maandag 2 oktober 2017

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): DJ Ewa

INTRODUCTION

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 5 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). In August 2016, then, I interviewed Vega Selecta.

DJ EWA

This time, already October of 2017, I interview another “bredda” of mine, that I know from the Amsterdam reggae scene. It is DJ Ewa (Iwan Huyck).

I have known him in fact for years, having been to many events where he was DJ/Selecta or organizer, including Café the Zen (Amsterdam East), but also other places, such as Club Caprice (later King’s Club) or elsewhere in Amsterdam. I knew his connection to the erstwhile Easy Times coffeeshop: a famous reggae-minded place – with almost a legendary status among reggae fans. It had regular reggae DJ’s, was often quite busy, located at the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. It stopped as such, though, around 2004.

It was a bit before my time, but many people I know (including an older brother and friends), mentioned it to me. DJ Ewa became a regular DJ there, I soon heard.

Ewa is therefore a kind of a "veteran" Reggae DJ in Amsterdam, being also somewhat older than other DJ’s, as well as than the other people I interviewed before for my blog.

Ewa (Iwan) was born and grew up in Suriname, and later migrated to the Netherlands.

Underneath, our conversation based on some main questions (in bold letters). His answers (translated from Dutch, here and there slightly reformulated) are the texts in italic. Additional questions or comments by me are furthermore in between what he says, and are not in italic (M: is me, Michel).

Since when (what age) do you listen to Reggae music?

Since I was around 12 years old, I think. At that time I lived a while with my sister (in Suriname), and my brother-in-law had a record player with a set of records. Not all I liked so much, but some music I liked: notably some Rock and Soul that my father used to play before too. Yet I also encountered at my sister’s something by Peter Tosh. That I loved, and it became a strong inspiration for me.

I also heard Bob Marley before a bit, but Peter Tosh caught my attention much more at first. From that I got to other reggae: Bob Marley among them.

What appealed to you in reggae music (or Tosh)?

What attracted me to Tosh were his voice, as well as his lyrics. He had really “deeper” lyrics. Already since young I was a kind of a “deep” thinker about things, and that touched me, connected me to Tosh’s music as well. I analyzed his lyrics and found personal things. Peter Tosh was my biggest inspirer.

This influence extended to my affinity for sunglasses: I was influenced in wearing them by Peter Tosh, often wearing specific sunglasses too. You notice that in photos of me..

M: After that came other Reggae?

Yes. After Tosh, I found Bob Marley also interesting, and a while after that I also began to listen to and love Ijahman Levi.

Ijahman (Levi), I found, had someting peculiar, and unique to me. Something I hadn’t heard yet in other music: it is a “sigh” that you hear in almost all of his songs.

M: He has a beautiful voice, of course.

Yes. And he sighs even while he sings, consciously. I had not heard that yet of any other artist. It’s in most of Ijahman’s songs. It’s almost like he sings “Blues”, I think.

M: Ijahman Levi certainly made some classic, enduring songs..

For sure..

M: Some critics claim that Peter Tosh had made some albums of “lesser” quality as well. But that is a matter of taste, of course..

That is indeed just a matter of taste. He preferred going his own way, instead of being directed by Chris Blackwell and commercial goals. I understood and respected that. While another producer before him, Lee Scratch Perry, sold Wailers records without legal artist credits. These ended up being pirated in Britain and elesewhere in Europe without any financial compensation for the Wailers. The Wailers (with Tosh) did not like this.

M: Perry once said about this that he just did that to get them a first entry in the market, as a way to promote the then unknown Wailers “out there”..

Yes, but only he (Perry) made money out of this then. Also because of such experiences, Tosh decided to go his own way.

What other music genres did you listen to then?

Alongside to Reggae, I also listened to other music, notably Rock. I liked Creedance Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty I liked. Good music I found in the work of Deep Purple, ACDC.

I served in the army (in Suriname) – at around my 20th year - and during that time I, besides to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, also mainly listened to this kind of Rock, like ACDC, or also the Alan Parson’s Project, who were pioneers in “electronic music”.. They had good songs like Eyes In The Sky..

To be honest, at home I mostly tend to listen to this Rock music, more for work I make mixes focussing on Reggae. That’s more work to me than anything else.

M: Those Rock bands have slower songs too

Yes, even Deep Purple has nice “slower” songs. One of my favourites was also Eric Burdon (working with the band War), who also showed a Blues influence. I liked that too. The lengthy song Tobacco Road I liked: telling a whole story, starting Rock-like, slowing down to Blues. It tells an intriguing story about someone having a bad life amidst poverty and addiction, who gets a dream as way to change it, but has to make an “offer” (his life)..

M: I know that song..

In Suriname buses, usually music is played out loud, and I used to listen to this song during an approximately 18-minute bus trip in Suriname, but the song was not yet finished when my trip ended, haha.

Further, I like Talking Heads too. I sometimes look up their old video’s on YouTube..

David Byrne is crazy.. in a fun, good way..

M: And Surinamese music: kaseko or bigi poku?

I never felt too much affinity for that. It’s not really my thing. Although, when I used to go to the Surinamese interior – I am not really a city person - , also when I served in the army, I visited Amerindian and Maroon villages, and experieneced their folk music in the pure, traditional form. That I really enjoyed: pure and authentic. Amerindian music, and the Aleke music in Maroon villages: in their orginal cultural context and real life: that I appreciated: really experiencing it, instead of just listening to it.

Fantan Mojah also made a Aleke song, by the way..

M: Funk and other things?

I also encountered Funk, Disco, and Soul, popular at that time in Paramaribo. I knew a then well-known DJ in Suriname, DJ Lord, and his son. His son took over when his father died and organized parties, I then started to play/spin and mix records for the first time as a DJ, taking over from him at times, when he e.g. wanted to dance with women.. I played/mixed mainly what was most popular then: soul, funk, disco.. My earliest DJ efforts..

At that time I also used to dance in a dance group, dancing disco, and later even modern ballet. Modern ballet had some unusual moves for us, and we could not take it seriously and only laughed, haha. That dancing stopped for me when I really started to play/deejay.

I was then about 16 years of age, when I had these first DJ experiences..

Those were my first DJ steps, but around my 20th year, I had to serve in the army for a few years (late 1970s), just prior to to the (1981) coup. I had a good time, but could not do much with music.. I listened to it , though, in-between and during expeditions: mainly Rock, but also Peter and Bob..

Later, when I came to the Netherlands, my interest in Reggae as such increased.

Do you have any preferences in the broad Reggae genre. Does e.g. Digital Dancehall appeal to you as much as Roots Reggae, for instance?

Generally within Reggae my taste is also quite broad. However, I think the classic Roots Reggae, the old school,: is still the best.. I also like the recent Roots Revival, New Roots by Chronixx, Kababa Pyramid and others. I think that is a good generation. For a period you had not much in that Roots area, most artists did Dancehall, with few exceptions. Now I like that there is a group of good New Roots artists..

I like the fact that within Reggae there is much variation: much to choose from.

M: How does this translate to your selection as Reggae DJ/selecta?

I think I am one of the few DJ’s/selecta’s who plays different kinds of Reggae. Many of them tend to play just one subgenre: Dancehall, Dub, Roots.. I vary.. This also depends on where or for who I play/spin.. I often adapt to the audience, despite my personal taste even.

In the South of the Netherlands I tend to play more Roots. In Amsterdam and the Randstad (the urban, densely populated part of the Netherlands between Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam) more mixed, also Dancehall.

I have organized for a time Roots parties with regular live acts even, such as in de Heilige Zeug (Warmoesstraat) in Amsterdam. Few of the people that I know came.. Other Roots parties I played at had few Roots Reggae-minded people in the audience, and more young people. I then switched to Dancehall. Roots Reggae fans then started to think I do not play Roots.. It made me hard to “categorize” as DJ/selecta for many..

In the same vein, they would never invite me for those Dub Reggae minded DJ events, while I have many Dub cd’s and records, even preparing them for my relative, vocalist/singer MC Priti Pangi (Journy). Yet, they do not know that Dub side of my collection..

How did you develop as DJ/Selecta after those first steps as DJ around your 16th year?

I grew into it . After those first steps around my 16th. When my sister or nieces had birthdays or parties, I sometimes played as DJ. Then mainly vinyl singles..

Not always the guest liked what I played: many expected Surinamese music, and I never played that. Of Surinamese music I only liked Papa Touwtje. There are also nice reggae developments recently, though, in Suriname..

M: That Kaseko is a tradition worth conserving, I think. I see sometimes instruments used, you do not see often: a wooden log for instance..

Yes, certainly. However: live it is often much better than when I hear it on the radio. There are certainly good musicians in Suriname..

You came up with the term Easy Time Crew, that you respresent. This refers to the former reggae-minded café / coffeeshop Easy Times. This was located at the Prinsengracht (not far from the Leidseplein). A bit before my time, but I heard a lot about it. What was so special about it?

Well, it was a real reggae place: open all week, and every day of the week they played reggae. Friday’s and Saturday’s they created a dancefloor with regular dee-jay’s (selecta’s). DJ Aya used to play there a lot, followed later by me.. Since the late 1990s, I played there regularly, up to around 2004, when Easy Times stopped as Reggae-focussed place. I therefore later came up with the term Easy Time Crew, referring to that past there, as DJ at Easy Times in Amsterdam.

It was a very popular and often busy café/coffeeshop for a period among Reggae fans in Amsterdam, even making nearby places switch to Reggae after Easy Times closed for the night: to attract the Reggae fans that visited Easy Times. Reggae artists even visited and performed at Easy Times: Junior Kelly and Glen Washington to name some.

It was influential in that sense. A bit comparable to Café the Zen (Amsterdam East) today: a reggae hotspot. Café the Zen, you might say, took that central role over a bit (also concerning some of the same people), in the Amsterdam reggae scene.. I am now mostly active in/for Café the Zen, alongside quite regular gigs elsewhere In Amsterdam or outside.

You play mainly from CD, as DJ. That is: instead of mp3 or vinyl. That is quite exceptional. How did you come to that choice?

Well, exceptional.. there are a few DJ’s playing CD’s, not just me. I prefer CD's – and more specifically WAV(e) files over MP3’s. The sound quality of CD (wav) songs is so much better. MP3 Pro improved the quality of mp3’s, yet remains still behind WAV’s though, quality-wise. I have a good player (Pioneer) and can mix/work well wit hit.

The best sound is of course vinyl. That’s what I opine too. Yet over time, as DJ/selecta travelling, CD’s became more practical for me: more easily transportable than vinyl albums and singles, and I started to take more and more CD’s instead. I stopped there for quality reasons: I could have switched to MP3s to be able to bring much more tunes to choose from. Yet, as I said: the quality is less. Plus: I like to maintain an overview of tunes. Not too much of them at once.

M: I notice that too.. I used to focus on Wav and CD's for years too, and later heard and made MP3s of my own songs, noticing immediately the lesser quality from Wav to Mp3. While others said it was barely noticeable.. I still noticed it to differing degrees, when listening songs..

Yes. Me too. An added reason is the respect for the artist. Some download/convert YouTube songs to MP3, but you can buy them too legally, via ITunes or otherwise.

M: “The album idea” I miss at times. People tend to think in songs in mp3, while maybe artists have a story they want to tell with a whole album, or it is interestingly representative for a specific period of their career. I heard some say for instance that Luciano’s album ‘The Messenger’ (1996) is great as a whole, while many only get to know a few songs of it. “Cherry picking” songs here and there, this way.

Yes, while an entire CD album is often also cheaper than buying the songs separately.

So, I keep on playing CD with Wav files. I never play MP3s, safe when there is some technical problem playing CDs: for that I take MP3’s on memory stick: just in case.

Do you combine your being DJ/Selecta with other creative activities?

Well, also arranging artists performing: I organized the performance of Verse Ital in Café the Zen, as well as, like I said, also other artists performing under the Easy Time Crew banner in other places too, together with others.

Besides this, and of course my activities as DJ / Selecta, I also am active in visual design, I make flyers, reggae-minded graphic design. This is to be found as Internet site under the name I & I Productions (https://www.facebook.com/easytimeproductions/), also to be found on Facebook. This design is connected to other Easy Time Crew activities. Further, I have a radio show on which I play reggae music, twice a month (Wednesday’s) at the online radio station http://www.royalzionhighness.com .

Further some other things, too.

Does the Rastafari message in much of Reggae appeal to you? How does this relate to your own background, or beliefs?

Well, Rastafari is very broad, with many branches. I am not someone who likes to be in a group. If I would define myself, I would call myself first and foremost a “rebel”. I like the message in Reggae often, but I like to go my own way. As a rebel.

M: That fits with your love for Peter Tosh: who was also known as a rebel..

Yes, haha.

M: Were you brought up religiously?

Yes. My family was and is very religious, very (Catholic) Christian. They raised me that way, and as a youth I followed a Bible study, obtaining even degrees to eventually preach. Yet, I stopped with it, because I asked too much question for them: like I said before, I was always very much “thinking” and researching. Questions such as: If God as Creator created everything, who created God? Questions like that. I remained curious.

Therefore, in seeking answers for myself, as well as to rebel somehow against my Catholic upbringing, I even joined other Christian groups – temporary- such as the Jehova’s Witnesses or Mormons.

M: Those religions: Catholicism, but also Protestantism, want you to be docile, to not think (for) yourself. You like to think for yourself, you told..

Yes. Since I was a child, I was even known within my family for having "foreseeing" visions.

I simply do not like too much “deification” of people, I guess. I respect people like Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie. I see them not as “religious” figures, though. Marcus Garvey I consider as freedom fighter.

Moreover: I see “religion” as the origins of many wars in this world, a negative influence: the crusades and such..

People believe so much in things, that they stop thinking rationally. While I opine that you should keep on thinking yourself.

I can understand, on the other hand, that spirituality or belief can bring relief, or peace, to people’s minds, in cases..

M: Me too,. I can imagine people find comfort in spirituality, especially when “stuck” in life, somehow..

Yes. Further, the Bible - that I used to study - is very arbitararily made up historically, I have learned. Certain humans just chose certain texts over others. The Bible has been made too holy and unquestionable. Mary also wrote a book, I heard: it did not become known..

I do not see any religious leader for me in the world, preferring thinking for myself. Words of Selassie and Garvey have wisdom, I recognize that, but also words by people like Martin Luther King and Mandela. I see these all more as “prophets”.

Despite all this, I kind of admire Rastas/Rastafari-adherents. I find them in a sense heroic: it is not easy to be Rasta in this society; you will not have it easy.

M: That’s true: you set yourself aside/apart consciously. While “Babylon” is everywhere powerfully spread in society: at work, the music scene, you name it.

Yes. Therefore I have admiration for that life choice as Rasta. I also have good friends active in Rastafari branches, including an order called the Egyptian Order, focussing on Egypt historically, its African roots. Black pharaoh’s, Nubians, themes like that. I found that interesting, I must admit.. I began to understand its appeal. I learn things from that too

Are there any “new” artists, or “discoveries” in Reggae you would like to mention?

Well, Lenn Hammond is an interesting, good artist (related to Beres, indeed) who deserves – I think – a bigger audience in the Netherlands. He is not well-known and popular here, unlike in Britain. I also like an artist like Demo Delgado. I furthermore regularly get sent CDs by several artists: often some interesting things between it, such as the mentioned Demo Delgado..

Any more things you would like to mention?

I miss a sense of unity among Reggae DJ’s and organizers in Amsterdam. Before in Café Caprice (Amsterdam) where I played, or with later Cafe the Zen (Amsterdam) events, or elsewhere. I often organized events with other DJ’s, often younger than me, to promote them. In later reports they almost only highlighted themselves, not the others involved, neither giving me as DJ Ewa some credit. Helping to promote each other would be better, instead of each one seeking their own space, at the cost of others..

M: Like cowboys in a cowboy town, haha

Yes. I think that is not necessary.. I am a bit of a “loner” as a DJ and organizer, not very active in surrounding myself with a supportive “group”, maybe that’s my problem. Still, we could support each other more in the Amsterdam reggae scene, I think. Working together more.

REFLECTION AND COMPARISON

I found this to be a very interesting and insightful interview. It is not even that exaggerated to consider DJ Ewa as a true "veteran" in the Amsterdam reggae scene.

He is older than many other present Reggae DJ’s in the Netherlands, and than the other ones I interviewed. Logically, he therefore “lived” more and has more to say.

Interesting to learn about his time still in Suriname, how he served in the army, and his connections to Suriname. Of the people I interviewed up to now, he is the first Surinamer as such. Kind of odd, seeing the strong proportional representation of Surinamese people among reggae fans (and in the general reggae scene) in Amsterdam, being also a relatively large demographic in the Amsterdam area.

Readers may have noticed, though, that DJ Ewa has a strong own individual personality too, considering himself someone who loves to think for himself, as well as as a ”rebel”. He also admits being kind of a “lone operator” within the Reggae DJ-scene.

ROCK

That makes his story more interesting and idiosyncatic, I think. His affinity for Rock-like music, aside from his Reggae DJ work, may come as a surprise, and is perhaps not very common among Reggae fans, though neither that extraordinary. Several reggae fans I know like other music too, or switched temporarily to someting quite different. I myself am interested in music in the broad sense, study it all, and then choose what inspires me most. I often prefer Reggae, that is true, but listen to (or even play as percussionist on) various other genres too (Blues, Rock, Jazz). At one jam session, at the Waterhole in my hometown Amsterdam, I played percussion (improvizing) on a Creedance Clearwater Revival song I did not really know, or only vaguely, named Fortunate Son. I found that interesting to do. Ewa said he also liked the Creedance Clearwater Revival.

Besides, the other people I interviewed before liked other genres too, albeit to differing degrees.

EASY TIMES

Ewa’s “veteran” status indeed proved here that he had more to say and tell, including his time in Suriname, but also regarding the Easy Times coffeeshop as vivid reggae place at the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.

I heard so many people talk mostly positively about it, including people close to me, that I really began to think I must have missed something great. I began to repent not having visited it before 2004, since I was a reggae fan already in the late 1980s, and could go out more in the 1990s (although I lived not in Amsterdam then, but not far): when I went to Amsterdam I only went to reggae concerts then at the Paradiso or Melkweg venues. I also heard there were occasionally criminals in the Easy Times coffeeshop, as elsewhere in Amsterdam, or some tensions, but not often, and the vibes were according to most mostly positive. DJ Ewa is connected to that legendary history of Easy Times, hence also his moniker Easy Time Crew.

CD

What sets DJ Ewa a bit apart as DJ is his focus on playing CD songs (Wave files), in a DJ/Selecta scene increasingly dominated by mp3 catalogues or, alternatively, vinyl aficionados.

Interesting, because I had such a CD period too, and deplore – like Ewa – the lesser quality of mp3 when compared to Wave.

VARIATION AS SELECTA

I heard DJ Ewa many times playing at clubs or elsewhere, and I tended to like his selection (always some relatively unknown songs in between more known ones, that I liked), and also noted the variation, he himself says he has as DJ or Selecta. One time at his session the focus was on New Roots, another time more Digital Dancehall than he usually plays.

That flexibility is good in itself, as is adapting to the audience, though you can go too far with it in my opinion. I myself am DJ/selecta with vinyl at times, as well. In selecting I of course think about what the audience might like, but often also think that some songs in my collection are so good that they simply need to be played.

DJ Ewa says, however, that he plays some of those songs he deems great too, and is thus not always just "crowd pleasing" as DJ/selecta.

So, I noted some similarities between me and Ewa in our Reggae tastes, while some of the Rock/Blues he mentioned I knew and liked too (Eric Burdon/War I had on cassette, I liked the Talking Heads).

There were also similarities, more or less, in us both being free-thinking loners, and rebellious.

SPIRITUAL THEMES

Regarding spirituality there were also some similarities but also differences. My parents were also Catholic, but not as strict Catholic as Ewa says his family was, and brought him up. My own (Spanish) mother was kind of critical and joking about the Catholic Church overall. She critiqued the Church’s sinister role during the right-wing Franco dictatorship that ended up making her younger days hard (and poor). At the same time, she taught me prayers (in Spanish) her mother taught to her, about Jesus, - perhaps for some structure in life/parenting - and my parents took me to church events/services regularly, though not too often. I also went to Catholic schools and Bible studies, that were relatively free and open in this modern, democratic time.

Ewa had, by contrast, a stricter religious (Catholic) upbringing. All the more admirable that he, already as a child, kept “researching” and thinking for himself, also about Christianity and religion, as a true rebel. Just like his also rebellious inspiration Peter Tosh, being also critical about Christianity’s role.

Regarding Rastafari, Ewa takes on a rational approach, eschewing deification and group thinking also within sections of the Rastafari movement. He appreciates, however, that the Rastafari movement is broad, and respects Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey. He also admires Rastas for their heroic life choices in a (White, Western) society that, let’s face it, not always combines well with main Rasta values of e.g. equality, Africanness, and naturality.

OLDER AND WISER

The cliché is that when you get older, you get wiser. I personally think that not all people that get old get as a whole wiser – some do, some don’t –, but due to mere life experience you by definition have learned more, and inevitably obtain some more wisdom, as you get older. I certainly have noted this wisdom in the nice conversation with Ewa, who is older than the other reggae lovers I interviewed before for this blog, but also older than me. It was insightful and interesting for me.

vrijdag 1 september 2017

Celebrating Africa

The Rototom Sunsplash festival - a Reggae festival - took place in Benicasim, Spain in August 2017 (so this year) again. For the seventh consecutive time after the Rototom festival moved from Northern Italy to Eastern Spain (Benicàssim in Valencian spelling, province of Castellón). I did not go this year but went the very first time it was held in Spain, in 2010. I wrote about it on this blog. It was a great experience for me then: music-wise and otherwise. The festival had a great line up in 2010, including Pablo Moses, Anthony B, Bushman, Bob Andy, the Abyssinians, Romain Virgo and others. “Older” and “newer” reggae artists combined. I stayed in a nice, relatively cheap hotel in the small town of Benicasim, avoiding thus my hesitation about “camping” among strangers. A hesitation that might have been exaggerated or unjustified, but I enjoyed the time in the comfortable hotel, with a nice fruit stand nearby. I only had to walk a bit more to the festival terrain than those on the camping. That it was in my maternal roots land (or “motherland”) of which I also spoke the language, was another nice detail.

Benicasim was furthermore located in a Mediterranean atmosphere and varied landscape, which I found pleasant. The festival terrain was orderly and well-organized, but with much open space, which one notices more as it was very hot (few trees for shade). Some days I walked to the festival terrain at 40 or 41 degrees celsius. Many of the visitors seemed to avoid the festival terrain with those temperatures. I was used to that from earlier vacations in Andalusia (including family visits), and maybe, who knows, somehow my Spanish genes (from the relatively warm South West of Spain), from my mother’s side, made me a bit more resilient. The visitors were as I remember okay, and the atmosphere was relaxed, even though groups seemed divided according to nationality. I imagined because of language barriers – or occasional disdain – between relatively numerous Italian and Spanish and others, like Northern European, visitors, but this showed more in distant rather than in aggressive behaviour.

THEME

Anyway, I remember great music concerts, the atmosphere, the stands, the heat, the natural surroundings, as well as debates at a Reggae University at the festival, interviews with artists.. I do not recall, though, if there was a “theme” of the festival. This latest, 2017 Rototom Sunsplash festival edition had, after all, a theme, namely “Celebrating Africa”. Possibly also because of the performing artists, including African artists like Seun Kuti (son of..), Youssou N’Dour, and other specific events or debates. "Celebrating Africa" seems a very interesting theme.

It also makes sense, and in what ways is what I aim to discuss in this post.

REGGAE AND AFRICA

The connections of Reggae with “Africa” are of course multifold. Reggae is created on Jamaica among people of African descent, under strong cultural African influences. That is self-evident. Reggae with its musical characteristics by itself celebrates Africa. The “celebrating” is thus a practical expression in culture, but soon became likewise manifested in Reggae’s lyrics, especially when the Rastafari movement influenced Reggae more since the early 1970s. With Marcus Garvey and Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia as central figures, and repatriation to Africa as goal, the Rastafari movement certainly focussed on Africa. Afrocentric also in the most literal sense.

IRONIES?

Yet.. there are some contradictions and issues here. Or “ironies”. The fact that one of the biggest Reggae festivals in “Europe” celebrates Africa is the least of these. Reggae is Afro-Jamaican music - created by descendants of slaves - that has “gone international” for a long time, being earlier successful in Britain. Both Britain and Spain have colonial and/or slavery pasts, as do France, the Netherlands, or other countries with Reggae festivals. Though of a 100% Italian (Genoese) background, Christopher Columbus started the whole colonial enterprise in the name of Spain, and became a naturalized Spaniard for his claimed efforts (“discovering” – not really, people already lived there -, but really “claiming” territories in the Americas for Spain). Some Caribbean schools taught that Columbus was a Spaniard (a Man from Spain), but he was as said not originally (but from Genoa, now Italy), and lived before Spain years in Portugal (according to some sources enslaving in that period Africans with the Portuguese on ships).

Of course, Columbus is criticized in Reggae lyrics as an early and wicked, Babylonian enslaver and colonizer. Yet, if a Reggae Festival in Spain is ironic, it also would be in Britain (building its wealth and cities largely on slavery and its empire, and more economically effective than Spain, where colonial wealth remained more within certain families), or Italy, whose Fascist leader also Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in the 1930s, when Selassie was in power, accompanied by racist propaganda. We are well beyond this irony by now, and times have largely changed. Reggae has fans throughout and among different races and on different continents, including Europe, with Britain, France, Germany, and Italy being especially large reggae markets there.

Reggae at least broadened the consciousness about Africa, and Black people’s struggles, among white reggae fans in Europe. This as part of it spreading Rastafari messages. Organic, something which the beauty of art facilitates, more easily and accessible than an academic study. That is true.

LYRICS AND RASTAFARI

A difficulty with this is, however, that Africa functions often mainly symbolically in Reggae lyrics; as the homeland, the Zion one should return to, escaping the oppression and poverty in Western Babylon (Jamaica, Europe, US a.o.). The desired homeland – the promised land - in its stead is specifically Ethiopia, but in many Reggae lyrics broadened to Africa in general. Actual knowledge about the African continent in the present, recent political and economic developments for instance, is not ignored, but at times take second place to the symbolic, the spiritual, and the “promise”. That is understandable and human. Perhaps even necessary, for a tree cannot live without its roots.

Politics and economics are corrupted and artificial, mostly Western-influenced, aspects in Africa. The Rastafari adherents can therefore be forgiven when they do not pay too much attention to that, although some do. The question whether, say, democracy can increase in present-day African societies seems outside the realm of a spiritual movement, although several Rastafari thinkers have discussed this socio-political matter (Mutabaruka, and in several Reggae lyrics).

A bit more contradictory is the approach toward African culture as such, at least within much of the Rastafari movement. Not just Rastafari, but also other Black Power movements in the West have this problem. The Nation of Islam associated the Islam with Africa, yet does not plea for repatriation to the motherland, neither has Africa the same symbolic function as it has for Rastafari. Islam is of course no more African than Christianity, but Christianity is of course used by European colonialism and enslavement against Africans.

Rastafari is more Christian and Biblical influenced, more specifically Protestant influenced, which is simply neither African. The Bible is known as Middle Eastern and, probably, relatively more African than European, and Rastafari “reread” it from an African perspective, but still..

CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, AND AFRICA

What is lost largely in all this is the original African folk culture. Spirit beliefs apparently lacked the “sense of purpose” for some Black Power and Pride movements, instead drawing in their own way from main world religions or even other ideologies (e.g. Marxist influences some suppose on the Black Panther Movement).

Christianity in its later European form (Catholicism and Protestantism) was and is mostly a negative, invasive force in Africa, as is the Islam. The latter a bit more subtly and gradually. As the Islam spread from Arabia since the 7th c. AD, it soon reached Northern Africa and after that territories South of it. It also reached large parts of Spain and Portugal, where locals also converted. While Islam was in all these cases an invading force (Africa, Iberia, Asia) many local inhabitants chose to convert, at least in part. Some scholars relate this to the ease of conversion (clear, practical rituals), also for illiterates, when compared to e.g. (real) Christianity. Islam spread, anyway, throughout parts of Africa.

Within Africa, the Sahel and Mande-speaking areas (Guinea, Mali, Senegambia, Northern Ivory Coast a.a.) in time converted to Islam, as did Somalia and parts of Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya. Ethiopia had an older, indigenous (non-European!) Christian tradition before this, along with some Animist traditions. Such Animist or “spirit belief” traditions were prevalent elsewhere in Africa too where Islam came, often replacing it, but partly also mixing with it, resulting in an own, distinctly African interpretation of the Islam in Mali, Guinea, and Senegal. In a book I recently read, the author pointed also at the different practicing of the Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea (practiced freer), differing from its stricter interpretation in Arab-influenced Sudan, where Islamic fundamentalism has risen, increasing tensions between Islamic Sudan and neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia, that also have a largely Christian population, besides Muslims.

The Arab slave trade historically affected many Black Africans, since the Islam came to Africa after the 7th c. AD. Many, many Black Africans: over millions, became enslaved by (Arab and Berber) Muslims, legitimized by an upheld rule that non-Muslims could be enslaved by Muslims. Many of these sub-Saharan Africans were women and men, brought to the Middle East and Northern Africa (and European areas under Islamic rule like Spain, Portugal or Sicily). More women than men, historians point out, and part of the men were (castrated) eunuchs, guarding harems. Dehumanization, racism, and cruelty.

In Islamic-ruled areas in the Middle East and South Asia (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, India) there are as a result now minorities of partly African descent, such as the little known group the “Afro-Turks”. Mostly the result of Arab and Islamic slave trade – including also many deaths on the way -, predating the more organized European ones. Some historians even claim that the presence of Black African slaves among the Moors in Spain and Portugal, gave the Portuguese and Spaniards the idea of the later Atlantic slave trade. This is not a popular statement, as the Moorish period in Spain was also relatively “advanced”. It also contradicts the simplistic idea among some so-called Afrocentric thinkers that the Moors were Africans teaching medieval Europeans civilization.

In light of all this, “celebrating” Africa through the Islam is nonsense. Christianity has a longer history in Ethiopia than most of Europe, and the Rastafari’s use of it can perhaps be seen as a “reclaiming”, beyond European wicked lies and historical falsification with colonialism, that also knew dehumanization, racism, and cruelty only more intense and concentrated in time (millions were enslaved and brought to the Americas, or died as part of it).

There are still some difficulties with this, though. “Animist” aspects from traditional African spirit possession beliefs, that most slaves brought to the Americas, have been eschewed by early Rastas, claiming these to be “devilish”. A clear Protestant, European influence. White and other missionaries from evangelical and other Protestant groups active in Africa right now, do the same with present-day spirit cults in Africa. That is not “celebrating” Africa, that is destroying its original culture. This is then replaced by a European-minded Christianity.

Elsewhere Black Africans are indoctrinated nowadays more and more by an Arab-minded Islam, such as among the Hausa in Nigeria, Senegal and elsewhere, and also in Sudan. South Sudan is a new country, mainly Christian, made up of Black African people, but the remaining Islamic country Sudan has a population that is actually mixed African and Arab, yet sees itself as Arab. A type of racism connected to a religious sense of superiority. The same occurs in Egypt, where it occurs that people deny their African roots – even if having certain physical features reminding of it (Black African instead of Arab-Mediterranean, let’s say). Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) had to continue this denial, as racist Arabs attacked his African features. That is also the opposite of celebrating Africa.

REGGAE

Reggae, though, is mostly influenced by Rastafari. Not all Reggae artists are Rastafari-adherents of course, and not all Rastafari adherents are connected to Reggae. They are separate domains, yet the influence and connection is there. Many Reggae lyrics still point at African spirit possession lyrics, and mostly in a negative light (Obeah and Vodou are portrayed often as trickery by wicked and bad-minded people), although the Yoruba deity Shango – found in spirit possession traditions comparable to Vodou, such as Santería in Cuba - has a positive meaning among some. As a sign of African strength. Shango is a nickname of Rastafari-adhering Reggae artist Capleton. One of these contradictions.

BACK TO ROTOTOM

The 2017 edition of the Rototom Reggae Sundance festival included as said African artists, and many bigger and smaller events (also films, workshops) focussed on Africa. Too much to mention, but the Rototom website gives a total overview here (https://rototomsunsplash.com/line-up/). Acts/concerts on the main stage included Seun Kuti (son of Fela), Alpha Blondy, Nkulee Dubé (daughter of South African reggae artist Lucky Dubé, who is now deceased), and Youssou N’Dour, so stepping also outside of a strictly reggae focus.

Besides this, the line-up included mostly Reggae artists, mostly from Jamaica, as is after all the focus of Rototom Sundance. I do not get the considerations determining why some go on the “main” stage, while equally great artists to the “lion stage” (with live band, or not?), but that is another issue.

INNA DE YARD

Interestingly, there was this year an acoustic set, based on the Jamaican Inna de Yard series, with Nyabinghi-based, percussive songs by Rastafari-adhering Roots Reggae artists, now in a Nyabinghi, acoustic style. I saw the stream of Inna de Yard this year on the Internet and I loved it a lot. I really wished I was there. People who I spoke later, and actually went, confirmed that it was indeed great and magical at that concert, including Roots Reggae veterans like Cedric Myton, Kiddus I, and Winston McAnuff. Real, spiritual music.

The presenter – herself from Africa (Equatorial Guinea, Nguni/Kombe-speaking), and Spanish-speaking – introducing this concert, pointed out that Inna De Yard’s Nyabinghi-influenced music came closer to African folk music, such as from where she is from. That is true.

NYABINGHI

Again, there are some difficulties here, without wanting to nitpick. I know something about Nyabinghi (sometimes spelled as Nyahbinghi), and even played it with a group several times. Besides this I am also a broader percussionist, with interest in African and Afro-Cuban music. From what I learned and can deduce, Nyabinghi is indeed African-based folk music, practically in all its principles, drawing on Afro-Jamaican percussion traditions, notably Burru and Kumina, while later the music of Babatunde Olatunji (an internationally known Yoruba Nigerian musician and percussionist) influenced some Nyabinghi players.

Nyabinghi patterns indeed are strictly African in origin: including the role of the “heart beat” (one-two) bass drum, and the varying, higher-pitched drum patterns (on the “repeater” drum) crossing it.

Yet, due to the rejection of spirit possession by perhaps not all, but many early Rastas, this drum-based music obtained another function within Rastafari that is nonetheless spiritual and aimed at “grounding” . The singing/chanting with the drumming is for many just as important. The lyrics of these Rastafari songs often show a Biblical influence, and some songs are even melodically derived from Church or Gospel songs in Christian traditions, albeit with lyrical alterations.

Nyabinghi is thus somehow a “spiritual gathering”, with even perhaps magical qualities, but the singing and drumming patterns are not meant to invoke spirits “mounting” and taking over persons. This is the case in traditions like Vodou, Santería, Winti, Kumina, Shango in Trinidad in Jamaica itself, all directly derived from spirit cults for a long traditional in Africa among the Yoruba, Fon, Congo, Coromantee and other peoples. Each “spirit” has own characteristics and purposes, and therefore own rhythmic structures to invoke them. Thus a complex structure of rhythms developed in e.g. Vodou and Santería.

By comparison, Nyabinghi is rhythmically “simplified”, also in the musical “polyrythmic” sense. Much of traditional sub-Saharan music (spiritual or not) is characterized by multiple (more than two) rhythms played at the same time (thus: polyrhythms), interestingly interlocking around an implicit or explicit key (clave) pattern.

This call-and-answer principle, and polyrhythm as such, is certainly also there in Nyabinghi, mostly through the repeater drum “crossing” the heart beat base rhythm with varying, free patterns, but more limited.

Still, Nyabinghi is so much based on African musical principles – if simplified - that it is true that it “celebrates Africa”, not just through its Rastafari-inspired, Africa-focussed lyrics, but also musically. In addition, it is more pan-African than other traditions (more confined to specific ethnic groups, e.g. the Yoruba), as it combines percussive traditions from different parts of Africa: the kete drums are from Ghanaian/Fante-speaking-influenced Burru, while the “heart beat” comes from Congo-based Kumina, while there are also other (Yoruba) influences. The Afro-Jamaican and Rastafari Nyabinghi therefore certainly fitted the Rototom Festival’s 2017 theme very well.

The other acts – popular music with more modern, Western influences – still played Reggae, a Black music genre with evident African musical characteristics, combined with a European “chord” or harmony structure. African music knows “harmony” too, only not through chord schemes as such. Africa is still there defining the music and making it what it is. This was in that sense also celebrated.

For that reason, I found “celebrating Africa” to be a well-chosen theme for the festival, even if partly self-evident. Not just that it fits, but it takes a positive moral stance (“celebrating”) about a continent, that is still largely ignored and abused in these times: Africa. Media attention to Africa is still limited when compared to other parts of the world. When there is attention in current media, it is often limited and biased, with few complex nuances.

WORLD AND MEDIA ATTENTION

This creates the odd situation that even self-proclaimed (Black!) Rastafari-adherents object more about Palestina, US Middle Eastern policies, or Donald Trump, than about what happens in Africa, even if even more people die and suffer. Many Rastas might not know much about the world’s newest country South Sudan, or other conflicts, such as in the Central African Republic (some do).

Apartheid in South Africa made Reggae artists also justly focus on it periodically, but that was one part of Africa, and just for a period.

Not all Rastas can be blamed too much for this, though. That is how it is in the present-day world. This relates to recent Islamic Fundamentalism and terrorism, getting media and political attention world-wide. Many countries after the US jumped on that “Islam danger” bandwagon.

Do not get me wrong, there are tendencies that I call “Fascist” within Islam, especially its Fundamentalist, politicized and terrorist off-shoots. The line of reasoning among Osama Bin Laden and IS reminds me of the rise of Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler to power: violence, intimidation, denying rights, dehumanization, celebrating death and killing, machismo, intolerance of digression, collectivism..

On a side note: when I compared some interpretations of Islam as Fascist, some of my friends (with close Muslim friends, but maybe I have these too, what do they know) objected: Islam is peace, IS has been invented by the FBI, etcetera. A bit too simplistic in my opinion, but I only referred to specific “interpretations” of the Islam. Besides, I think I know what Fascism is: my Italian father was a child during the late chaotic stage of Fascism in (Northern) Italy but heard stories from his older family members. The term “fascism” is invented in Italy, by Benito Mussolini.

On the other hand, my Spanish mother lived – according to herself: “suffered under” – a Fascist(-like) regime in Spain, that of General Franco, reigning until 1975. Especially when she wanted to have fun and explore life as a youth, and in her late teens, when she had to look for a job to support (as one of the older siblings) her large and poor family, she felt the oppression and dehumanization herself (employers could exploit and abuse – or fire - workers quite freely in Spain back then), and noticed other flaws in Spanish society shaped by the unfreedom of dictatorship, denied rights, gender and class inequality, censorship, poor education, and poverty. Cynically, the Catholic Church was a conservative force largely siding with this semi-Fascist regime of Franco (my mother called it Fascist, not just semi-Fascist, haha).

Despite similar - and in my opinion comparable - tendencies also within Islam, I of course know that many Muslims, however, just find solace and direction in Islam for themselves, a perhaps conservative but in itself now peaceful religion, like other ones. Some even do good with their faith, helping less fortunate people, like some Christians, e.g. Catholic family members of mine giving food away - spontaneously - to even poorer families in the village. Some Muslims do that too, caring for their fellow human beings. Some misuse a religion like Islam for other, wicked goals: just like Christopher Columbus called himself a Catholic.

Anyway, all this attention to Islam takes attention away from poorer parts of the world, including in Africa. The average television watcher in Europe, Asia, and the Americas knows more about what goes on in Syria right now (or even in now non-war areas in the Middle East, like Afghanistan or Iran) than about what is happening in South Sudan, Mali, Sierra Leone, Kenya, or the Central African Republic. It’s a pity.

17th OF AUGUST

While the Rototom Festival was still going on in 2017, some wicked murderers, or Islamic terrorists as you can also consider them, killed and wounded dozens of people in the city of Barcelona, Spain. This was exactly on the 17th of August: which should be known only as Marcus Garvey Day (born on that date), in reggae and Rastafari circles, or even among all Black people. Marcus Garvey was a Black Power pioneer, influencing in time Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, as well as African independence fighters like Kwame Nkrumah.

Barcelona is not too far from Benicasim, about 267 kilometers to the north. Benicasim is however closer 86 km away) to the city of Valencia - with about 800.000 inhabitants - in Spain (in a region named after this city, and not in Catalonia, that borders to the north).. The perpetrators in Barcelona were Spain-residing Moroccans, who knew they would get media attention, and most international media fulfilled their wish, with predictable background news items with “life stories” of the young terrorists: how they grew up, where.. etcetera etcetera. Killing people apparently makes one more fascinating, or so it seems.. The victims apparently are too boring, on the other hand. They had no “action” and therefore get less attention, hereby almost copying Mussolini’s Fascist world-view.

Unfortunately, the Barcelona attacks by Islamic terrorists, the 17th of August of 2017, has become on a smaller scale exemplary of a recurring pattern: Islamic terror stole and steals lives away – always sad – but at the same time also attention away from Africa and Africans.

Therefore, let’s indeed remember and “celebrate Africa”, but also learn about it..

dinsdag 1 augustus 2017

Slums

It made the news, at least in the Netherlands, the 29th of July of 2017, to be exact. The newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, wanted to deal with the problems of “shanty towns” (“krottenwijken”in Dutch), or “slums” of informal, self-made houses, of which there are now (as I write this) about 120 around Paris, inhabited by thousands of people. Relatively many of these were Roma people (“Gypsies”), often recent migrants from Eastern Europe.

“Slums” or “shanty towns” are words to describe informal and irregular housing settlements, generally close to urban areas, but outside its urban planning realm. Public services tend therefore to be absent. These are more extensive and widespread in developing countries than in France (or entire Europe). This made that news item about slums near Paris – as so often news by Western media – very selective in perspective.

Known as “bidonvilles” in French-speaking areas, or as “favelas” in Brazil, these shanty towns are in reality a persisting and omnipresent reality in this world. Recent estimates argue that about 33% of the urban population in the developing world live in such “slums”. Percentages are even higher for many African countries, where in certain cases over 80% of the urban population live in such slums/shanty towns.

Its evident connection to poverty, inequalities, and lack of policy cohesion in societies, make the “shanty town”also a common theme in music genres with socially critical, or “protest” lyrics. This is certainly the case with Reggae, a genre I am a fan of and kind of specialized in.

JAMAICA

Reggae is from Jamaica in the Caribbean, and developed especially in the poor, ghetto (“downtown”) areas of its capital Kingston, under different, also rural influences. So, among poor people, and many of the early reggae musicians and artists were not necessarily “city slickers” (a few were born Kingstonians, many not), but came from rural areas and poor families, hoping for more possibilities in Kingston. Shanty towns and slums this way certainly developed around and in Kingston, and other urban areas, with self-made houses, often using zinc (“bidon”in French, hence: bidonvilles), poor conditions, but at least some kind of dwelling or makeshift facilities.

Many of these shanty town houses were temporary, because government policy in Jamaica, since the 1960s, tended to replace them with more formal low-income housing, as happened in the ghetto area of Trench Town in Western Kingston. Still a ghetto – as a broader term for a low-income, poor neighbourhood – but now with government-built houses (hence the “government yard”, Marley sings about on his song No Woman No Cry).

At present (2017), 20% of Kingston is made up of “squatter” or informal settlements, i.e. “shanty towns” or “slums” in the strict sense of the term. A larger percentage includes “ghettoes” or “poor neighbourhoods”, including government-built houses, but often without maintenance or public services, sharing those characteristic with the squatter settlements.

These houses replacing slums – such as happened in Trench Town - were small yet new, but deteriorated over time, due to neglect, and not so much of the local inhabitants. The same happened with central parts of Spanish Town, Jamaica's former capital, a bit inland from Kingston. I visited Spanish Town in 2006 and 2008. Large, British colonial buildings – pompous, but in a Protestant way – and an old Cathedral, remain within an area of total neglect, impoverished houses, poverty, and high crime rates, including gang violence (as in parts of Kingston). I have been to that part of Spanish Town, and experienced it – at that time – not very “dangerous”, but felt it to be a bit surreal, with the remnants of posh colonial history, oddly combined with small, decaying dwellings, and mostly African-looking people with very basic or old clothes and just a few, damaged cars. The whole history of colonialism, slavery, transplanted Africans, and persisting racial inequalities after slavery up to now… all noticeable on one location.

Desmond Dekker had a well-known song called 007 a.k.a. Shanty Town, in 1967, and later Reggae artists use the term “slum” in lyrics. Even more Reggae artists use the broader term “ghetto” or “downtown” for such poor, neglected communities (in many, many Reggae lyrics..), whether the places they refer to consist of makeshift/self-made informal, poor housing or basic government-built housing that deteriorated. These include also the deteriorated “flats” which I saw in Tivoli Garden, another downtown, ghetto area of Kingston. This was once a slum called Back-o-Wall, replaced with a housing project in 1966 by the then ruling JLP party.

The wealthier parts of Kingston are found historically more in the hills (uptown), with a cooler climate. Rich people – especially rich White people – “claiming” especially areas with relatively cooler climates in tropical countries occurred commonly throughout colonial history (also in Kenya and Zimbabwe by British and Boer settlers).

When I went to Kingston’s downtown ghetto of Trench Town in 2008, I noticed that the roads were very bad – big holes in them, decay etc. – , as were many walls, denoting years of neglect. The “state” or “city” government does simply not enter there. This absence of public maintenance is there in both shanty towns and “ghettoes”.

It may be quite known, that the ghetto areas in Jamaica have hardly improved or diminished in size up to now. Gang and gun violence has over time unfortunately increased, making crime now “harder” relatively, when compared to, say, the 1960s or 1970s.

Overall, the rich got richer, and the poor poorer, as elsewhere in the world. A middle-class only limitedly developed in Jamaica, due to prominent class barriers. Therefore these problems remained, and crime got harder.

ELSEWHERE

The biggest shanty town (in number of inhabitants) is found today in Mexico, but there are many extensive shanty towns, all over the world, including Africa and Asia.

Okay, throughout the “developing” World, that is to be expected. Shanty towns are not absent in the developed, wealthy parts of the world, though. The mentioned recent news item on shanty towns near Paris, France hinted at that. At present, Newark (New Jersey) – for instance - has an actual “shanty town”, while many “projects” in US cities can be characterized as ghettoes in several senses. In some cases, they are – unlike shanty towns in the strict sense - included in some public services or city policies, but they still consist of “concentrations of poverty and unemployment”, often with a racial connection. We all may know the existence or even the names of such neighbourhoods from popular culture, the US being so dominant in the global film and television industry: Compton, Southside Chicago, Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York), Harlem (as it was, mostly), etcetera.

NEAR MADRID

What about Europe? It is, I think, not widely known that the largest “slum” or “shanty town” of Europe, is at present a settlement near Spain’s capital Madrid, called Cañada Real. It is not included in public, government or city policies, and has no formal services (as many don’t pay taxes). It has never been part of any housing plan. Its currently about 80.000 inhabitants are varied, and do not consist mainly of poor, African, Roma/Gypsy and other immigrants, as in some other European countries (France now, parts of Greece and Italy), but include – alongside these immigrants - also many poor, local Spaniards. Spain has at present an unemployment rate of over 24%, which is high for EU standards (even much higher than of France and Italy, for instance).

The Italian city Naples also has a history of “slums” (including local Italians too), as some other parts of Southern Italy, and further also Athens, Lisbon, and parts of Eastern Europe.

In more wealthy, industrialized or “cohesive” parts of Europe (Northern Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, the UK) actual “slums” with local people (other than recent migrants) seem largely absent. There are of course “working-class” and poorer neighbourhoods in cities like London, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam, with concentrations of relative poverty, unemployment, and certain social problems. Even these quarters tend, however, to be included in city policies and planning, even if at times half-heartedly or limitedly.

Certain countries – like the Netherlands - practice the good idea of “social housing”, enabling afforable (rental) housing for poorer people (and maintaining these houses!), of course limiting housing problems.

The lack of such “social housing” policies in Spain, and the unwillingness of its present Right-wing government to implement it more widely, have increased the quite massive eviction of people in Spain not able anymore to pay their house, increasing homelessness, especially among those unable to move in with family members. Some of these (including ethnic Spaniards) even ended up in slums like Cañada Real.

So, more intensive or extreme slum problems are not absent even in Europe.. Neither are malnourisment or other manifestations of extreme poverty, but these are of course limited when compared to developing countries.

REGGAE LYRICS

Few other – if any – music genres around the world discuss “the ghetto” as much as Jamaican reggae music. Reggae originated among poor people in ghettoes or poor neighbourhoods, but that is not the only reason. Many other popular music genres – that later spread – originated among poor people. It is better explained by the specific lyrical focus in Reggae, toward socially critical messages. This is influenced by the rebellious stance of the Rastafari movement, but also by (related) Black Power influences. The later also influenced Calypso lyrics – also known for social comment –as well as hip-hop lyrics.

Despite this social critique in other genres as well, in Reggae it is relatively more strongly present, including many references to ghetto life. This reflects the local Jamaican distinction between (poor) “downtown”, and (wealthy) “uptown” Kingston. A distinction that is – nonetheless – easily translatable internationally. This recognition might have contributed to Reggae’s popularity – since Bob Marley’s fame – globally, such as in Africa. Reggae lyrics say what needed to be said, according to many poor people worldwide.

Of course, Bob Marley had several lyrics discussing Trench Town and the ghetto in general. Trench Town Rock was a local hit in Jamaica, but I found Bob’s song Trench Town and So Jah Seh – also about the ghetto – for instance equally strong tunes.

Beyond Bob Marley, many – in fact, virtually all – Jamaican Roots Reggae artists discussed since the 1970s in their lyrics “ghetto life”: Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Israel Vibration, the Congos, Leroy Sibbles, Hugh Mundell, Junior Delgado and others, rendering it thus a common thematic “trope” in Reggae. Many of these artists gained some international fame – albeit more in “niche” (specialized reggae) markets than Bob Marley – so spread this necessary message about ghetto life beyond Jamaica.

This continued in later generation (arising post-1990) artists in what some call New Roots, with current also mostly Rastafari-inspired reggae artists, like Sizzla, Capleton, Luciano, Protoje, Chronixx, Gappy Ranks, Kabaka Pyramid, Tarrus Riley, Fantan Mojah, Iba Mahr, Jah9, Queen Ifrica and several others.

EXAMPLES?

A “representative overview” of sorts, of lyrics on the ghetto theme in Jamaican reggae sounds like a wonderful idea. There are however so very much lyrics, that a full, balanced “overview” would be hard, if not impossible, to achieve. I can give a “quite representative” 15-song list of reggae songs (that I not mentioned already) about “ghetto life” I got to know and that I liked, and stood the test of time, in my opinion. These are still only some of those that I like.. I might have forgotten some too, haha.. Such a list can only be selective, and not fully representative. I will give the list though, because we must make use of the fact that songs are nowadays so easily checked/found on YouTube, elsewhere on the Web. Some nice song tips, for who don’t know them. I mention also some I hear at times in clubs (relative reggae ‘hits”), here in Amsterdam, by certain selectah’s.

    1. Culture – Jah Rastafari
    2. Max Romeo – Uptown Babies
    3. Leroy Sibbles – Life In The Ghetto
    4. The Wailing Souls – Ghetto of Kingston Town
    5. Tetrack – Isn’t It Time
    6. Freddie McGregor - We Got Love
    7. Everton Blender – Ghetto People Song
    8. Gregory Isaacs – Kingston 14
    9. Dennis Brown – Ghetto Girl
    10. Prince Fari - Survival
    11. Richie Spice - Ghetto Girl (same title, different song)
    12. Misty In Roots – Ghetto Of The City
    13. Israel Vibration – Rude Boy Shuffling
    14. Sizzla – Ghetto Youths Dem A Suffer
    15. Lutan Fyah – Ghetto Living

Another term for “shanty town” (in the strict sense) is “squatter settlement”, to which Chronixx’s fine song Capture Land (the title being a local term for “squatting”) refers. This discusses not just impoverished areas, like ghettoes or slums in the broad sense, with concentrated poverty, (threatening) famine, and unemployment, but adds to this the aspect of lacking government control or planning, these “capture lands” or “squatter settlements” mostly developed aside from formal governmental plans, and often opposed by these. Public services are absent. So “capture land” is in fact a synonym for “shanty town” or “slum”.

STRUCTURALLY

The ghetto theme is – in other words – omnipresent “structurally” there in Reggae lyrics, even in non-Rastafari-inspired, with recent dancehall tunes by Baby Cham, Bounty Killer, Mavado and others discussing the Jamaican ghettoes, with a somewhat “gangster rap” influence, but milder, and more Jamaican. The cynicism of certain Eazy E, Dr. Dré, or NWA songs for instance – celebrating a life of crime – is luckily not so present, not even so much in “hardcore” Dancehall, in Jamaica.

In Roots Reggae, then and now, the ghetto is a structural trope, but it is also interesting to what it relates, and how each artist treats it in an own way. That is where the “art” of musical artists is after all to be found: their unique take on reality, and the surrounding reality in their times. To compare, especially in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, there have been historically many painters portraying Catholic themes (saints, monks, scenes from the Bible, Christ etcetera), but each painter did it in their own way. Especially regarding the features of Bible figures – including Christ – the historical veracity can be questioned, though, as Christ, John the Baptist, and others (Mary, the apostles a.o.) looked remarkably European (among many painters) on the paintings, and probably not in reality..

Despite this just critique, I liked some painters – even with such Catholic themes – as art, for instance the devout Extremaduran Francisco Zurbarán, whose paintings I found atmospheric and who really could paint robes well, like few others, when he painted local, Sevillan monks and others. Interesting as art, even if one is non- or no more Catholic.

Likewise, the ghetto conditions in Jamaica are the building blocks for the way Jamaican artists express themselves. Of course, Reggae is protest music, and not just “art pour l’art”, but of the protest and social critique an artistic translation should be made to make it music.

Reggae artists did and do this through many, many good and great songs. I like how these express different moods: sometimes reflective, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, but always powerful.

Furthermore, for Rastafari-inspired artists, the harsh reality of the Jamaican ghetto – in Babylon – is interestingly contrasted to Zion in the homeland Africa, to where one should return. Back to one’s roots, a feeling that has a deep significance. The arguments that the dreamed Africa is also poor, and you don’t know if you will have it economically better there, are not enough to destroy one’s wish to return to one’s origins. This is namely a univeral, human – yes: existential - need, that also Marcus Garvey understood well. That the Africans were brought to the West and Jamaica by brute force (as part of the slave trade), of course influences this.

Some reggae artists discuss lyrics on the ghetto often, others at times too, but emphasizing perhaps more spirituality, the Bible, Selassie, or Africa (the “answer to the ghetto”, so to speak), Ijahman Levi for example. Yet, the theme is always there in Reggae lyrics, even if at times as the proverbial “elephant in the room”.

Even in (relatively poorer) parts of Europe, such communities exist, as the mentioned example of Cañada Real, near Madrid, in Central Spain, showed. Daily surviving mechanisms (tapping electricity illegally etcetera, drug trade, and other crime) are similar there to those in developing countries, like Jamaica.

OTHER GENRES

More and extensive are such shanty towns and ghettoes of course in Jamaica, but also in the former colonies of Spain: throughout Latin America. The biggest shanty town in Europe might be near Madrid (Cañada Real with about 80.000 inhabitants), the biggest in the whole world is at present found in Mexico, while large percentages of the urban population in countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil live in such “slums”. Also Puerto Rico, somehow emphasizing a “consumerist” modern image for some time now, knows relatively “poorer” neighbourhoods, often with racial connotations.

Cuba, to which I went several times in the period 2001-2006 (travelling the whole island), is a differing case, because of its Communist government and planned economy and strong social policies. Existing houses from old times tended to be reused there, and strong government control make “self-made”, informal housing futile exercises. Poor people are enabled to live in houses with limited costs, which seems like a good, social policy. These houses are – I noticed – however, hardly maintained, and often in decay. Especially in older parts of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, stone houses were decaying, and often did not have own running water (shared pumps or wells in the patio’s often), and knew regular electricity outages.

Other quarters were built by the government meant as low-income, basic housing, such as the East Bloc-style buildings of Alamar, a town with flats near Havana, which I visited. Small and very basic. Like in Spanish Town (Jamaica), I had a sense of a somewhat “surreal absurdity”, as the grey, “colourless” and industrial Soviet/Russian style flats - made up for cold, snowy countries - contrasted with Cuba’s tropical vegetation (palm trees and such) and weather, as well as with the mostly Afro-Cubans living there. I went into some houses, and rooms were small, and electricity outages a common threat.

So, the degree of wealth or even comfort should not be exaggerated, but at least this way the Cuban state avoided the need for informal shanty towns developing, as elsewhere in the region and Latin America.

LYRICS?

All this makes it remarkable that a translation to lyrics in music about this problematic hardly took place in known music genres from these countries: Cumbia from Colombia, Salsa (based on Cuban models, spread throughout Latin America), Merengue, Samba, Bossa Nova, Bachata, Reggaetón etcetera. Some of these music genres obtained international fame, but are hardly known for “socially conscious” lyrics.

In the case of music from Cuba, it can be explained by censorship by its strong Communist state. This is still the case, as recording facilities remain strongly State-controlled. Cuba knows in addition the unpleasant phenomenon of “political/ideological snitches/spies”, for the State.

Elsewhere in Latin America, dictatorship, even if historical, might help explain the absence of “social critical lyrics” a bit, but often it is also a cultural preference, or “safe choice”, that I can – if I want to really be critical – label as “cowardice” or lack of courage. Yet, maybe it is better to use the neutral term “culturally common”. Song lyrics not often refer to social issues, but emphasize themes like partying, love, and sex. Apparently these are seen as themes in the same, appropriate realm as “music”, which seems a somewhat narrow-minded approach, but it might only be a (career-wise) “safe” choices.

In addition, ghetto or “barrio” living can be referred to indirectly in such lyrics, such as through more indirect social referrences, or in the very emphasis on partying (as a relief from daily pressures). Also as an “elephant in the room”.

To be fair, some more direct “socially critical” Salsa, Bachata, Merengue, or Samba lyrics can be heard more and more in songs, even by well-known artists. These, on occasion discusss ghetto-like areas too, or, as in Brazil, the “Favelas”, shanty towns in Brazil. This might be a lyrical Reggae or Hip-Hop influence (Latin American Reggae discusses the ghetto too), but need not be. It is the reality of most people. The majority of the world’s people is poor, we should not forget that.

You just cannot escape reality, as also said in the beautiful song Isn’t It Time (1978) by Jamaican Reggae group Tetrack. And of course : this song is also about ghetto life..

All this shows that the “prime-time” news item about the 120 shanty towns around Paris, France – with thousands of inhabitants (!?) - , I saw on Dutch television last 29th of July, is, well, very relative..

zondag 2 juli 2017

Castanets in a wider context

Within the wide and varied world of percussion you also have the “castanets”. Interestingly, this small wooden percussion instrument has a quite specific geographic association. Castanets are seen as typically Spanish and as one of Spain’s “national instruments”, along with the Spanish guitar. They are often played while dancing, and the way they are attached around the thumb of each hand, plus their size, facilitate this. They consist of two wooden pieces connected by rope, and attached, as said, usually around the thumb of each hand. This leaves the other four fingers free to hit the castanets.

Its use – presently and historically – is not totally exclusive to Spain, though it’s there that the castanet tradition is preserved and developed most, found in different folk music genres there. These genres include the Jota, the Fandango: spread throughout Spain in variants, and – more in South Spain - in the Sevillana and certain (not all) Flamenco types. So, in different parts of Spain: North, Centre, and South. Interestingly, it combines with different local instruments, such as the bagpipes in certain Northwestern parts of Spain (Galicia and Asturias), or more with guitars, flutes, drums, or other percussion in other parts of Spain, without that bagpipe tradition.

It is further also used in Portugal, in historically Spanish-infuenced Latin America and the Philippines, but is also found in different variants also in countries like Croatia and (South) Italy. Interestingly, in the Philippines (where local variants of Spanish genres, like the Jota, also developed) castanets are often made of bamboo (in Spain of wood, once chestnut wood, now often tropical hardwood).

ME AND CASTANETS

I am of Spanish descent from my maternal side, so have encountered castanets (usually played in pairs) at my parents’or family members or friends’ houses, since I was a child. I also saw them being played, and tried to play them myself some times. Much later, as I specialized in percussion, I began to look at the castanets from that perspective. I specialized more in conga’s, bongos, ashiko, djembe, kete, and talking drums – let’s say African and Afro-Caribbean drums - , yet I also maintained a parallel interest in “small percussion” of different kinds (shakers, wooden, metal, or bamboo instruments), and all its intriguing variation in sounds. This includes the castanets. In my composition (instrumental) underneath I play the castanets, for instance.

PERCUSSION AND CONTINENT

Africa is the continent most associated with both rhythm and percussion, though harmony and melody, and nonrhythmic instruments, play roles there too. It is all relative and a matter of proportion. A very simplistic overview I once read is that in African music the emphasis is on rhythm, in Europe on harmony, and in Asia on melody. In fact, all three are found in traditional musics of the mentioned continents. It is just a matter of emphasis, but a point can be made that relatively Africa is the most “percussive” continent. This was also argued by scholar Robert Farris-Thompson.

The castanets – as a percussion instrument - seem to represent such an exception to a generalized rule of “nonrhythmical”or “nonpercussive” Europeans. It is associated with one South European country most (Spain), and with some other parts of Southern Europe.

ANCIENT EGYPT

Its historical origins, however, date them back to similar instruments in Ancient Egypt, and later among the Phoenicians, a travelling, trading people with a Semitic language, spreading it throughout the Mediterranean, including Spain, since around 3000 BC. These ancient instruments similar to later castanets transformed maybe into what are called “crótalos” in Spanish, or “zill” in English, but now referring to small, metal cymbals around the fingers, known presently in Turkish and Greek folk dances. Similar in size to the castanets, but other, namely metal material.

Originally, though, these were derived from earlier Egyptian wooden versions. These “proto-castanets”were even depicted in paintings from Ancient Egypt. Historians see specifically the “menat”, small, flat slabs of wood or ivory, as such “proto-castanets”, used back then in worshipping musically Hathor, the goddess of banquets and music making (!).

http://exhibitions.kelsey.lsa.umich.edu/galleries/Exhibits/MIRE/Introduction/AncientEgypt/AncientEgypt.html

Hair and other physical features from the people playing them on such drawings, looked more African than European or even Mediterranean, as much more in Ancient Egypt came from more to the South in Africa. Distancing Ancient Egypt from Black Africa and what is now the Sudan area – further down the Nile – is historically incorrect, but was probably done deliberately by European, colonial and imperial forces to maintain the “uncivilized” and “wild” Africa stereotype.

http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/music.htm

For this reason, denoting castanets as “European percussion instrument” is not even entirely accurate.

HOW PLAYED

However interesting these origins, equally interesting is how the castanets got used so much in traditional Spanish music. Its main sound is “clicking” (some say: “clacking”) variously – both “slamming” and “rolling” so to speak - allowing therefore mainly a rhythmic function. I play castanets better by now, and experience first-hand the variety of sounds that they can produce. Melodies can be played with it, though with limitations. The lower-pitched castanets on the left hand plays main slams and accentuates basic rhythms, whereas with the higher-pitched castanet on the right (or apt) hand there is more variation, with all four remaining fingers used (it is usually tied around the thumb), with the small finger producing for instance a higher sound than the middle finger, etcetera.

This tonality range allows for some semi-melodical patterns, but the same applies for other well-known percussion instruments like the congas and bongos, or other drums with differing pitches. Melodies are not impossible, but their use is mainly rhythmical.

I found it furthermore intriguing that the supportive, base rhythm is traditionally played with the lower-pitched castanet, and the variation and free patterns by the higher-pitched one. This very same distinction is found in other percussive traditions outside of Spain too. Such as in the Afro-Cuban congas, and bongos. In the case of Cuba one might assume a Spanish influence, but the same principle can be found in some traditional African music: low pitch drums as base rhythms, higher pitched ones as improvizing, varying, and freer: dundun and djembe combinations in the Guinee/Mande-speaking region, for instance. Also, in Nyabinghi and other Jamaican Afro-folk drumming (Burru, Kumina) the same principle more or less applies.

Apparently there are universal percussive principles, across continents and cultures.

CLICKING

The very “clicking”sound of the castanets is also interesting symbolically. No European language really has “click” sounds as letters – not any -, unlike some African languages do (especially Southern Bantu languages like Xhosa and Zulu, as well as in Khoi San languages, such as those of the Bushmen). The well-known movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (set in Botswana) made such languages relatively more known globally. There are – by the way – various click sounds in these languages, representing different letters. African peoples speaking such “click” languages are known to have the oldest human DNA , giving the castanet sound symbolically even more meaning. It must be said, though, that “click-like” high pitched wood sounds, and wooden rattles (the faster rolling patterns of the castanets can ressemble a rattle), are found in Africa traditionally too.

USE IN MUSIC

Be that as it may, the castanets as such are in international music culture, mostly associated with Spanish culture. When used outside of Spanish folk music - or by non-Spanish musicians - they were mostly used also as a referrence to “something Spanish” or Hispanic or Spanish music. By classical composers like Ravel, but also by great jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, such as on his Sketches of Spain album (1960), which was essentially Miles’ ode to Spanish folk music..

The US Soul band the Impressions, led by Curtis Mayfield, used them on their song Gipsy Woman (1961), probably as referrence to Spanish gipsy culture. The castanets are used in some forms of the South-Spanish genre Flamenco too, by the way, and Flamenco became in time strongly Gipsy-influenced. (Flamenco is however not really or solely of “Gipsy origin” as I read somewhere).

BEYOND SPANISH MUSIC

Outside of Spanish music as such – from Spain itself: folk genres like the Jota, the Fandango, Sevillana, the Flamenco etcetera -, or referrences to it, it was long not very commonly used among percussionists. This differs from other “smaller” percussion instruments like the cowbell, shakers, tambourines, scrapers, “barchimes”, the “triangle” or woodblock or jamblock instruments, more widely used by percussionists than the castanets, and often without specific geographical association .

There are, however, some examples of castanet use in songs in different genres as just another percussion instrument without referrence to “something Spanish” in particular (in funk, reggae, jazz, pop), though not very much as yet. More experimental jazz and other artists use them occasionally, by the way.

I know much about Reggae music, and use of percussion in it, and neither know of too many examples of castanet use in this genre. At the same time the guïro scraper (after all from nearby Cuba) is heard very commonly (Max Romeo’s Chase The Devil being a relatively well-known example) throughout reggae, as are rattles, bells, shakers, and blocks. Even the cover of the aforementioned Impressions tune Gipsy Woman by the great Mighty Diamonds, did not maintain the castanets of the original. This cover is nonetheless very good musically in my opinion: a very good version – the Mighty Diamonds’singer Donald “Tabby” Shaw has a marvelous voice, and the harmonies are fine - , only without the castanets of the original. There is at least one Reggae song, though, where I think to hear a castanet sound, or at least a very similar-sounding instrument (maybe a castanet stick/with handle?). That is on Johnny Clarke’s Babylon. An interesting, “groovy” use, while I found funny (don’t know exactly why) that the dub version of the song has even a reverb effect on that castanet sound..

I am thinking that it would be an interesting task for me: to broaden these castanets’ use. Spreading its use musically to different genres, beyond Spanish folk music. After all I am percussionist, am of Spanish descent, actually can play castanets a bit too, and am a fan of reggae music, liking funk, soul, and African music too.

I guess you have to set goals in life..

UNIQUE?

That’s one aspect that keeps fascinating me about the world of percussion: the associated variety in sounds through often simple means. The essential, existential art of “enjoying the small things in life”.. Percussion’s rhythmic function places hereby more emphasis on the basic, essential “sound” as such, than of other instruments, somewhat “drowned” and hidden, within harmonies or melodies.

There is a great variety of sounds possible in nature, and in the entire world – of course -, being produced already by the earliest of humans musically. Wood (and stone) of course came before metal or glass, that developed later in history. Drums (with added animal skin), but also wood logs, belong to the oldest percussion instruments, including hollowed out tree trunks or branches, used both as drum in Africa (as log or tongue drums) since a long time, and the equally ancient Didgeridoo wind instrument of the Aboriginals in Australia, traditionally made by hollowed out (by termites, by the way) eucalyptus tree branches.

Other cultures have long traditions of such wooden instruments too, including China. Some historians even claim that the small woodblock, now common also among percussionists in the West and in different pop genres, has its origins in Chinese music by monks. Asian traditional music is more associated with, regarding percussion, material made of metal (gongs) and bamboo, but there are wooden instruments used in Asian cultures too historically.

In traditional African music, wood was and is commonly used as percussion (like the ancient log drums), besides of course as frame for drums with skins, including for more melodic xylophone-like instruments (balafon).

Within Europe, some wooden instruments have long traditions too, such as certain wooden rattles in the Ukraine area, sticks, and the Txalaparta instrument among the Basques.

In Cuba, a known example are the “claves”: two wooden sticks used in Afro-Cuban music (son, rumba, salsa), as rhythmic time keeper (2-3, or 3-2), with some similarities to castanets, notably in its high, sharp - if less flexible – sound. Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz once assumed that the castanets might have been a partial influence on these Cuban claves, although the playing style is different. Cuba was after all a Spanish colony, and similar “clave”-like instruments are not really found in other colonies and cultures. The drum shells being hit in traditional African music might be another probable predecessor to the Cuban claves, though..

What interests me here, is whether there are similar sounding wooden percussion instruments, played also through “wood on wood”, but with comparable “clicking” sounds, like the castanets. In other words: might the castanets therefore add something “new” and unique to the palet and possibilities for percussionists in different genres?

HIGH WOODEN SOUNDS

The already mentioned woodblock – common in standard percussion sets, and according to some of Chinese origin – has a vaguely similar high sound, but quite different (“rounder”, deeper) than most sound castanets can produce. The woodblock is at times added to (trap) drum kits, and is a precursor to the jamblock (using tougher, artificial material called weniger), even more commonly used in modern music circles nowadays. Both these woodblocks and jamblocks – the high, middle, and low pitch – have a “rounder”, deeper sound when compared to the sounds of the castanets.

Interestingly, with trap drum kits, the “rim shot” has become a common technique, achieved by hitting the top half of drum stick on the (usually metal) rim of the snare drum, while resting the hand on the drum skin itself. The rim shot has become a common technique among (trap) drummers, also in a genre like Reggae. Due to its “sharp” sound, it has a vague similarity to certain castanet sounds, epecially as also a “slow rattle”can be produced through a repeated rim-shot. Not quite the same, but showing that in modern music genres, there is a felt need for such “high-pitched” percussive sounds.

Rattles have a long history, connected with human kind and different cultures from ancient days, and on different continents. The Amerindians used these relatively often, but it is also known in Africa and certain parts of Europe. The castanets combine two pairs that combined – the one hand basic beats, the other hand finger work – can produce a fast or slower “rattle”or “roll”sound, or half-rattle or half-roll. Especially more skilled players such as in Spain, and elsewhere (such as the famous and skilled Mexican castanet player Lucero Tena), can produce remarkably fast “rattles” with these castanets. As said, the Cuban claves sound high, but also “rounder” than the castanets, without the variety possible: hands are used to hit one stick against another: finger work is here not used. The claves Africano (or Rumba claves) I play at times sound even”lower” and rounder than the original claves. In my own instrumental percussion composition Mbao I use only wooden instruments, yet not the castanets. Some of those I play in it have nonetheless sonic similarities with the castanets (the little pot was not meant as instrument).

Thus, somewhat similar instruments exist, simply because wooden material is often hit with wooden sticks, as some international examples I gave before. Castanets and related instruments have, on the other hand, still something unique in their small, similar size, and the two wooden parts slammed together with the fingers. The pieces’ form – roundish, hollowed and open on one side – combined for this with the type of wood used (traditionally chestnut wood: the Spanish term Castañuela for Castanets is dervied from this), although now other wood types are preferred by specialists (notably tropical hard woods like granadillo and rosewood).

These factors, plus the specific finger use, and its attachment to the thumb of each hand, makes that the castanets are overall quite unique in their “clicking” sound, including “rolling” and even a clicking “rattle” sound – with some flexibility, even “half-rolls”are possible - , when played fast (read: when: fingers move faster).

STANDARD

This rolling click sound make castanets quite unique, at least when compared to the “standard kit” of many percussionists in the West. I am collecting various percussion instruments for quite some time now (even relatively unknown ones), but when I started to attend and later play live performances, such as on jam sessions in various music clubs, I noticed the recurrence of an almost standardized set of percussion in some genres, such as in the genres Salsa, other Latin American genres, in Reggae, Funk, Pop, Soul, or Jazz. The originally Afro-Cuban congas and bongos are well-known and usually part of such a standard set, the also Cuban-oriented Timbales often too, but also usually the mentioned woodblocks, the jamblocks, cowbells, tambourines, the - for some reason – omnipresent “bar chimes”, and often also a guïro scraper.

These are simply relatively well-known percussion instruments, being relatively longer used in Western pop music. It differs a bit per genre, and some musicians or artists have a more experimental approach, of course, adding other “rarer” percussion instruments. In Reggae music one often finds such a quite functional “standard percussion set” as in other genres, but to which is often added a specific, cylindrical drum called “kete”, or “nyabinghi drum”, mostly of Ghanaian origin, and connected historically to both Afro-Jamaican folk music (Burru), and to music by Rastafari adherents in Jamaica. This kete drum therefore represents a specific, once local culture. Not so strange, as the conga and bongo drums were once limited to Cuba – based on African models, like the kete - but spread internationally earlier. Also local Brazilian percussion instruments have begun to spread globally, such as the cuíca friction drum, the agogo, while other instruments still remain mainly within Brazilian music contexts.

This last also applies to the castanets: they mostly remain within Spanish music contexts, safe a few exceptions of experimental artists just focussing on the “sound”, rather than its musical context. Thus, it is hardly ever part of that “standard percussion set” in modern popular music.

Perhaps, it is a matter of time, and the castanets soon will become commonly used outside of Spanish or Spanish-referring music, and not just within it, as a common instrument for percussionists in whatever genre.

WIDEN THE USE?

I am willing to promote this use in Reggae, Funk, Blues, Rock, Soul or other genres, but will at the same time not forget or neglect its intriguing ancient roots and history in Ancient Egypt and in Spanish folk traditions, wherein castanets even helped “shape” certain genres. Moreover, castanets remain a “living tradition” in Spain and its folk music at present, which I find good to cherish.

It is almost funny that several Spanish music stores have much similarities with music stores elsewhere in Europe, only with often distinctive “Spanish cultural” instruments, relatively many Spanish guitars, but also Flamenco cajóns (or: rumba boxes), as well as often a specific castanets section. In my experience of visiting such music stores in the Netherlands, I noticed that castanets were instead rather a, well, exotic “oddity”, with seldom more than one or two pairs in even bigger stores.

I opine that one must not be conservative culturally – there is too often a thin line between being conservative and reactionary - , or should maintain a tradition simply for its own sake. I also think, though, that such traditions can be good to build on and develop an own culture from, to grow from such roots, and then maintain what’s really valuable, artistic, and enduring over time.

In addition, countries with own musical traditions (some European ones maintained this relatively more, such as Ireland, Spain, Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and rural Italy) may feel less the need to simply steal or copy other people’s culture and claim it as their own, dishonestly. English “tea drinking” being a good example (copied from India). Italian pasta (once based on Asian mie), another example. This has happened throughout colonial history too, being often the result of unequal relations and conquest, rather than an equal mutuality of influences.

Let us all develop our own traditions and cultures on an equal basis, and see whether we can inspire each other, I would say..

In conclusion, castanets remain at present as a percussion instrument mainly contextualized within the confines of Spanish traditional folk music. Perhaps this is too confined, as the “clicking” sound has in itself unique qualities, possibly fitting various, international music genres..

Maybe, just maybe, there is a task there for me..