dinsdag 2 juni 2015

Cultural coolness

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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