vrijdag 9 november 2012

The Amsterdam reggae scene (2012)

The topic surrounded me all the while. It came and went, while lingering around. I encountered it as I made my way. It was both relevant and present. It was part of my reality. I did not ignore it, neither did I take it for granted..I just lived it. Almost the same as that you do not think all the time of your breathing, while that is the proof that you are alive. It’s just there. Yet, I have as yet not taken up writing about it.
Until now.

REGGAE SCENE

I am talking about the reggae scene in my hometown, Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. More specifically, the state of it in the present (2012). I have written about the reggae scene of Bristol on this blog, the English city with about 450.000 inhabitants. On the Bristol reggae scene a CD, or actually by now a series of CDs, have appeared, compiling songs of Bristol reggae artists. Amsterdam has more inhabitants than Bristol, the city itself at present about 790.000. Moreover: Amsterdam also has a substantial reggae scene.

Related to Jamaican migrants and other (colonial) connections with Jamaica, the English/British reggae scene may be somewhat older and bigger than elsewhere in Europe. This must however not be “inflated”. Since the 1970s especially, several other countries in Europe have an extensive reggae fan base as well, and “reggae scenes”, some maybe more than others: including at least France, Italy, Germany, and yes, the Netherlands. All these countries have also local reggae artists, consisting mostly of black people, but even of local white people (similar to Britain).

DEMOGRAPHICS

In this light something I wrote in the post on Bristol is relevant here. Amsterdam is one of the capitals of Europe with the highest percentage of people of sub-Saharan African origin (including of course Afro-Caribbean people). Reggae is black music and still particularly popular in the Caribbean region and Africa. Along with migrants from Suriname - a former Dutch colony - or the Dutch Caribbean islands, black people in Amsterdam also consist quite substantially of people migrated from sub-Saharan Africa, relatively most from Ghana, but from other countries as well. Afro-Surinamese migrants started coming to Amsterdam in higher numbers since the 1970s.

Amsterdam’s (geographically) somewhat suburban quarter called Amsterdam Zuidoost (Amsterdam South East) came to house relatively many of the Afro-Surinamese and other Caribbean migrants as well as, in a later stage, migrants from Africa. This makes it a quarter, with now about 90.000 inhabitants, with a majority – estimated at about 70% - of black inhabitants. It gave it an image somewhat like the Amsterdam version of Brixton (London) or Handsworth (Birmingham): the black neighbourhood. Though like all such images this is partly exaggerated.

REGGAE “CLUBS”

Reggae is relatively popular in Amsterdam South East, but it is not confined to it. That idea would be too simplistic. Formal bars, clubs, and also the “coffeeshops” (places where marijuana can be bought) for which Amsterdam is internationally known, are in number actually relatively limited in this outer, residential quarter. It does have a Black Music record shop, with much reggae albums and related material, called Pico. It survived the digital age, but barely. I checked the collection of reggae CDs not too long ago (September 2012), and it was not too comprehensive, though a good selection. But I guess this decrease is similar to other still existing record shops in a time of overwhelming digital downloading.

The sleeve notes on the first compilation CD of ‘The Bristol reggae explosion’, said something interesting about reggae-minded clubs in Bristol. That is that of the three reggae-minded clubs before there (1970s/1980s) only one at present remains (in 2010s). The term “reggae-minded clubs” speaks I think for itself: a club where they often (that is: regularly) play reggae music, often with dee-jays or sound systems: you done know.

Now this provides a good comparison point. How many of such reggae-minded clubs are there at present in Amsterdam? More than the one of Bristol? I would say yes. There are a few reggae-minded clubs in Amsterdam, as I write this now in 2012. Especially when you define “reggae-minded club” as I did before, as well as by taking the word “club” loosely. The difference between a bar, a coffeeshop, or a “club” is not always that clear.

Using a strict – but not too strict - definition I would say there are now four (strongly) reggae-minded clubs in Amsterdam, as I write this (late 2012). Sources: own experience, conversations, and research (on the Internet mainly).

Club Caprice (several times a week dee-jays play dancehall and, somewhat less frequent, roots); Brasil Music bar (though dubious: only Tuesday and focussed on dancehall); Café Frontline (relatively more New Roots and roots reggae); Frontline has actually several times a week, including the weekend!, reggae dee-jay’s/selecters: now we’re talking. These 3 places are all in the city centre.

Then on the East side is worthy of mention definitely Café the Zen, a few kilometres East of the Central Station, so not too far from the city centre. The Zen also tends to have several days a week reggae-deejays and even concerts at times. The focus seems (like in Café Frontline) a bit more on New Roots and roots reggae, but dancehall is also played.

I have been to most of these places/clubs. Besides these venues with regular reggae, concert halls in Amsterdam (Melkweg, Paradiso) of course also have occasional reggae concerts, and some other places have occasional reggae nights/dee jays, but not in a regular sense.

Then there are a few coffeeshops in Amsterdam that mainly play reggae music. There are over a hundred of coffeeshops in Amsterdam’s city centre alone, and these free places for smoking marijuana have a predictable connection with reggae. This is not always the case though. Reggae is played on occasion in most coffeeshops, but variated mostly with pop, funk or other genres. Some rarely play reggae.

The few coffeeshops that only play reggae or dancehall are unfortunately no longer in business, as I write this. Up to a few years ago there still were a few. It is a volatile economic sector..
I've also heard about the Easy Times coffeeshop before this, near the Leidseplein in Amsterdam’s city centre. Easy Times almost had a mythical, legendary status among reggae fans, especially among the ganja smokers among them. Many spoke to me in nostalgic terms about it. Strictly reggae, dee-jays, sound systems, “keeping it real”, while under a a marijuana scent and smoke. That must have been a special, magical reggae place. About 12 years ago, however, it was bought by a non-reggae-minded owner. It changed drastically soon after.

In conclusion: unfortunately there are no (full) “reggae clubs” in Amsterdam at this moment (late 2012), in the sense of a place totally devoted to reggae and/or dancehall and exclusively playing it the whole week. Yet there are a few reggae-minded clubs with reggae – taken in combination - on most days of the week (notably Frontline and Cafe the Zen).

Having been to several of these clubs - regularly in some cases – I wonder what the one remaining reggae- or reggae-minded club in Bristol would be like. I did not have the chance to visit it when I went to Bristol in 2011. Maybe dee-jays/selecters and sound systems also play, or live acts perform, on occasion in several (also normally non-reggae-minded) clubs, as is also the case in Amsterdam.

Even if so, both in Amsterdam and Bristol the “venue volume” is relatively little, reflective of reggae’s troubled relation to the “mainstream” culture. Reggae is not mainstream, it stays outside it. Yet it has overall quite some fans, in Bristol and in Amsterdam. These fans have to rely on indirect and mostly informal sources and ways to find the reggae-minded places in their hometown. Tourists – Amsterdam attracts many tourists - have also asked me about reggae places in Amsterdam.

The number of reggae-minded venues seems to a degree satisfactory, but in a sense “by default”, as if it goes against the grain of popular culture. In the year 2012 reggae still remains an “alternative” culture within Amsterdam. That while Amsterdam’s liberal, coffeeshop image makes some think that it is like a “Jamaica of Europe”. That is exaggerated, though I like some aspects of Amsterdam, and I think separating soft and hard drugs - and quasi-legalizing soft-drugs - is overall a wise, thoughtful policy, even non-smokers should realize.

Okay: we discussed the locales, the places. Now let’s go the another crucial component of a reggae scene: the people.

REGGAE PEOPLE

The mentioned clubs and bars and (and coffeeshops) that are reggae-minded are in most cases owned – at least in part – by Surinamese people. We thus go back to the Amsterdam demographics earlier in this post. From my experience and acquired knowledge I can tell that a large part of the Amsterdam reggae scene: people who frequent the mentioned clubs, go to reggae concerts or other reggae events, are also Afro-Surinamers. Probably because their Afro-Caribbean culture and history of slavery share several similarities with Jamaica. Even the Creole languages in Suriname have certain similarities with Jamaican patois. Among these Surinamese reggae fans a large part is also Rastafari-adhering, to differing degrees.

Not all reggae fans in Amsterdam are however Surinamers, of course: these include also local Dutch and/or Amsterdam people, other migrants or of migrant descent (like I-man), reggae-loving tourists from various countries, and relatively many sub-Saharan Africans. Reggae is after all very popular in Africa.

Reggae audiences in Amsterdam tend to be consequently mixed in most cases, but just as often majoritarian black or Surinamese. White guys or girls among these crowds are however not a rare sight on such occasions: they are not even necessarily “lost” or “experimenting”: they can be reggae fans for years, even without connections to Surinamese people.

Reggae fans in Amsterdam are overall interracial, but there is at the same time taken as a whole a connection between the fact that Amsterdam is one of the capitals in Europe with most people of sub-Saharan African origin, and the fact that its reggae scene is mostly racially black: that “fits” somehow culturally and sociologically. It can be seen as predictable, but also as authentic: it’s how you look at it. The other way around would be just plain odd.

Now I am talking about reggae fans: people who enjoy and dance to reggae music. A (-no disrespect to good dancers!-) mostly “passive” interest, you might say. But what about people making reggae themselves?

REGGAE PERFORMERS AND ARTISTS

This is another component of a reggae scene: musicians, artists making reggae. I will define this broader. I will in this case also include “selecters”: people who play music by others with a few vocal additions and some effects. These are called in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) “dee-jays”, but in Jamaica – as some may know – dee-jay refers more to a vocalist (or: toaster): one who “rides” or vocally “versions” the music/riddim, rather than primarily just puts it on a turn table or in a CD player.

So I will include musical groups, artists, dee jays and even selecters under the broad category Reggae Performers. Needless to say: this is mostly a subgroup of the previous category Reggae People. Selecters tend to be of different origins, but among them there are also relatively many Surinamers, often playing in the clubs mentioned before.

Are Surinamese people further strongly represented among Amsterdam reggae acts? The answer is yes, as is maybe to be expected. Again, this must not be exaggerated. It is a good sign that it fits the public. That means reggae is music by the people and for the people. There are however also reggae acts – or aspiring ones – that are African in origin, and also white Dutch or something else. An Amsterdammer who got famous on a popular talent show on television (The Voice of Holland) is a dreadlocked reggae singer, Lenny Keylard, who is white, with some Asian (Indonesian) blood. He says he makes “melodic reggae”. I find his tunes here and there a bit too poppy to my taste, but I like some of his songs as well, and he definitely shows songwriting talent.

Leah Rosier is a Dutch, Amsterdammer lady reggae singer who has gotten more active recently, officially releasing an album through common distribution channels. She collaborated for instance with Marlon Asher on a nice tune on Amsterdam. Her style is quite original, roots-influenced, but I also assume an early dancehall influence (Half Pint, Barrington Levy, Michael Prophet and others). Though I think she herself can better tell about influences on her.

Leah is not ashamed or hesitant to connect herself openly and in public outings with marijuana smoking and, relatedly, Amsterdam’s “coffeeshop culture”. An interesting difference with Lenny Keylard who chose on his debut album (‘Jah Is The Remedy Love Is The Cure’) not to make references to marijuana (for perpetuating clichés?).

Other more settled reggae acts from Amsterdam tend to be mostly of Surinamese origin indeed (partly with a connection with Amsterdam South East). With "settled" I mean artists who are actually recording, producing albums, or at least songs, for the market, and who tour regularly.

There is besides this a large grey area of home-made recordings put on CD and sold on the street, or – less commercial - simply made public on the internet. Home recordings and musical experiments put on YouTube or Soundcloud or other "share sites" are not on the market, seldom official (legally correct and marketed), but are not necessarily crappy. Even if the sound quality is not too far behind what studios can accomplish: you however often will search in vain on i-Tunes, or Amazon for instance. Neither can you find their albums on CD to buy on e.g. Amazon or in stores.

Monetary, legal, and practical hindrances make that such aspiring reggae artists or those with only limited official output - or marketing - in Amsterdam, outnumber the fewer "bigger", settled, and well-organized artists having an official album or more on the market. Of the latter I can, besides the mentioned Lenny Keylard or Leah Rosier, also name the talented Surinamese artist Joggo (little brother of football player Clarence Seedorf). He can write good, rootsy songs and has a good singing voice.

Other Amsterdam reggae artists I have seen perform live include Kenny B, Barka Moeri (New Roots), Rass Motivated, KaliBwoy (Dancehall) and others. These seem not to put out much material on the market. Barka Moeri has certain talents, good songs, and I experienced he can be a good live performer. Nonetheless, I only found about one song of Barka Moeri on sale for digital download. Yet he seemed to have put out albums in the past: not for sale digitally apparently. Maybe KaliBwoy’s time will still come (he won a national, Dutch pop price I heard, in the dancehall/reggae category) but only a few songs are “out there” to buy from KaliBwoy. He does tour and perform though. Ziggi Recado is one of the other more talented, and settled, Dutch reggae artists: but he is based mainly in Rotterdam now, not Amsterdam. So he is at least partly in another scene.

Another Amsterdam reggae artist I also have to mention: yours truly. Let me introduce myself: I’m Michel Conci. I have recently put a song on the market, recorded with a producer in an Amsterdam (Amsterdam South East) full-fledged studio, called the Dubcellar. It can be considered my official debut single. The producer is multi-instrumentalist Robert Curiel, and he made and produced the music. Curiel has been long involved with several especially Dutch reggae- and ska-acts (not confined to Amsterdam). The vocal song I recorded is originally mine. The song is called ‘Rastafari Live On’. It is legally done right and on sale through common (digital!) distribution/download channels, all over the world.

I own the copyright, and have distribution channels, but not a label behind me. The latter means that I have to do all promotion myself. Internet offers possibilities though. Meanwhile I have made a promo for my official debut single, and also one in – believe it or not – Japanese, for the Japanese market. These can be seen on my YouTube channel.

This debut single followed on many years of my practicing: in writing songs, melody and rhythm, musical structures, singing, and creating vocal parts, sometimes on existing riddims, sometimes public (not for commercial gain thus legal). I have actually put several songs of mine (mostly on existing Jamaican riddims) already on YouTube. Of most I feel satisfied - else I would not make it public - but they are not really "official": regarding sound quality or copyright for sale. Yet they are public: some songs of mine published before prove popular. Party Tonight on a riddim once used for a Dennis Brown song but dating back to rocksteady from the 1960s - is for instance much viewed in Romania (for some reason...). Some were surprised that I could actually sing (e.g. on Revelation Revealing), though the song was mixed - I admit - inadequately. Also my early song Ideology was appreciated by some people internationally, as was my Lutan Fyah-esque half-toasting, half-singing song Made You Crazy, and other songs. I give thanks.

People who want to assess my songwriting - and vocal - skills for these "unofficial yet public songs" can check these and other songs on my YouTube channel ( http://www.youtube.com/MichelConci)

I leave the opinion of my more official song Rastafari Live On to others. If you feel the need to share your opinion I would prefer that you combine it with something called “argumentation”, but that is up to you.

So this makes that by now – in late 2012 - I am in more than one sense part of the Amsterdam reggae scene. I in fact have belonged to that scene for years before this debut single though. Actually for at least the 10 years I almost live in Amsterdam now.

I am not a “group thinker”, yet I was already all these years part of the reggae scene, at least mentally. In that sense my debut single Rastafari Live On is more an “outcome” than anything else. Also this song’s lyrics are a sort of “conclusion” I drew: on the importance of Rastafari for me and my life. As I Wayne sang “Rastafari is life and of this I’m sure”..

I can also quote from another song, the Mighty Diamonds’ 'Reggae Man': “I’m the reggae man, try to understand…”.

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