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.


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.


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.


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.


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..


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, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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..