zondag 2 september 2018

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Empress Donna Lee

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 6 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. In October 2017 I interviewed DJ Ewa, also quite extensively.

EMPRESS DONNA LEE

This time, near September of 2018, I interview a “sista” of mine, who I know from the Amsterdam reggae scene. Her name is Donnalee Echteld, also known as Empress Messenjah, or Empress Donna Lee.

Besides that I thought it was time for a woman to be interviewed in this series, Donna Lee is by now quite a well-known, almost iconic person in the Reggae scene in the Netherlands. She is especially – though not only - active in the Amsterdam area, and based there. She is a Selectress/DJ in Reggae, having played over the years at different venues, including festivals, and larger concert venues in Amsterdam, like Paradiso and Melkweg, when they had reggae events/concerts, besides at reggae-minded clubs like Café the Zen, in Eastern Amsterdam.

She furthermore hosts several (online) radio programmes – in the present time at Amsterdam South East-based Radio Razo, or: www.razo-amsterdam.nl , and has done so for years, often hosting together with others, such as Red Lion, the latter also connected to the well-known King Shiloh Sound System. Her focus and stance is Rastafari, and, in relation to this, she mainly plays – old and new - “conscious” Roots Reggae, with “message”, i.e. more spiritual and social, lyrics.

This becomes clear in the songs she plays on her radio shows, as well as as a selecta/selectress.

I myself used to live a time somewhat outside of Amsterdam, but was already a Reggae fan when I came to live in Amsterdam, somewhere around 2003. I went out in Amsterdam occasionally before this. Already then, I encountered Donna Lee’s name and activities in the Reggae scene, and even more when living in Amsterdam itself.

Based in the quarter Amsterdam South East, with many “Black” (Surinamese, Antillean, and African) inhabitants, she quite made a name for herself, as a true representative of both Reggae and Rastafari.

I noticed all this, and certainly enjoyed her selections and song lists – “inna di dance” and on the radio - , keeping me spiritually uplifted. Unlike some other Reggae Deejay’s, she played/spinned no lengthy Digital Dancehall periods, that while at times “dynamic”, often had dubious violence, “slackness” or “ego” lyrics. No, her selections were Strictly Roots, with conscious lyrics. She at the same time avoided becoming “too heavy”, by including joyous and humorous, yet still Rootsy, music. I appreciated all this – as I have a somewhat similar musical taste to hers -, but did at first not know much else about her, beyond her Aruban background, and her Rastafari adherence.

Time for some questions, therefore, while I took into account her busy time schedule.

Underneath you’ll see my questions and her answers, translated to English.

Where were you born and did you grow up?

I was born on Aruba (Dutch Caribbean), grew up there until I was 16 years old.

Since when do you listen Reggae music?

Since I was 12 years old.

What attracted you to it, then?

The positive message and the rhythm.

What other music genres did you listen to?

Only Roots Reggae.

Has there been a change in your musical preferences since then?

No.

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

I only like Roots Reggae, with real musical instruments. Some Dancehall beats/riddims I find okay..

Since when are you a Reggae selectress /dee-jay? .

Since 1983.

Since how long do you do radio work?

For 20 years.

Do you have a preference for Vinyl or Digital/CD? As listener and as selecta/selectress?

I still love vinyl, but since I started working for the radio, I came across more CD players.

Why the name Empress Messenjah (Donna Lee)?

I started with the name Sista D, back in the 1980s, after that Empress Sound. Then I met Luciano (the artist/singer), and he gave me the name Empress Messenjah. This because he found that I transmitted a positive vibe with “the positive message in the music”.. .

What were some of the most memorable encounters you had with Reggae artists and in the scene, throughout the years?

In the 80's, I played music at Paradiso, for Prince Fari and Augustus Pablo. I met and interviewed Sugar Minott in 2008 in Jamaica at Rebel Salute And also Luciano the Messenjah!

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

For sure! For me the message in Reggae music is realistic!

What kind of music (reggae) do you prefer to listen to now – at this moment -, what specific artists? Any new “discoveries” you would like to mention?

I listen to Sugar Minott, Devon Russell, Prince Lincoln Thompson & the Royal Rasses. Burning Spear, Willie Williams, Sister Carol, Jah 9, Bob Marley etc.

There are so many new artists; Princess Fyah Jalifa, Hempress Divine, Lila Ike, Asadenaki, Meleku, Xana Romeo, Jesse Royal, etc. .

What do you think of the Reggae scene in Amsterdam and Netherlands nowadays, and how it developed since you started?

Well, back in the days, The Reggae Rastafari scene was more serious, more Roots artists stage shows and own band.

Nowadays, the same artist are booked and every year they perform. And they perform with European bands.

I think there should be a different lineup of Roots Reggae artist for Stage shows.

Any other things you would like to mention?

I would like to thank you, Michel, for the support and the interview.

I further wish for everyone in this world all the best! Be good and good will follow you! Respect one another like your own sister and brother! Peace and Love!

REFLECTION AND COMPARISON

Due to time constraints, and Donna Lee’s mentioned busy schedule, this interview is less extensive than some of the other ones I had in this series..

I think it is still pretty insightful, though.

She has some similarities and differences with the other interviewees, as of course every person is different. She, Donna Lee, is strongly Rastafari and Roots Reggae-focussed. She does not even mention other genres, here. Yet, there is so much variation and are so many dimensions within Roots Reggae that this it does not close the mind, but rather opens the mind, certainly spiritually, in my opinion. An advantage with this is that you really specialize in a genre, learn about it deeply, and not just superficially. Love and knowledge thereby become mutually strengthening.

Even if Reggae fans, like me, still listen at times to other genres, there is still the Reggae base from which one departs, a certain Reggae-based perspective. Nothing wrong with that.

Her Aruba background is interesting, as the island has ethnically a bit a different profile from more “African Caribbean/genetically African” Curaçao, the neighbouring island, also part of the Dutch Caribbean. Aruba has a more mixed population: European, African, and also quite some Amerindian blood. In the town of San Nicolás in Eastern Aruba, however, British Caribbean migrants (once working for the oil refinery), left a strong cultural influence, including in the local carnival. So, Jamaican Reggae does not seem a big “cultural step” from this. .

I furthermore think I agree with what Donna Lee says above about the presently more standardized, booked – read: commercial - character of Jamaican artists’ concerts in the Netherlands, saving costs by using European bands while touring. It somehow seems to have lost an own, creative spirit, noticeable in earlier decades. I heard comments on this change also by other, older Reggae fans, already going to reggae concerts in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Those European bands, often with White members, seem – let’s be honest – less authentic, when one expects Jamaican Reggae. I can understand that very well. On the other hand, it is slightly simplistic and prejudiced. These European musicians often seemed skilled and dedicated, and somehow got into the Reggae vibe. Therefore they did not in every case “ruin” or “disturb” the Jamaican Reggae vibe so much, as one would assume. On the other hand, I myself also saw European bands with Jamaican artists like Anthony B., Eek-A-Mouse, or Don Carlos, thinking afterward: “real Jamaican Reggae musicians would have been better…”, missing a certain musical vibe at these concerts. So, I also understand what Donna Lee means.

I think I understand Empress Donna Lee’s musical taste too, although that is often very personal, and the result of one’s specific, own life experiences and background. She has quite some attention to female artists, and plays them too regularly, I noticed, both as selectress and on the radio. Justly so, because these female artists show quite some talent, especially also within Roots Reggae. These include Jah 9, and other artists she mentions, like Hempress Divine. I like these too, and also Hempress Sativa, is an artist I got a love for recently, while also Dezarie – longer active –, from St Croix, should not be forgotten.

This attention is just for mere quality’s sake, but also because of gender “balance”. I emphasize that this is not a Reggae thing: most (pop) music scenes tend to be dominated by men, some more so than others (Rock, Grunge, Techno, Country, Funk, Blues, Flamenco, Hip-Hop, to a lesser degree Soul and R&B, where there seem to be a bit more women), and Reggae is only partly an exception, although there were always a few female artists active from the beginning (1960s) in Jamaican music.

She mentions some male Reggae artists too, of course, that she listens to. Quality too, in my opinion. Some criticized Prince Lincoln Thompson for being a bit too commercial-sounding, but I think it applies only to some of his albums or songs. Thompson certainly made some quality, roots gems. Even the 1980 album ‘Natural Wild’, by Prince Lincoln Thompson, I have (once bought by my brother) had its moments and some good songs, even if produced by British singer Joe “Is She Really Going Out With Him” Jackson, being also one of the musicians on keys.

She also mentions Willie Williams, and I like him too. His great tune “Don’t Let I Down” certainly struck a chord with me, having appeared as “soundtrack” in one of my dreams, I recall..

Maybe a message from Jah, who knows.. In the dream I walked on a lot near a canal, near to the Leidseplein, in central Amsterdam, a square with lots of bars and music venues, while I heard and sang along with that song.. That was an impressive dream.., but I digress..

I am glad, anyway, that I got to know somewhat more about the great Roots Reggae selectress and radio hostess Empress Donna Lee.

woensdag 1 augustus 2018

Emancipation Day

The 1st of August is known as Emancipation Day in former British (Caribbean and American) colonies. This refers to the fact that slavery was officially abolished by Britain, more or less, on that date in 1834. It is therefore celebrated as a national holiday in several British colonies, such as in the Caribbean. In reality, at first only slaves below the age of 6 were freed on the 1st of August 1834; enslaved workers older than that were still required to work for their masters (40 hours a week, with no pay), by law up to 1838, when “full emancipation” was finally achieved. These enslaved workers in British Caribbean colonies were mostly Africans, or Caribbean-born Africans.

Of course, other colonizers (France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal etc.) had other dates and years for this abolition. Britain was one of the earliest colonizing states to abolish slavery, and even prides itself with that in hindsight. In that sense it seemed more progressive than other nations in Europe.

It is not a s simple as that, though. Not many may know that during the French Revolution, in 1794, slavery was already abolished in French colonies, yet this was restored again under Napoleon in 1802.

Moreover, one of those French colonies in the Caribbean, Haiti, managed to abolish slavery itself in 1804, during the Haitian Revolution. Enslaved Haitians did not wait for a “benevolent” European state, but fought for their rights to be free themselves. Likewise, the seeming benevolence and sudden humanitarianism of Britain abolishing slavery in 1834 was viewed skeptically, and not without reason.

ERIC WILLIAMS

The many slave rebellions in several British colonies, such as Jamaica, along with changed economic conditions in Britain, simply made slavery overall no longer profitable enough for Britain by 1834. Trinidadian scholar Eric Eustace Williams even argues in his 1944 work ‘Capitalism and slavery’, that slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in Britain, thus having served its function, one might say.

Williams’ line of reasoning is thus that Britain’s abolition of slavery had more economic than humanitarian reasons, for the “powers that be”: it enabled the British Industrial Revolution. This in turn placed Britain in an economically prominent position within Europe and the Western world, as the first industrializing nation, later followed by other parts of Europe, of course, some later than others, some only partly. This first industrialization in the world – in Britain - had thus global economic impact, financed by the blood, sweat, and tears – and many deaths – of enslaved Africans.

In this post I will focus on slavery in British history, compared to slavery in other parts of the world. Precisely because Britain boasts about a relatively early abolition, and because of its contribution to the Industrial Revolution in England. What set slavery in the British Empire apart from those of other colonizing nations around that time, and from slavery throughout history in various civilizations? Comparing (historical) slavery systems is quite common even in academic circles, and can be – I argue – quite educational.

NARDIA THOMAS

An interesting book I read, besides the mentioned book by Eric Eustace Williams, in this regard is also ‘The intellectual roots of slavery in the British West Indies: slavery in the British West Indies: a study of the intellectual roots, from the Late Classical period to AD 1850”, by Nardia Thomas. She is also a Trinidadian scholar, like Eric Williams. This book is however quite recent, being published in 2010.

Thomas discusses slavery throughout history, pointing at common elements making human beings vulnerable to enslavement. She mentions specifically the crucial roles of the concept of the “cultural other” - a conquered or captured “outsider” - being more vulnerable to become slave in a certain society, and the concept of “alienation”. The latter term also includes people expelled within their own society. That “cultural other” can refer to another culture, geographical area, race, or religion, often several aspects at once. The accents differ throughout time period, though.

“Race” might in the beginning not be the only factor triggering enslavement of “others” – though still a factor - , but in time race became a quite dominant one, as also being of another religion – or infidels -, such as with the conquests of the Islam: non-Muslims were allowed to be enslaved, and were so in large numbers, especially Africans, pointing at a combination with racial and cultural motives. The same applied to Christianity, of course. All this was framed also within economic motivations, as applied to both Arab enslavers, as soon after Christian colonizers like Portugal and Spain, claiming hypocritically to “convert” or “save” the heathen, by enslaving them.

Nardia Thomas in her book departs from a broad, global approach, discussing also historical slavery in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, within India and Hinduism, intertwined within the unequal caste system, and further also discussed forms of slavery known historically in China and Africa. Thomas’s work is in that sense more or less comparative. Along those ”comparative” lines I continue with this post, but with my own accents.

These own accents relate to my own interests in culture and music, definitely also within the African Diaspora, as I discuss regularly within my – this – blog. I am a Reggae fan, am interested in Rastafari, and in related musical genres and movements. I am also a percussionist, and percussion has a strong African and Afro-American influence. Africa is known as the most “percussive continent”.

DIFFERENCES

What differentiated the slavery systems between European and other powers, and how has this impacted upon social and cultural developments? I might have touched aspects of this topic partly in previous posts on this blog. I compared – for instance – the enslaved Africans in Jamaica and Cuba with regard to maintenance of African culture. There were similarities in cultural deracination and destruction, but also differences: such as somewhat greater possibilities in Cuba to maintain original African cultures (Yoruba, Congo etcetera) within own organizations among (free and enlaved) Africans, called “cabildos” in Cuba.

This way musical traditions could be maintained, more and more directly than in Jamaica or other British colonies, where even a total ban on “drumming” for Africans was for a long time upheld. In Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and to a degree also in French ones, enslaved Africans were often under conditions allowed to play the drums, and other limited degrees of cultural expressions. There were occasional also bans on drumming – or strong discouragement – in Spanish colonies, like Cuba, too, by the way, but less total.

Why this difference? The Protestant emphasis on both rigidity and sobriety of British colonizers – versus Catholic flexibility of Spanish or French colonizers - is often cited as explanation, and this might well be partly true. It seems plausible to me as partial explanation, though it could have combined with other reasons (role in communication rebellious messages by these drums among slaves in British colonies, for instance).

SPAIN AND PORTUGAL

Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa (later part of Italy), and having become a Portuguese citizen later, started ironically the colonial history of Spain by pleading with its new monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella, who combined their kingdoms Aragón and Castile) to finance his trips to what would be known as ‘the Americas’, in 1492. The disaster then began. The arrival of Spaniards and other Europeans had genocidal effects in parts of the Americas on the Amerindian population.

Already around 1505 a first shipment of enslaved Africans went to Santo Domingo (Hispaniola). These first Black slaves were then, however, living in Spain. With the aid of the Portuguese, who had gained more grounds in the African continent and already experience with enslaving and trading in Africans, however, Spain could in time also import Africans directly from Africa as slaves for its American colonies.

SYSTEMATIC PLANTATION SLAVERY

Britain and other European nations followed with this dehumanizing practice of transporting enslaved Africans to the Americas not long after that. Countries like Britain and the Netherlands even modernized and intensified this slavery and slave trade, when compared to Portuguese and Spanish slavery systems. Modernizations by the Dutch in Brazil (1630-1654), further influenced in part those followed by the British in Barbados, became models for a more intensive – and more productive - “plantation slavery” in the Caribbean and Americas.

Simply said: (the Dutch and) British made slavery more efficient and could therefore transport more enslaved Africans in less time when compared to the Spanish, by the 18th c. This made plantations and the sugar industry more profitable in British and Dutch colonies, than in Spanish colonies, where Africans had more varied roles. Some historians describe the difference as such: Cuba was mostly a “colony with slaves”, while Jamaica, Haiti, St Lucia, Barbados, and other colonies, were rather “slave colonies”.

A cynical modernization, as it resulted in the enslavement of more (millions of) Africans, under harsher work conditions, even worse than the earlier enslavement under the Spanish and Portuguese. It increased the dehumanization, as with this plantation slavery, slaves became treated like “animals” and “things” (with no rights), with even less regard for their lives than under the Spanish. Enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, especially on sugar plantations, generally died young, at an average of within 8 years after arrival from Africa (as was the case in Jamaica). The dehumanization was of course there also with the earlier Portuguese and Spanish slave trade and slavery, but this increased it.

In tandem with this dehumanization, the racialization of slavery also became the norm in American colonies. The cynical fact in most colonies was: if you were Black/African, you are supposed to be slave, unless you were freed, or could buy your freedom. In some colonies, the possibilities of becoming free, were bigger than in others. French St Domingue – later Haiti - had, especially in urban areas, at one point quite some free Africans living, as also Cuban cities like Havana, alongside enslaved populations. This made racial relations a bit more flexible in these “Latin” colonies. The lesser and later focus on plantation slavery in Cuba, and a larger white population, also attributed to social and cultural differences with British Caribbean colonies, like Jamaica.

AFRICAN ORIGINS

When Spain began its colonial adventure, it did not have much access to the African continent. Its neighbour Portugal already had, though, having established trade relations in various parts of Africa, including in what is now the areas of Guinea, in Congo, Angola, and Cameroon. It was setting up several trading posts in Angola. The Spanish therefore at first depended on those Portuguese, when they brought enslaved Africans to the West.

The Dutch, French, and British (and even Danes, Brandenburg Germans, and Swedes) were more assertive, and established trading posts along the African coasts, when they also engaged in colonialism and slave trade. These were set up in various parts, partly in areas where the Portuguese were less present, but also close to them. Ghana is one such place where the North Europeans could establish posts, explaining why many slaves from the Ghana area ended up in British and Dutch colonies. The Dutch also had a trading post in what is now Angola, however.

It is too simple to conclude, therefore, that the different European colonizers obtained their slaves from different parts of Africa. All these European colonizers obtained slaves where they could, in various parts of Africa, often collaborating temporarily with other nations. Spain – still with relatively limited access to Africa – worked for its slave trade mostly with Asientos – trade contracts – with British, Dutch, and Portuguese slavers. These latter had more of a maritime tradition and industry than Spain. Britain could get and transport the enslaved Africans with their own ships, while the Spanish were mostly dependent for the shipping on other nations, also because it had not many African territories and footholds, unlike Portugal, Britain, France etcetera.

This is historically significant, as it formed the basis for the later colonies of Portugal, France, and Britain in the African continent, in fact consisting of most of the continent , while Spain at the end only had one small colony in sub-Saharan Africa, namely Equatorial Guinea. It contributed to the current fact – perhaps ironic – that in this day and age most “Francophone” speakers live in Africa, even more than in France and Eastern Canada combined. Studying this is educational, as it shows how industrialization, slave trade, and colonialism in Africa all interrelate.

SPAIN

Spain never industrialized as much as Britain, only much later and mainly in certain regions (Catalonia and the Basque country). The “blood money” that Spain obtained from its colonialism and slavery, just like Britain and the Netherlands had, therefore fed less into a burgeoning industry benefiting the whole Spanish economy, unlike in Britain. It mostly stayed within a few elite families. Only when more systematic plantation slavery had increased in Cuba (later than in British colonies), in the 19th c., its gains went into an industry in Spain, notably in the Barcelona and Catalonia area, where an industry by then had developed.

Many Catalans also invested in the African slave trade and slavery, despite it not bordering the Atlantic. Quite some Catalans (and Basques) migrated to Cuba then, and there were well-known affluent slave owners among them. A large slave owner in Cuba, Julián Zulueta, was a Basque from Northern Spain. Today, many Afro-Cubans therefore have that formal surname (Zulueta), having been owned by that family. I also met some Black Cubans with that surname, when I was in Cuba, as well as with Catalan surnames (and of course also other Spanish surnames).

The Bacardí family was Catalan (later active in the sugar-derived rum industry), and there were also other several Catalan slave owners. Present-day surnames by Afro-Cubans of Catalan origins, like Ferrer, Más etcera, remind of this.

Unfortunately for those who sympathize more with Catalans than with the Spanish, in relation to the recent Catalan independence demands, also what is now Catalonia profited from Spain’s colonial and slavery pasts, even if the first Spanish colonization started from ports like Seville, belonging to Castile (now Andalusia). Studies show several Barcelonese and Catalan elite, industrial families were involved in the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean, as well as in Caribbean plantations, up to the later 19th c..

An interesting fact in this regard: the pro-independence Catalonian politician Artur Más – a precursor in this sense to Carles Puigdemont – had among his forefathers Catalans involved in the African slave trade. I can only hope that he does not consider this something to be proud of.

In summary, the British made the slave trade and plantation slavery more efficient and used its gains more effectively economically and strategically than the Spanish, toward industrialization. When Spain lost its final colonies in the Americas, by 1900, Spain therefore soon impoverished again, certainly when compared to Britain or Northern Europe.

DUBIOUS CLAIM

This also makes the claim that Britain was more “humanitarian” in abolishing slavery and the slave trade in abolishing them much earlier than the Spanish and others, at the very least a morally “dubious” claim. The official abolition date was indeed earlier than the ones by the Netherlands, France, or Spain. Yet, history also shows that around and after this abolition in the 1830s, Britain secured and expanded its hold on the African continent into several large colonies, remaining colonies up to the late 20th c.

For all these reasons, Britain and the British influenced Africans at home and abroad much more strongly, overall, than the Spanish. This is however due to a dehumanizing past.

CULTURAL IMPACT

This influence is also cultural, although shared African cultural characteristics can be found throughout the African Diaspora. I find that a very fascinating theme, as shows on my (this) blog. Especially enslaved Africans from the Congo area, ended up relatively evenly in colonies of different European colonizers. Later studies calculated that probably a bit over 20% of the African slaves brought to Jamaica were from the Congo/Angola area, with a similar percentage applicable to Haiti or the US. Still less than about 40% from Congo/Angola, for Cuba, but still numerous.

There is a specific Congo/Bantu influence among Afro-Jamaicans, as well as among black Americans, and in Haitian Vodou, in Guadeloupe, and also in former Dutch colonies like Suriname and Curaçao, discernible in music and other cultural expressions, mixed or not. This is more prominently present in the African retentions in Cuba and Brazil, but certainly also present in former British, French, or Dutch colonies. Some trace for instance the “heart beat” drumming in Rastafari Nyahbingi drumming to Congo influences, even if played with Kete drums, originating in the Ghana area, where relatively more Africans (about 45%) in Jamaica were taken from.

Despite this, there are several shared African cultural continuities and values among Africans from the Ghana, Nigeria, and Congo areas, such as polyrhythmic music, musical-spiritual connections, social structures, call-and-response etcetera. These values are mostly shared throughout sub-Saharan Africa, to differing degrees, and came with slaves to the West.

I have studied such differences and historical comparisons in slavery in the Americas before.

BRITISH LEGACIES

The similarities – and differences -within the African Diaspora regarding the African part are very interesting; its variety as well. How did the fact that the enslavers were British impact these differences?

Well, certain parts of Africa were more easily accessible for the British than for other Europeans, for instance Ghana. This became therefore an important source for Britain for slave workers. The British also got slaves from other parts, having relatively more access to other parts too, notably Southeast Nigeria, and the Igbo area, parts of Cameroun, and in Gambia and the Sierra Leone area. The British had posts elsewhere too, such as the Congo region, but this “relative access” shows in part in the slave populations in the Americas.

As said, almost 50% of the Africans brought as slaves to Jamaica probably came from the Ghana region, while to Barbados, relatively many (also about 50%) came from the Igbo area. Igboes were also quite present among the enslaved population in Jamaica (a bit over 20%).

Afro-Trinidadian culture has a strong Yoruba influence (just like in Cuba and parts of Brazil). The Yoruba lands, in Southwest Nigeria and Benin, were at first less accessible for the British, but more to the Spanish, and Portuguese. Trinidad only became later a British colony, in 1797, and before that was a Spanish colony, with many slave owners being French. This also explains cultural differences with other British Caribbean islands.

PROTESTANTISM

A main legacy – on the European side – is of course British, Anglo-Saxon culture, including Protestantism. Noted should be also that about 30% of all slave-owners in the British Caribbean were Scottish, though also Protestant, and most of the rest from various parts of England, Anglicized Irishmen, or Wales. Jamaican surnames nowadays (former slave names after slave-owners as is well-known) like Barrett, Smith, Rodney, Henry, McGregor, Llewellyn, Hylton, Matthews, Johnson, Shaw, Holt, and so forth, say enough.

Reggae artist Peter Tosh (from McIntosh) once stated that his European name is just a “handle”, and does not define him. This is of course true.

There is also a British cultural legacy, that affecting and influenced Afro-Jamaicans. The English language, but deeper than that also Protestantism. Various Protestant churches set up base in the British Caribbean, converting many former slaves. These had at points different interpretations of Protestantism from each other and the more elite (and White) Anglican state church of England. Some were more Evangelical, others influenced by Calvinism. They however all shared a focus on Bible texts, combined with a puritan rigidity. Despite this rigidity, among Afro-Caribbean followers, African cultural traits were mixed with this, in religious practice.

At the end of the day, nonetheless, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon interpretations of the Bible became quite normative and culturally influential in, for instance, Jamaica and among Black Jamaicans. This has remained so up to today.

RASTAFARI

As the African consciousness increase, resulting mainly in the rise of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, in the 1930s, this “White” interpretation of the Bible became questioned. The starting point was still the Bible, though, but with that also certain implicit values from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, that still shaped opinions., even when the Rastafari wanted to abandon and refute the British, colonial legacy.

An example? Well the views on African spirit religions (comparable to Vodou, Santería, Winti etcetera) that survived here and there in Jamaica. Also the early Rastas criticized this as “backward” and ‘devellish”, though a few of the early Rastas, such as Archibald Dunkley, seemed a bit more open to such African Spirit influences. Vodou and Obeah (an Afro-Jamaican magic/spirit cult) became words with negative connotations for many Rastafari, even noticeable in some current-day reggae lyrics.

The irony is that the White, “colonial” and slave-owning Protestants before them, had a similar disdain and rejection of such Vodou-like faiths.

The own African interpretation of the Bible that Rastafari also upholds, makes more sense, as the Bible is no more European than African, and has been certainly misused for own gain by Europeans.

More recently, however, there is also a movement within Rastafari – with artist, presenter, and intellectual Mutabaruka as a spokesperson – that is more critical of the – in the end - European-shaped - Bible and Christian derivative dominance within Rastafari, preferring more attention to Africa itself, and nature.

MUSIC

Jamaica has a rich musical history, as do certain other British Caribbean islands. England not so much, haha. Of course, there were British musical traditions, like the Quadrille (French-influenced, though), and seaman chants that British colonizers brough with them. Also, Irish immigrants to Jamaica (often closer to the slave population in social position, than the British) brought their Celtic musical traditions. Some attribute the early use of the “fiddle” in Jamaican folk music (also by Afro-Jamaicans) to the Irish. British song and chord structures influenced several Jamaican genres, whereas on the rhythmic part the influences were mostly African.

African music traditionally has no “chords” as such, so that part was based on European models. Also this was given a strong African interpretation, such as with call-and-response, and flexible vocal styles. The meager rhythms of English folk songs were soon expanded with several rhythmic additions, and sang with own lyrics and own singing style. This gave birth to the Mento genre in rural Jamaica in the early 20th c.

An interesting difference with, e.g., Cuba: the Spanish guitar or variants thereof were found less in Jamaica. Exactly because it is, well, originally a Spanish guitar from Southern Spain, commonly used in Spanish music genres that Spanish colonizers brought with them to the West. Spanish guitars were however sometimes used in Jamaica Mento, by the early 20th c, however.

Another Spanish musical and cultural influence found in Latin America, is also hardly found in former British colonies. These stem mostly from Spain’s particular Moorish/Islamic past, which left also certain vocal and instrumental traditions. Vocally , the high-pitched, “tense” singing as common in Arabic and North African music, clearly left its mark in several Spanish folk music genres, notably Flamenco, and other genres in Central and Southern Spain (and Portugal).

This influenced genres that developed in Latin America as well, even if it mixed with Amerindian and African influences. The singing style in Mexican, Cuban and other areas – high-pitched, among other characteristics – relates to this. This is found e.g. in both much Salsa, rural Cuban styles like Punto, and in Mexican genres like Son and Mariachi music. Also, the Arab-influenced “melismatic” singing – simply said: syllables spread over several tones – aimed at hypnotizing effect, also reached Latin America.

It must be said – though – that the melismatic singing also influenced Arab-influenced parts of Africa, notably the Guinee, Senegambia and Mali area, where also slaves came from, although these ended up relatively more in what is now the US. It influenced the “swing” characteristic in jazz and blues, by the way. High-pitched, melismatic singing –however – was more associated with Spanish colonies. It is less found in British Caribbean folk music, where Mento or calypso tend to have “relaxed”, or at least ‘syllabic” (one note per syllable) singing styles, more related to other, “forest” parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps some British and Irish Celtic influences.

This all impacted to degrees on how Jamaican and other British Caribbean music developed. Spanish influences still came indirectly (later Cuban music, for instance) to Ska in Jamaica and Calypso for instance, but the first European music heard by slaves in Jamaica mostly came from Britain.

BROADER CULTURE

It is probably further already known, that also popular “cricket” in the British Caribbean is an evident British legacy, as certain other traditions and activities still found in the British Caribbean, including the “sober” architecture.

That is one thing I noticed when I visited both Cuba and Jamaica in 2006 and 2008: the grand, ornamental, “baroque” architecture and building style in much of Cuba, is largely absent in Jamaica. Stern, linear “White House”-style grandeur is what at most can be found, or otherwise small, “industrial” practical “row” houses for the poorer classes, with only occasional pastel colours as extra decoration.

BACK TO NARDIA THOMAS

In the final, concluding chapter of the aforementioned book by Trinidadian scholar Nardia Thomas – on the intellectual history of slavery -, Thomas locates British slavery within wider history. She points at shared, universal aspects throughout time and cultures, like the enslavement of “cultural others”, dehumanization and lacking rights of slaves, and that the slaves were “property” of masters. She also, however, discusses differences, and peculiarities of British slavery in the Americas.

One of these is the “racialization”, as the “cultural” other became almost synonymous to the “racial” other, in this case of course enslaved Africans. Racism underpinned British slavery systems, that further expanded racism also after slavery. Culture, race and “colour”, and religion thus became intertwined in treating Africans as inferior.

This structural racism, along with the systematic, “industrial” nature of plantation slavery in several British Caribbean colonies, and Protestant values, helps explain why the repression and destruction of African culture was stronger in British than in Spanish colonies.

It is true, that this racism and repression was also found among the Portuguese and Spanish, although most historians conclude that “race relations” were more flexible in “Latin” colonies, and African cultural expressions a bit more allowed or tolerated (under conditions). Less rigid and separated, perhaps due to Portugal’s and Spain’s multicultural past just prior to 1492 (when Columbus set sail to the Americas).

Racist views on Black Africans certainly also shaped the Arab slave trade and slavery of Africans, also combined with religious and cultural prejudices. Certain derogatory views on “dark-skinned” people are still quite common throughout North Africa and the Middle East, among self-proclaimed Arabs, even more so for non-Muslim Black Africans.

CONCLUDING

After the Portuguese, the British were the European colonizers who enslaved the highest number (millions of) Africans and brought them forcibly to the West. This was in a more economic and systematic way than the Iberian colonizers overall did, enabling at the end the first industrialization in Britain, and British colonialism in Africa.

This history of African enslavement by Britain in the centuries up to 1838, thus interrelates with the industrializaton of economies, shaping the present-day dominance of what is called the First World (the industrialized world) today, still dominating and exploiting the Third World (including Africa).

It is cynical but true that that is a main legacy of the British Atlantic slave trade, and slavery in the Americas.

In this light, the emphasis of Britain’s later role in championing the ending of the slave trade by other nations, European ones and others, and congratulating itself as helping the end of the slave trade and slavery, in the Americas, Africa and elsewhere – notably after 1806, when Britain officially ended the slave trade (illegal practices continued), is not without hypocrisy. There is some merit to it, but also hypocrisy. Britain clearly profited from the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, even if it abolished it relatively early.

maandag 2 juli 2018

The flexatone (and reggae)

The world of percussion instruments is, at least in the world of modern pop music, largely one of “crucial details”. The wide range of large and small instruments in the percussion family used in many musical genres offers countless interesting sonic possibilities.

These possibilities have been used widely in various genres, though one can say that the variation and use differs per genre. Some genres are by themselves more percussive, or allow more experimentation (e.g. fusion, jazz-rock, Dub Reggae) than others, depending also on artists and musicians, of course.

In mainstream Blues, Jazz, Rock, Pop, Heavy Metal, or Country & Western, not so much extra percussion is used, beyond – say – the quite accepted and spread tambourine. Regarding mainstream Soul, the tambourine seemed to have been used most in Motown recordings, among the percussion, despite an occasional use of conga’s or bongos. The freer, distinctive take on soul by Curtis Mayfield, however, allowed a free spirit like ‘Master’ Henry Gibson (Mayfield’s percussionist) to add more extensively a wide range of percussion (conga, rototom, bongos a.o.), often in the same song. Percussion is also creative in Tom Waits’ more experimental work (like on the album Swordfish Trombones). The same applies to a free-minded Funk band like Funkadelic.

I am primarily a Reggae fan though, and that genre is largely less mainstream than the ones I mentioned till now. Therein too, percussion is – to degrees – quite widely used, but as in other genres of course differing in degree per artist, band, or “sound”.

IDIOPHONES

There are of course different types of percussion instruments. Let’s say that the definition of percussion in this case is all rhythmic instruments outside the (trap) drum kit/set, so commonly used now in modern pop music. Strictly speaking, this definition is incorrect (percussion can apply to all rhythmic “struck” instruments, including that drum set), but more specifically one can use the academic term “idiophones” for those small instruments like scrapers, bells, shakers and others, made to “vibrate” as a whole, setting it thus apart from instruments using strings or membranes. The latter – membranophones – of course include drums, also considered percussion.

In this post I will focus on one specific idiophone instrument. Idiophones can be made to vibrate in different ways, that’s why they distinguish between “struck”, “friction”, or “plucked” instruments. Relatively most of these idiophones are “struck” in one way or the other, and on one of these I am going to focus now: the “Flexatone” (also spelled as Flex-a-tone).

To be precise, the Flexatone is as percussion instrument an “indirectly struck idiophone”, as Wikipedia also puts it.

I am playing now for several years several percussion instruments, having started with serious lessons first in playing membranophones – or simpler said: hand drums – of Afro-Cuban origin: the well known Bongos and Conga. This was soon followed by other, African drums, like the Djembe, Ashiko, and Talking Drum, and other drum types.

In this stage, other percussion instruments, the said idiophones, were a kind of a side-path, though I practiced with it, and had quite some of these idiophones, using them and recording with them, alongside drums. They only seemed a side-path, or at least soon ceased to be. Always combining them with drums, they became more crucial in my musical compositions (which I called “percussion instrumentals”), combining with the perhaps more “driving” drums, but equally crucial in the whole, for me.

Bells (cowbells), shakers (of different kinds), scrapers, thumb pianos, woodblocks, tambourines, cuicas, balafon, rattles, a.o., I thus used from early on. Some of these commonly used in genres like Reggae, Latin, Funk, Afrobeat a.o., and therefore less “new” or “remarkable”.

Such idiophones – scrapers, shakers, thumb piano’s, balafons, rubbed drums, blocks a.o. - are practically as old as man kind, to be found in ancient African musical traditions, and on other continents too. “Thumb pianos”, also known academically as "lamellophones", or by African terms as kalimba or mbira, seem to be specifically African, while shakers, “scraper-like” or “rubbed drum” instruments, are equally traditionally found in both Africa and among the Amerindians. They have a long history there, from way before colonialism and slavery. For that reason, they are common in various genres throughout Latin America.

I love all these instruments, appreciating naturally their crucial cultural, founding and rhythmic function. Yet as time progressed, inventive humans with more means, started in more modern times to come up with “new” percussion instruments, albeit derived from existing ones. The same occurred too, especially in Western countries, with other instruments (horns, string instruments, pianos), largely therefore “modernizations”.

FLEXATONE

The Wikipedia article on the Flexatone describes it as one such later invention, patented first in the 1920s in Britain and soon after the US, and used early on as “funny sound effect”, for theatrical use rather, but also in jazz music circles.

The 1920s is of course, compared to the ancient drums, scrapers, xylophones, shakers, bells, or wood blocks, relatively new. Yet this Flexatone has the “musical saw” as predecessor, going historically somewhat further back and to more authentic (e.g. Russian) folk music. Added to this, however, are two wooden balls on either side, thus sounding when the “metal blade” as such is pressed/struck by thumb, combining thus a musical/singing saw with bell/glockenspiel-like sounds, with glissando (or trembling, quivering) effects.

Based on existing models, again, yet quite original as such, this Flexatone, as it appeared since the 1920s.

The history of the Flexatone is quite remarkable, as after it got patented in New York, the US in 1924, it soon got associated with Jazz music, where it – as some put it – could “make jazz jazzier”.

Oddly, Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany banned the Flexatone, along with other instruments (cowbells, brushes), for being (I quote) “alien to the German spirit” or “Aryan musicality”. This was part of a wider censorship of and attack at Jazz, a genre which the Nazi’s detested.

The full set of Nazi rules for Jazz musicians who wanted to perform then (1930s, 1940s) issued, which were actually enforced, makes – in hindsight – absurd reading, but is also cultural policy at its most racist.

The detailed nature of the instructions (e.g. “at most 10% of syncopation..”) makes it absurd, alongside of course racist (here both anti-Semite, and anti-Black), and hateful, as could be expected.

See for that – specifically rules issued during the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia from 1938 to 1945 - this page:

https://boingboing.net/2012/03/10/nazi-rules-for-jazz-performers.html

The flexatone was thus prohibited specifically by the Nazi’s: I do not know if that is sad or funny. It makes me want to play it more, I know that, haha. (Hashtag # consideringthesource..)

FLEXATONE AND ME

Relatively recently, I have already taken up playing the Flexatone too, learning more and more how to play it, and about its interesting musical possibilities. I even brought it to (public) jam sessions, and recorded with it in compositions, by now. Since I play one, naturally, I started to focus on it more, noticed it more in music I listened to. About the last year, as I write this, I thus paid more attention to it in music.

USE IN MUSIC AND REGGAE

I am, as said, a Reggae fan, so heard it relatively more in that genre. In fact, it is used quite commonly in Reggae. Quite regularly in Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s too (and later) for instance, where it was not “standard”, but regularly employed by several active studio percussionists in Reggae (Scully, Sticky, Sky Juice, and Bongo Herman), and younger percussionists (of which Sidney Wolfe and Denver Smith can be mentioned, as well as the even younger Hector Lewis (b. 1990), Chronixx’s percussionist). Just as one more possible sound and instrument available for these old- and new-generation of Jamaican percussionists.

The Wikipedia article on the Flexatone mentions the use of the Flexatone in classical music, but in modern pop recordings too, in various genres. It gives an interesting list of songs, but fails to mention any Reggae song, while there are several examples. Like I said, though, Reggae is less mainstream than those other genres.

The cover song – a fine cover, I must say – of Johnny B. Goode by Peter Tosh, reached the mainstream more, and uses the Flexatone (subtly in the mix), but not even this song was mentioned in the Wikipedia article.

Maybe you guessed it, but I am going to fill that void a bit, in this post. Not much use in repeating a (or even several) Wikipedia article(s) here, of course, which are publicly available to all already. Simply search flexatone in Wikipedia, and you got the same information. I am going to broaden it toward reggae, though.

The list as part of the Wikipedia article includes Funkadelic’s Back In Our Mind. I remember that song from my brother’s album, and remember I liked that song. On it, the Flexatone is quite prominent, not “drowned in the mix”, as elsewhere, or only heard in the intro or bridges of songs, but actually “carrying” the song (with mainly a 5-3 pattern/riff). Some more songs in that list also have a quite prominent presence of the Flexatone.

FLEXATONE IN REGGAE LIST

The same can be said when limiting oneself to the Reggae genre. Overall, the use of the Flexatone is regular and not uncommon. Some percussion sounds are relatively more common in Reggae (besides hand drums, say: idiophones), for instance shakers, woodblock, or the scrapers. Some reggae percussionists (before and now) also like rattle sounds, such as from the “vibra-slap” instrument.

The Flexatone is heard here and there too and not so rare, more or less as frequent as, say, the cuíca friction drum, I discussed elsewhere on my blog.

Perhaps it is even more frequently used than more rarely used instruments (I know even examples of “castanet” use in some Reggae songs, after all, and a few examples of “talking drum” use, but not many), because it is hard to give and exhaustive list of all Reggae songs with the Flexatone: still simply too much, plus also hard to study. The only way to examine this is by listening, because hardly ever are separate, specific percussion instruments used mentioned in song or album credits; these are all categorized simply under percussion, with no specificities.

I listened and listen quite some Reggae, and keep quite up to date, so a sensible list that is illustrative is quite possible. To call it “representative” would be saying too much, though: too many examples I might have missed or forgotten, which is inevitable. I can give examples of different decades (excluding Peter Tosh’s Johnny B. Goode, as I already mentioned it).

Since I do not play the Flexatone for too long (over a year now) I did not focus on it so much specifically before, I am only human. That also plays a role.

Still, an illustrative (if somewhat arbitrary) list can be like this:

  • Gregory Isaacs – Motherless Children (1980) 
  • Gregory Isaacs – Victim / Mr Music Man (album Victim, 1987) 
  • Gregory Isaacs – Mr. Know It All (1979) 
  • Burning Spear – Should I (album Jah Kingdom, 2002) 
  • Burning Spear - Reggae Physician/Come In Peace (album Appointment with His Majesty, 1997) 
  • The Mighty Diamonds – Diamonds & Pearls (album Deeper Roots, 1979) 
  • Prince Lincoln Thompson – Spaceship (album Natural Wild, 1980) 
  • Gideon Jah Rubaal – Judgement Time (recorded at Channel One, 1975-1979) 
  • Pablo Moses – I & I Naw Bow (album In The Future, 1983) 
  • The Wailing Souls – Helmet of Salvation/Sunrise Till Sunset (album Stranded, 1984) 
  • The Itals – No Call Dread Name/My Woman/Don’t Blame It On Me (album Rasta Philosophy, 1985) 
  • Wiss – Equal Rights/Reach So Far (album Mr. Sunshine, 1985) 
  • The Abyssinians – Ethiopia (album 19.95 + tax, 1996) 
  • Israel Vibration – My Brother’s Keeper (album: On The Rock, from 1997) 
  • The Gladiators (Albert Griffiths &) – Follow You (album Something A Gwaan, 2000). 
  • Protoje – Hail Rastafari (2013) 
  • Iba Mahr – Get Up And Show (2017, on Better Days Riddim)

These are chosen at random, but not entirely. Like in the Wikipedia list of Flexatone used in songs in other genres, its use differs from “prominent” to subtle. Gregory Isaacs’ Mr Music Man is one of the Reggae songs that I know of with the most prominent Flexatone use (perhaps because of the song’s “sparse”, empty Rockers sound, and few other percussion and instruments), along with his earlier song (1979) Motherless Children.

In Mr Music Man – a song I also played as vinyl DJ/selecta a few times - the Flexatone has a nice, groovy function, with bouncy tones, starting on the 1 (of 4/4). Often the Flexatone sets in on the First count of 4/4 in Reggae songs, but those are common musical standards of structure: so do often other instruments (start at the One of 4/4 with a pattern).

In Israel Vibration’s My Brother’s Keeper, the Flexatone is used more subtly, also softer or “buried”/”drowned” more in the mix. The same applies to the Wailing Souls songs I mention from the 1984 Stranded album: to detect its use one almost needs a high-quality headphone, though its nice “chorus introducing” role in Sunrise Till Sunset is audible. On the mentioned Israel Vibration song its use is on the other hand more rhythmic.

I also give examples of songs Burning Spear later albums, where the Flexatone is quite audible, though somewhat subtle and buried in the mix. Burning Spear uses quite some varied percussion in his later albums, including idiophones.. They are not even very soft. Percussion is still somewhat “drowned” in the relatively “fuller” sound of these Burning Spear albums (relatively many instruments used, percussion and otherwise). In these examples, the Flexatone plays a kind of “counter-rhythm” in the African tradition, though not without atmospheric aspects. The Flexatone is also a flexible instrument, haha.

On the Itals’ songs I mention (from the 1985 Rasta Philosophy album), the Flexatone is used by veteran percussionists – as on other of the examples I mention - Scully and Bongo Herman, but somewhat buried in the mix, or at least along with quite some other percussion instruments. It adds nicely to the feel, though, and has a particular good effect (during changes in the song) on the fine song No Call Dread Name, in my opinion, on that album.

DUB

Dub Reggae, as more instrumental form, is largely derived from reggae since the 1970s, so if a vocal song had that Flexatone already, it appears in the (remixed, instrumental) Dub version of it. There are cases where it ended up louder in the mix, though.

The creative genius in Dub, and its inventor, King Tubby, used it – as other producers, like Jammy, Lee “Scratch” Perry) – as extra sound in Dubs, even if not in the music of the original vocal song. The “quivering” metal, glissando tone might fit in with that genre so rich in sound effects, although it is often as “introducing” a Dub tune, so mainly in the beginning or during transitions, when it is added, though in cases also throughout the song as part of its rhythmical structure.

HOW USED

Well, softer or louder in the mix is one thing. Another aspect I also already hinted at: used rhythmically, as part of the rhythm/groove, or more atmospherically (as sound effect) or even melodically, as the Flexatone – because of its very nature – allows this.

It requires more skills to use this Flexatone beyond atmospheric or “sound effect” level – or as a mere “introduction”, also a kind of sound effect. This is self-evident. To actually (help) “carry” a song throughout with the Flexatone, you need actual musical skills. Such rhythmic and musical knowledge tends to be present among percussionists with some experience, as those active in Reggae music, before and now. So its use is often rhythmic, and combined with other percussion instruments (mostly). On Diamonds and Pearls of the Mighty Diamonds its use is more rhythmic, whereas on the 2017 New Roots song by Iba Mahr, Get Up And Show, its use is also nice, but rather atmospheric, or harmonic/melodic, in the whole. Often its use is something between (rhythmic, atmospheric, melodic), due to its inherent flexibility (as other percussion instruments).

I had to listen more closely to Protoje’s song Hail Rastafari to ensure it was actually a Flexatone used in it. There is an occasional “glissando metal” sound (kind of introductory on the 1 of 4/4 beat, as in other songs), which might as well be a triangle or other bell. The use in Hail Rastafari is sparse, simple, and rhythmic, but still nice. The modern New Roots genre within Reggae, has more a “live band” focus (also in studio recording), than the Digital dancehall/Ragga period before, allowing luckily more space for varied percussion, being acoustic instruments. That is also logical, in a sense. I noticed the use of specifically the Flexatone in Iba Mahr’s Get Up and Show, though, because I liked and like that song so much. One of my favourites, released in that year (2017). I therefore listened more intensively and repeatedly to that song.

YOUNGER PERCUSSIONISTS

I am pleased to notice, anyway, that the younger percussionists in current Jamaican music, continue the varied percussion (drums and idiophones) use of their veteran predecessors since the 1970s, like Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson, Noel “Scully” Simms, Bongo Herman (Davis) and others. One of these new generation percussionist is the already mentioned Hector Lewis of Chronixx’s Zinc Fence Redemption band, a “young lion” born in 1990. Chronixx very recent concert in the Paradiso venue Amsterdam of Friday, the 29th of June, 2018 (so shortly before I write this) was eventually sold out, showing Chronixx’s increased popularity. Perhaps good for Reggae’s development, I gather. Hector Lewis played along in this concert, with a wide percussion set (“Afro-Cuban basic”: three conga’s, bongos, and further various idiophones).

The same a bit “atmospheric” use as in Iba Mahr’s Get Up and Show applies to Gregory Isaacs Mr. Know It All (1980), whereas on Isaacs’ great 1979 song Motherless Children the Flexatone is used more rhythmically, providing combined with the woodblock or jamblock also a kind of “counter-rhythm”, giving the song a polyrhythmic (“African”) rhythmic feel, as in also Burning Spear songs. I find that use very interesting.

The use on the later, fine Abyssinians song Ethiopia (1996), of the Flexatone, is quite extensive and prominent in the song’s whole, again with both a (counter)rhythmic and atmospheric function. One could even say that the song would not feel the same without it. The crucial detail of percussion.

CULTURE AND OTHER ARTISTS

I further – just as another example – also seem to notice the (subtle) use of the Flexatone in Culture’s 1996 album One Stone, as part of wider percussion. As an iconic reggae band, Culture also needs attention here, I think. On this Culture album the percussion instruments are somewhat soft in the mix, the sound more aimed at drum and bass, seemingly, though as often percussion still adds crucial touches to the general sound, if subtly. You hardly hear it, but you still hear and feel it. On some songs of this One Stone album I seem to hear – softly - the “glissando”, characteristic of the Flexatone, setting it thus apart from other (metal) bells used. The same applies to Culture’s 1999 album Payday (with similar mixing choices and “drum and bass”-focussed sound).

Like on Burning Spear albums from roughly the same period, a wide variety of percussion (drums and idiophones) tends to be used on several songs, but softer in the mix than in Burning Spear albums: a bit more emphasis on the “driving bass and drum” – somewhat understandable - , requiring therefore closer inspection to distinguish percussion sounds. At least on these Culture albums One Stone and Payday, which are further nonetheless overall nice albums, in my opinion (despite subdued percussion, haha).

Finding all use of the Flexatone in Reggae is simply too difficult and time-consuming. I would do that if I got paid for it, perhaps. Omissions are inevitable. I mention in my list a later Gladiators song, but maybe the Gladiators used it before in earlier recordings, as might have done Israel Vibration, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls, Abyssinians and others in also earlier recordings, perhaps even already in the earlier 1970s. So might have done, using the Flexatone, other Reggae artists (Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, Black Uhuru, Bunny Wailer, Alton Ellis, Twinkle Brothers, the Congos a.o.) I forgot to mention. Too many to mention.

Also the newer New Roots artists, besides Chronixx, (Sizzla, Luciano, Bushman, Buju Banton, Anthony B., Tarrus Riley, Chuck Fender, Richie Spice, Lutan Fyah, Queen Ifrica, Iba Mahr, Morgan Heritage etcetera etcetera), and the Riddims made for their songs, may have used the Flexatone.

If someone reading this, knows of good examples of Flexatone use in songs by these great artists I haven't mentioned, I of course would love to hear about it.

From the top of my head, I do not know of any use of the Flexatone in Bob Marley & the Wailers’songs, but I might be mistaken here too. As I mentioned in another blog post: the percussion is in Bob Marley songs relatively limited and subdued (softer), when compared to other Reggae, but it is still there.

My list is just illustrative and informative, and not meant as exhaustive nor as representative as such. Yet, I argue it gives a good overview, examples of its use.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND REFLECTIONS

It is still possible – and useful - to draw some conclusions from this general analysis of Flexatone use, as part of percussion in Reggae.

One can overall conclude, that Reggae is a music genre with relatively much use of extra, acoustic percussion (beyond the drum kit), and as part of that the use of the Flexatone is not uncommon.

The Flexatone is used in Reggae from different decades since the 1970s, both in Old and New Roots, as in the 1980s Rub-a-Dub or Rockers sound, and in new (not too digital) Reggae, after 1990. I heard it less in modern dancehall, but this is especially because that genre is more Digital, with less space for an acoustic instrument like the Flexatone. Combinations of Digital Dancehall’s basic digital rhythms, with added acoustic instruments exist out there, though.

Digitalization is also found in relatively later Reggae since the 1980s, when the synth got used more, in Early Dancehall, but even in some Roots Reggae, alongside drum, bass, guitar, or horns. On some albums the synth effects and sounds (“bleeps”, so to speak) took over the role of acoustic instruments, like percussion, leaving less space for their additions. Later, with the New Roots revival this trend was reversed luckily, to which the roles like the mentioned new-generation Jamaican percussionist in Reggae, like Hector Lewis, attest. A live-band focus, often including a percussion set, was never fully abandoned within reggae (with veteran artists like Burning Spear, Congos, Mighty Diamonds, Abyssinians a.o.), but now returned a bit with newer, younger Roots Reggae artists like Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Iba Mahr, Lutan Fyah, Protoje, and even with artists with one foot also at times in Dancehall (like Buju Banton, Sizzla, Capleton a.o.): when they perform live there is often – not always - a percussion set as part of the musicians.

The Flexatone is further used for atmospheric effect, but more often rhythmically and semi-melodically, within Reggae. In the reggae songs with the Flexatone use, providing a kind of counter-rhythm with a special (glissando, saw-like) sound, is mostly its function. Its melodic possibilities are less used or explored, though tension-building, semi-melodies are heard, mostly when introducing song parts like choruses and bridges. Elsewhere, they are more in the groove, and part of a percussive, even polyrhythmic, whole, with other percussion instruments.

Its use in reggae is therefore mainly part of an African musical aesthetic, fitting the Black music genre that is Reggae.

In spite of its British/US origins (and precursors in non-African folk music), its use is mostly African, with differing rhythmic complexity.

The sound itself – despite its use - of the Flexatone, kind of a glissando bell, may not seem traditionally African to some, although metal “bells” or scrapers are used since long in African traditional music. The “singing saw” sound might seem European to some, but even that is relative.

The modern violin might have been invented as such in Northern Italy, but violin-like instruments were long common in several cultures, including in Africa. In parts with string instrument-traditions in Sahel, West Africa: the Guinee, “Griot”, region, for instance. There one also finds scraped metal instruments, or similar somewhat “quivering” sounds.

In Ethiopia’s musical culture, you have the interesting Mesenqo instrument – a single-stringed bowed lute - with similarities to a violin, only older. Other string instruments in traditional Ethiopian music, are for instance the Kissar (also found in nearby Sudan, Nubia) and Krar, with strings plucked, but also at times “twanged”. Also here, quivering, glissando sounds, not that far apart from the less old (1924) Flexatone.

Musical bows are also found in Central and Southern Africa, with a likewise quivering, glissando sound to degrees, while the talking drum also has a changeable, “gliding” pitch. Glissando, said of the Flexatone sound, means in “Italianized French” nothing else than “gliding”, by the way.

All these African instruments’ sounds, have to differing degrees sonic similarities with the “glissando/gliding” or “flexing metal” aspect of the Flexatone. I argue therefore that the flexatone does not sound very European – or out of place – within an often Africa-focussed - and at least African-influenced genre - like Reggae. Especially Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists focus on Africa also lyrically, but the origin of Reggae as music is also largely African (mixed with some European aspects), especially rhythmically, but also broader.

I can even go for a “sweeping statement”:

“The rhythmic/semi-melodic use of the Flexatone in Reggae is an African retention of the sounds of certain African traditional instruments, especially the “musical bow” (or the mouth bow), as found especially in Central and Southern Africa, a musical heritage that came with the enslaved Africans to the West, and an island like Jamaica.”

Of course, modified and limited, it still echoes here and there such ancient musical bows, and other African string and metal instruments with “glissando/gliding”–like sounds. These are also found in other Black music genres (the blue note in Blues, Jazz).

At the very least an interesting way to look at the Flexatone’s use in Reggae music..

zaterdag 2 juni 2018

Bredda (and Sista!) Bee

Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt—marvelous error!— that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.

From poem 'Last Night As I Was Sleeping' (translated from Spanish), by Antonio Machado (about Antonio Machado)

Growing up in the Netherlands, and reading relatively much since young, I encountered the folk figure “Broer Konijn”, Dutch translation of “Br’er Rabbit”. This was in a comic series ‘Donald Duck’, from Walt Disney, sold in several stores (Dutch-language version) . I read this quite regularly, I remember, from between my 5th and 10th age.

I recall I always seemed to partly get the illustrated stories of different figures in that “Donald Duck” comic weekly. I found it overall entertaining, but with some stories even more intriguing, while not always getting all symbolic or contextual nuances, at that young age. The fictional town in the magazine was called “Duckstad” in Dutch, “Duck town”, with nonetheless heavy car traffic: humanized ducks behind the wheels. I did not always get main intentions of centralized figures, in these Disney comic strips: Mickey Mouse, the seemingly more socially clumsy Donald Duck, both with female version of the same animal. Then, there was a big rabbit walking with a bag-on-stick on his shoulder, doing something among other people (or animals, better said): Broer Konijn (Brother Rabbit).

Having done some studying since then I found out the historical and cultural context of Brother Rabbit or Br’er Rabbit. It is a figure in folk stories in the US South, originated among African Americans, with African origins. The rabbit or “hare” is in those stories mostly a trickster figure, outsmarting competing animals. This historical folk figure was in time more or less incorporated by the Disney company.

ANANSI

Relatedly, I found out about traditional Anansi (or: Anancy) tales in the Caribbean, also of African origin, with the spider being here the protagonist trickster animal. These are usually stories to tell children. The difference in animal stems from the different parts of Africa the stories originate from, related to where slaves ending up in the West came from. Anansi, the trickster spider comes from the Ghana region, whereas the hare (or rabbit) as trickster is more found in Central Africa (Congo) and Southern Africa. In certain parts of the US South there came indeed quite some slaves from the Congo region. The Anansi stories are found in mainly Jamaica, Suriname, and Curaçao, with relatively higher percentages of slaves from the Ghana region.

Having learned more in time, some aspects of it still puzzle me a bit. I guess you can say: left me with mixed (positive and negative) feelings. First of all: why should animals be tricksters?: animals tend to be straight-forward: they just want to eat, play, and rest. I kind of like that about them. Perhaps they need to invent tricks to get the food? I don’t know.. It is understandably related to the past of slavery; some slaves needed to be a trickster to outsmart the oppression and the master during slavery.

Anyway, being a trickster suggests a mental craftiness or “wickedness” not really characteristic of animals, as Haile Selassie I , Emperor of Ethiopia, once said: “It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.”

Another “humanizing” aspect of the Brer Rabbit stories is the addition of Brer, from Brother. This could be a linguistic trait, but just as well a cultural one. Maybe in societies more in balance with nature and animals – such as in Africa historically, animals are earlier seen as “family” in some sense: a related and biologically connected being, a brother or sister.

Indeed, in many Reggae lyrics (from Jamaica) –and in the Jamaican Creole language in general – “Brother” (as Bredda) is often placed before animals, also outside of animal-based folk stories like Anansi. There are several examples in Reggae, but one is in the Israel Vibration song Vultures, using animals in interesting symbolic metaphors. One must know, though, that the word “bredda” is often also used among Jamaicans in the broader meaning of “friend” or “mate”. But still..

This all came to influence me, as I at times – mostly half-joking – now for some years refer to animals as such, adding Brother, Bredda (or the Dutch “Broer”) to the animal, as in: ”bredda bee on my book”, or “bredda cat (not my own) in my garden”, as happened sometimes when stray cats visited several home gardens in a row.

There is gender issue, so at time I thought: or Sista Bee, Bredda or Sista Bird?

BEES

Recently I paid more attention to the bee, loving in fact that breddas (or sistas?) bee sensed a free haven in my semi-wild garden.

The bee is after all endangered, and therefore we are endangered. That consciousness has begun to grow in recent times, as the importance of bees for pollination of fruits, plants, and vegetables is emphasized. Without the bees, our diet would have to change for 80%.. if we survive at all. If bees would truly disappear, the birds would be the first to follow in extinction, part of a general decline of our natural environment.

It is a cause for worry. Likewise it is simply part of the gradual man-made environmental destruction taking place since agriculture and industrialization.

QUEEN OF THE SUN

I knew this more or less: the threatened bees and its consequences for the natural world and human kind. I must admit, though, that this knowledge remained mostly quite superficial. A documentary I saw recently (the 23rd of May, 2018), 'Queen Of The Sun : what are the bees telling us?' (from 2009 already), dedicated to the threatened bee, therefore turned out to be quite informative for me. The kind of documentary that answers questions I wanted to be answered, without me being even aware that I had these questions.

A beekeeper working for a organic food store cooperation, Odin, in the Netherlands introduced the documentary film, and told about his beekeeping, and answered questions.

HONEY?

While there are objections from vegan activists and environmentalists regarding beekeeping for honey extraction and sale – after all disturbing the bees’ natural order, especially when the honey is not expensive – this beekeeper said honey profits were not his end goal, but rather bee preservation.

I have some vegan people in my circle, and I heard them say that the only way honey could not disturb the bees is when it was very pricey, as not to impact bee activities too much. Usually, however, the need for cheaper honey is such, that honey is taken away, replaced with sugar water for bees to consume, thereby disturbing more the natural order.

Though I thought I felt a “vegan vibe” among some of the people present to see the film (as often surrounding “organic food stores”), this honey production problematic was not touched so much in the said documentary Queen Of The Sun, but rather the general decline of and threat to the bee population, due to broader agricultural and economic developments, especially in the Western world.

MONOCULTURE AGRICULTURE

The focus of the documentary was on the US, but broadened occasionally to the global situation. One main interviewee was a German activist farmer who went to live in the US, also to stimulate better bee environments (wilder vegetation, certain plants, variation), as part of general farming. This instead of the dominant large scale “mono-culture”, with only one type of crop, tree or plant. They gave the example of almond monocultures in California: bees don’t thrive there, because there is only one type of tree, no variation. As a consequence, they starve out, and become endangered. The German farmer in turn included a special bee haven part with varied, natural vegetation to have a good environment for bees, so necessary for the pollination of whatever crops grows on the rest of that farmland.

In the case of the Californian mass almond monoculture, bees are massively flown in from the entire US and even abroad – to pollinate the almond trees. Figures are staggering: something like 70% of all bees in the US are transported to there for almond production! A mass industrial operation. After that they disappear. Hardly a natural order, and of course disturbing.

Several beekeepers – some inevitably a bit too self-congratulatory – in different countries, US, France, New Zealand, Britain, Italy, talked about their activities with and/or for bees.

VARROA MITE

Also adding to bee disappearance is the issue of the varroa mite, an external parasitic mite that specializes in bees, using bees to reproduce. This parasitic mite has infested and diminished bee populations over time. Once only found in Asian bees, it spread to other bees when Asian bees were introduced on other continents – human interference with nature again! – causing problems.

One argument in the documentary was that this problem was confronted by the industries with chemical pesticide measures, hoping to get rid of the varroa mite. In the documentary was explained – however – that instead the varroa mite became resistant to the “miticide” chemicals, becoming even more resilient in the process. Again, letting nature follow its course: letting the bee endure and over time fight off the mite organically, would be more beneficial for the bees themselves, in the long run. The man-made chemicals only made it worse.

DRONES

I learned more things, such as regarding bee biology. I thought that the honey bees were male, while the leading, large queen bee was their leader. It turns out that those worker bees are females, as also the beekeepers in the film referred to them. So Bredda AND Sista bee, I should call them. In fact, the leading queen bee goes out the hive on “mating trips”, to mate with several male drones. These are the male bees. She is certainly polygamous, and thus collects sperm of several drones for laying eggs of new male and female bees. I did not know that in English these sperm-delivering male bees are called “drones”. This gives me a strange feeling about the other airplane-camera-like things, called after all “drones” too. The bee drones’ function is anyway to mate and fertilize. This is what I mean with nature being straight-forward, haha.

Come to think of it, another use of the word “drone” I encountered is as musical one, as sustained sound or note. This goes back to an older linguistic, Germanic and English word meaning “to hum”. The airplane called drone is however named after the male bees (also just for the humming sound.. or so they say).

Most sources seem to separate this fertilizing/mating function from actually “working” as the female bees (outside the queen bee) do. Some may be of the opinion that it is work too. The queen bee tends to test the skill of the drones, anyway, during mating, such as by flying higher, thus selecting the best seed. So, it’s not all fun, haha (I am joking, sorry).

Maybe some humans get sexually aroused by this whole imagery, who knows, haha, but this is not my intention.

Further, in one of the featured cities, New York, there was a female beekeeper active, on a rooftop, pointing out that beekeeping was then (before 2009) outlawed in New York city. This prohibition was however lifted after protests. In London, also a “rooftop beekeeper” was interviewed.

Content-wise, this was more or less the core of the Queen of the Sun documentary, one that I would certainly recommend.

Q & A

Almost equally interesting, though, was the Q and A afterward with the Dutch beekeeper, who was not from Amsterdam, having his bees in another part of the Netherlands (near Tiel).

He worked for organic food tore cooperation Odin, having shops all over the Netherlands, though certainly less than well-known EkoPlaza, for instance: its biggest competitor store in the Netherlands.

He had some interesting things to tell, giving also useful tips and advice for those wanting to help bees even while in the city Amsterdam, such as by adding certain flora attracting bees to balconies and gardens. He pointed at the extreme natural sensibility of the bees, affected for instance even by explosions on the sun – far from the earth -, triggering their migrations.

The same sensibility applies to the human presence, notably the mobile phones and signals this involves, also crossing nature. This affects bees negatively, reason why the beekeeper keeps the mobile phone off or away from the place where he keeps the bee. These rays of mobile phone communication, by the way, has been proven to affect all nature and beings – not just bees -, including humans, to differing degrees negatively.

He also elaborated on the difficulty in outlawing internationally the chemical means – miticide - to fight the said parasitic varroa mite. This is hindered by certain powerful states (China, US) and big companies, with vested economic interests in either the chemicals or certain crops or honey. Sad and enraging, in some sense.

MENTALITY

In introducing the documentary, the beekeeper – while highlighting the indeed beautiful poem opening the documentary, by Antonio Machado (actually part of a larger poem) – he also pointed out that one of the points made in it, such as by the said German farmer in the US, that a “change of mentality” toward the bees and nature among humans is what is ultimately most important.

Our relationship with animals and the natural environment is what is the issue, here. How to stop further environmental destruction. One might argue that in the Western, industrialized world, the balance with nature has been long lost, gradually since agricultural and industrial expansion, diminished forests and variation in ecosystems, all affecting negatively the bees, being so crucial in our food chain. The mentioned Brother Anancy/Anansi, or Br’er Rabbit stories, from Afro-American folk culture in that sense seem to point at a more balanced state between man and nature once in Africa, attributing after all kinship to animals, especially by adding “brother”. Animal stories are historically also found in other cultures, such as Europe and Asia, of course, often likewise “humanizing” animals.

FROM QUASHIE AND ANANCY TO RASTAFARI

The “trickster”, cunning figure of the Anancy spider is viewed more critically also within the same culture, such as among the Rastafari adherents in Jamaica.

This is described in the interesting 1998 article: ‘The epistemological significance of ”I-an-I” as a response to Quashie and Anancyism in Jamaican culture’, by Adrian Anthony McFarlane. This article was part of the academic collective volume ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (Temple University press, 1998), wherein several authors discuss different historical and cultural aspects of the Rastafari movement, that first arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. The Rastafari movement originated among poor Black people, and has a pro-Africa focus, a theological and spiritual nucleus in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, further combined with a certain “nature-based” practical and spiritual world view, distancing itself thus from the Western system, enslaving them in the first place.

Aiming at emancipation and redemption through Africa, a righteous living, and a moral stance, many Rastas began to object against the Anancy “role model” within Jamaica, known for confusion and cunning. While this tries to escape the system, it neither is a clear, majestic moral stance against this Western, oppressive “Babylon” system, as Rastas call it. They prefer – animal-wise – the majestic African lion as a more moral and prouder model, rather than the trickster spider.

The trickster as hero in addition meets also objections among Rastas because the inherent divisiveness. Their trickery and fooling does not stop with actual powerful oppressors (White and Black, including the sell-out Quashies), but causes also internal strive. As also heard in many Reggae lyrics by Rastas, the “false” or “fake” Rastas within the Rastafari movement (often similarly wearing long dreadlocks), are a persistent problem, being not only too ignorant, but often even intruders with evil, selfish intentions against the Rastafari goals, from within.

I AND I

The Rasta expression “I and I”, listeners of Reggae hear this expression a lot, relates to their world view. It is a type of heightened consciousness beyond the trickery of Anancysim, or even more beyond what came before it, the “Quashie” figure in Jamaican folk stories, having lost its African, human soul in the West, and being a mere puppet. This is the line of argumentation in McFarlane’s said article: rising from Quashie, through Anancy, to the Rastafari’s I and I, and eventually heightened consciousness and pride.

This I-an-I philosophy among the Rastafari is actually relevant for this post. The I relates to other I’s (beings), pointing at a communal world view, between all humans, but also other living beings in nature. It is in that sense also an expressed preference of balance with nature, flora and fauna. Including of course the bees, having a crucial pollinating role. This also concerns the fruits, and other natural, vegetable foods from the earth the strictest of Rastas have as diet. Vegetarian and vegan, but really a step beyond it, many Rastas prefer also unprocessed, natural food, called Ital food. The bees are crucial in this, and relatively undisturbed contribute to it.

Rastafari principles and the earlier Rastafari example, I therefore argue, simply help provide directions for a change of mentality beneficial for bee survival, the documentary Queens of the Sun called for, in response to the increased awareness and deploration – also in the Western world - of the threatened bees as part of general environmental destruction.

SYMBOLS?

Since we are dealing with symbols now, one could discern certain symbolism in the documentary Queens of the Sun too, in relation to all I said till now. The already discussed varroa mite belongs to the family of spiders (like Anansi/Anancy!). This inevitable parasitic mite is something the bee has to endure to prosper. Just like Rastas want to move beyond Anancyism. At the very least an interesting symbolic parallel.

Also suggested in the documentary is how certain wasps seem to give bees a bad name, by somehow being among them – looking a bit like them – but with more aggressive, negative behavior among them, and toward humans or other creatures. These can be somehow compared to the mentioned “false Rastas” as wolves in sheep clothing, for bad intentions (jealousy, own gain etc.).

On the other hand, in my experience - getting more of that since I am getting older of course - one must be cautious with “symbolism”: it can seem in your favour, but also later turn against you. This applies to all linguistic issues (as symbols are), after all manipulable and corruptible by self-interested humans.

The truth remains the same, however, and that – unpleasant - truth is that in this time the bees are as a species endangered, threatening humans and the environment.

The documentary Queens of the Sun explained this well and quite factual/educational and convincing, already in 2009. It also increased recently my knowledge of certain aspects, having seen it not long ago.

woensdag 2 mei 2018

Motown (and the Jamaican one?)

Of course I have heard early on about Motown, and gotten some general knowledge about it. Since I was a child I was interested in music; in various genres. I recall how Stevie Wonder songs were one of the first works in “Black music” I got to like. We are talking about the late 1970s, growing up in the Netherlands. By 1984 I really started getting more into Reggae, a Jamaican genre, starting with artists like Bob Marley, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, or Peter Tosh. My musical interests remained quite broad though, even seeking background information about artists, genres etcetera. Maybe this seeking more information differed according to whether I liked a song or style more or less – I am only human - , though I always tried to keep an open mind. I find some joy too in comparing musical genres and cultures, across the globe.

Be that as it may: Motown was known widely as a Black American “Soul” label and record company, and therefore somehow associated – or related - with genres I became fan of (Reggae), or of which some songs I liked (could be funk, soul, R&B). I learned about the name Berry Gordy as Motown’s founder, and that the record company was based in Detroit. Some artists associated with the label I heard of - or from - too: Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder..

Beyond that, to be honest, my knowledge about Motown as a company never became overly extensive or detailed. For that reason, it was perhaps good and fulfilling that I read recently a book about it: to get to learn more about the history of Motown. It is a work titled ‘Motown : music, money, sex, and power’ (Random House, 2002), written by Gerald Posner. It was published in 2002, and with over 300 pages “medium-voluminous”, I would say.

Its somewhat sensationalistic, almost “cliché” subtitle did not appeal to me so much. After all: so much is “money, sex, and power” in this world. Often combined and (thus) not always rendering pleasant or equal environments. From loveless marriages, to big capitalist companies, or histories of colonialism and exploitation. Also, for instance, slavery in the Americas was besides about exploitation (money), power (and its abuse), also about sex, as many slave owners and overseers were free to sexually abuse and rape their female slaves, and did so on a daily basis. On occasion female slaves gave in only hoping to get some perks out of the forced intimacy by the white man. Money, sex, and power, allright..

So, in my opinion, the subtitle was not particularly promising, but it must be said: the 2002 book by Gerald Posner turned out to be a good read, and informative to me. I found it to be well-written and engaging from the start. In the remainder of this post follows a review of the book, as well as some comparative analyses.

BERRY GORDY

Almost inevitably, the story of Motown is also a semi-biography of its founder Berry Gordy, who started it in 1959. I knew not much about him, but heard somewhere he was family-focussed, strict, organized, and discipline-minded as Motown’s president. That might be functional, but sounds at the same time rigid and conservative to me. And, well, boring and unimaginative, especially for the music industry derived from a creative spirit.

In the first part of Posner’s book, however, about a young Gordy before Motown, it became clear that there was more to Berry Gordy. This concerns especially his trajectory. His family was quite tight, disciplined, and work-focussed, yet for a while the youth Berry Gordy got known as the “lazy bum” among his siblings, living off others, and avoiding jobs and work. His parents tried at times in vain to arrange some more steady jobs for him. In time, Berry Gordy “got to know the streets”, so to speak, and caught the habit of gambling in dubious areas and locales. In part he lived a life close to, or even in, crime. At one point he had a few prostitutes working for him, making him effectively a pimp. He wanted to stop that, though, and changed his ways toward an own business, aided by his tight and supportive family..

His interest in music, and artists like Jackie Wilson he met at a club where he worked, put him on the music industry path, including useful connections. He wrote songs that became hits. That made him money to start producing and in time the recording company that would become known as Motown.

His sisters and brothers would achieve important functions in it, under Berry Gordy.

That focus on Gordy remained throughout the rest of the book. In many instances it even seems mainly written from Gordy’s perspective, although Posner as author stays quite objective.

I guess it is undeniable that Gordy as a person – but with his family - is dominant in Motown, at least as a company. That is the main focus: the Motown company and its profits. The creative process of hired songwriters, weekly meetings discussing songs to record or release, and whether songs became hits, receives a lot of attention in this book. Also, how the company was run by Gordy.

DISCIPLINED AND ORGANIZED

That was the thing with Motown: it was very disciplined and organized, just like “regular” companies, so to speak. The famed Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriter trio were paid to deliver songs to artist Gordy wanted to be promoted.

Songs with hit potential, and aimed toward a “pop appeal”. Definitely a commercial choice, although the music was largely based on Black, African American traditions (soul, with Gospel influences a.o.). This music was “watered down” as Gordy aimed to reach a White audience too, besides a Black one. This made commercial sense. It was also part of his life view, though. He hired several White people at some crucial posts in the Motown corporation, also helping this cross-over.

The first million-selling hit for Motown – early in its existence – was Shop Around (1960) by the Miracles (including Smokey Robinson).

The bulk of the book is thus about Gordy’s perspective. It is to writer Gerald Posner’s credit, though, that he still keeps this engaging throughout. His dealings with some artists and groups in promoting them, from his long-time friend Smokey Robinson, to later connections with the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes with Diana Ross. The latter, Ross, gets quite a lot of attention in this book, also because Gordy was supposedly in love with her. Diana Ross, though, does not always come off well in this book. Not so much her artistic qualities, as her “diva”-like arrogance. This was quoted from other artists at Motown, though they also felt sidelined by her. Her on/off affair with Gordy made her also more important for Motown, besides her popularity and hits as part - and lead singer - of the Supremes. The Supremes would have several big hits.

Gordy being the main focus, others become also “extras”, and passing “supportive roles” in the way this book is told. The singer Marvin Gaye is also quite present in the book, as a somewhat looser one in the tighter Motown setting, smoking early on also regularly marijuana for instance, that was not appreciated so much at the disciplined Motown.

TOO FLAT

A point of critique I can give is that some of these non-Berry Gordy characters remain too “flat”, sometimes hardly mentioned. Whereas popular “hit makers” as the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and some others, are recurringly mentioned, lesser known artists or musicians are rarely mentioned. “Songs were recorded”, is often said in the book, often mentioning who wrote the song (Holland-Dozier-Holland), or who produced it. What musicians he used, how he found them, how regular they were? Those questions remain unanswered. At least in this book: elsewhere I understood that Gordy gathered top musicians from the local Jazz and Blues scenes in Detroit in 1959, to help him record the songs. These group of musicians – calling themselves the Funk Brothers – were talented, but remained relatively little known, or little acknowledged . They helped make the Motown sound. This book however does not mention them much.

Unfortunately, this entire musical creative process is simply not the focus of Posner’s book, that focuses on Gordy’s general hope for “commercial hits” that a wide public liked. It is in that sense more from a business than from a musicians’ perspective.

Okay, but even the general artistic choices for songs put out for the market get too little attention, in my opinion. “Motown Soul” was known as smoother and more polished – “poppier” than more “rough-edged”, or “Blacker” Soul or R&B (or upcoming Funk) in the US. In what musical ways, I ask myself then? That is perhaps the musician in me, and shows my personal fields of interest. I am a percussionist, and I note the extensive use of the tambourine, generally on the “off-beat”, as part of the Motown sound. A bit too much tambourine, and too little other percussion (e.g. more conga’s, scrapers, or bells), at least in my opinion..

As I said, that’s the percussionist in me, and is a side path to the focus of the book, at least a detail, however crucial. Gerald Posner discusses Motown more in broad lines “as a company”, and still mentions successful hit songs and artists, meetings evaluating songs, with a “creative team” at Motown, deciding what music to release. This was interesting to me, because I did not know it went in such a structured, company-like way, with formal meetings that were recorded, registered in administrative procedures etcetera. That differs from what I heard about other recording companies, where haphazard and chaotic “personal whims” seemed more decisive in what got recorded or released for the market.

SEX

Gordy’s various intimate relationships with women, some he worked with or worked for him, get quite some attention, as do such relations between other artists at Motown. Especially his crush on Diana Ross gets much attention. Interestingly, even this becomes at the end secondary to Motown as company, pointing at a discipline. This books makes that company focus of Gordy clear, showing how this “drive” outweighs other personal and intimate relationships. A mostly commercial drive, but with cultural aspects, at least. Comparably, though even more interesting, also the famous painter Pablo Picasso tended to make personal relationships (intimate/romantic, friends etcetera) secondary to his “art”. The difference is that Picasso was the creative artist himself, whereas Gordy facilitated and organized it only, allowing for himself a, say, “colder”, materialistic distance.

MONEY

As part of this, also financial and payment issues get relatively much attention in this work. Artists complained about not getting their financial due, or too little, within the company’s framework. Royalty percentages were for instance lower than in other companies, causing dissatisfaction. An income was however secured (unlike elsewhere, where one-time payments for artists were the norm), but for some too low.

Again, the fact the Gerald Posner knows how to describe Gordy’s financial considerations in an entertaining manner, shows he knows how to write. His writing style is in that sense dynamic and engaging.

Financial issues tend not to interest me so much, even if inevitable in the system we live in, and the focus of Posner on it in this book almost puts me off. Luckily, Posner knows how to tell a story dynamically and engagingly, thus maintaining enough of my attention.

OFFICE POLITICS

The same applies to another phenomenon I personally find unpleasant and prefer to avoid: office politics. Power games at the workplace or the office: from sucking up to the boss, using connections to that boss to demean and “put in place” – according to them - uppity lower colleagues. Brrr.. This in my experience often comes down to bullying, and even structural, fascist-like mental abuse.

Motown was a company of a close family and friends, for a part at least, diminishing too much of such negative excesses. There are still some harsh confrontations and humiliating actions described as part of work processes – office politics -, in this book. Again, Posner keeps this dynamic and proportionate, so that the book remains a good read. Not a great read, but at least a good one.

LATER PERIOD

The later part of the book deals with the slow demise of Motown. Gordy moving the operations to Los Angeles in 1971 was sudden and unwelcome for several workers, musicians, and artists and Motown, though several of them followed him. There were some ups and downs since then, yet it was, as Posner quotes, “the beginning of the end” for Motown. In time Gordy wanted to expand Motown’s activities with movies/films, only partly successful. His passionate yet troubled relationship with ex-Supreme Diana Ross continued meanwhile in California, and elsewhere, after 1971. Posner continues to pay much attention to the Gordy-Ross relationship.

Some new artists joined the label that became quite successful, notably the Jackson 5 and the Commodores, resulting in world famous artists Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. These were commercial highpoints in an otherwise decaying company, of which the peak period was more and more in the past. That is the main line of reasoning of Posner in the final part of this book.

Gordy seems by then also to have lost in part interest in Motown as music company, and obtained new hobbies notably the film industry. He remained a distant boss, but hired new presidents. These include Ewart Abner, president of Motown since 1973 up to 1975. Abner was an unsuccessful president, at least according to this book. He was relatively more pro-Black and race-conscious than Gordy and others in the company, and objected to the many white people at important positions in Motown: the number of whites had even increased when Motown went to Los Angeles after 1971. The racial “purging” he attempted was seen as problematic, and some called him even a “racist” toward white people, despite a diplomatic image he upheld of having friendly relations with whites. Besides this racial stance, Abner was also an alcoholic, making his leadership ineffective and inefficient.

Like Diana Ross, Ewart Abner does not exactly come off well in this book, at least according to the opinions stated in this book. Another president for a period, the white man of Italian (Sicilian) heritage Barney Ales, did not too well either, though economically and financially more effective and efficient, people described him as only self-interested and a money shark..

Despite these organizational issues, some of the early Motown artists also are discussed in the last part of the book. The commonly held stereotype that drugs – notably cocaine – was and is rife among artists and musicians seems unfortunately confirmed. Marvin Gaye began using coke more and more, making him unstable and problematic. Even Smokey Robinson – known as a clean and healthy example at Motown – got for a period hooked on it. Gaye lost all his money, and in fact got a large debt, and lived the final months of his life with his parents, continuing his wild, cocaine-based life nonetheless. A fight with his also unstable and alcoholic father, as may be known, cost Marvin Gaye his life: his own father shot him with a gun, supposedly after Marvin hit his father, as the fight got out of hand.. This was in 1984.

So for some instances at the end of Posner’s book, other people than Gordy are treated with more detail, but by then Gordy was less interested in the company, had less of his heart in it. The success of some new artists, e.g. Lionel Richie, The Jacksons, and Rick James, gave some temporary respite, as did some hits by those longer associated with Motown, such as Stevie Wonder.

Some nostalgic concerts looking back at Motown were also well-received. The peak period was however largely over, and Gordy agreed finally to sell what remained of Motown to PolyGram in the 1990s. This book ends in 2002, but today Motown does still exist, only as part of the Universal Music Group, into which PolyGram and Motown were absorbed, albeit still as separate entity. No longer independent, though.

CONCLUSION

Though the attention changes a bit in the final parts of Posner’s book, Berry Gordy remained the main personality described in this story of Motown. Fair enough, since Gordy started it all and remained influential throughout. It is, in my opinion, too much from his perspective too, however. I find it furthermore hard to tell whether the author Gerald Posner has an own bias or agenda, as he is relatively mild about Gordy, but presents a largely negative image of Diana Ross, albeit via others, as well as of some other artists. Some of these felt short-changed and robbed of their rightful money. Posner presents this as neutral, though repeatedly adds a tone of irritation with this: as Gordy would have had. Emphasizing drug or alcohol habits – resulting in some of these artists’ early deaths – is also a bit dubious, even if true. This because also these artists remain flat characters, and the real reasons for their problems are ignored. Maybe they were really duped, who knows. A bit more distance from Gordy’s interests taken by Posner – especially as some artist had lawsuits against him for money - would be better.

Also some other “secondary characters” or “extras” in the book, such as Ewart Abner, do not come off well. Admittedly, Abner died years before this book appeared, but Diana Ross was still well alive, and the author could have asked her about her side of the story. That would make the book more balanced, and journalistically correct, in my opinion.

In conclusion, I found the book engagingly written and it turned out to be in part insightful to me. I learned things I did not know before. It was indeed about “power, sex, and music” as its subtitle suggests. Posner is better in “broad strokes” than in detail or even interesting anecdotes. This book is , however, entertaining and dynamic to read.

A main critique I nonetheless maintain about it, is that the book was too much about money and how to run a company financially, and too little about musical creativity as such. The songwriting, musicians, and recording are only mentioned in general terms..in their function of making money. Though Posner paints a sympathetic portrayal of Gordy, the “money shark” in Gordy did not always make him come over as pleasant in some instances in this book. Sometimes even as cruelly selfish. Kind of uneven – and slightly hypocritical - in relation to the critique and ridicule of Diana Ross for having a big ego, a lavish lifestyle, and big money-spending habits.

So, a recommendable book to read in and by itself, but for a more balanced view from different perspectives one should look elsewhere. Also, those interested in the process of creating and making music – as myself - should look elsewhere. It’s indeed more about “money, sex, and power” (the company), “office politics” and such, than about music as cultural or artistic phenomenon. That is a pity. Only the superficial fact that songs became “big hits” gets enough attention.

JAMAICAN MOTOWN

I am more a Reggae fan. I appreciate (songs by) some artists who recorded for Motown, notably Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, along with a few others, but found the “Motown sound” overall a bit too poppy and polished to my taste. I liked the call-and-response vocals that characterized that sound, though: a beautiful African retention in a Soul context. Also, the musicians of the house band up to 1971 – the Funk Brothers – had some nice flourishes here and there..

Reggae I like much more though, since my teens already. I soon found out, however, that an important early music label in Jamaica since the 1950s, Studio One, was called “the Jamaican Motown”. Its founder – Clement “Coxsone” Dodd: the first black record company owner in Jamaica – is even compared by some to Berry Gordy, regarding his role in Jamaican music.

Studio One was indeed crucial in Jamaican music, also in genres preceding Reggae (that developed around 1968), such as Ska (appearing around 1959) and Rocksteady (developed around 1966). It helped develop the Jamaican music industry, but also genres.

Motown in the US also helped develop the career of several in time well-known and successful Black US artists, just like in Jamaica many artists – including “big reggae names” like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Bob Andy, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott, Lee Perry, and many more, started at Studio One.

GOOD COMPARISON?

Having read the book on Motown, I would like to dedicate the final part of this post/essay to analyse whether this comparison in fact makes sense, according to my knowledge of both Motown and Studio One. Is Studio One really “the Jamaican Motown”, or is it merely a figure of speech?

I know quite something about Jamaica’s Studio One by now, from several works. Now I know more about Motown. I conclude that there are similarities, but also crucial differences.

The parallel that many local artists started their career there is certainly there. Historically, there is also a parallel. Studio One was founded in 1954, but started having an own recording studio in 1963. Motown started in 1959. Both labels “peaked” in the 1960s, so to speak, and ended (more or less) since the 1980s (very roughly speaking)..

Motown was an actual company with separate formal departments and administrative structures. Studio One was, on the other hand, simply said, the person Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. That is in some way funny, but also unfortunate. It had no accounting department for instance, or a marketing department. It was all much more informal than that. Musicians and artists were very busy recording at and pressing records through Studio One though, all throughout the week and during whole workdays. Much music was released, and work has certainly been done. Just like at Motown.

Lacking such formal structures, the weekly, Friday meetings about what songs to put out, at Motown, seems a far cry from the ways in Studio One. Some musicians, songwriters, artists/singers themselves, or Dodd, might expect or have the hunch that certain songs that were being recorded might do well and become hits “in the dancehalls”, but this was never formalized in meetings. No “marketing” professionals or staff were involved. Often their feelings were justified as Studio One put out many successful songs.

This shows how Dodd had gathered some good, talented musicians, songwriters, and singers around him, and had a good “ear” for what is a good song or a potential hit. Dodd could not even play an instrument himself, which makes it even more special. Some instrumentalists joked that he (Dodd) did not even notice when a guitar clearly needed tuning. Dodd had a good “ear” for recognizing good songs and hits, though, being a thing he had in common with Berry Gordy, as well as his capability to gather talented musicians around him and useful recording equipment. As a former sound system (mobile discotheque) owner, Coxsone Dood also was well in touch with the local public tastes, increasing Studio One’s commercial successes. This also applied in a way to Gordy.

The Jamaican music industry was, and still is, however different from the one in the US. There is a more direct connection with popular taste and the public through the said Sound Systems and the public dancehalls. New releases were often immediately tested there for an audience. In the US, songs were released for an abstract “market” with a monetary aim. Also by Motown. The audience and public had their say therefore at the end of the product in the US, while in Jamaica more in early stages. This audience reception at dancehalls then helped shape and direct artistic and recording choices at Studio One.

This is an interesting, and actually more “democratic”, aspect of the Jamaican music industry. A good song is a good song, but a good and balanced - earlier - connection with the actual public is also necessary or at least more “real”. It avoids at least in part that big companies try to shape or manipulate our tastes. This has become of course a common, and degenerated, aspect of capitalism in Western societies, affecting all products, including cultural ones.

Despite these positive points, Coxsone Dodd also had some conflicts with artists. Like in Gordy’s case it related to money. Many artists felt they were underpaid or robbed of royalties for their work and music by Coxsone. Most artists at Studio One came from poor, ghetto backgrounds, and were initially not even knowledgeable about such rights. Some objected against Coxsone Dodd, or recurringly asked Dodd for more money or a better deal, hoping to eventually get out of the cycle of poverty of ghetto living.

Several Jamaican artists complained about how hard it was to simply approach Dodd, as he always had some “tough guys” around him, guarding him. Dodd thus seemed not to be generous financially, comparable to Berry Gordy in that sense. Again, Gordy faced several lawsuits by his former artists, in Jamaica it went more informally: some Jamaican artists once at Studio One at the end simply left disgruntled, or acquired means to start their own recording company..

So, there seem to be similarities as well as differences, between Motown and Studio One, and their founders Berry Gordy and Coxsone Dodd, but either way: they were definitely both musically influential, in their respective genres (Soul for Motown, Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae for Studio One), in their national contexts, but eventually also internationally. This accomplishment is perhaps the main similarity..