zondag 2 september 2018

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

How people got to be reggae music lovers or fans has always fascinated me. Maybe partly because reggae still is off/outside the mainstream, also in the Netherlands. It is not found that easily, let’s just say. It requires (to a degree) an extraordinary life path: that is, different from copying the masses, or simply following what’s commonly on television or the radio.

Reggae has of course since decades gone international and widened its fan base, but I have known individually quite different reggae fans within the Netherlands. Black and white (and Asian, or mixed etc.). Males and females. Old and young. Some with little education, some highly educated. Of different class backgrounds. Some combine liking reggae quite equally with other genres (e.g.: some with African, funk, soul, some with hip-hop, some even with non-black music genres), while others on the other hand adhere almost “strictly” to reggae music, and do not get into much else. Some like roots reggae more than dancehall or vice versa. There are even reggae fans – believe it or not - who do not smoke the “ganja herb”.

Furthermore, some have an interest or sympathy for the related subject of Rastafari, some do not, or even despise it. The latter, despise, I find somewhat odd since Rastafari is not the same as reggae, but is nonetheless connected to it.

These differences (and similarities) between and among reggae fans/lovers intrigue me, also in relation to personal backgrounds. That’s the reason why I would like to interview specific individuals who love reggae.

Before this I have interviewed 6 persons – reggae lovers I know, “breddas” (meaning “brothers”, or "friends" in Jamaican parlance) of mine – here in the Netherlands.

I started the series on this blog with a post of June 2012, when I interviewed Abenet. In April of 2013 I interviewed Bill. After this I interviewed Manjah Fyah, in May 2014. For my blog post of August 2015, I interviewed, somewhat more extensively, (DJ) Rowstone (Rowald). In August 2016, then, I interviewed Vega Selecta. In October 2017 I interviewed DJ Ewa, also quite extensively.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where were you born and did you grow up?

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

Since when do you listen Reggae music?

Since I was 12 years old.

What attracted you to it, then?

The positive message and the rhythm.

What other music genres did you listen to?

Only Roots Reggae.

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


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

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

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

Since 1983.

Since how long do you do radio work?

For 20 years.

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

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

Why the name Empress Messenjah (Donna Lee)?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any other things you would like to mention?

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

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


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

I think it is still pretty insightful, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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