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..

maandag 2 april 2018

International parallels in (de)centralization: Spain, Ethiopia, and broader

Recently, this March of 2018, there were municipal elections in the Netherlands, as every 4 years. Also, since a time in the news – at least here in Europe – is the independence movement in Catalonia, now part of Spain, with regional president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, as main spokesperson. This single-sided declaration of independence – or referendum initiative - was apparently illegal constitutionally, and therefore Puigdemont became a wanted and eventually arrested man, by the central Spanish authorities.

Earlier, a bit less known, I gather, there was by the way a call for Scottish independence leading also to a referendum, resulting in a majority voting in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The municipal elections in the Netherlands, meanwhile, showed an increased participation and success of “local”, own political parties, operating apart from the larger national parties.

In Northern Italy, there was also a resurgence of calls for independence , at least by some groups, typically in wealthy regions like Veneto and Lombardia. Likewise, Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of Spain. This of course relates to the independence wish. It is difficult to become independent when you depend on central funds.

CENTRAL OR DECENTRAL

All these, partly unrelated topical issues, share at least that they raise questions about centralization versus decentralization of states. Some states have very centralized governments, others have chosen a more decentralized model, including relative political (decision) autonomy for regions, “nations within nations”, or on a smaller scale, municipalities, or sub-regions.

All this is, as the Rastas call it, part of “politricks”, and can be condemned, or at least mistrusted, as such. Also, local-level government, even with autonomy, tends to be run by the more privileged elites in regions or towns, continuing largely the inequality. Oppression of minority groups also remains part of that, as several political groups show, espousing more autonomy or independence, and having at the same time xenophobic agendas toward local foreigners. Examples? Vlaams Belang in Flandres, Belgium, The Lega Nord in Northern Italy. Also the Brexit movement has – more covert – anti-foreigner overtones.

It is therefore, in my opinion at least, somewhat hard to conclude whether a more or less centralized state – or organization for that matter - is good or bad. It is not that simple. Decentralization seems to suggest democratization, as it promises more say for the citizens over their direct environment, which can be seen as a human and civil right. That is: extending voting and political participation: not just for a distant central government, but also at the local level.

SPAIN

Spain’s situation is for European standards a bit problematic, because the current Catalonian issue was historically preceded by a movement for independence in the Basque country – elsewhere in Northern Spain - , now apparently satisfied with an increased degree of regional autonomy. Some other parts of Spain, such as Galicia, also knew such movements, with differing levels of support.

Spain became after the Franco dictatorship (ending in 1975), and perhaps because of that highly centralized Right-wing dictatorship up to 1975, since 1977, a federal state of sorts, divided in 17 “autonomous regions”, with differing degrees of autonomy. This depends on ethnic claims of belonging to a distinct historical nation. These claims are made by several groups within Spain: the Basques, the Catalans, and Galicians, all having own languages, cultural traditions, and partly own histories. Politicized these became “national identities”. These were however not histories “as independent from Spain” at some point conquered by the big power that is Spain, as some might wrongly assume..

In fact, from Spain’s early development as a state in the 8th c. AD, Basques, Galicians, and Catalans, formed constitutive parts of it, as these peoples joined forces against the Moorish/Islamic rulers that ruled in a large part of Iberia, between the 8th and 15th c.. They joined forces as Christian kingdoms (some aided from what is now France) to “reconquer” Spain and Portugal on the Islamic Moors, from the North. This took some centuries, but eventually, Christian kingdoms risen in the North of Spain, like Asturias and León (and Galicia), Castile, and Aragón and Catalonia, could conquer the rest of Spain. For that reason, the Galician language spread southward and became (with some changes) the still related Portuguese language. Likewise, the Catalan language spread to the Valencian region (where it developed into Valencian, linguistically strongly related to Catalan), and the Balearic islands. The language of the Castilians from around Cantabria, with also Basque influences, spread southward to central and southern parts of Spain.

Spanish writer José Camilo Cela even once said that “the Basques made Castile”, historically. There are quite some Basque loanwords in Castilian, some even commonly used (though not so much as there are Arabic/Moorish ones).

Somewhat ironic, maybe, how early kingdoms forming voluntarily a larger state, eventually resulted in regions wanting to become independent.

ETHIOPIA

This is not that unique to Spain, or even Europe, however. It can be found on other continents as well. Ethiopia in Africa is a good example. Ethiopia was never really colonized by European powers, despite attempts, temporary conquest, or violations by Italy. Fascist Italy under Mussolini could conquer Ethiopia in the 1930s, but only for some years.

Ethiopia’s national borders are thus historically formed by local, indigenous rulers and kingdoms, following local warfare or competition, alliances and such, not unlike some European and Asian countries that never were colonized. Early Ethiopian emperors – when spreading their power geographically - soon came to rule over different surrounding, ethnic groups or “nations”, speaking different languages, with different cultures, and even religions. Several emperors were even of mixed ethnicity themselves. This joining of kingdoms, Christian ones too, is somewhat comparable to Spain’s history, also because it was partly opposed to upcoming and surrounding Islam.

Christianity has a long history in Ethiopia, even longer than in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Early Christian rulers of the Tigray and Amhara people thus “conquered” and combined – or via intermarriage - a Christian-led country together, that luckily escaped European colonialism. To maintain this country, power became centralized, with the predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Amhara people having relatively much influence within Ethiopia’s central government of, later, Addis Ababa. Also the Tigray people in Northern Ethiopia had historically quite some influence, to which early Emperors as Yohannes of Tigray descent attest.

Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, following thus on a long line of related monarchs. This followed after much conflict with competing groups or self-proclaimed heirs. After the necessary power play and warfare, Haile Selassie became, however, the legitimate heir to the throne of Ethiopia in 1930. Haile Selassie was partly of Amhara descent, but also partly of Oromo and Gurage descent, combining thus various ethnicities within him. This is not uncommon among the wider Ethiopian population, by the way. Emperors had to be Orthodox Christian, and also Selassie’s father, Ras Makonnen, was. Selassie’s father, an influential military leader in Ethiopia, was of Oromo descent. The Oromo are numerically the largest of the about 8 main ethnic groups within Ethiopia, and are in majority Muslim. These were however excluded from imperial rule, as Ethiopia defined itself as a Christian state, at least Christian-led.

This history explains the centralized rule, and reasons for it, in Ethiopia. Not just until the latest monarch, Haile Selassie, ruled, but also continuing after 1975, under Mengistu’s communist rule.

AFRICA

In the Dutch-language scholarly work ‘Afrika : van de Koude Oorlog naar de 21e eeuw’(‘Africa : from the Cold War to the 21th century ), published in 2002, and written by Roel van der Veen, the author pays some attention to decentralization by African governments. In this book on modern African history, Van Der Veen discusses of course the legacy of colonialism, and other aspects, resulting in weak or undemocratic, or even “failed” states and economies.

Van Der Veen defines this decentralization as intricately bound with democratization, allowing people to participate politically in their direct environment. Yet, he also points at possible negative outcomes in Africa, as more politicians at local levels also means more corruption or power abuse. He discusses Uganda as an example of decentralization to local government that went “relatively well”, starting under President Museveni since 1986. This was – according to him – not the case elsewhere in Africa. Problematic was also that in colonial times there was a type of “decentralization” in the form of indirect rule through local, traditional rulers, dictated by European colonial rule. This may have been decentral, but hardly “democratic”. Some postcolonial governments therefore sought other, democratizing ways for decentralization. According to Van Der Veen this was however seldom with much success, mostly due to corruption and inequality.

While the book by Roel van der Veen is moderate and quite neutral in tone, and with a healthy amount of nuance, its author allows himself a few “sweeping statements”, it seems. He states that, concluding: “the result of decentralization (in Africa) with regard to improving the living conditions of citizens were overall mediocre”. He also points out, on the other hand, that it helped increased democratization and participation, if only partly.

African countries were mostly divided according to the wishes of Europeans, separating ethno-linguistic groups over different states. This seems to increase both the difficulty and the need for decentralization, as part of effective and democratic rule.

The example of Spain and a few other European countries shows that it also occurs in states formed by the local people itself, “voluntarily”. The elites decided then mostly, of course, but they were local elites.

Ethiopia also was never really colonized, although influenced by European colonialism in its direct surroundings. It has now about 8 main ethno-linguistic groups, comprising a total of many more languages and quite differing ethnic groups. Especially after 1974, several separatist movements arose in different parts of Ethiopia, wishing secession for their ethnicity or nation, including Eritrea (eventually succeeding), but also in bordering Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, among the Oromo in Central and Southern Ethiopia, and among Somali people in the Ogaden dessert border area. Some of these are still active today.

All these felt “separate national identities” within states of course influence decentralization processes.

PRECOLONIAL AFRICA

When talking about Africa as a whole and “central” or “decentral”, the history of Africa before colonialism and Arab and European slavery is also interesting.

In an earlier blog I mentioned how people from the Congo/Angola region was relatively strongly affected by slavery in the period between the 15th and 20th c., being relatively “easy pickings”. That’s why many enslaved Africans ending up in the West came from these regions (Congo, Angola), forcibly brought to North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. There are historic examples of opposition and heroic Angolan kings and queens resisting against the Portuguese and other Europeans, but eventually these Europeans got a stronghold.

One might be tempted to think that a strong centralized state or nation in Africa at that time, would better be able to ward off enslavement of their people by Europeans. After all, centralization supposes power.

Historically, this seems not to be really the case. As collaborators with European enslavers, some of such central states or kingdoms, with powerful rulers, even delivered slaves from other peoples – or even of their own ethnicity – to European traders. Precisely because of that power. The Ashanti kingdom, in present-day Ghana, was for instance powerful , but many slaves from there ended up in the West too.

In what is now Nigeria two main South-Nigerian ethnic groups, the Yoruba and Igbo, both were strongly affected by the slave trade, while the Yoruba and Igbo had at that time already quite different social and political structures: more central and urban in Yorubaland, more decentral and based on villages in Igboland. It seemed to not make much difference in their becoming victim, as both relatively many Yoruba- and Igbo-speaking slaves were brought forcibly to the West.

In the Americas, Yoruba ended up relatively much in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, whereas among the slave population of Barbados, and to a smaller degree Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands, Igbo were quite numerous.

ELSEWHERE

In other continents as Europe and Asia, centralization has showed or still showed its ugly head. Historically one can go back to the Roman Empire, as super-centralized, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitious conquests and Paris-based empire, and certainly the Fascist dictatorships in Italy under Mussolini and the Nazi’s in Germany. Being totalitarian regimes, these limited internal autonomy, but as known also bothered the rest of the world with it.

The current Chinese government also aims at total control over far-away regions and its many citizens, with little space for self-rule or autonomy. The oppression in Tibet, formally a part of China, also shows this.

SPAIN AGAIN

The dictatorship of Franco in Spain (1939-1975) was loosely based on the one earlier by Mussolini in Italy, with some general Fascist traits, but had some differences as well, modeled further on conservative Catholic ideals or simply “the old order” of old, united Spain. It was quite centralized in the capital Madrid. This made Madrid for some regions – perhaps against better knowledge – as the centre of Spain’s Fascistoid Franco rule. Ironically, however, Madrid was one of the last cities to be conquered by Franco’s Right in the preceding Civil War. A bit later than Catalonia too. Franco’s aim was “centralization” of Francoism, not “Madridization” of Spain, as some independentists erroneously present it. Franco himself was not from Madrid, but from Galicia. The Galician language, that he knew how to speak too, was outlawed in his native Galicia. Perhaps also ironic too, though some Spaniards thought that he was secretly less strict in suppressing Galician than other minority languages. One of the ironies of centralization., as well as privileges of being a dictator.

In Spain, therefore, decentralization, and regional autonomy-granting, accompanied the democratization process, necessary in Spain after the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. Longer, historical demands and promises for autonomy of groups like the Basques, Catalans, Galicians and others were fulfilled through not only granting certain regions within Spain autonomy, but by dividing the whole country in 17 autonomous regions, with differing degrees of political autonomy, rendering this way a federal state. Spain now can be considered a federal state.

There is some sense in it, I opine, and differs from Italy, where only certain regions have autonomy, the rest not. The nation-wide federal approach seemed more balanced, if also a potential source for conflict. I see its democratic value, also for culture, but can also imagine scenarios of unnecessary separation or tribalism, at the cost of solidarity.

The way this world is, the separatist conflicts in Spain related more to money than to culture or sensed identity. Not fully, though. Basque and Catalan separatist movements both championed cultural and linguistic differences, and some even, more dubious, genetic reasons. Dubious both morally (a “purer” or “more European” race?), as well as scientifically.

Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is the region within Spain with the highest degree of local autonomy in government. That’s where my objections lie, against the separatist call of some Catalans: they are already privileged. Thinking further: why are they more special than other “ethnic groups” within Spain. There is something like a Catalan identity and culture, with own interesting traits, most present in Catalonia proper, but much less already in Valencia or the Balearic Islands, despite linguistic ties. Interestingly, the Catalan language is strongly related to the Provençal languages in Southern France, where they only remain as dialects, showing also a historical focus and choice for centralization within France, up to the present.

There are, however, other cultures and languages within Spain. When I went to Galicia in NW Spain I noticed that the Galician language was dominantly present even in some bigger towns, heard as least as much as Castilian, often more. Galicia has furthermore an own Celtic-based culture, including bagpipes and harps, as does Asturias. Others, like the Andalusians (with e.g. a distinct, South-Spanish Flamenco culture and Moorish influences), the Aragónese, Murcians, or Canarians, sense but actually also have an own identity and culture.

I agree that regional languages should be used if the speakers of it wish so, also in political affairs, and be thus official, or co-official languages. This by itself good and democratic fact is however already the case for the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages. Beyond that, the “cultural identity” issue is more vague and biased, I find.

My main objection is however the lacking socioeconomic solidarity. Virtually every country has wealthier regions within it, helping thus out poorer, less-developed regions in the same state. Through, well, centralization or centralized rule. Lombardy, Piemonte, and Veneto are examples of wealthy, industrialized Italian regions, in which many find they subsidize the poorer Southern parts of Italy. Not always objecting to it, though. I spoke to several Northern Italians (including my own father) who understood or even appreciated that rich Northern Italy, with wealth levels comparable to countries like Switzerland and Germany, helped out poorer, rural parts of Italy (with wealth levels like Spain or Greece).

This lacking economic solidarity along with ethnic “special statuses”, makes the separatist movement and call of Catalonia less ”Left-wing” or democratic in the broad sense, than what Pavlov reactions to “wanting independence” (from former world power Spain!), might have us assume.

BIGGER PICTURE

Somewhat concluding, I think “bigger picture” is a key term here. Focussing on ruling very local affairs, one might become too short-sighted, and forget the wider world around, dealing just with small, daily or petty issues. Issues that touches one personally or “one’s people” get mainly, almost self-involved attention. That has a place in each human life, of course, but must not impede something like (international/interregional) solidarity with humans farther away from the direct environment, that might be worse off. Or a wider consciousness.

In the Netherlands there were, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, municipal elections in March, 2018. In Dutch law, foreign nationals (especially of EU countries) are allowed to vote, but not for the national elections. Whatever the formulated or public “democracy-enhancing” rationale, it remains skewed in my opinion: foreigners need (read: should) not interfere with national, “bigger” affairs, but can with local affairs, that however stem from national choices. Directly or indirectly. Ultimately national policy directions determine the choice for building a car park in a nature area in some town or municipality.

That is a partial lack of democracy, covered up with “decentralization”, similar to what can be found in certain socialist and other dictatorships (so-called democratic workers’ groups, neighbourhood political committees etcetera).

When I was in Cuba in the period 2001-2006, I heard about, and even noticed the activities of, the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR), translateable as: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Most neighbourhoods I went had one, suggesting local involvement in politics, at the neighbourhood level.

Down the line, I noticed and learned that the “Defence” part of these neighbourhood CDRs consisted mostly of “political snitching”, and also often had corrupt (bribing, favouritism) aspects. One must think of reporting to powerful local forces (police or politicians) about a Cuban woman taking foreigners home, having intimate affairs with them, possibly related to prostitution, Cubans of both genders just befriending foreigners, or buying and selling products from the Black market, listening to foreign news or music etcetera etcetera. The CDR in the neighbourhood could report such people to authorities, thereby helping the Revolution at the neighbourhood level. Or so they say..

Centralization or decentralization: a complicated and contextual issue..