really counted, but I can say that I spent at least a few weeks in Santiago de Cuba and surroundings. That Eastern part of Cuba is known as “el Oriente” – meaning “the East” in Spanish. It is culturally, historically, and otherwise different from other parts of Cuba, such as West Cuba with Havana. Not so odd: all countries have internal differences. The East of Cuba is more mountainous than the West, which tends to have historical consequences. The southeastern part with Santiago de Cuba is known as the “most Caribbean” part of Cuba, also among Cubans, meaning probably in part that the population is mostly black or mulatto. This is the case in the cities Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo (the latter has over 100.000 inhabitants) and the provinces these cities are capital of. The son music genre is from this area, and also the bongos as instrument (and other Cuban instruments spread globally) originate from this musically rich and varied part of Cuba. A historical Haitian influence, as well as Jamaican migration in the past to the region of Santiago de Cuba, further added to it being known as the “most Caribbean part of Cuba”. I indeed met some Cubans in Santiago de Cuba with some family ties to Haiti and Jamaica.

Also much live music in Santiago de Cuba, perhaps proportionally more so than in Havana, as there are a few active live music clubs in a city that is smaller than Havana: you notice the live music therefore more. The local, traditional son music, originated in Eastern Cuba, is the main root of what became globally known as Salsa music. I was more a reggae fan, so a “salsa pilgrimage” idea was on my mind, but not that dominant. I liked some salsa and especially son, though. I got more appreciation for the flexible instrument the bongos and other percussion instruments in Santiago de Cuba, and that has remained important in my life since then.

The city Santiago de Cuba has a comparable “baroque”, Spanish colonial style regarding architecture to Havana, but with also more French-Haitian influences (similarities with New Orleans are also there), which has an interesting vibe by itself. To be honest, from an architecture and town planning perspective: Santiago had nice parts, but seemed overall a bit less “monumental” than Havana, but perhaps because Santiago was a smaller city. Some parts of Santiago de Cuba seemed even quite chaotic. Culturally, however, I found it to be a very interesting city. I knew several people in Santiago, and that also helped me to get to know the city better over time.

Photo above: a view of central Santago de Cuba (side street Parque de Cespedes). I took this photo in 2006.

Like in Havana, many Cubans in Santiago tried to make money off tourists informally, hustling on the streets. Sometimes I found it annoying to constantly be aware of such bothering, or to have to make people leave me alone. Just walking by myself on the streets was at times impossible, such as when I got bothered – or approached - constantly. This being “bothered” had gradations of irritation, though. Sometimes I found it even funny how they tried to get my attention. Women used what they could offer and what men tend to want, men (or even boys) had other tricks. A special case: a small boy approached me and asked if I wanted a relationship with his older sister. Acting as a pimp, more or less..an example of what poverty and lack of opportunity brings people to. I declined his offer and walked on, and he did not bother me further. Many further offered cigars or rum as part of the informal sector.

As I spoke Spanish well, I could talk with people this way, being educational in some sense, even if such relations were “interested” or insincere. When I went walking with local friends, I had a bit more “protection”, when walking around the city. As a white man, and/or visually a tourist/foreigner, walking alone in a Cuban city, the assumption that you want sex with a Cuban woman seems more automatic for many Cubans, as several “sex tourists” in the past have confirmed this assumption.

In remembering my Santiago de Cuba – and broader Cuban - experiences, I recall them as educational, as I moved in a dimension whereby cynicism, self-interest, poverty, dictatorship, fake friends and tricks, but also a rich, engaging culture, good spirit of people, humour, love, and true friends came together and interchanged constantly. Beauty and ugliness, or good and bad, intertwined confusingly . A “wild suspense between heaven and hell”, as Jamaican Marcus Garvey once wrote in a poem (a poem titled ‘The tragedy of white injustice’).

I made lasting friends there, learned a lot about especially Santiago de Cuba and to a degree also Havana and other parts of Cuba, and specifically about Cuban and Afro-Cuban culture and people, and, well, life in general. My love for bongos and percussion developed there. Focussing on the positive, those are the “plus points” of my Cuban experiences, for my life.

Photo above: view of a popular, more "outer" quarter of the city Santiago de Cuba. I took this photo in 2006.


In 2006 I went for the first time to Jamaica. Like I said before, after two weeks in Cuba. At least theoretically, this was in my mind more of a “pilgrimage” for me personally, as a reggae fan. Reggae music originated in Jamaica. I was not naïve to think that I would enter a paradise of marijuana, skanking on a reggae groove, and peace and love in a tropical setting. I have read a lot about Jamaica: social problems, poverty, social and cultural inequality. And criminality. That this crime was known to be more prevalent and violent – including guns and gangs – in Jamaica, was also known in Cuba. Some Cubans warned me because of this image: “there you have to be more careful”. Such a negative image spreads internationally. I cannot remember that I was full of fear, maybe I had some fears, but I thought it all to be relative. Some Cubans tried to rip me off too, even without weapons (that I did see, anyway). Besides, you have to use common sense when in Jamaica, and avoid certain areas or surroundings, I Imagined. I booked a hotel room in a relatively cheap, but decent hotel in uptown Kingston (that doubled as a pool and entertainment centre). Kingston is the capital of Jamaica, with about 800.000 inhabitants, somewhat bigger than Santiago de Cuba.

Photo above: view from my hotel in uptown/central Kingston (on more expensive hotels a.o.). I took this photo in 2006.

It was a new experience, but in an odd context. Memories about an intense, eventful two weeks were still very fresh in my mind, and now I was off to another Caribbean island, for one week. It was November and relatively rainy, by the way.

To return to the theme of this post: what are differences between Cuba and Jamaica, even if being close to each other? Cuba was, as a Communist state, in 2006 still very isolated from a globalized, US-dominated economic system. This had practical consequences. You had nowhere “pinning machines” to get money, as I was meanwhile accustomed in capitalist societies. You had no advertising, commercialism, or billboards, other than celebrating the Cuban Revolution. There was indeed “advertising” or “political propaganda”, or what someone called: “state graffiti” in Cuba, with political slogans (“Viva el Che”, “Viva la Revolución”), including often the painted images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Advertising or signs of former business stores in Cuba were remnants from older times, just never removed. That is, from before the 1959 Revolution in Cuba, that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Jamaica, by contrast, was clearly a capitalist, commercialist society, with many banks, billboards for companies who want to sell you things. The wealthier areas of Kingston (“uptown”), sometimes had US-style malls, and in other ways seemed to copy Miami or Florida. That was a main difference I noted. Poorer parts of Kingston had a more “Caribbean”, popular atmosphere: colourful, but also poverty, much less cars, smaller and/or deficient housing, small-scale and informal markets and trade on the streets. As I rented a car, I could travel to several parts of Jamaica, even in one week. My return flight was from Montego Bay, on Jamaica’s northwest coast, while I arrived from Cuba in Kingston. That I had to consider too..

Photo above: view on a street near to my hotel (uptown/central Kingston). I took this photo in 2006.

In Cuba I enjoyed much live music, by actual musicians and live bands, specifically also in Santiago de Cuba. In Jamaica, I got to know some people in the music industry in Kingston (“via-via” you can say… it’s a long and complicated story..), and Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in a part of Kingston (northwest, not very close to my hotel, which was more in the east and northeast) became an appreciated “hang-out” spot for me.. I asked about live music to Kingstonians and Jamaicans I met, so I actually sought it, but apparently live music was not so common in Jamaica, as it was in Cuba. There are many recording studios for music in Kingston, but live music did not present itself to one automatically in public life, as in Santiago de Cuba, and I went to different parts of Kingston, also “going out” at evening and nights. Another difference, apparently: vivid music scenes, but developed in different ways..

Photo above: Buju Banton's Gargamel studio in Kingston. I took this photo in 2006. A few renovations have been done since.

What Kingston, Jamaica on the other hand did have were many reggae parties with “sound systems” (a type of mobile discotheques, with large speakers, mostly outdoors). So there was much music, but in another way. A Jamaican friend, who drove us in the rental car sometimes, told me there was such a sound system party every night, somewhere in Kingston. A real “sound system culture”. I went to a few of these parties, and especially have good memories of the Sunday night “retro” party, focussed on “older” reggae music with therefore for a change more reggae than dancehall, in downtown Rae Town, a ghetto area in Kingston. The atmosphere was pleasant, with sound systems spread over different locales and bars, stands with food and drinks on the streets, quite some people in the places and on the streets. Some people approached me for money, and many women directly asked me to buy them a drink. Especially when in some locales I was the only white person. This was kind of funny. Some daring females, that I just met, touched parts of my body that can from some perspective be considered intimate/private – even one that was distinctive for my manhood - , but even this I found funny, because it was not too overwhelming. Good music and nice vibes, overall though, and I remember Black Uhuru’s great song “General Penitentiary” blazing through the large, piled-up speakers, there in Rae Town. Those are THE experiences.“Real reggae party dat!”, a Jamaican who accompanied me, said afterwards about that party.

Also uptown, predictably near the hotels, there were several Jamaicans trying to sell things or services to , or “hustle”, tourists. Like in Cuba, offering to be a “guide” was a common entry line in approaching tourists. Like in Cuba, walking alone as visibly not from there and/or white, was sometimes “tricky”, though not everywhere, not even in downtown Kingston. There is an ethnic/racial difference between Jamaica and Cuba, though less so with Santiago de Cuba (as it was located in the “blackest” region of Cuba). Anyway, Cuba has a much higher percentage of mixed-raced, “Mulatto” people, and Whites, than Jamaica, where at least 85% is mainly of African origin, and of the rest most are “brown” (mixed European and African). As a white European you tend to stand out, also in uptown Kingston. A bit less in more tourist areas, such as on the North Coast.

Photo above: view of the town Linstead, about 25 kilometres north west of Kingston. I took this photo in 2006.

I had expected this, and actually respected that it got “out in the open”, and that the difference was discussed with sincere interest, and not without humour. If you show respect, you get respect, that principle. Many times in my life people (other white people, mostly) assumed what I was, when they just could have asked. Dutch? Italian? Spanish? Or from another country? I consider that somewhat humiliating and dehumanizing, and mistrust it often, especially when combined with a preferred lack of communication. I could, in talking with Jamaicans, tell that I lived in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and could speak Spanish because of my Spanish mother, for instance (having just come from Cuba). I really got to appreciate the open mind, and good verbal culture and skills in Jamaica. Many Jamaicans have a healthy attitude in favouring real dialogue (and verbal interaction), that in my experience is not that common in all cultures. In Cuba, I found that overall a bit less common, especially with relative strangers. In Jamaica I at times talked “deeper” even with someone I just met. There is something positive in that.. Or maybe it was just because of the dictatorship and political repression in Cuba.

I went again to Jamaica in late 2008, now for two weeks. I linked up with the friends and contacts I made in 2006, around Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio, that also in 2008 became an appreciated “hang-out” spot for me..

Photo above: at Buju Banton's Gargamel studio in Kingston. I took this photo in 2008.

I travelled in 2008 even more on the island, and visited reggae and Rastafari-related places, different towns and parishes, and different landscapes, including the beautiful mountains of the Eastern parish of St Thomas. Like during my Cuban trips, good and bad mixed confusingly. There were also some unforgettable moments (in a positive sense, mainly) during my Jamaican trips, some of which influenced me to this day, both socially and spiritually..

Photo above: view of the town Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica, known for its Georgian colonial architecture. I took this photo in 2008.


I aimed for this post to compare these two Caribbean islands/countries, that are only about 150 kilometres from each other. The flora and fauna, the mountains and other landscapes, were very similar in both countries. Mountain landscapes in Eastern Jamaica reminded me of the mountains around Santiago de Cuba (Eastern Cuba). Mango and guava, palm trees, bananas, avocado, rice and beans are very common as food and beverage in both Cuba and Jamaica. There were some culinary differences, as Jamaica developed an own “jerk” cuisine (“jerk chicken” for instance). The Jamaican food I ate was spicier (and often better) than what I mostly ate in Cuba, but that can be due to scarcity. Good fruit and fruit juices (I like mango, avocado, and guava) I ate on both islands, though. The weather and climate are of course similar.

Differences can be discerned in things relating to politics, economy, and human history. Man’s influence, so to speak. That Cuba is communist, and Jamaica capitalist is a clear, yet in my opinion not decisive difference: politics is not all that life is. Neither is economics, though some would want you to believe that: there is more to life than politics and economics.

In fact, from a human perspective, I would argue that there is really more of a similarity between Cuba and Jamaica in this regard. A tragic similarity. Once communism seemed for some poorer Cuban folks an outcome, and seemed to offer opportunities, including for many poorer black Cubans. The spread of wealth seemed to decrease inequality in Cuba, in the first stages after 1959 (the Cuban Revolution). Educational opportunities became free and accessible for all. Also positive were the banning of racial segregation and discrimination in certain areas. Over time, however, even if a part of the poorer Afro-Cubans got higher education, had/owned houses, and inequality between classes partly diminished, there came a deception, especially after the stop of USSR economic aid after 1990, made many products scarce in Cuba. Perhaps the deception is essentially due to the dictatorship/authoritarian rule that Communist leaders – including Fidel Castro – favour, and the inherent fact of communism outlawing (most) ownership or market economics by citizens. The lack of freedom, repression, and poverty and scarcity in daily life – and what people said and acted out - gave me the impression that the massive support for Cuba’s Communist state among relatively poorer black Cubans, and other Cubans from the poorer classes, has largely disappeared.

Likewise, many poorer Jamaicans feel excluded from society in their capitalist society, having limited possibilities to break the cycle of poverty, living moreover often in crime-ridden ghetto’s. You can theoretically buy more things in stores in Jamaica, travel more easily, and wages are on paper higher than in Cuba, but in order to have enough money and such a “middle-class lifestyle”, you have to of course actually acquire a job, and unemployment is high. People with darker skin and from poor areas have difficulties getting hired for jobs in Jamaica, explaining in part the strongly developed informal sectors (both in Cuba and Jamaica). Class differences are more rigid in Jamaica, including more than in Cuba differences in educational level, but the sense of limited possibilities, poverty, and exclusion among a large of the population, is essentially comparable.

There are further historical parallels in plantation slavery, but also differences. The architecture in Jamaica, especially from colonial times, is Protestant and sober, and to be honest not always very gracious, pretty, or monumental. Grandeur but without grace. Cuban cities, Havana, but also several other cities and towns, looked (in my opinion) more picturesque and graceful.

The strong Rastafari influence in Jamaica, especially among the popular classes, made however that the colourful, red-gold-and green, Lion of Judah symbols appeared on many buildings, as I also saw throughout Jamaica. This made buildings not only a bit more colourful, but also in a sense graceful. This popular culture is an important “beauty” as well as “positive power” within Jamaica. The resiliency of African culture and an own identity, despite slavery and attempted deracination, in popular music, other cultural expressions and customs. And in consciousness, to which the Africa-centered movement called Rastafari – that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s - attests. Creatively reworking culture, but from African roots.

That is another similarity with Cuba, and this time a beautiful one. This strength of popular (Afro-Cuban) culture. Also in Cuba, African culture survived, kept being cultivated, and sometimes reworked to other forms, still considering the African origins. Internationally spread contributions from Cuba and Jamaica, include music genres like salsa/son, reggae, Rastafari, several more specific musical aspects or instruments. There are cultural differences in modern times between the islands, of course. Also historically, there are differences in specific African heritages, although in both cases slaves came from different parts of Africa. In Jamaica, the Akan-speaking peoples were a bit more represented relatively among African slaves, and in Cuba relatively more Yoruba, but slaves from the Congo area were for instance quite strongly represented in both colonies. Likewise, the colonizing European countries, Spain and Britain, were also different . There were and are, nonetheless, shared African cultural values throughout expressions on both islands, and with rhythm and percussion often important in them.

Capitalist and communist oppression and exclusion of poorer people brought sometimes different types of limitations in the two countries, that were however fought against or overcome creatively. At times by using elements of the communist or the capitalist system in their favour, while in other ways subverting and avoiding them. This is the power of culture, or perhaps the natural, human spirit aimed at survival and edification, despite adversities and oppression.

Not unimportant, finally, and on a personal note: I made (true) friends easily in both Cuba and Jamaica, and I experienced both countries as relatively “hospitable”, when compared to some parts of Europe.


At its closest, the distance between Cuba and Jamaica is about 140 kilometres. That’s why in 2006, when I came to Cuba, I asked for a flight from Santiago de Cuba (which of course has an international airport) to Kingston, that southeastern part of Cuba being relatively closer to Jamaica. At a travel agency they told me they could arrange a place on a small plane. Some promises later, this seemed after all not possible, and I had to go to Havana to catch the plane to Kingston, Jamaica. I did not plan that, but had to do that, costing me time and money, although I saved because I could stay in Havana with an acquaintance. The difference between physical/natural geography and political geography struck again..