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”.