donderdag 2 mei 2019

Jamaican Warriors : Reggae, Roots & Culture: a book review

It is a book I have had in my possession for quite some years now. Over ten years, I imagine. I vaguely recall having bought it at a book section of a record store in central Amsterdam, a record store now out of business. This might even not be the case, being so long ago. It does not matter that much, of course, but it illustrates that I bought it long ago, and cannot remember well.

Yet, I never got around to read it up to recently. During those years, there was one thing that dissuaded me from reading it. The title and theme were appealing enough - “Jamaican warriors” - as was the subtitle and short summary, and the cover photo. Its author was Stephen Foehr, a travel writer from the US, living in Colorado.

What discouraged me, was a review I read once that was partly negative about it, describing the book as one clearly written by a non-Rasta, or someone disapproving of it, so even anti-Rasta. Since I was entering and later entered the (Rastafari) Livity around that time, I felt an apprehension to delve into this book. I heard that anti-Rasta, quasi-intellectual (quasi-, not really intellectual) critique a bit too much, consisting often of gratuitous observations, and irrelevant if historical facts, missing the spiritual and fundamental importance of Rastafari.

Recently I read it, and I’ll start positive: I was pleasantly surprised by this book ‘Jamaican warriors”. It was not noticeably written by an anti-Rasta zealot, but rather by a travelling journalist, sincerely interested – and appreciative! – of Jamaican culture and music. The way he wrote he seemed to me to be a Reggae fan. These nonetheless still can – of course – have some critique of aspects of Jamaican culture, or of Rastafari. I know Reggae fans, even some self-proclaimed Rastafari-adherents here in the Netherlands, that do not see Haile Selassie as divine, thus disagreeing with most Rastas on that, for instance. Others, even worse, reject Selassie as an outdated, absolute and undemocratic monarch.

The pleasant thing about Foehr’s book, however, is that such criticism on Rastafari does not seem to be a main focus. That focus seems more positive and investigating. Open-minded, neutral reporting, so to speak, on his experiences in Jamaica, and with its culture and music industry. He is used to writing travel stories, and the book can be seen as a travel account, centering on various experiences and aspects of Jamaica, but emphasizing music and culture.


I have been to Jamaica too, and recognize some places he describes, so I can compare a bit with my own experiences. The book was written around 2000, and I went there in 2006 and 2008, so not that long apart. He describes his stay in Negril, which I have visited too: a tourist centre on the West Coast of Jamaica. I did not like it there. The days before, elsewhere in Jamaica, in much less touristy Kingston city and areas of the St Ann’s parish, I enjoyed much more.

This has largely to do with Negril being a very commercialized tourist resort of the more cynical type: poverty, inferiority complexes due to a colonial past, racial obsessions, and, well, commercial greed, all combined to having Jamaicans acting like manipulative gangsters approaching you, often – like a pimp - using a girl to lure White men, and when with the girl, a guy comes along to help rip you off. These were hardened criminal hustlers, with too much “street savy” and psychological, intimidating conning skills, built up over time.

Some offered cocaine to me, even after a semi-friendly – or quasi-friendly – conversation. I was as good as my money there, whereas the Jamaicans I met in Kingston were sometimes hustlers, but more often trustworthy, pleasant people, who might even be friends, with in some cases even character similarities with me, even though I’m a Dutch-born (originally Italian-Spanish), Amsterdam-residing European. You could even talk quite openly and personally with Jamaicans there, something which I not even always achieve well up to today with many (of course not all) Dutch people, or other Amsterdam residents.

Negril was on the other hand not so pleasant, I found. I walked the streets, entered a few bars, and talked with some Jamaicans in Negril. The few conversations with some substance (i.e. actually getting to know someone personally, and learning something new) – with a girl – was still in the context of manipulation: her “pimp” wanted her to make money off me (through sex, became clear), not have a loose conversation, and he became impatient and intervened. So I stopped that whole relationship – a manipulative threesome, as I can describe it -, before it was too late and I was robbed, after following eventual sexual arousal: a common trick. Cute and funny how she opened a bottle with her teeth, that I must admit, but the guy kept intervening, even slapping her at times. Brr.

Not very nice, all this, and a beach resort, like Negril is, can be nice, but was too corrupted. I had enough nice beach experiences elsewhere in Jamaica (Portmore, near Kingston), Cuba, or even in parts of Andalusia, Spain where I moreover had family living.

Well now, Foehr describes the offering of cocaine, the commercial, “artificial”, touristic atmosphere, and the general untrustworthy environment in Negril quite well, including a promised “concert of reggae stars” that never came. He even sets out consciously to find a female companion, as other hedonistically minded tourists there did too. Without success. That is however just one chapter in the book.


Chapters before it and after it, dealt more directly with music and culture, and related trips in different parts of Jamaica. These included again some places I also visited, such as Bob Marley’s mausoleum in the parish of St Ann’s (Nine Miles), close to the North Coast, or the Bob Marley museum in Kingston. The author seems really interested in Bob Marley as artist and person, plus he describes it well. It was – predictably – touristy, that mausoleum in Nine Miles, but without the cynicism and hardened criminal hustlers as at Negril. One a bit more persistent hustler wanted me to buy a spliff (marijuana joint) of him. Not that bad, nor disturbing.

Foehr had a similar guided tour through the Bob Marley museum (in a relatively wealthy, “uptown” part in Kingston: where Bob went to live as he got more successful), as I have had in 2006. Other epochs describe Trench Town (that I visited too), and other parts I went and not went.

He had a coffee-related trip, that is not really in my field of interest, although Jamaican coffee is known among experts for its distinct quality. He describes that trip engagingly enough, but I would not have made that effort, I think.

Later in life, I found out that there are only a few types of coffee I really got to like (the real, original Ethiopian coffee, with a nice taste), perhaps some cappuccino, but most often coffee was something I had to, rather than liked to, drink.


Foehr, in other chapters, investigates the history of the Rastafari movement, and the pioneering “first Rasta” personality Leonard Howell, and his life. He travels to the community Howell set up at Pinnacle Hill in the 1930s, using Jamaican contact persons to gain access, knowledge, broadened with historical documentation. Foehr gives an historical contextualization with those trips, including about Rastafari’s development over time and Marcus Garvey, that seems mostly correct, though not always. Howell sought to promote the worship of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, as African saviour for Black people, spreading flyers and such. Foehr comments that Marcus Garvey did not allow spreading these leaflets by Howell at his headquarter. I do not know if this is true, but I read in other, objective and academic historical sources, that Howell and Garvey as persons went along well, met sometimes amicably, and shared ideas. They maybe disagreed at points, but were not foes.


As a journalist, Foehr further not only travels through parts of the island, but also talks and has interviews with several people, important in Reggae, Rastafari, and folk culture. These include important and interesting personalities like Mortimmo Planno, a Rasta elder and teacher, scholar Kwame Davis, musicians like Skatalite Lloyd Knibbs, Toots Hibbert, Freddie McGregor, President Brown, Sugar Minott, Yami Bolo, U Roy, David Hinds, Ken Booth, Marcia Griffiths, the Wailing Souls and others, thus representing different generations in Jamaican music. Foehr does not really devote separate chapters to each interviewee, but rather spreads the conversations out through the travel accounts, and historical and general descriptions.

This might seem haphazard and chaotic, yet he keeps all this quite readable, I must say, showing he can write well, in an engaging way. Moreover, he did not criticize Rastafari so much as I feared. He is seldom disrespectful, but rather objectively descriptive, expressing some skepticism here and there, but reserving the same skepticism for established Western religions. Overall, he sees Rastafari, and the Roots Reggae it influenced, as a positive force, when compared to other “influences” in Jamaican society and music, before and after: the history of anti-African colonialism and slavery, as well as - increasing since the 1980s -: Western materialism values in Jamaica, gun crime, shallow or negative “slackness” lyrics in Dancehall music, moving away from the positive, edifying message in earlier Roots Reggae.


Also, musically he discusses the change toward more “digital” Dancehall riddims since the late 1980s. Again, Foehr takes on a quite neutral approach, even arguing that there is “quality Dancehall” too, while deploring the general trend of moving away from acoustic or live instruments. That shift was never absolute of course, but a part of Jamaican music became digitally made in the Late 1980s and 1990s, while live musicians were likewise active.. Foehr, and most interviewees, favour a return to music with real instruments, and with more conscious lyrics.

This return already started with the rise of DJ’s with more “conscious”, Rastafari-influenced lyrics, turning away from their slack lyrics from before, like Capleton, or other upcoming artists (DJ’s and singers) with more conscious lyrics. This book was published in 2000, so some artists mentioned in it are still “rising” stars in this book, while more known or “household names” nowadays (Luciano, Buju Banton, Sizzla, who started around 1990, and others). 1990s developments are certainly included in this book, though.


Another strain throughout this work is “folk tradition” as such, of African heritage, surviving in Jamaica. Nearby Caribbean islands are well-known for such belief systems, notably Vodou in Haiti, and SanterĂ­a in Cuba. In Jamaica, similar African-based “spirit possession” and ghost-related beliefs exist and live on, but became less an “export article” as for instance Vodou, including as simplified stereotypes (Vodou dolls) in popular culture and even Hollywood films.

There are several books I have meanwhile read about Reggae and Rastafari, and their history., including some scholarly ones . The same I can say for other themes Foehr treats in this book: the Maroons, colonial history. These segments largely repeat information from elsewhere, in that sense. He explains well the differences between Maroon communities within Jamaica: the one, with Queen Nanny, more rebellious and less complacent than the other one, that just secured its own independence, while at times even capturing escaped slaves to give back to English masters. Not everyone knows of these differences, I imagine. It has been written elsewhere too, though.

Foehr, however, makes his book a bit more unique by paying attention to such folk beliefs, even among common Jamaicans. He speaks with adherents of Kumina, a spirit-based faith found especially in the St Thomas parish in Eastern Jamaica, but also discusses Myal and Obeah, as other “spirit”, “magical”, or “healing” traditions, with African origins. “Obeah” is the magic that has a worse name – more used for evil “casting spells” on enemies or foes – whereas Myal is more known as good and healing.

While African retentions, the Rastafari movement largely took distance from most of such practices, especially the negative aspects of Obeah, as can be heard in many Reggae lyrics. Some aspects, musical (drumming) patterns from Kumina and Burru, and folk medicine for instance, found a way into Rastafari, though.

Besides this, Foehr, also points at a common belief in “duppies”, by at least a part of the Jamaicans. Duppies are ghosts out to get you, when you are least prepared, preferably on straight roads, it seems. Another African retention: in some parts of Africa today, roads and paths are still deliberately made winding, because straight paths may invite evil ghosts.

This all might seem superstitions by uneducated people, having no more intellectual sources to make sense of their world. This might even be true, but devalues it too as less culturally, perhaps unjustly. All cultures have this kind of “magic”, sometimes connected to the natural environment, such as the ancient Celts of Europe, for whom for instance the oak tree was “sacred”, and these trees and other natural aspects harboured “special powers”.

It is in a way interesting that all these beliefs and cultural legacies coexist, I find, in Jamaica. Interesting also, how Jamaicans developed an own culture out of all this. The good and bad. The colonial history with dehumanization and cultural deracination, or attempts of it, of transplanted Africans brought by force to the West, losing their names, and part of their culture. Persisting poverty of the majority in Jamaica, up to the present. Christianity as a colonial legacy, but reinterpreted as an African consciousness arose in Jamaica, returning to the roots, and centralizing an African Emperor in the case of Rastafari. These other beliefs (Obeah, Myal, Kumina, etcetera) only confirm that an Africanness lived on in Jamaica, on which Rastafari was founded, even if many Rastas, ironically, reject certain aspects (spirit possession), or translate other aspects differently, more symbolically (“ancestor worship” for instance).


All this combines to make Foehr’s book well readable, and quite unique. He can write engagingly, I must admit, but he does not just “repackage“ well the same information, found in other (scholarly and other) sources. That is a quality that should not be underestimated, by the way. Complex themes or histories are explained better by some than by others, as one may know from own experience. The didactic “now I get it!” effect.

Beyond this, though, Foehr’s book ‘Jamaican Warriors : Reggae, Roots & Culture’, published in the year 2000, adds an unique quality because of the time of its release, and dealing with happenings/developments in the 1990s, giving insight in that specific period in Jamaica.

A time of crossroads in music (digital versus real instruments, slackness versus conscious lyrics), culture, social developments (increased violence and crime in Jamaica since the 1980s). Foehr intertwines these various dimensions skillfully through his travel accounts and interviews, interrelating his own impressions as a White US “outsider”, with interesting and knowledgeable descriptions by Jamaicans themselves, who know best from their experience. As in the better traditions of journalism..

Therefore I am glad I - finally! - read this book, not just because I felt I had to, as a task to be fulfilled or a burden to bear, but because I actually enjoyed it: also due to recognizing, or expanding on what I knew - .. and I even learned a few things from it I did not know yet.

And no, it was not an anti-Rastafari book as such. Foehr openly questions in one chapter some assumptions Rastas have about Haile Selassie, and also is slightly skeptical elsewhere, but it does not go much beyond that, and remains quite objective.

Some things Foehr wrote I considered not really correct, or had a few mistakes, though not often. He had mostly good sources, apparently. I mentioned already that Garvey and Howell in fact were not enemies, as Foehr seems to imply.

Regarding Jamaican music and lyrics, I largely agree with him and especially with what the ”conscious” artists say about the need for more positive lyrics, and “realer” music.

That the “African heritage” in Jamaican music got limited or to the background with the rise of Digital Dancehall is tempting to believe, but a bit simplistic. Purely looking at “rhythm”, Danchehall – even with digital sounds – kind of revives African polyrhythmic musical traditions, you can also say. Many do in part, at least. Not dissimilar to the Funk James Brown started to make, with more rhythmic patterns than in earlier R&B. More modern, yet with retained African, polyrhythmic traditions.

These are overall, however, minor points of critique to an overall well-written, readable book, with quite some information, though largely repeated from other sources, many of which I happen to know or have read already. This information is however placed in another context, making it even for me somewhat relevant in the whole.

The interviews I found also interesting, all the more because some of these were with artists not or rarely interviewed in other “Reggae books or documentaries”, like President Brown, Yami Bolo, the Wailing Souls, and others.

Moreover, a few of the places in Jamaica he visits – not all – I visited too. Some, on the other hand, I did not get to go to, so those descriptions were insightful for me.

Worth the effort and pleasant enough, perhaps even recommendable, reading this book ‘Jamaican Warriors’.

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