zondag 2 oktober 2016

Rhythm & Roots : exhibition on Black Music in Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum

The exhibition ‘Rhythm & Roots’ ('van blues tot hiphop / from blues to hiphop') was/is displayed in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands from the 13th of May to the 30th of October of 2016.

As the name Tropenmuseum (“Tropics museum”, it would be in English) of this Dutch museum implies, it particularly deals with world, non-European cultures, and popularized cultural anthropology.


Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum’s origins are quite “colonial”, as similar museums in other once colonizing European countries (the British Museum in London for example). This is actually simply in tandem with the origins of “cultural anthropology” as a scientific, scholarly field, with Westerners/Europeans studying “other”, outside cultures more and more, as they conquered and dominated more and more colonies and areas outside of Europe. The cynical goal was certainly in part – that cannot be denied – using that knowledge about local cultures in order to control them better and gain more profit in the colonies.

Though that was a part of it, there has been at the same time a confluent stream of sincere interest and curiosity about other people and cultures; in the mind of the general public, many of whom sensed no direct interest in colonial gains, but also among a part of the less cynical researchers and scholars, curious to truly learn and broaden their mind. Kind of a Yin and Yang effect, known from Chinese Taoism, or the folk knowledge, that with the good comes the bad (and vice versa).

Over time, with decolonization and increased condemnation of racism, cultural anthropology and museums devoted to it, also changed, of course.

Colonial interests and persisting racist ideas of Western superiority certainly tainted – and occasionally still taint - cultural anthropology, yet did/does not fully disqualify it as a good source of knowledge. The Amsterdam Tropenmuseum has proven this over time with very interesting, and truly insightful exhibitions about cultures on all continents, though perhaps with here and there some omissions, partial misrepresentations, or mistakes.


The recent ‘Rhythm & Roots’ exhibition at the Tropenmuseum is also certainly an interesting and insightful one, as I experienced. Before I went to visit it, its premise and presentation – as musical journey - through media seemed rather vague to me, despite its subtitle, mentioning blues and hiphop: What music exactly? What roots and rhythm? Specific genres? What aspects of music? In the presentation text was stated that “of many genres we know today the origins are African”, making the premise less vague, giving at least a direction. About Black music and its development, perhaps?

When I went it turned out to be just that: “Black music” genres in the Americas and their history, as well as music genres in Africa itself, such as Ghanaian Highlife and Nigerian Juju (or: Jùjú) music.

Information, photos, items (James Brown’s “cape” for instance), and music and sound/film were combined at each display panel, dedicated to different genres. The first genre was Jazz, followed by, to name most, Gospel, Blues, Rock & Roll, Soul, Funk, Samba and related genres, Mambo and Salsa (and related genres), Rumba, Highlife, Juju (of which e.g. King Sunny Adé is a known exponent), Reggae and related genres, and Hip-hop and Rap.

Thus, it was in broad lines chronological. Hip-hop was at the physical end of the exhibition, and originated in the early 1980s, Jazz close to the start and originated around 1900, Rhythm & Blues in the 1940s, Funk and Soul in the 1960s, Reggae in the late 1960s (etcetera, etcetera), Not fully, though. In between these genres there were information panels/stands on – or mentioning - older (Latin American and African) genres, such as Samba, originating – like Jazz - around 1900, and Cuban Rumba, of which the origins date all the way back to the 1880s.


Having acquired quite some knowledge myself regarding some of these genres, I went and observed as a critical reviewer. The exhibition is evidently meant to educate a large, general public about these genres and their history. Is the information given - and spread - then correct?, the examples truly representative? etcetera etcetera. In other words, is the public informed correctly?


The interesting thing is that during my visit I noticed how I have acquired knowledge about these genres, and its results. I had in fact differing degrees and levels of knowledge about the genres: I know most about Reggae, and less, but still quite a lot, about most of the other genres (Blues, Salsa, Hip-Hop, Funk). About Cuban music genres I acquired quite some knowledge by now as well.

On the other hand, about some genres, like Soul, Samba/Brazilian genres, Jazz or Gospel, I had a bit less detailed knowledge, as was the case of the African Highlife and Juju genres at this exhibition. This way I also learned and acquired knowledge, and not just applied my already present knowledge. Good for balance: you can only be smart if you’re willing to learn.


Though not always dominant or frequent, I unfortunately noted some mistakes – based on my knowledge – in the information given at the exhibition’s panels, here and there. In some cases I thought: they should have consulted experts (or read a trustable standard work); since this is not correct. I did not even try to nit-pick. I start with the genre I - as readers of this blog may imagine - know most about: Reggae. And related genres.


The panel on Reggae seemed adequate as general overview – and with representative photos -, unfortunately the text with information has some mistakes.

First one: Reggae developed directly after Rocksteady, but was at first not “slower” than Rocksteady - as the text says -, but just different, and in fact at first (Early Reggae) often faster than much Rocksteady from the 1966-1968 period. After some years, Later Reggae (from about 1972) did slow down to become as slow or slower than Rocksteady was. Not initially, though.


Second mistake or doubtful fact, as can be read in the text: “The electric bass guitar is the most important instrument in a Reggae band..” I had doubts upon reading this. Is it not too simply put? What about the drums? Like in other Black music genres, the drums (and rhythm) seem crucial to me in Reggae, also as an evident connection (drum rhythm) to the African heritage.

In fact, other works or even more general sources – also quite public ones aimed at a broad public (like Wikipedia) – describe the drums as equally important in Reggae music (so, drum and bass).


Beyond such “detached” theoretical texts - or my own opinion -, I decided to consult actual musicians playing Reggae (and various instruments): people I know in the Netherlands. I myself play percussion and – probably, like trap drummers – tend to focus more on drum, so I wanted to ask people playing other or several instruments (guitar, bass, keyboard), who might have a more broad view on instruments in Reggae music.

Producer and musician Robert Curiel (I have recorded in his studio), based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, agreed with me that stating the “bass guitar is the most important instrument in Reggae” is too simplistic. He does indicate, however, that basslines can form the essence of Reggae songs, and that when the bassline changes (although in the same chords), the song’s essence changes. In that sense the bass guitar is kind of a base, a bottom.

He, however, also points at the “refined and democratic” character of Reggae, and that he therefore "would almost say that every instrument is equally important" in it. He points out, though, that drum and bass certainly "make their big stamp" on Reggae, able to “give a song another feel in a jiffy".

Netherlands-based (multi-instrumentalist) musician (with a Surinamese background, like some of these other musicians) Sticko X, states that the bass guitar might perhaps be the most important instrument in Reggae, but also points out that the drum is still "number one" as it is the “heart beat” of Reggae,. On the other hand, he said, “without the bass, well..”

Kodjo, another musician who plays several instruments and organizes jams in Zaandam (close to Amsterdam) – jams in which I participated at times –, had some doubts about the claimed bass guitar’s sole prime importance, pointing also at the (at least) equal importance of the drums in Reggae.

Someone else I know, Ras Amos, who is a musician (bass, guitar a.o.) as well as organizer in the Dutch Rastafari community, emphasized to me that “all instruments are important”. Yet, he further elaborated that “bass and drums are at the top", and that the bass is hereby “leading”.

Leading is not the same as “most important” as the text at the exhibition says. An interesting philosophical issue by itself – “leading” and “importance” are not the same -, but it would be an off-topic digression in this post, haha..

In the same vein, another musician I know, Biko – known as “bass man” (he played with Rude Rich & the High Notes), although he plays other instruments as well – terms the bass guitar’s role in Reggae definitely as “leading” over other instruments, in initiating changes/breaks that the other instruments then follow, and also because it is behind the main, vocal melody (including chords) of the song.

Again, “leading” is however not the same as “most important”. I argue that you need to hear the heart beat (drums, and other instruments) as well, to really experience it as Reggae.

I conclude from this that both bass and drums are relatively important in Reggae, but that all instruments have importance, in a quite democratic musical context. The bass guitar can be considered "leading", but the drums as equally crucial as the "heart beat".


I also had doubts about how the text continues about “how the bass in Reggae plays no melodies as such”, but “clear rhythms”. I argue, instead, that the bass guitar in Reggae is overall not “just rhythmic”, as said in the exhibition text, but “semi-melodic”. Often even just “melodic”. It has a strong rhythmic feel, but in many Reggae songs bassline melodies (albeit with a rhythmic feel) can certainly be discerned. It depends on how you define “melody”, I think. A recurring pattern of tones, I would say. I play talking drum at times, so I found the text’s comparison of the bass guitar in Reggae with the talking drum charming (also because it is an African connection). You can actually play semi-melodically with the mentioned talking drum too, which supports my argument that the bass in Reggae is at least “semi-melodic”.

Yet, since they draw parallels with African percussion in the exhibition, an interesting one they could have made is one between the bass guitar in Reggae and bass drums used in traditional African percussive ensembles (such as the Dundun, or other bigger, lower-pitched drums). These bass drums tend to play in most African traditional music “bottom-line”, basic (repeated) rhythms (or semi-melodies) to which other drums respond, or improvise around. In that sense the bass guitar’s role in Reggae represents an interesting African retention (through a modern, electrical instrument), also because the bass guitar is the main chording instrument in Reggae, while in other genres it is often the (higher-toned) guitar or piano.


Ska, preceding Reggae historically, also had a separate panel. It is good that its text pointed at the importance of the recently deceased Prince Buster, that he is mentioned. Yet I doubt the veracity of what is stated in the panel’s text: that he (Buster) – or he alone – originated the Ska rhythm as such. This was rather an organic process going on since around 1960 among a group of musicians, including those forming the Skatalites.

The text on Ska had another crucial mistake. It states that “Rocksteady is a less hectic form of Ska”. Rocksteady is not a form, nor a variant of Ska: it is a separate genre developed in Jamaica around 1966, after (and not within) Ska. Just one example of where an expert source would have helped to correct the mistake.

An omission is further that Mento (not the same as Calypso), a local Jamaican folk music is not mentioned. Mento influenced Ska (and Reggae) too, and also Latin American/Cuban genres (along with Calypso) influenced Ska, which is neither mentioned.


Unfortunately, even more mistaken – or perhaps: “confusing” – was the text on Dub & Dancehall – as variants of Reggae -, another separate panel at the exhibition. Deejay’s improvised, that is true, but not so much over “repeated musical phrases or breaks” as the text says (and even emphasizes). I am afraid there is a mix-up with Rap or Hip-hop here. The first dee-jay’s in Jamaica (Toasters or others) improvised vocals over “instrumentals”. Instrumental versions of songs, or Dubs.

These “repeated musical phrases or breaks” are presented as “Dub” or “Dubs” in the text. I do not really understand the “repeating” that is spoken of here. Dub is essentially “remixing” songs (originally vocal songs mostly): fading in and out instruments and vocals, using sound effects (including echo, reverb). It is not a matter of “repeating phrases or breaks in a song/instrumental”. That is simply mistaken, and not how Dub was first developed by King Tubby. It is good that King Tubby is mentioned, though, as Dub’s true pioneer. According to the text, King Tubby shares that status with Lee Perry: this is not entirely correct. Perry was “influential”, but not “founding” or “originating” regarding Dub, as King Tubby was.

I base all my critique – it is important to point out - on expert works and sources – Reggae experts and historians – I read, heard or saw over the years. Many found through public sources. Some of these mistakes surprise me therefore somewhat.

The explanation later in the text about “a digital rhythm played too fast by accident” might seem more true, but is also kind of problematic, in my opinion. What is true, is that the digital Casio-based rhythm for Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ (1984) - inaugurating dancehall’s digital phase (also called “Ragga”) - might have been stumbled upon by accident. It might, however, also have been an unusual creative idea, not so much a “mistake”.

Terminology is further a problem here: Early Dancehall (on non-digital “Rockers” rhythms) – Brigadier Jerry, Burro Banton, Yellowman a.o., - called Rub-A-Dub - is not distinguished from Digital Dancehall or Ragga that arose in the later 1980s.


Besides mistaken information, or wrong facts, some facts were left unmentioned in these Reggae-related texts, that nonetheless would fit the exhibition’s implicit premise. I especially mean the African origins. At the very least, the influence of African-based or neo-African rhythm and drum patterns on Reggae and other Jamaican music – such as from Nyabinghi, Burru and Kumina drumming – could have been given attention.

Also, some more influential Reggae artists and individuals could have been mentioned, such as U-Roy or Alton Ellis, and others deserving credit.


I know by now quite something about Cuban music as well, through other sources and works of course. I therefore could be analytical and critical regarding the texts about Cuban genres at the exhibition as well.


Cuban Rumba developed, as I said, since the 1880s, in Cuba. Quite some time ago, during the late end of legal slavery in Cuba (lasting up to 1886!). Specifically in the Cuban cities of Matanzas and Havana, with large Afro-Cuban populations, able to maintain part of their African heritages.

The text about Rumba at the exhibition says: “Rumba is a form of dance music that comes mainly from Cuba, having developed from Congolese music”. According to most scholars on Cuban history, Rumba indeed derives at least partly from African musical traditions from the Congo region, as African slaves from that region were also quite prominent culturally in Matanzas, as Rumba originated. It is only partly though, as other parts of Africa contributed as well to the different types of Rumba: through slaves from e.g. the Calabar region (Nigeria/Cameroon area), from the Yoruba region (now Nigeria/Benin), and especially also Gangá slaves (from what is now the Sierra Leone region). That Rumba is derived from Congolese music is thus somewhat too simplified and limited.


Another section/panel was devoted to Mambo and Salsa. Salsa could of course not be absent in such an exhibition with this theme, justly with specific attention. I could understand a bit less, though, why Mambo is chosen as other point of entry, though there might be arguments in favour of it. Perhaps it was during some historical epochs a relatively commercial and internationalized Cuban genre, unlike other Cuban genres (Rumba, Son), that spread (then) less outside of Cuba.

In the description of Salsa in the text, underneath Mambo, mistakes again slip in. How Salsa is described would according to many be incorrect. Salsa appeared as music genre under that name in the 1970s in New York, among the Latino population there. The text at the exhibition describes it as a combination of Mambo, Rumba and Son Montuno, along with some other influences (Puerto Rican ones for instance). The problem with this description is that Mambo was in itself Son Montuno-influenced, and that the importance of the Son Montuno genre is here unjustly downplayed. Son and Son Montuno are genres originating in Eastern Cuba that would be very influential in the whole of Cuba, becoming popular in Havana by the 1920s. From there it went abroad and to the US.

Perhaps it is better to say – purely judging by musical characteristics – that Son Montuno is not “one of the” several influences on Salsa, but in fact the main one, as many Cubans and others argue. Many even say that Salsa is just about 70% Son Montuno. Mambo is comparably less important for Salsa’s origins, despite what the text says. Rumba and Puerto Rican (Bomba and other) influences are certainly noticeable in Salsa as well, but Salsa’s main base and source remains, according to most sources, (East Cuban) Son Montuno. Good to recognize, I think.


The text on Rap seemed largely correct, as far as I could tell. I know, admittedly, a bit less about it than about Reggae, though I am quite interested in it. This time, however, there was a “mistake” in the visual, photo part of the section/panel. This included after all an album cover (album ‘Forces of Victory’) of Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ). This is not a Rap artist, but a Reggae “Dub poet”, based in Britain. LKJ/Johnson is therefore not a rapper, but a Reggae artist. Kind of odd, this mistake, because even if people do not know Linton Kwesi Johnson, it is easy to find songs by him on the Internet nowadays.

I limit my “critical review” to these genres and parts of the exhibition (related to Reggae and Cuban music), because I have the most knowledge about them, and can therefore evaluate more objectively, meaningfully, and factually. Critique without knowledge – quite common in society, unfortunately – shows after all a negative, unintelligent, and jealous mind-set. Objective critique based on knowledge – on the other hand – is mostly positive and educational.

Others can do this of course with genres they know more about..


The exhibition was nicely organized, and included per genre panel/section, beyond texts and information, also music examples – well-chosen and quite representative –, photos, and special items. All in all it was quite entertaining. Added to this was the possibility to “play” different (mainly) traditional African instruments through pads.

Even several instruments at once, providing in my opinion a good participatory and educational aspect. The opening section referred to the slave trade between Africa and the Americas, and displayed traditional (mainly African) instruments, which I found interesting, especially the older mbira’s and sansa’s (thumb piano’s) and the drums.

After this came the mentioned stands/panels per genre: first Jazz, then Blues, Gospel, Funk, and the other ones I mentioned and reviewed critically.

Visually, the exhibition was also attractive and well-designed, I must say. Further: a good, overall overview was given, with much interesting information, photos/album covers, and nice, groovy music to listen to. In that sense I found the exhibition at least “okay”, if a bit vague in its intentions or goals.

However, there were – as I have demonstrated – some mistakes in texts of at least certain sections. Some were more disturbing than others. Expert sources should have been used more, here and there, for the Reggae-related sections. At the very least, important people – also in the Reggae-related sections/panels – were mentioned, like Prince Buster, King Tubby, Lee Perry, though more artists could have been mentioned. There were also some other omissions.

It is unfortunate that some mistakes were disseminated this way to the general public, through the texts here and there in the exhibition. This can even have an even worse effect, as such exhibitions from prominent museums possess among the public the assumption of being “authoritative” on the matter. It might well have been the case that the organizers of the exhibition themselves – in preparing it - presumed certain people or sources on Reggae or Cuban music unjustly as “authoritative” or “experts”.

vrijdag 2 september 2016

Rub-A-Drum : Brazil, the cuíca, and reggae

That reggae music – originally from Jamaica – has gone international is quite well-known by now. It is a theme that I also discussed here and there on occasion on my – this - blog.

Reggae has also spread to Brazil, the largest country of Latin America, and not too far from Jamaica. Moreover, it shares with Jamaica a history of slavery of Africans; in fact it was historically overall the biggest “slave market” (in numbers) in the Americas, where proportionally most slaves from Africa ended up. Estimations are that a total of about 5 million Africans were brought forcibly to what is now Brazil (and many died along the way). Its large territory accounts for this, as well as the relatively long period of colonization by the Portuguese. Plantation-based slavery developed in Brazil, before it went (and became more “efficient”) to (e.g.) the Caribbean, since the 17th century. In this regrettable process, not only the Portuguese, but also the Dutch (owning a period a part of what is now North East Brazil) were historically influential.

Either way, this made in the present day, Brazil the country with – numerically – the most people of sub-Saharan African descent, outside of Africa itself. Many of these are mixed, as Brazil is a racially and culturally more “mixed” society, when compared to elsewhere in the Americas, where Black and White remained – at least nominally – more separate socially. The presence of some White blood in Black people in e.g. the US or Jamaica is more often explained by White slave-owners or overseers raping/sexually exploiting female slaves during slavery. Racially mixed unions were in these English-speaking parts not totally absent after slavery up to now, but relatively limited, when compared to e.g. Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America), where racial mixture became more common.

Anyway, the African connection might explain why reggae is and remained quite popular in Brazil, starting in the 1970s, via the popularity of Bob Marley and other reggae artists. There are now quite a few good Roots Reggae bands in Brazil – with often lyrics in Portuguese. I personally like several songs of the band Ponto de Equilibrio, for example. Local reggae or fusion variants have also developed in Brazilian music by now. I recently for example wrote a concert review for an online journal about the band O Rappa from Rio de Janeiro, a band that mixes reggae with funk, hip-hop, rock, and samba. Reggae has in Brazil even mixed with traditional local styles, into e.g. Samba Reggae.

Although these aspects are interesting as a theme – perhaps for another blog post in the future -, “Reggae in Brazil” is not the topic of this post. I would rather turn it around. The topic is “Brazil in Reggae”. Does the fact that Brazil has the most people of African descent outside of Africa, translate somehow in reggae music; in its lyrics, perhaps in the attention of the Rastafari movement? And musically? These are the two lines of inquiry I will focus on in this post. I will see where it leads me, haha.


The Rastafari movement developed in Jamaica since the 1930s. It was essentially a movement of Black Power, focussing on the African roots, thus regaining cultural self-respect, combining this with spiritual aspects and a specific way of life. It was inspired by the Jamaican thinker and activist Marcus Garvey, who worked for Black empowerment, African unity worldwide, repatriation to Africa, and upliftment of both the African continent and Black/African people world wide.

Though Marcus Garvey’s activities and ideas were indeed international, it was however more strongly focussed on the English-speaking world, due to language barriers. Garvey had attention – of course – to Black people in Latin America, including Brazil, and knew its history. Nonetheless, he focussed more on Black people in the US, and the British Caribbean. Chapters of Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), were set up since about 1917 also in Latin American countries. In fact, numerically most UNIA chapters were at one point found in Cuba, but these had mostly members among British Caribbean migrants there (not exclusively though, there was an influence on Afro-Cubans too). Author Kim D. Butler points out that Garveyism came to Brazil also mainly through British Caribbean migrants (and via North American colonization plans), yet also reached – indirectly – Afro-Brazilians, as UNIA-like organizations developed in Brazil by the 1930s, influenced by the Garvey movement, though not explicitly part of it.

The Rastafari movement (1930s) is thus older than the also Jamaica-originated Reggae music genre. The latter developed around 1968, following related genres developed in Jamaica, earlier in the 1960s: Ska and Rocksteady. These fed into Reggae.

The Rastafari movement would in time influence Reggae strongly, especially by the 1970s. This might be also well-known by many readers. Bob Marley was a Rastafari-adherent, as were many other reggae artistes, to differing degrees. This showed of course in Reggae lyrics. These referenced Marcus Garvey, Africa, Haile Selassie, the history of slavery, reparations, repatriation to Africa etcetera.

Again, the language barrier plays a role, and there is (lyrically) a stronger connection with the English-speaking world, e.g. connections with African Americans in the US, or with the people of Trinidad or Guyana. Or the “smaller islands” as some Jamaicans call them (Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent etcetera).

Slavery in the Americas is mentioned broadly in many Reggae lyrics, but geographical specificity tends to be insular (within Jamaica itself), and if not, it refers to other Caribbean islands, or the US. Slavery in Brazil is rarely mentioned as such in Reggae lyrics, not even slavery in nearby Cuba. On a more joyous note, Brazilian culture is referred too in Jamaican lyrics, especially because Brazilian football (soccer) and Pélé as footballer were very popular in Jamaica, probably because of a Black/African or regional connection. This was also the case with Bob Marley, who loved to play football as well, and admired Brazilian football and players. He even wrote a song about it, early in his career: ‘Lick Samba’ (1971). In 1970 Brazil had won the Football/Soccer World Cup.

The Portuguese were overall – despite Portugal’s size and economic weight – one of the largest slave traders. Portugal – as a more seafaring nation - started with African enslavement early, even before the Spanish and their American colonization: namely off the coast of Africa. As a practice it was reputedly influenced by Moors or Arabs (ruling Portugal and Spain for a period), who tended to have (also) Black African slaves.

It is said that the Genoese Columbus – later inaugurating Spain’s dominance in the Americas – participated already in such slave trade well before 1492, working with Portuguese. He also lived in Portugal, before going to Spain. Even this strong involvement with slavery of the Portuguese (in Brazil) is rarely mentioned in Reggae lyrics, even less so that that of the Spanish. Jamaica was a British colony, so people like the pirates Hawkins and Morgan – conquering and enslaving with the support of the British King or Queen - are mentioned more often in Reggae lyrics. Columbus is discussed as well, of course. A recent song by artist Chronixx, ‘Capture Land’, criticizes King Ferdinand of Spain (King at the time of Columbus “discovery”, financing – after hesitation – Columbus’ voyage), along with also the “thieving Queen from England" , in recounting Jamaican history. These lyrics do mention Latin America as well, by the way.

In short, Afro-Brazilians and slavery in Brazil, are implied in many (Rastafari-influenced) reggae lyrics (“slavery to the West, the Americas, or to “Babylon”), and in cases also the related Portuguese colonization in Africa, e.g. Angola, or Moçambique. These are one of the “unhappy” regimes Haile Selassie I referred to in his speech, that Bob Marley turned into the lyrics for the song ‘War’. So, Brazil and its history is “implied”, “indirect”, yet seldom specifically mentioned in reggae lyrics as such, Rastafari-influenced or not.


There is, however, another way in which “Brazil” is present in Reggae music, and more explicitly so. This concerns the music itself. Not so much in Reggae’s structural and basic characteristics (though there were a few early influences from Brazilian music genres in Jamaica in the 1960s), but regarding musical instruments. I am talking about the use of the friction drum the “Cuíca”. This can be heard quite regularly in several Reggae songs. First something about this “cuíca”, though… that seems appropriate.


The Cuíca is an Afro-Brazilian instrument, used much in Brazilian Samba music, and later spread internationally. Its characteristic, unusual sound from rubbing – ressembling animal roars, according to many – sets it apart from both other drums (beaten/percussed), or other percussive instruments, like shakers or scrapers, common in Brazilian music. The cuíca drum’s body tends to be made of metal. The Brazilian cuíca further has a bamboo stick attached to its drumhead. This stick is then rubbed within the drum, underneath the drum skin with a wet cloth – producing its sound -, which is then tuned/pitched with the other hand pressing the outer drumhead. Many point out that it is certainly not an easy instrument to learn to play really well.

It can produce relatively high sounds (some say, ressembling “monkey sounds”) . The cuíca’s metal body influences its sound too, of course. Wood-based friction drums sound different (deeper, lower).


The cuíca’s origins are most commonly assumed to be African. That is not to say that “friction drums” as such are confined to Africa. In fact, “friction drums” – or: “rubbing drums” – have been historically long common in Europe and elsewhere as well. This includes Portugal and Spain, where “friction drums” are mostly made of clay pots, and with only a stick pulled from the outside. In Portuguese it is called a “sarronca” or “zamburra”, while the Spanish friction drum is called “zambomba”. I know about this zambomba that it was traditionally played in Spain during the Christmas period, and remained up to now quite common in traditional and folk music. Some musicians incorporated it even in Flamenco music, in the South of Spain (Andalusia), somewhat outside its original Christmas celebration context.

Historians assume, however, that - despite colonial ties - the Portuguese Sarronca / Zamburra (or Spanish Zambomba), is not a direct ancestor to the Cuíca, though perhaps influencing it. These find most probable as ancestors “friction drums” played similarly to the cuíca, found historically in several parts of Africa, including in the Congo and Angola area (influential culturally on Samba music and on Afro-Brazilian culture).

A pity that the Wikipedia article on “Friction Drums” (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friction_drum ) does not give examples from Africa. It does give American, and also several European examples. Besides in Iberia (historically, after all, a bit more African- and Latin American-influenced), friction drums have also been found as far North as Northern Europe, and was a period quite commonly used in parts of (Flemish) Belgium and the bordering Netherlands. It was known there as “rommelpot” or “foekepot”. Here it tended also to be associated with New Year or Christian celebrations. Also in Northern Germany, it was used, and also in Slovenia, Ukraine, Southern Italy, and several other places. The Wikipedia articles points at this, though neglects Africa too much, unfortunately.

Due to friction drums’ unusual, “voice-like” sound, they tend to be connected – in different continents and cultures – with rituals and spirituality, in some sense.


In this interesting online article by John H. Donahue (http://www.famsi.org/research/kerr/articles/friction_drum/), the author departs from friction drums present among Amerindians, to further discuss friction drums elsewhere as well: Asia (like India), Europe, as well as Africa. He discusses Central African friction drums, such as the “Kwita” among the Chokwe and Pende peoples in what is now DR Congo and NE Angola, and among neighbouring peoples and cultures. Donahue sees this kwita drum as the direct ancestor of the Brazilian cuíca. It is indeed played in a similar fashion. He points at different rital uses of friction drums in Africa: sometimes connected with initiation rites (Southern Africa), sometimes with “spirits of the dead” (in the Congo region), or with other spirits. In some African cultures the friction drum is solely played by women, while in other ones solely by men. That differs.

Some authors point out that “friction drums” in Africa can mainly be found in Angola, Southern DR Congo, parts of Zambia, and Botswana. It is also found among the Zulu, who have the “Ingungu” friction drum. These are thus mainly Bantu-speaking areas in Central-South Africa. Indeed, many slaves ending up in Brazil came from the Angola area. Friction drums were also found, however, among the Khoi people, who speak a non-Bantu language.

Other authors, however, also justly point at the presence of friction drums in other parts of Africa, like Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroun. One example is the “Etwie” among the Akan in Ghana. The etwie and other drums are however played differently: not by a stick or reed within the drum (as the cuíca and Central and Southern African ones), but rather from the outside. Moisture - and: evidently: rubbing - remains however necessary.


The reason that so many African or African-based percussion instruments survived in Brazil, and less in the British Caribbean, has to do with colonial policies in Brazil. These allowed African slaves – despite undeniable dehumanization inherent in the slavery system – some “free” cultural space, more than in British and Protestant colonies. Similar policies as in Brazil, applied in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Also in Cuba, African slaves had some relatively free cultural spaces. African-based percussion instruments from Cuba (conga’s, bongo’s, guïro’s a.o.) could develop, and became in time well-known even outside of Cuban music, and became used in other genres. The same applies – to a lesser degree – to Afro-Brazilian instruments. The “cuíca” seems to have made its way into other genres (jazz, pop a.o.), relatively more than other Brazilian instruments.

Cuba is interesting, because of some colonial similarities. Colonizers Portugal and Spain are of course two different countries – yet are bordering and with similarities, including a partly shared history, including in colonization in the Americas. Many enslaved Africans ending up in Spanish colonies like Cuba, Colombia or elsewhere were often brought by Portuguese slave traders (though in some epochs also by British, French, or Dutch traders). The Spanish tended after all to “contract out” the nasty business of the slave trading from Africa itself, after ordering African slaves for the plantations in their colonies. Other colonizing countries, like the British, in turn handled the trading in slaves also directly themselves.

Anyway, friction drums survived in Afro-Cuban culture as well. An interesting example is the “Kinfuiti” drums used in rituals of Palo Congo or Mayombe: a religious/spiritual complex among Afro-Cubans, of Congo origin. This includes “spirits” of ancestors (or “the dead”). The kinfuiti drum is a wood-based friction drum, played with a stick within the drum, producing a low sound, according to some referencing the spirits of the dead. The Kinfuiti sounds lower than the Brazilian Cuíca.


More similar, also in playing style, to Ghanaian models of friction drums (i.e. not by a stick within the drum, but with a wetted cloth), is the Ekue drum, found in the Abakuá secret society rituals among Afro-Cubans. The Abakuá tradition has its origins in the Cross River region (between Nigeria and Cameroun), explaining the different type of friction drum and playing style. The deep, low sound of the Ekue is not so much rhythmic, as it is atmospheric or spiritual, referring to a “leopard” or a “voice” of a secret, adding this sound to the more rhythmic drumming parts within Abakuá. Author Ned Sublette describes the difference as such: “the cuíca is played rhythmically to yield the high-pitched, rhythmic animal cry that animates Brazilian samba; but this (i.e. the Ekue) was a steady tenor-range drone, with the friction kept continually” (Sublette, “Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the mambo’, 2004). The Ekue is in addition heard but not seen, and its player even according to ritual tradition blindfolded, all in line with the Abakuá society’s ideas about the “secret”.

In some Afro-Brazilian religious or spiritual traditions, similar low-sounding friction drums with spiritual ritual functions exist or have been known to exist. Yet, nowadays the Cuíca is the best-known Brazilian friction drum, used mostly in secular, popular music, namely the well-known and varied Samba genre, and during carnival.


I spoke with a person I know, Carlos (also known as Nariz), who is the founder and manager of the Foundation (Stichting) Agogô (see: http://www.agogo.nl) , based in the Netherlands. This foundation gives attention to Capoeira, but also to wider (Afro-) Brazilian culture, Brazil, and other related aspects. Carlos has also travelled in Brazil, and plays Brazilian music, in a band called Banda SambaSim. He described how in Brazil and specifically Rio de Janeiro – the world’s samba hotspot – there are many samba schools (“Escolas”, in Portuguese). These compete with each other as seriously as in any professional sport league (like football), including differing divisions of level and quality. Well now, these different samba schools have different preferences and specializations: some use the cuíca a lot, others less or not.

The cuíca recurs strongly throughout samba or samba-based Brazilian music, that is certainly true. Carlos, however, also points out that it is often added, but not necessarily part of the most basic “standard set” of samba bands: this consists of the most basic and indispensable bass drums (surdo) and equally crucial accompanying drums, and further certain frame drums, e.g. the tambor repique, Brazilian-style tambourines (pandeiros), among them. Some samba bands or schools add the Cuíca to this more regularly or prominently, others less so.

The cuíca’s use – Carlos further explained – differs between different types of samba. Some are more rhythmically-focussed (e.g. at carnival processions), and the Cuícas (mostly several at once) accordingly get a more rhythmic role. In other types of samba (outside of carnival parades), it is used more for “embellishing” or “spicing up” songs and the music. This distinction – between rhythmic or embellishing - applies of course to other percussion instruments as well.


This instrument spread internationally with Brazilian music, but certainly also to other genres. Reggae in Jamaica is certainly one of these genres. Several well-known percussion players in Jamaican music and Reggae (like Bongo Herman, Skully, Sticky, Seeco) used the cuíca friction drum on many recordings and songs, since the later 1970s. Within the musical reggae framework, that is. This concerns specifically the Brazilian cuíca drum, not a friction drum of another origin. Sometimes the cuíca is used in reggae songs to “spice things up”, or add sonic “spice” – one of the functions of percussion –, or with a clear rhythmical function: the other important function of percussion. As mentioned before, not unlike its differing use within Samba in Brazil.

Bob Marley’s ’Could You Be Loved’ (1980) is in fact just one (well-known) example of its use in Reggae. There are several other songs, by different reggae artists (Mighty Diamonds, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Culture and several others) that include the cuíca instrument. This is thus a direct musical influence from Brazil in reggae.

When compared to the (Afro-Cuban) “Guïro” (scraper) instrument’s use within Reggae- to which I dedicated another blog post (of February, 2016) – it is however used relatively less often. The guïro – a scraper instrument – is much more widely used within Reggae: on many songs by many different artists, and in different periods.

Okay, compared to that, the cuíca is used less in reggae. The guïro is almost “structurally” (though not universally) present in reggae percussion. The cuíca admittedly more incidentally. Yet, the sound of the cuíca recurs regularly throughout reggae, and in several songs by different artists as well. In short, reggae percussionists (e.g. Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson) use the cuíca, though less regularly than the Cuban guïro (for instance).

The Wikipedia article on the Cuíca (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cu%C3%ADca ) mentions some reggae songs with the cuíca, but the list is far from complete. People can of course make additions in Wikipedia if they encounter its use within Reggae songs not mentioned. It is difficult to get a complete overview of the “cuíca use in reggae”, though, because it is not really documented as such specifically (on what songs cuíca’s are used): it is mostly buried in the wide category of “percussion”, in most liner notes.

I like the use of the cuíca in Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Treat the Youths Right’, one of my favourite Jimmy Cliff songs, by the way. Also in Culture’s song ‘Peace and Love’ (from Culture’s 1991 album ‘Culture In Culture’) the cuíca is present quite prominently, yet well-used. Other uses I liked as well (e.g. in Bunny Wailer’s ‘Rule Dance Hall’, the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Kinarky’). On the Wailing Souls' 'Old Broom' (from 1980, a hit in Jamaica at the time), the cuíca is a bit more improvisational, and less purely rhythmic. The cuíca certainly adds a nice touch to these songs, in my opinion. Also the biggest reggae (if funk-influenced) hit with the cuíca, Bob Marley’s well-known groovy song ‘Could You Be Loved’, would not have been the same without the crucial role of the cuíca in it.

The Wikipedia article on the Cuíca gives thus an indication of its use in reggae, if only a limited one. Further can be added that the reggae artist from Ivory Coast, Africa, Alpha Blondy, used the cuíca too on some songs (subtly/softly on ‘Jah Music’ for example).

I know that I will hear the cuíca in reggae songs not mentioned here or on the Wikipedia article as yet, or will be reminded of these songs in the course of time.

In conclusion, anyway, I think it is an interesting influence of Afro-Brazilian music on Afro-Jamaican music, and at that an interesting connection within the broader African Diaspora.

dinsdag 2 augustus 2016

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Vega Selecta


How people got to be reggae music lovers or fans has always fascinated me. Maybe partly because reggae still is off/outside the mainstream, also in the Netherlands. It is not found that easily, let’s just say. It requires (to a degree) an extraordinary life path: that is, different from copying the masses, or simply following what’s commonly on television or the radio.

Reggae has of course since decades gone international and widened its fan base, but I have known individually quite different reggae fans within the Netherlands. Black and white (and Asian, or mixed etc.). Males and females. Old and young. Some with little education, some highly educated. Of different class backgrounds. Some combine liking reggae quite equally with other genres (e.g.: some with African, funk, soul, some with hip-hop, some even with non-black music genres), while others on the other hand adhere almost “strictly” to reggae music, and do not get into much else. Some like roots reggae more than dancehall or vice versa. There are even reggae fans – believe it or not - who do not smoke the “ganja herb”. Furthermore, some have an interest or sympathy for the related subject of Rastafari, some do not, or even despise it. The latter, despise, I find somewhat odd since Rastafari is not the same as reggae, but is nonetheless connected to it.

These differences (and similarities) between and among reggae fans/lovers intrigue me, also in relation to personal backgrounds. That’s the reason why I would like to interview specific individuals who love reggae.

Before this I have interviewed 4 persons – reggae lovers I know, “breddas” (meaning “brothers”, or "friends" in Jamaican parlance) of mine – here in the Netherlands.

I started the series on this blog with a post of June 2012, when I interviewed Abenet. In April of 2013 I interviewed Bill. After this I interviewed Manjah Fyah, in May 2014. For my blog post of August 2015, I interviewed, somewhat more extensively, (DJ) Rowstone (Rowald).


This time I interview yet another “bredda”, whom I met in the reggae scene here in Amsterdam. I encountered him at several reggae events in and around Amsterdam over the last years. I also knew he had more or less steady places/clubs (such at OT301 in Amsterdam West) where he was a Reggae DJ, or “Selecta” in Jamaican parlance. Hence also his name Vega Selecta. He played vinyl, I noticed. He tended to prefer to play Roots Reggae and Dub, and at times UK Steppers, as I remember it.

I knew him, furthermore, to be a part of “collective” of sorts, called the Zen Rockers, a group of Reggae Selectors, with international backgrounds (French, Dutch, Polish a.o.) spinning records at events and in clubs/locations in different parts of the Netherlands. Interesting and nice how these Zen Rockers’ organized sessions at times also included people playing instruments (I recall a saxophone, a melodica, percussion), over “dub-wise” tunes.

In addition to this, I also knew about Vega Selecta’s sincere interest in Rastafari and its spirituality. Beyond this, I knew not that much about him. So, an interview seemed to me a good idea!

He was and is quite busy, but made time to answer the questions underneath, I sent him:

1. Where are you from, and how long are you now in the Netherlands?

Bless Up! Am living in Netherlands for 10 years. I come from Poland.

2. Since when (what age) do you listen to reggae music?

Since the age of 17 .

3. Where (did you get into it)? Were their differences in the reggae scenes between the places you lived?

I man grow up with punk rock music. Punk scene in Poland was big in the 80s and early 90's. Many punk bands played reggae songs, and to go around censorship - they could not sing about the Communist system - they sang about Babylon. In the 80’s in Poland were formed such reggae bands as Baksish, Daab, Izrael, RAP. Some members of these bands come from punk formations. Punk and reggae was always connected. Even if you spelled reggae in Polish you get ,,rege''. On punk festivals reggae music was always present. At one such festival, Jarocin, I heard for the first time a cover of the song ,,Exodus'' from Bob Marley. It was the beginning.

4. What appealed to you in reggae at the time (when you got into it)?

What appealed to me in reggae.. I think harmony with the heart beat, and the strong message.

5. What other music genres did you listen to then?

Still like to listen to punk, hardcore, jazz, funky, jungle, drum n bass, ethno music..

6. Has your music preference changed since then ?

Like I said, I still listen to different types of music, but dubbing is a must.

7. Since when are you a reggae selecta/dj?

With two of my friends we started Dread Lion Crew in 2001. First we spinned just for friends. Later we organized and played many parties in Poland.

7. Do you play both vinyl and digital discs?

Strictly vinyl.

8. Do you have specific preferences within the broad reggae genre?

I love Roots and UK steppers style.

10. Do you play musical instruments?

In my free time djembe.

11. Does the Rastafari message within (much) reggae appeal to you? How does this relate to your background, and your own spirituality?

Yes, anyone who attentively listens to Jah music, will find this message. Live in harmony with our planet, with others, and with myself.

12. What kind of music (reggae or otherwise) do you listen to at the moment/right now? What specific artists? Any new musical “discoveries” you would like to mention or recommend?

Exactly at this moment Willie Williams –,,Freedom Time'' comes out of my speakers.

I can further recommend Alpha & Omega, Aba Shanti, Jah Shaka, Big Youth, U-Roy, Eccleton Jarrett. For new productions please check the labels: Partial Records, Roots Temple, and Conscious Sounds.

13. Any other things you want to mention?

Give thanx for the life we live in. Blessed Love!


Well, I now definitely learned a bit more about the person behind Vega Selecta. Interesting how yet another geographical background is here the case, after the persons I interviewed before, who had Ethiopian, Dutch, Italian, or Guyanese backgrounds, even though some were born in the Netherlands. Vega Selecta is in turn from Poland, living now in the Netherlands. This truly shows how Reggae "gone international”, which can be considered quite a known fact by now.

An interesting dimension specific to Vega Selecta’s case is the Communist context of censorship in relation to Reggae’s “protest” lyrics, he described. The Rastafari term “Babylon” (essentially meaning an oppressive Western or other system) proved to be a good "channel" for rebellion against the system, while still going around that same system’s censorship, common in such (Communist) dictatorships, like in Poland at that time.


The strong connection between Punk and Reggae in the Polish scene is also remarkable, though not totally unique. Also in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s there were connections between the Punk and Reggae scenes, notable in activities of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) or the band the Clash, working with Jamaican artists like Mikey Dread and others, and covering Jamaican songs. Many reggae songs became cult hits not just among Black Britons, or Britons of Caribbean descent, but also among many British Punks, and similar "protesting" lower class-subgroups in Britain. Culture's "Two Sevens Clash" for example.

A rebellious, anti-systemic spirit among the youth united these scenes, apparently. It seemed to have worked out in a specific way in Poland though, mainly – I imagine – due to the absence of a large Jamaican migrant community and an independently formed reggae scene, as there was in Britain. But that’s understandable.

From a musical perspective the Reggae-Punk link seems to make less sense – with Punk’s often “Rock guitar” focus - though there are often similarities in “feel” or “energy”.

Anyway, in the “localization” of Reggae in Poland – as occurred everywhere - the local Punk scene played a role. Along with this, came other aspects, such as language. I know about Reggae bands in Polish, just like Manjah Fyah, in an earlier interview I had with him, mentioned Reggae bands in Sicily singing in the Sicilian dialect.


The teenage years tend to be formative years in shaping tastes and preferences for the rest of a human’s life. Scientific studies even have shown this. This applies of course also to the music one prefers and “sticks to”, so to speak. Vega Selecta said he was about 17 when he got into Reggae. Abenet, whom I interviewed before was also about 17 when he really got into Reggae, and Manjah Fyah about 16. I myself was about 12, as was Bill, whom I also interviewed. DJ Rowstone (with Guyanese parents), grew up with Reggae, but returned to it more intensely, also in his teens.

If there is a difference between Early or Late Teens, I don’t know. The brains – I understood – are not fully formed until a human is about 21, so either way Reggae may have helped shape the brain. I think that’s a good thing, haha.

As other people I interviewed, Vega Selecta prefers vinyl records over CD/digital records, even adhering “strictly” to it, as he said.

Vega Selecta seems to have a sincere interest in Rastafari, and knowledge about it. In his way he wants to live and express that too, i.e. at times through Nyabinghi drumming and chanting. Some other people I interviewed respected Rastafari, but with a bit more distance, but each person makes own choices, of course. He also plays Djembe, and regarding percussion and Nyabinghi (and of course Rastafari) he thus shares these interests with me.


Like others among my interviewees, Vega Selecta is a Selecta (DJ). Like e.g. Bill, I interviewed, he likes Dub, alongside Roots Reggae and UK Steppers. He seems less interested in the Dancehall subgenre, also in selecting/spinning it, unlike DJ Rowstone (who does interchange it with Roots at times), or Manjah Fyah at times. Not everyone knows that also modern Dancehall records are often released in vinyl, by the way.


Vega Selecta still likes listening at times to Punk music, alongside Reggae. This is understandable in light of the described Polish scene. I myself listen to other genres besides Reggae as well, though not really that much Punk, but each one has his or her taste, and accents therein. He also listens to Jazz and Funk, he said, and I at times too, as do other Reggae fans. I like also “ethno” music, as Vega Selecta called it, as I think it includes African polyrhythmic traditions and music, which relates also to my interest in percussion.

I am not the biggest fan of Jungle in the world, but some Reggae fans I know like it. Several reggae fans I interviewed also like Hip-Hop. I myself too a bit (more than Drum & Bass or Jungle anyway). Taste is however, of course, also something personal, depending probably on one’s trajectory and life experiences.

Anyway, I found it interesting to have learned more about Vega Selecta’s trajectory

zaterdag 2 juli 2016

Music, rhythm, and health effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

donderdag 2 juni 2016

Rastafari in Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This popular support was especially due to the policies that Revolution espoused, after 1959: it was a Left-wing, progressive (later called Communist) revolution specifically claiming to advance social equality, getting rid of class differences, and racial discrimination. Some policies were indeed advantagous to many poor Cubans and wealth got much more distributed. Education was strongly stimulated, even in rural areas, and illiteracy over time strongly diminished: at present Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates of all of Latin America. Black (or Afro-) Cubans could, for instance, more easily own houses, felt for a part included in society, while racial discrimation in public spaces was eliminated. Up to then, like in some states of the US, Afro-Cubans were in some places (popular beaches, important parks, some bars, restaurants or hotels) still banned from going in solely because of their race.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Despite all this, inequality remained certainly there throughout, and Afro-Cubans were kept in a lower, disadvantaged position, even after the quite late date of formal abolition of slavery in Cuba (1886). Racial discrimination remained also common, along with a general socioeconomic disadvantage for historical reasons.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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