zaterdag 3 maart 2018

Clock Is Babylon?

There is an interesting opening line of a song by Spanish “Flamenco Pop” singer called Chiquetete, a song called Aprende a Soñar (Learn To Dream), saying that ”Let the passing of time be detained only in the sphere of the clock”. I mentioned this lyric in another blog essay of mine, of May 2017 (on Dream meanings, in Reggae). I found that line quite original, even more in a genre (commercialized Flamenco Pop) that often can be a bit cliché and mainstream.


There's more to say about "the clock". Jokingly, I once said – perhaps only “half jokingly” – that the inventor of “the clock” was the world’s first terrorist. Elsewhere (for a lyric of one of my prospective songs) I said: “Clock is Babylon, but Jah Jah is still time”. Babylon as “Western oppressive system” is a term in Rastafari culture that has a negative connotation, and that is how I meant it. Everything about the clock has to do with control, and limiting humanity and naturality.

Still, you might say: it is handy, in order to organize one’s life in modern societies. Yet, the clock serves a “system”, ultimately, rather than humans as such. There is something about it that goes against the “free spirit” in all of us. It is also a detachment from nature. For time-keeping, though, of course man has since early on used the position of the sun, moon, water flows etcetera, as guidelines for daily organization. Water clocks have a particularly long history.


Studying it a bit, one will find that water clocks, wherein water flows were used to measure time, were one of the oldest documented, organizational “time keepers” in human society, with such “water clocks” dating back to ancient China, Babylon, and Egypt, even – according to some – as far back as 4000 BC, to China. Also, the use of sun and shadow has a long history.

Since then, over time , other “inventions” were made, all aimed at time-keeping, and a need for increased precision and accuracy. As societies became more “advanced”, supposedly. The first “mechanical clock” was invented in Europe in the 13th c.

Its significance is described in Wikipedia as such:

The invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the motion of the gnomon's shadow on a sundial or the flow of liquid in a water clock, to periodic oscillatory processes, such as the swing of a pendulum or the vibration of a quartz crystal,[5][64] which had the potential for more accuracy. All modern clocks use oscillation”.

This seemingly factual, scientific description does, however, raise some philosophical questions, in my opinion.

After 1656 yet another increase in accuracy came with the invention of the “pendulum clock”, credited mainly to Dutchman Christiaan Huygens. This invention became influential. The pendulum clock became widely used in Europe for centuries after that.

Increased precision and accuracy – or modernization -, finally, came with more developments and inventions, such as of the electric clock around 1840, and still later quartz and digital clocks.

The 12-hour cycle goes, according to historians, all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, a precursor of the historical Babylon.


The accurate time-keeping through mechanical clocks is thus mainly an European invention. This by itself raises several philosophical questions, somewhat obscured in the modern-day slavery of wage labour in the Western world. The same world wherein spending 40 hours a week for someone else- albeit payed, and in some parts of the world some protective labourers’ rights – is considered normal, or, at most, a necessary evil.

Especially, the lost link to naturality is interesting. For modern-day clocks “oscillation” ( as opposed to continuity) is apparently the name of the game.


This is also relevant to the way I want to approach this issue now: through lyrics in Reggae music. In my blog I focus relatively often on Reggae, but it also is a genre with relatively much “socially conscious” or spiritual lyrics, partly related to its relations to the Black Power movement, Afro-Caribbean history, and the Rastafari movement.


The Rastafari movement is broadly defined, (by Mutabaruka) as a ”Black Power movement with a theological nucleus”, with Marcus Garvey as main philosopher, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as main revered or divine person. This makes their faith centered on the African homeland and Ethiopia, rather than on European historical manipulations of Christianity, imposed on African populations.

There are other aspects of the Rastafari movement too, though. Notably, a specific “natural” lifestyle, mostly referred to as “Livity”. Most Rastafari adherents try to uphold this as much as possible, including through a vegan-based, natural, unprocessed diet, and living in balance with nature. This is a way to stay far from what Rastafari adherenteds (Rastas) call “Babylon”, the corrupting Western economic system, going against original Africanness.

As outlined before, the very invention of the mechanical clock – in Europe! – went against the principles of nature-based time-keeping, used before. A friction or conflict with the natural lifestyle upheld by Rastas seems therefore reasonable to assume.

How is “the clock” mentioned in Reggae lyrics, broadly speaking? In relation to “time” or “life” for instance.. This especially in Rastafari-influenced Reggae lyrics.

Well, having knowledge from decades of being a reggae fan, I became somewhat of an expert, albeit regarding some subgenres a bit more than others.


While in Rock & Roll you have Rock Around The Clock as one of its classics, there are few known reggae songs with it in its title. An exception is Jackie Edwards’ nice Clock On The Wall (1977), which is in fact critical of the Clock as indicator of modern-day slavery in the form of low-wage labour.

More well-known, also from 1977, is Bob Marley & the Wailers fine tune Rebel Music (3 o’clock Roadblock), with clock in the subtitle, also figuring as negative. Now the clock figures as enabler of corrupted state forces or police, suppressing unjustly a natural herb. The clock here is used too, well, to oppress others.

Another song is also quite classic: Mutabaruka’s De System, where –again – the clock, formulated as “the pendulum swings” figures as negative, in this case as indicative of time pressures affecting those in poverty (“What a day when the pendulum swing. What a day when the well run dry..”).

The same Mutabaruka, on the same Check It! album from 1981, opposes (immigrant) Black Jamaican culture to the White English one, by relating in the song “White Man Country”, about that white man country: “hey mate, it’s getting late”.. This is also a more subtle reference to the clock’s terror.

The anecdotical stereotype about Black Caribbean people tending to arrive late (in relation to “clock time”, that is), points also as such a cultural unease. So do the Caribbean variants of the Spanish (likewise anecdotical and sterotypical) “mañana” (tomorrow!) saying of delaying stressful responsibilities, namely the Jamaican current expressions: “Soon Come” (meaning: but not now) and “later will be greater”.


Yet, I wonder: isn’t this unease rather universal? Are there actually cultures which like, love, or revere the clock? Stereotypes about “precise” and stipt Swiss or Germans point at this direction. This seems to be a marker of industrialized countries, to a degree also of Britain, as early industrialized capitalist country.

The country of my maternal roots, Spain, has, as said, a “mañana” culture, as well as a “siesta” pause in the afternoon, as other warm countries. The latter seek to avoid – or rather: subvert - “the clock” from within , playing with it, to one’s own favour.

It is known from Amerindian cultures, but also cultures in Asia and Africa, that social organization was more collective, also time-wise, deciding when gathered together when the “time is ripe” for something. No clock was/is necessary in such an organic process.

Timekeeping is essential in music, but is not the same as the “clock”. While the musical metronome functions like the pendulum, as the first mechanical clocks, its function in rhythmic and continuous, rather than limiting and closing.

The 3 or 4 minute standard length of many pop songs, became often the norm in Black music genres like Soul, Reggae, Funk etcetera too, though with exceptions. This has its advantages, for the listener, but also artistically: the time-frame makes you round off a song or artistic work as a closed piece of art. Traditional music, also in Africa, long did not have such a fixed timing. Many percussive traditional African songs, for instance, lasted as long as “the vibe” was right, or as long as an entire ritual.

This all goes to show that “clock time” went in tandem with (Western) industrialization historically. The same industrialization starting in Britain historically, and financed to a large degree with Britain’s colonial and slavery gains. Indirectly, thus, clock time is “tainted” for the Black – and also poor – people in this world. They then seek ways to escape it, or get around it.

The stereotype about Spaniards, and similar ones about other South Europeans, notably South Italians and Greeks, relates to this too: poor people – the laboring classes - trying to subvert oppressive systems, with often low wages. Spain was up to the 1970s also a Fascistoid, and at the same time “pro-employer” dictatorship, where poor workers had less rights and protection than elsewhere in Europe.

My Spanish mother had to experience this, as she worked (or tried to work) in Franco-ruled, Fascist Spain in her young years in the 1960s, and around 1966 came to the Netherlands, with more agreeable and “democratic” labour conditions and rights. My mother, and some of my aunts who also migrated, described it as such: you were treated by employers and bosses in Spain then as servant or footstool, treated with the same disdain as toward poor street beggars coming a bit too close. Even basic, distant politeness was often absent. Spanish immigrants to the Netherlands therefore even were genuinely surprised when bosses offered them politely a cup of coffee, or when new workers received a bouquet of flowers at their first workday..

In response to such Spanish labour conditions, low-wage Spanish workers (in tourism or elsewhere) came to develop even more strongly a “mañana mañana” (tomorrow, tomorrow) focus, escaping the clock guiding this repressive system.

Also, South Italians, feeling suppressed and treated as a colony by wealthy (and industrialized) North Italy – also historically – have according to many that “Siesta attitude”. Again, historically understandable. As it is in Black Caribbean culture, with the latter having moreover a history of mechanized, dehumanizing chattel slavery of Africans.


Much more reggae songs have the word “Time” in their title, and even more in the lyrics themselves. Time Will Tell, as philosophical and historical reflection. Rocking Time, Time To Unite, Jah Time Has Come, Revelation Time, Time Is The Master and Judgement Time (judgement of wicked oppressors) recur as terms, especially in (Rastafari-inspired) Roots Reggae. Here “time” is deliberately detached from ”the clock”, but seen as broader “continuity” and history. Pointing at the eternal, rather than at limited daily, mundane tasks controlled by the clock.

When I went to Jamaica in 2006 and 2008, I noticed that – apparently a colonial British heritage – each town had a central clocktower, generally at central squares. This points at the importance ascribed to the literal “clock”, even beyond churches and their services. The funny thing was, however, that in a few towns where I saw such a central, quite prominent “clock”, they did not work, or indicated the wrong time. This would, I imagine, not last too long, and would have been corrected immediately, in wealthy countries like the Netherlands, Germany, or Britain.


A study of the clock’s history shows indeed its inherent and supportive role in the Western unequal economic system. Maybe indeed “the clock is Babylon”, while the poor and oppressed try to resist this by focusing on time and eternity. Or on natural timekeepers (the sun, for instance).

A few nice examples from reggae lyrics:

I am not rich, but the sun shines for me” (Gregory Isaacs, Sun Shines For Me).


A foolish tongue is only for a moment, and Righteousness is an everlasting foundation” (Wailing Souls, A Fool Will Fall)

A Marcus Garvey quote says, in addition, “The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.” This points also in that direction.

To summarize shortly: the clock is not celebrated within Reggae lyrics, and is even a negative force. A necessary evil at most, opposed to time and eternity – or “life”, wherein true redemption lay. And perhaps even true happiness..

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