vrijdag 1 januari 2016

From Walter Rodney to African origins

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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