zaterdag 2 maart 2019

Fonko and soul definition

I recently saw the quite recent documentary film ‘Fonko’ (2016), which was about the “new” Africa told through its current music. Its screening was organized at Café the Zen in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), on the initiative of the organization Soul Definition: a platform with real-life films for a better society (

Whatever the context of its screening, I found it an engaging documentary. It was narrated by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, of course a well-known Nigerian musician, who died in 1997.

Fonko was in fact more about the new Africa, socially and politically, than about music as such. Sure, newly developed modern music genres – combining traditional and modern (foreign) influences – in several African countries, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Senegal, Burkina Faso, South Africa, got some attention, for instance certain hip-hop artists, and some artists involved in what is called Afro-House, similarly mixing influences.

The lyrics and messages of the musicians seemed of more relevance, though. This was in line with Fela Kuti’s narrations throughout the documentary, about the need for Africa to find her own answers and identity and get united, away from Western colonialism and its legacies, capitalist neocolonialism still dividing Africa today, or from Islam, wanting to turn Africans into Arabs, just like Christianity wants to turn Africans into White Americans or Britons/Europeans.

The musicians and others in the documentary expressed their views, and certainly had an idea of an own African identity, albeit modernized in this computer age, through digital equipment. This modern, by definition Western, technology, was used by these African musicians for their own musical explorations, but using African musical idioms, departing in that sense from “traditional African music”, yet still maintaining an Africanness, even in Techno/Digital or House-like music forms.


There is an inherent irony in this, of course, but the history of Black music – also in the African Diaspora – is full of such ironies. Western technology, modern instruments, might mostly be Western inventions – or dominated by Western companies –, but played all central roles in the development of genres, and in spreading Black music. It was a welcome means made use of for self-expression, in that sense a case of “fighting them with their own weapons”.

Lack of money often inhibited and inhibits poor people – certainly also in Africa – from buying these modern studio equipment and instruments. Yet, this was circumvented in various, creative ways, though not always in the interest of companies wanting to sell their products. For instance, through illegal copying. A musician in the documentary Fonko funnily turned it around: he argues that those companies should consider it a “privilege” for them, that their computers and other equipment got used in developing modern African music. An interesting way to look at it: culture over money.

That self-expression as an African, remained the most important theme in the documentary, indeed through current music genres, and accompanying dances, especially among the poorer people in several countries, like Ghana, Burkina Faso, or Angola. Also in South Africa, after all, as musician Hugh Masakela pointed out, after Apartheid’s end and the arrival of democracy, the poor Black South Africans remained just as poor and limited, only with a bit less police harassment, and now with the ability to vote.

Music became thus a main vehicle for rebellion, and the expression of an African identity, and not just a way to copy Western culture, which was a positive aspect of pride and self-expression in the documentary.

Again, there is nothing new under the sun here. Looking at Black music in the Americas, one notes throughout history a similar trajectory, in Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Reggae, Funk, Hip-hop, and other genres musical instruments and equipment were used, that were all – in those forms at least – Western inventions and products, part of a capitalist system to make profit out of other people’s hobbies or professions.

This is, however, purely the material aspect of it. The “soul” of the music is something else of course. When a cooking pit is made in Germany, for instance, it does not mean one must only prepare German food, or if one drives a Fiat car one must not by necessity “drive as an Italian” (whatever that may be). No one makes that ridiculous assumption. As Bob Marley once eloquently said: “the White man has the technology, the Black man has the wisdom..” combining it thus in producing current music.

Relatedly, in a Reggae lyric of the Gladiators, in their song Looks Is Deceiving, there is the line: “don’t watch the tool the work it can do, watch the man that behind it..”


An aspect that me, as a percussionist, intrigues me overall most, though, touches on the very essence of music: sound.

Actually, I myself have got to known MIDI - simply said digital “samples” of real instruments -, quite early on in my life, mostly through music software, in my early adolescence. We are talking about the later 1980s and Early 1990s, now..

In fact, I remember even using it (with my brother) on an “old-time” Atari computer, before the PC and Internet days. On the PC I continued with it, making songs with instruments that were copied sonically in MIDI. Standard "band instruments" like bass, guitar, and drum, or piano, but also instruments regarding which I did not know yet what “the real thing” looked like (Shamisen?), from different cultures in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, also beyond known European instruments (At least more known to me, growing up in the Netherlands).

I have always been quite rhythmically focused, and paid quite some attention to drum patterns, in Reggae and other genres, and also when I tried to make songs myself. I even added an occasional MIDI-sampled bongo, conga, scraper, bell or other percussion sounds to the “groove”.


Years later, especially after some Cuban trips, I expanded my latent interest in “real-life” (acoustic, natural) percussion. I think those Cuban trips of mine (I took these, also having friends Cuba, between 2001 and 2006) played a role because Cuba has a rich musical culture and life – as some may imagine – but with the added distinction that mainly “acoustic” regarding instruments were – and still are – used in Cuba. These included the conga’s and bongo’s, timbales, scrapers, bells, maracas, and other percussion instruments – being quite prominent in (Afro-)Cuban music after all – but also different types of guitars, and an occasional trumpet, flute, or old piano.

Elsewhere on this blog, I remarked that I do not recall having seen much “drum kits”, as we know them from Western pop groups, in Cuba: mostly percussion had their function there. Yet, neither do I recall having seen many electric guitars in Cuba.. only a few times a semi-acoustic – or semi-electric - (standing) bass or guitar. Since the norm was acoustic in Cuba, maybe there it is better to say “semi-electric”, than “semi-acoustic” as said in Europe and North America with so many electrical instruments, seeming thus the norm. In some special centers, there were also electronic keyboards, alongside the acoustic instruments.

Anyhow.. experiencing many live performances in Cuba with real percussion instruments – not the “faux-MIDI” hand drum or percussion sounds I already knew –, I developed a love for acoustic drums/instruments, sensing it as “realer”, more natural music somehow.. “Purer” music, perhaps even..

Not long after these experiences, I started actually playing percussion instruments – including taking lessons -, starting with hand drums like the bongos, and conga’s. Soon after this I started to play also djembe, ashiko, talking drum, and “small” percussion like shakers, scrapers, bells, rattles, woodblocks, flexatone etcetera.

I make my own compositions (including percussive-based ones) and play with other people now (as a percussionist), resulting from this trajectory. This can often be found on my YouTube channel, like this video.

I had before that of course also my acoustic “fix” during live concerts, with actual drum kits by live drummers, and often added percussion sets, such as during many Reggae concerts I visited. I enjoyed that very much. Even Dancehall of the more digital kind got played at times with a live drummer and drum kit.


I heard about drum machines, synth drum, or MIDI drum, and heard what some did with it, such as in Hip Hop, House, Drum & Bass, Techno, and even some modern Reggae and Dancehall. Some digital drums were used in Caribbean genres like Zouk and Reggae and Dancehall, creating a somewhat disorienting – or experimental – feel. Sometimes I thought it was okay, especially when rhythmically creative and groovy, and sometimes I missed “the real thing” (the acoustic, natural drum sound). There are catchy, groovy Digital Dancehall riddims/instrumental, even if sounding “bleepy” and unnatural, or with digital drums, as long as it is rhythmically strong. I still enjoyed them, or could appreciate the creativity, despite my personal interest in (and, in many cases, preference for) acoustic drums and percussion.

Something of that I saw and heard in the documentary Fonko, mostly focused on young Africans in different African countries making this mostly digital music (easier to make after all: needing less equipment and instruments), derived in part from local music genres. The digital, nontraditional sound might at first be disconcerting and slightly artificial – especially when one, like me, knows and is inspired by the rich percussive legacy in traditional African music. Still, a good rhythm is a good rhythm, being thus the African “soul” remaining stronger that a mere “computerized”/digital sound, however “bleepy” or technological and unnatural it superficially sounds.


In that sense, it represents a good metaphor for Africa’s also social and political development in these modern times, using more and more modern technology, having to keep up with the Europeans and Asians.. but in an own way, and with an own cultural legacy, identity, and pride.. That need not be betrayed, as had occurred too often before, during colonialism, and as outside forces, as Fela and others pointed out, tried to Europeanize or Arabize Black Africans culturally and religiously.

As someone in Burkina Faso said in the documentary: “know your history, even if it is your misery”.. One of several memorable phrases and oneliners uttered in the documentary.

Technology is in that sense like money: useful as a means, if used well and intelligently, but in the end with negative effects when it becomes an” ideology” by itself. Then one is selling one’s soul. An ideology, moreover, of power differences, as of course the Western world, and places like Saudi Arabia, Japan and China, have obvious advantages over a continent like Africa, in both money and technology. This results in, besides a false sense of superiority, also in more and continued exploitation.


This has to do – of course – with international capitalism (or: neoliberalism) reaching (and exploiting) Africa, explaining also some differences with the situation in Cuba, I discussed before. Cuba remains formally Communist, and with relatively limited connection to international capitalism or the market place, but also limited access to some of its few advantages, such as modern technology, or the Internet: Internet access is even limited when compared to the poorer parts of Latin America.

Failed or oppressive states/governments in parts of Africa, especially after the leaving of inspiring political leaders like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) or Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), led to the necessity of popular rebellion and inventiveness, whereas the very strong, but overly present and authoritarian (censorship, lack of free speech, etcetera), state/government in Cuba at least formally supports local musicians educationally, albeit with more meager funds than could be applied. Plus, the added disadvantage of being censored or otherwise controlled.

Inequality between a rich elite and the poor masses, is unfortunately also a reality in Cuba, despite idealist images of the Cuban reality some may hold. A Dutchman from Brabant I spoke in Cuba summarized it well, I think, when he said (something to the effect that): “the bottom is a bit less low than elsewhere in the developing world – with some, if scarce, state-funded securities - , but that bottom is much more broad..”


I am a Reggae fan, and have also visited Jamaica a few times. I love mainly “live-band” Roots Reggae, and got overall less into the Digital Dancehall or Ragga. Only over time I can say that I got to appreciate some Digital Dancehall, especially rhythmically, combined with a certain energy. The modern technology entered Jamaica too, and more than in Cuba, due to its connection to the capitalist world. Electric bass guitars helped shape Rocksteady and Reggae in a sense, as with amplification it could make bass lines more dominant in music pieces. Electric guitars or electronic keyboards also came to Jamaica since the 1960s, and later also synthesizers, and synth drums, especially since the 1980s. So came digital innovations. One of the first Digital Dancehall Riddims was “Sleng Teng” for the song Under Mi Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith in 1984. This was actually based on a pre-programmed pattern in Casio keyboards, thus creatively used or “upgraded”, one might say.

The rhythms that developed since then in Dancehall – also the digital ones – departed from existing rhythmical structures (a faster version of the Rockers drum pattern for instance), and included further influences older folk traditions, and even some added polyrhythmic aspects, making it closer to the African roots of Afro-Jamaican culture than one might think. This later mixed with modern, foreign influences (such as from hip-hop or R&B).

In that sense, there is a strong parallel with the musical expressions in Fonko, as capitalist influences in both Jamaica and parts of Africa included this access – albeit troubled – to new technologies, music software, and other equipment sold as products on capitalist markets. Products that for that reason do not reach communist Cuba so much.


Musical and rhythmical – or broader cultural – characteristics are all shared throughout Afro-Cuban, Afro-Jamaican, and African music, as part of the African Diaspora. Polyrhythm and “call-and-response” as basic recurring components, with added variations in different countries. Many enslaved Africans ending up in Africa, also came from the countries featured in the documentary Fonko: relatively many Africans in Cuba came from the Congo region and the South of Nigeria, and relatively many in Jamaica from the Ghana region, albeit with also a sizable percentage of African slaves from the Congo region in Jamaica historically too: estimated at about 25%, compared to about 40% in Cuba. As slaves from the Congo/Angola region were quite widespread throughout the Americas, by the way, the “Congo” influence on the music in the African Diaspora, or Black music, should not be underestimated.

The musical characteristics travelled with these enslaved Africans, when they were forcibly brought to the West. These remain at the “soul” of the music, through whatever instruments expressed (acoustic, electric, or digital).

Perhaps that was what the engaging documentary film Fonko was essentially about: the strength of music itself – as culture and art – or specifically: as way for poor people to express an own (African) cultural identity - to maintain that in the current, modern global arena, despite global Western-led, exploitative capitalism, mass inequality and poverty, or (capitalist or communist) oppression.


This positive, motivational messages expressed in documentaries, seems to fit the wider purpose of the (Dutch-based, but internationally oriented) organization Soul Definition, responsible for Fonko’s public screening, when I saw it last 24th of February 2019 in Café the Zen in Amsterdam. It has as motto, after all, ‘Edutainment for a better society’. The specific documentary Fonko even had as a theme, in a sense, "soul definition", like the organization's name.

Soul Definition – founded and led by Dutch-residing Greek Dimitris Meletis - has for those interested its own website, and on it you will find more information about the international documentaries it screens and promotes, and its goals (the latter under the Join section). See:

As of the 1st of March of 2019 (just before I wrote this!) these documentaries will be available worldwide through Soul Definition and its site ( I saw a few of them, including thus Fonko, and enjoyed them and learned from them: it was truly “edutainment”.