zaterdag 3 juni 2017

Solos and reggae

The phenomenon “solo”, in the world of musicians/instrumentalists, is of course quite known. In more jazzy, experimental musical genres they are quite common, as they are in experimental, freer “jam” or live sessions, among musicians of various genres.

A solo in this sense is when a specific musical instrument takes a time period in a song - an instrumental part - to play a divergent, yet fitting melody and pattern, as a variation within that song.

In more “popular” or commercial genres – pop music – they occur too, as the aim is to give songs a distinctive touch, though less common than in specific genres for specific audiences. This applies to jazz, blues, and to a lesser degree of rhythm and blues, funk, soul, and salsa. Those fields where musicianship is still valued, generally over commercial standardization, although cliché, not very creative solos have found their way in pop, rock & roll and other more popular genres.

GUITAR

An interesting difference is between the musical instruments that tend to play solos in specific genres. Predictably, in “Rock” genres (this term is used quite vaguely, especially in the US..), like rock and roll, grunge, or hard rock, heavy metal, much of country, the guitar is anyhow very important, especially the electric guitar, so also guitar solos are very common. Rhythm and Blues tends to have more piano or horn solos, as is also the case with jazz. Blues – again – tends to have more electric guitar solos than of other instruments.

These electric guitar-driven genres became popular in the US, although Punk music in Europe has this electric guitar focus too.

Kind of odd how the electric guitar became so determining in these popular US music genres, though it can be explained. The genesis of the guitar is by itself an interesting one, the acoustic one, the original “Spanish guitar”, developed as such centuries ago in the South of Spain, based on string instrument models of the ruling Islamic Moors, although the latter based theirs in turn on older Persian models. In Spain thus developed the most known version of the acoustic guitar with 4, later 6 strings. The Spanish or “classical” guitar had nylon strings (later ones metal ones). It came to play a role in Spanish traditional and folk styles, resulting in South Spanish Flamenco music, with a crucial role for this acoustic guitar, often even rhythmically, and not just melodically.

Other “guitar-like” string instruments are found elsewhere in Europe, like Italy, the Balkan, other parts of Spain, France, yet the Spanish guitar became the model for later “electric guitars” in pop music.

Remarkable how history goes: the electric version of this guitar – that once arose in Spain - became over time a determining instrument in pop or “rock” music in the US. Yet, as so often: influential, innovative and original musicians played crucial roles on the way to this, for instance Jimi Hendrix, but also Blues musicians. This puts in another light the image of electric guitar-driven genres in the US being especially by and for “White people”.

Guitars travelled with other instruments along with the Spanish to the Americas, as did Portuguese string sinstruments to Brazil. In many traditional and folk genres the guitar, or versions thereof, became quite important, such as in Mexican music.

In areas with stronger sub-Saharan influence, drums and percussion – and in general “rhythm” – became more important, absorbing often the guitar in supportive rhythmic roles, such as in the Son music genre of Eastern Cuba (later influencing what would become known as “Salsa”), and even more in the Son-influenced Bachata from the Dominican Republic.

DIFFERENT INSTRUMENTS

Relevant is here what is explained also in ‘The Aesthetic of the Cool : Afro-Atlantic Art and Music’, a 2011, scholarly/essay work by Robert Farris-Thompson, on the African influence on Afro-American art. Farris-Thompson makes a rough – if slightly simplistic –distinction between “forest” Africa, including the Congo region, and the South of Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana, and “Griot Africa” to the direct North of it (with more Savannah or Steppe-like landscapes), and with more Islamic/North African influences, such as in the Mande-speaking area around Guinea, Senegal, Southern Mali, Northern Ivory Coast and around. Here string instruments, like the Kora harp, are more prominent, while in “forest Africa” drums and percussion are more common (relatively).

Interestingly, Farris-Thompson sees the influence of slaves from this Griot Africa (sahel) region (Mande-speaking, often), in a genre like the Blues in the South of the US, as many slaves from this area ended up there (though coming also from other, “forest” parts of Africa). In the Caribbean and Brazil, however, African slaves came (proportionally, relatively) more often from “forest Africa” (Congo, Yoruba areas, for instance), explaining the emphasis on percussion and drums in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian genres.

While simplified, I think the basis of this analysis and distinction of Farris-Thompson is historically and culturally correct. There are some exceptions, as to all general rules, but in broad lines it is a sensible distinction. One aspect that is disregarded in this, hwever, is the fact that some colonizers, especially the British, forebade drums in colonial policies, affecting also musical developments. The Spanish, Portuguese, and French tended to permit drum music more leniently, even during the slave regimes, albeit under conditions. So, colonial policies hindered and thwarted African cultural continuity, which on the other hand is nothing new. A rhythmic focus remained though, and even drums and percussion survived partly also in former British colonies as Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago.

REGGAE

This all explains why the electric guitar as such did not become that “leading” in some Caribbean genres, and even less as a solo instrument. In Reggae music the bass guitar – indeed a type of guitar – became a bit leading and ”chording”, but in close tandem with the drum and rhythm. . This inherent interrelation with the drum and rhythm, has interesting similarities with how guitars (or the small guitar called “tres”) is absorbed in Afro-Cuban genres like Son, though in a different way. The bass guitar in reggae is a guitar, is semi-melodic and chording, but at the same time “rhythmic”, when compared to its role in “Rock” or “Blues”. Other guitars – notably the “rhythm guitar” - tend to have rhythmic roles in Reggae even more exclusively, with the known strum on the 2nd or 4th beat of 4/4 (counted in double time), part of the basic Reggae groove.

Electric guitar solos were and are, consequently, not very common in Reggae. Solos of other instruments are more common. In genre’s preceding Reggae, notably Ska, horn solos (trumpet, trombone, saxophone) were very common, a bit like in Rhythm & Blues, that influenced Ska strongly. In Cuban Son and salsa, horn solos occurred too, maybe being another influence, as some early Ska musicians in Jamaica – from the band the Skatalites - had links with Cuba.

As Reggae developed, though, not only horns, but also flutes, piano, keyboards, melodica’s and harmonica’s and other instruments came to provide solos, and on some experimental songs, even vibraphones, xylophones, steeldrums or other instruments. And yes, occasionally also a “electric guitar solo” could be heard, though initially not much in Reggae.

CONCRETE JUNGLE

In fact, the electric guitar solo on Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle for Island (album Catch A Fire), by US musician Wayne Perkins, has become well-known. Its fame especially came because at the rise of Marley’s international fame, this known electric guitar solo became kind of a “bridge” to cross-over to a White, Rock-minded audience, broadening Marley’s fame. This of course along with other production choices led by Chris Blackwell at Island Records, along with others.

Producer Chris Blackwell even said that the guitar solo and the guitarist were chosen to reach another (Rock) audience and public, as such Rock-like electric guitar solo were then uncommon in Reggae and Jamaican music.

Maybe the solo appealed to some people, but to be totally honest it did not do that much for me (then and now). The song Concrete Jungle I liked, but not because of the solo, but especially because of the vocals and lyrics.

SOLOS IN REGGAE

Not that I dislike solos. I play instruments myself (mainly percussion), and often jam with people and occasionally play solos too. This often also in jazzy, improvisational settings. Furthermore, while I focus on vocals in Reggae too, the combination with instrumental music and rhythm certainly has my attention too, sometimes even in a balanced sense.

Sometimes I find such a solo to be somewhat sober, unimpressive, yet not bad per se. It then fits the groove and song, sounds okay, but does not add that much extra’s. It does not disturb, at least. I, on the other hand, also hear solos in Reggae and other genres that impress(ed) me more and that I really liked, adding something extra, often a nice, “reflective” vibe to the song.

Some solos in Reggae songs impressed me therefore immediately, and I liked more than the one on Concrete Jungle. The first that comes to my mind is Burning Spear’s song Holy Foundation (from the album Resistance), with a crucial role for a somewhat meandering yet strong saxophone part, bringing this atmospheric song to an apothesis, with a kind of extended solo.

Another fine solo that comes to my mind is on the Abyssinians’ song the Good Lord, with a beautiful, emotive flute solo. A reviewer said that the flute gave this song a “pastoral” feel. Not a word that I chose, but therefore not bad and still well put, haha..

I also can name a piano solo that I liked, from a perhaps surprising source: Eek-A-Mouse’s fine tune Struggle. The Roots Radics play a basic Reggae Rockers groove, nice and steady, but added to this is a nice, minor-key piano pattern throughout and a piano solo that is seemingly simple, yet adding a beautiful, melancholic feel befitting the “sad” lyrics (about a poor woman struggling). Maybe it is simply a matter of a few right minor-key notes.

Certain others solos stand out for me too, notably on tunes of the African Brothers, Pablo Moses, Burning Spear, or Ijahman Levi. These artists tend to have longer, “jamming” instrumental parts, such as Ijahman Levi, having also a guitar solo on – for example – his (for pop music) relatively lengthy (and beautiful!) song Jah Is No Secret. Some songs by Burning Spear or Pablo Moses (e.g. Come Mek We Run) have solos of different instruments interchanging in some mostly instrumental songs, in a kind of “jazzy” way . As in other genres, but here with a Roots Reggae groove/riddim.

An interesting website pays attention to the use of the “flute” in Reggae music. The author lists songs with prominent flutes, as melodic (or rhythmic) addition/support, but also pays specific attention to Reggae songs with flute solos. Interesting songs he lists, but the song I mentioned before, the Abyssinians’ The Good Lord, is an unfortunate omission.

See: http://www.bloodandfire.co.uk/db/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=43109

I further even have an example of a solo of an instrument not too common in Reggae, namely the violin. One of my favourite reggae songs with a violin is by the Gladiators (Albert Griffiths), namely a song called Slim Thing. The violin is hardly my favourite instrument, but I liked its use on this song, for some reason.

Electric guitar solos were long not very common in Reggae, neither in its precursor Rocksteady. Rocksteady tended not to have many solos (being more vocally oriented than Ska that came before), but if there were solos they tended to be of the keyboard or organ (probably an influence of the influential and talented keys virtuoso Jackie Mittoo in Jamaican popular music), or of horns (like often in Ska, and partly in Reggae). Horace Andy had one of the few Rocksteady songs with a guitar solo in it. The guitar tended to be rhythmic or supportive in Rocksteady, not soloing.

Up to today, there are – relatively - not many examples of electric guitar solos, outside of Bob Marley’s work that is. More acoustic sounding guitar solo’s (some even with a flamenco-like touch, others show a mento influence) are a bit more common, though. Also after Concrete Jungle there were some electric guitar solos in Marley tunes, some of which I liked better than the one of Concrete Jungle.
In a documentary I recently saw on the album Legend, a type of Greatest Hits album released after Bob Marley deceased, UK guitarist Les Davidson commented on Waiting In Vain (included in that compilation) that he liked the guitar solo by Al Anderson on it very much, and argued that rock & blues fans might have liked it too. This indeed nice solo has a more acoustic feel, though, (no wah wah-effect) than the more “rock”one of Concrete Jungle.

Good solos, in my opinion, have a “reflective” function: an interesting nonverbal reflection of the verbal part of the song (the lyrics). Sad themes therefore ideally have minor-key solos, uplifting or spiritual lyrics should likewise have “fitting” solo parts, expressing the same “feel”, only without words. Music has after all also the power to express and convey feelings, mere words cannot. Beyond words and the verbal, messages can after all be conveyed too. Sometimes even “realer” (i.e. “still unordered or untranslated).

STUDIO ONE

The earlier Studio One albums of Reggae artists like Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and others (from around 1969 and 1970) are interesting in this context, too. In fact, Burning Spear’s (Winston Rodney’s) debut single Door Peep had a saxophone solo, whereas other songs on his first Studio One albums (e.g. He Prayed, Bad To Worst) had interesting horn or organ solos too. Studio One owner Coxsone Dood was a jazz and rhythm & blues fans, so maybe that explains in part this room for solos, along with keyboard player Jackie Mittoo’s influence, or a general jazz influence among the musicians at the sessions (then including the Skatalites a.o.). On Dennis Brown’s first Studio One albums you hear some “jazzy” solos too, such as of the Hammond organ on the lively tune Going To A Ball..

In Early and later Reggae, thus, horn and keyboard solos remained quite common (as in Ska and Rocksteady)..

CONTINUITIES

The form and instrument choice of such solos in Reggae songs are of course shaped by the history of Jamaican music, which is I think interesting to look at in this context. In Ska horn solos seemed quite common, in Rocksteady also (think of the nice sax solo on Alton Ellis’s Rocksteady), along with more keyboard solos. Yet guitar solos of the more acoustic kind can be heard more than electric guitar solos.

This might very well be an influence of an even older, more rural folk music genre in Jamaica, namely Mento, popular throughout the earlier 20th c, up to the 1950s.. This mento was played with acoustic instruments, including the banjo and acoustic guitar, with these – especially the banjo – often taking time for solos as breaks within vocal songs. While a string instrument, the banjo is by the way associated with African, Congo region origins. Some guitar solos in later Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae still bear such a Mento feel, as some are even played by veteran musicians who also played Mento, such as Ernest Ranglin. An evident continuity, even if banjo’s as such are not much heard in later Reggae.

Electric guitar solos – louder - are more an “outside influence”, though absorbed partly in some more crossover Reggae, but also in more “authentic” Roots Reggae (Burning Spear, Congos, Pablo Moses, Horace Andy). Pablo Moses’s I Man A Grasshopper has even a quite extensive electric guitar solo. It started once as an outside, “Rock” influence, though, such as in Marley’s Concrete Jungle, especially with that “wah wah” effect.

RHYTHMIC

Yet, Reggae music is strongly rhythmic, though not solely so. This determinees largely the proportion of melodic or harmonic solos, being therefore a bit more limited than in solo-or improvisation-oriented genres like Jazz. Instruments like the bass guitar, but also trumpets, trombones, guitars, keyboard, flutes, melodica, harmonica etcetera are all “chording”and semi-melodic (unlike drums and percussion) in Reggae. Although still often “supportive” to the overall melody, and at the same time the driving rhythms of many songs. As a mainly African retention (from the polyrhythmic tradition), these instruments often present “counter points/answers” and counter-patterns to other (main) patterns, typically the bass and drum. Related to this sub-Saharan African rhythmic concept, they can also syncopize main patterns. This is more common than solos as diverging sidepath melodies, although – as said – such more melodic solos are not absent in Reggae compositions of different types (commercial or noncommercial).

There is another side to this, from an artistic, musical perspective. Melodical, meandering lines of certain instruments have the inherent capacity to emphasize the underlying strong rhythm in that same song. As a form of functional, explanatory contrast. Yin and Yang. This contrast thus helps emphasize the usually strong and steady rhythm in Reggae behind solo parts, perhaps a reason some artists chose to include such solos. Functional contrasts in music.

Due to the strong rhythmic focus in Reggae, the already crucial drums do not need explicit solos (as sometimes heard in jazz). Solos of percussion added to the drum base (hand drums, kete and nyabinghi drums often, but also regularly scraper instruments) do occur, but more commonly percussive patterns continue throughout the song as a structural rhythmic part, though some varying (solo-like) parts with hand drum or scraper or block patterns can be heard on songs by the Itals, Culture, Burning Spear, Bob Marley (Crazy Baldheads with the scraper-block interplay as “solo” at the end), or the Congos. The Itals’ Me Waan Justice is a great example of a percussion “semi-solo’”, but at the same time of cross-rhythms in the African tradition.

DUB

Dub Reggae is a largely instrumental variant of Reggae, yet can be characterized as “raw rhythm”. It is mainly rhythmically focussed, using fading in and out and various sound effects to create variation, and less instrumental solos as such. Alternatively, you can say that it is the “engineer” soloing, instead of musicians/instrumentalists. An important (and influential) exception is the work of Augustus Pablo, using often the melodica on many of his Dub instrumentals: as leading instrument, but often also “solo”-like, interchanging vocal or other musical snippets or echoed parts, with diverging melodica lines..

Augustus Pablo’s son Addis Pablo continues in this melodica on Reggae vein, by the way.

FEEDBACK?

I have said my piece, but if some readers having read this know of interesting solos within Reggae I have not mentioned in the piece above, I’ll be happy to hear about them (perhaps as comment)..

woensdag 3 mei 2017

Dream meanings (in Reggae)

As I expect most people in the world – who after all need to sleep - I have a relationship with “dreams”. I remember good and bad dreams. For some years (when I was around 11) I wrote some of them down, even had a (paper) notebook devoted to it. I did not really keep that up or ever did it too structurally, so after a period I stopped. I later encountered people who really kept writing their dreams down more structurally – well into their adult lives - , attaching spiritual and symbolic meanings to them, guiding them.

I became a bit more sceptical about it in time, although I thought that at least some of my dreams had to have some kind of deeper meaning: they were that odd yet symbolical and forceful, raising questions. Later, I acquired some scientific, psychological (Freud and Jung) and biological knowledge, making me look at my dreams in different ways.

Medical knowledge taught me that when you remember your dreams, it simply means you were not sleeping that “deep”. It could mean that you slept bad because you were worried, ill, or consumed the wrong food/drinks too late. Psychosomatic or biological.

FREUD

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, taught that dreams express the unconscious and (un)fulfillment of desires. Freud saw dreams as “a disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes”. Interestingly, he argues that the meanings of dreams (especially of adults) are there, but concealed. This meaning from the unconscious can be “decoded” by examining symbols, but also through free association. Freud later stressed that again, having become annoyed about how one of the several terms he coined, namely “phallic symbol” (in relation to dream interpretation), got a life of its own, with misinterpretations, lacking proper associations relevant to one individual person dreaming. Freud objected against the fact that all dreams require a “sexual” explanation, as some thought was his point. He never contended or wrote that, Freud said.

Other views on this exist, but such explanations seemed plausible to me. From then on I mostly remembered only the relatively more “meaningful” dreams, that left a special impression with me, after I woke up.

Among the dreams I wrote down (in my teens) I remember one in which I ran along on a road with Arab-looking people, some of whom said “the wall is going to fall” (in Dutch, oddly enough), leaving me puzzled in that very dream (what wall did they talk about.. the one we ran along?). The landscape looked arid and “Middle-Eastern”. I found this impressive, without knowing why. Yet.. it was in the 1980s, so well before the Berlin Wall fell down, yet the landscape and people in my dream did not seem to refer to the East Bloc or Berlin.. Dreams have to have inherent absurdities. Probably, having seen such scenes on television news (where the Middle East recurred prominently then and now) simply influenced such dreams.

In another dream I was in a nearby village in the Netherlands from where I lived (named Hillegom, a village I knew a bit as I once worked there in a farm), and I carried a red box along through that village. I met some people, was at a bar with that red box with me on the table. At the end of the dream, I dared open the box and flames of fire came out. This was one of those dreams that impressed me enough to write it down. I guess some Freudian or Jungian interpretations can be let loose on such dream symbols, haha.. (red box, fire, difficult “secrets” kept, perhaps?).

Other dreams just reflected that I felt a bit ill, hungry, or ate or drank wrong things/too late. Such dreams were mainly “stressful”.. Nothing spectacular happened in such dreams, yet I felt stressed, tense and uneasy in them.. like I had some heavy task to do that could not wait, and was panicking. Often I was happy that I woke up from such “stress dreams”, and that I did not really have such tasks as in the dreams. Other dreams I had were pleasant and good, and I found it a pity that I had to wake up. Like many people I have good and bad dreams.

DIFFERENT CULTURES AND CREEDS

Beyond modern Western interpretations, dreams of course have different meanings in different cultures and religions, also throughout history.

That dreams convey “messages” from the spiritual realm is in fact quite common throughout different cultures, even in earlier European ones. Messages from the spiritual realm, from gods or God, or –also – from ancestors and ancestor spirits. One finds it in the Bible (“prophetic dreams”). It is known in Islam (dreams convey messages from past martyrs to present-day Muslims), while in Buddhism and Hinduism dreams tend to have special, spiritual meanings too.

Even more interesting are dream interpretations among indigenous peoples, such as the Amerindians or the Aboriginals. The Aboriginals of Australia attach especially much importance to “dreams” as “guiding” in their life, and as spiritual connection to the ancestors, with a community function. Therefore they ascribe also much cultural importance to symbols in them, and their meanings and references.

Likewise interesting is how the phenomenon of “dreams” is viewed in relation to “real life”, or better said: the waking hours. Some cultures detach dreams from real, waking hours (along with sleep), while in some cultures dream and waking hours become more intertwined, also in rituals, daily customs etcetera. Thus as a third stage bridging daily waking hours and sleep. This was/is for instance the case among some Amerindian cultures, as well as the already mentioned Australian Aboriginals.

Some African cultures, such as those involving “spirit possession”, attach a spiritual meaning to dreams too, also ascribing dreams a role of conveyor of messages of ancestors or spirits/deities. Regular dreams are seen as “spiritually balanced” and healthy, as a connection with spirits is ongoing. This is the case with the Vodou religion in Haiti, based largely on African, Benin/Togo region precursors.

That dreams convey messages is accepted, yet not all dreams are equally meaningful within Vodou, and further advise or guidance – from “houngans” (priests) - is necessary to determine its meaning or actual relevance. This is an interesting down-to-earth counterweight to “supernatural” seeming irrationalities that some associate “spiritual meanings”of dreams too.

Also Yoruba culture (in what is now Nigeria and Benin), traditionally had a similar spiritual message function ascribed to dreams (as in Vodou), similarly distinguishing between meaningful or less meaningful dreams. “Dreaming”as such is not seen as exalted or enlightened among the Yoruba, it only becomes meaningful with further interpretation and rituals in waking hours. Either way, Orisha spirits/deities tend to have messages in dreams that are interpreted in traditional Yoruba culture, and its continuities in the West, having survived the Atlantic Slave Trade, in Yoruba-based folk religions as Santería in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad, and Candomblé in Brazil.

So, the necessity of dreams for spiritual balance is empahasized in these African cultures, while distinctions among their functions are also made. The same applies to Bantu cultures, like of the Zulu, the latter referring to what they call “the shade” giving messages through dreams.

Scholars point out that despite universalities shared, there is a general difference in meanings attached to dreams between African and (modern) European cultures, namely that in African cultures one often dreams also “for others”, with messages for other people/the community, and not just for themselves as in the modern Western world, shaping their ritual interpretation.

As with many things - however - in this (unfortunately) dominantly Eurocentric World, the dream interpretation in several age-old cultures outside of Europe, do in fact not differ in complexity and “layers” when compared to the theories of Freud, Jung and others, shaping Western scholarly thought (and spread throughout the world).

The link between dreams and spirituality seems an obvious one, dreams being an “uncontrolled”, mysterious area for humans. The supernatural functions of dreams in traditional religions, as well as in Christianity and Islam attest to that. In the Bible furthermore (in books Joel and Acts), a distinction is made between Dreams (for old men) and Visions (for young men), both with spiritual functions.

POPULAR CULTURE

In popular culture and daily life –beyond religious cadres - people try to make sense of dreams too, and their surreal aspects. “Dreaming” is associated colloquially with “hoping”or “wishing” in many languages, including English, Dutch, French, and Spanish, as a simplified Freudian take. Many poems or pop songs attest to this, including to other psychological roles of dreams, such as escape from worries or a painful or deprived real life. There is a duplicity also here. “Dreaming” is at the same time in many European and other languages associated with “unrealistic” escaping, not being able to cope with or understand reality, and therefore “dreams” become negative. A type of laziness or irresponsibility. Like day-dreaming. Not real life or serious enough.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech I Have A Dream used it in the positive meaning of “hope”, perhaps echoing an idea of a ”vision”, beyond a dream, of a better future that seems far-fetched yet possible.

I find it interesting to study this use of “dream(s)”and “dreaming” in popular culture – notably music. I will focus especially on a genre I know most about: Reggae music from Jamaica.

REGGAE

Reggae is interesting, because it is an internationalized popular music genre, inevitably functioning in a modern Western World, but with (often) connections to a spiritual movement, Rastafari, the aforementioned spiritual aspects come back again. Rastafari is furthermore Afrocentric and Jamaican culture mostly African-derived, returning us also to African views on dreams. In addition, Reggae knows many lyrics about social issues and protest, alongside love songs as in most other genres.

How do all these influences (including the Bible, Freud, and African folk religions), reflect in Reggae song lyrics, when involving “dreams” as term or phenomenon?

The Rastafari movement is both African and Bible-based. That is how it stands, despite critique of some Rastas against the Eurocentric (King James) Bible’s role in the movement. It does play a role, and therefore also the mentioned distinction between “dream” and “vision” made in some Bible books, with “vision” being more progressively prophetic than “dream”, and often valued more.

Yet, the word “dream” and derived words (plural dreams, dreaming etcetera) recur regularly throughout Reggae music, even in some relatively well-known songs. Relatively more often in love and romance-themed songs, must be said, but also in songs with Rastafari or social messages.

MEANINGS

The different meanings ascribed by human kind, in fact all over the World, to dreams, ranging from spiritual, to hope, healing, or community functions.. All these can to differing degrees found in Reggae lyrics. Most common is, as in other English-speaking areas – and international pop culture -, dream as a metaphor for “hope”, of getting out of the present situation. In a sense often similar to “vision” or equivalent, though not always. Both (dreams and vision), anyway, can “come true”, according to lyrics.

“Dreams coming true” is a common, almost “ cliché” use of dreams, especially common in love songs. Some formulaic uses of the term “dream” can be found in Jamaican music, especially in love songs. Even there, though, there is enough originality in using the term. Dreaming about a loved woman – common also in other music genre’s lyrics – is one such formulaic or cliché use found in some reggae songs. Not that the artists are really to be blamed: they just use the English language, with all its common metaphors.. simply to communicate.

Likewise, in most pop music genres with “dream” in the lyrics, it refers to “wishing” in relation to love (personal relationships). The Everley Brothers’song (All I Have To Do is) Dream” is perhaps the best known globally, even though somewhat overrated in my opinion. Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House, another well known hit (musically a bit better than the Everley Brothers’one in my opinion). Also, the “classic” Italian tune Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Plu) by Domenico Modugno, is about someone “dreaming” about “flying” (“volare” in Italian), but also through a love affair with a woman. Also Otis Redding’s fine and well-known I’ve Got Dreams To Remember is a love song. Lyrically it is interestingly formulated, though. Likewise the opening lyric of a song of Spanish “Flamenco pop” artist Chiquetete, a song called Aprende A Soñar (Spanish for “Learn To Dream") hints toward somewhat deeper interpreatations of dreaming. “Let the passing of time be detained only in the sphere of the clock.. (and start dreaming)..” Despite this nicely put philosophical opening line, it turns out to be a love song too, with matching clichés.

Other, more creative or original lyricists approach dreaming more playfully, such as Tom Waits’s interesting Innocent When You Dream, which is not really a love song, as few of Tom Waits’ songs are really (just) love songs..

“Dreams in lyrics” becomes however more original if what is dreamt about is not “good loving” regarding one woman/man or relationship, but rather social change. Along the lines of Martin Luther King’s emotive yet beautiful I Have A Dream speech. Equally eloquent, though, was Malcolm X’s statement that Black people in the US are not living the American Dream, but “experiencing the American nightmare”.

SOCIAL AND SPIRITUAL

Reggae, more than other genres, has often social and protest lyrics, as well as many Rastafari-inspired lyrics. Many – if not most – other popular music genres tend to focus much more on love and romance themes, some genres even exclusively. Love relationships are universal and shared by all humans, explaining the appeal, although it is also a “safe” choice: safe commercially on the one hand, but also “safe” politically, relevant in contexts of dictatorships and censorships. Cuban son and salsa “hit songs” in Cuba, should either praise the Communist leadership (Castro cum suis) or be about love, sex, or romance, albeit playfully.

Also in Spain under Right-wing dictator Franco (1939-1975) some Spanish (Flamenco or other) hit songs passed censorship when about often formulaic love themes, and nonpolitical. Also under dictator Trujillo (1930-1961) in the Dominican Republic, local Merengue songs were promoted, as long as they had no political, rebellious themes. To keep the people happy, so to speak, with popular music, but in a controlled manner.

Notwithstanding all the inequalities and social injustice separating the haves and the ghetto have-nots and poor people within Jamaica, there is at least a degree of freedom of speech there, notable in Bob Marley’s rebellious lyrics, even after Chris Blackwell’s commercializing production. Such rebellious protest lyrics can be released and made public in Jamaican Reggae, yet whether is will be the most commercially successful is unforunately dubious. That Inner Circle’s mediocre tune Sweat (“Girl I want to make you sweat”) became a reggae crossover hit in several countries is telling enough.

“Dreaming”or “dreams” about social change is indeed found in Reggae lyics, but often with a specific Rastafari or locally influenced accent. Zion Is A Vision (1992), a quite well-known, nice song (in the reggae scene, that is) by Garnett Silk is a good example, with vision being here used as dreaming about Zion (Africa, Ethiopia), Haile Selassie, and a “family reunion”.. a dream Garnett did not wish to wake up from, as he says in the lyrics.

More “political” so to speak, Pablo Moses’s earlier song Revolutionary Dream (1975) - from the album of the same name - is about overthrowing as warriors the oppressive forces keeping one down and in poverty. A “wonderful vision”, Pablo Moses sings, he woke up from..

More neutrally positive, if idealistic, is an earlier reggae song, recorded by the Wailers (and Bunny Wailer), namely Dreamland, about living in balance with nature, provided with fruits, “safe and free”. The “far across the sea” in the lyrics, though, probably refers to the African motherland, without naming Africa as such.

GARVEY

Marcus Garvey is important for the Rastafari movement. Moreover, he was a Black Power precursor to both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Garvey was a prophetic activist, yet was at the same time an interesting, multidimensional personality, who put Black advancement first, yet gave it a personal touch, by speaking in sincere and direct terms. I see this as positive, because it allows you to “trust” a person. Everything (also private things) openly and public is too much to ask (and psychologically not recommendable), but as much as possible or wise seems good to me. Else you end up as people who, as my mother called it (I translate from Spanish), “have more hidden than out in the open”. Like many politicians or people in high places, for instance. Or criminals.

One 1927 poem by Garvey, called A Summer’s Dream, deals with a dream he described, and seems quite personal, and seemingly about a love relationship, although a deeper, metaphoric meaning (beyond just one love partner) is certainly possible. I considered the poem, despite common Biblical and heaven references, actually quite touching and impressive. The Summer Dream in question was nightmarish, and unlike with good, “paradise dreams” of lyrics I mentioned before (Garnett Silk’s Zion In A Vision), Garvey was glad to wake up out of it, finding it not to be real. What’s more, with the line “I came to my senses”, he places such upsetting dreams in a negative light, as of lesser value than reality.

http://nyahbinghi.ca/garvey-speeches/view-garvey.asp?word_title=A Summer~s Dream

Elsewhere in Garvey’s poetry and writings, “dream” is also used positively, or in common meanings of (community) “hope”.

Haile Selassie I, also crucial in the Rastafari movement, used the term “dream” in his beautiful speech/address for the United Nations in 1963, reproduced in the lyrics of Bob Marley’s classic song War. “until that day (when the philosophy that some races are superior to others has ended and been discredited), “the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, and the rule of international morality will remain in but a fleeting illusion..to be pursued but never attained”. The dream is not criticized as such, but a dream that has no eventual link with reality (beyond a “fleeting illusion”) is. Dreaming is not enough, so to speak.

The absurdities of actual dreams could have inspired some musicians, and maybe they have, although the effects of narcotics are a fierce competitor to this. LSD trips probably inspired several songs or video clips in some genres. The fact that dreams tend to be absurd and their meaning often unclear, make them less suitable for musicians and songwriters and singers, after all often out to “tell the world a (sensible) story” with their lyrics, . A genius like Jimi Hendrix is maybe an exception to this rule. Other, visual artists, like painter Salvador Dali and partly Pablo Picasso, however said to use dreams as main inspirations for what they would paint on the canvas.

In Reggae perhaps only the idiosyncratic Lee “Scratch” Perry, or instrumental reggae, such as the more spacey Dubs by King Tubby and others come close to such inspirations out of absurd dreams.

The British (duh) band London Underground also made an interesting song for the Reggae-focussed On-U label in Britain called “Dreams Are Better”. The song is Reggae-like, but overall experimental musically (some Punk influences are there too), while the lyrics are likewise (somewhat) alternative to other lyrics in that “dreams” are preferred over the confusion and illusion in reality. I guess I kind of liked that song when I first heard it, because it had a nice dubby groove..

In most Reggae lyrics “dream” is a metaphor”for “wish” or “desire” as in other music genres, yet with relatively more “social” or spiritual wishes when compared to other genres with love songs dominating.

Somewhat different is the well-known reggae tune by the sweet-voiced Jackie Edwards, the nice 1975 song My Dream About Ali Baba (covered by others), a song with lyrics just relating a dream, with all its absurdities, influenced by children’s story books.

Critical of “dreams” is Ini Kamoze’s intriguing (Living In A) Dream, which is quite poetic and layered, as it treats the distinction between dream and reality at an abstract level, with a lyric like “got me buzzing like a computerized machine”.

Several songs discuss dreams as positive, prophetic visions of a better world, future and place, from a Rastafari perspective, as some already mentioned (Garnett Silk, Pablo Moses), and further in lyrics by e.g. Prince Fari, Culture (song Elijah) or Winston Reedy’s also fine Judah’s Dream, here with literal Biblical references.

Also recent reggae songs, such as by Busy Signal and RC (Dreams of Brighter Days, 2013), or My Dream by Nesbeth, use dream in the sense of positive hopes or wishes/ambitions, whereas Sizzla calls for “chasing your wildest dreams” as a positive goal to get out of poverty and pain (in the song Wildest Dreams). Dennis Brown JR also sings he “never will stop dreaming”. In these songs as goals and hopes wider than love or romance relationships.

CONCLUSION

If there is something that can be concluded from this, it is that there is a duplicity of meanings attached to dreams and dreaming in Reggae lyrics. Just like in traditional Yoruba culture, and in a way in the theories of Sigmund Freud, and perhaps to a degree universally, world wide. This can be summarized as: dreams are necessary in human lives, but not enough..

zondag 2 april 2017

Subtle or subdued? : percussion in Bob Marley songs

In reality, it is a matter of connecting the dots. I am a reggae fan for over 30 years now, since I was about 11 years. Aside from this, some years ago, I took a more active interest in playing percussion, notably acoustic instruments. Before this I made music too (in fact since my teens), but through keyboards, MIDI, and singing.

My first encounter with reggae music back then (mid-1980s) included – as for so many people – Bob Marley albums, but also by other artists, such as the Wailing Souls. Over the years, my taste expanded to the entire Jamaican music scene. I specialized in reggae, you can safely say, and became (as other longtime fans) quite knowledgeable about it. This seems a natural progression.

In time I started to play percussion (hand drums, scrapers, bells, shakers etcetera) more actively, about 5 years ago. I was by then already a seasoned reggae fan, of course (listening of course at times also other music genres). I started with the Afro-Cuban bongó, followed by congas, the Yoruba ashiko drum, the African talking drum, djembe, bells, shakers, güiro, and other instruments, taking also lessons. Though I am broadly interested, I chose to focus most on Afro-American and African percussion instruments, with some slight Spanish/Flamenco influences. Since then – the last years as I write this - I played and jammed regularly with different musicians in the Amsterdam area. Mostly, though not exclusively, reggae musicians or music.

PERCUSSION IN REGGAE

Of course, as can be expected, I started to focus on different aspects of reggae songs from then on, paying more detailed attention to the use of percussion in songs. This also to learn from, for educational purposes. I learned that some reggae songs had more prominent percussion, other reggae songs relatively less. This could depend on the producer, studio, time period, specific musicians, albums, artists..

It is here where “connecting the dots” comes in. In a former blog postof mine (on this blog) I studied the “güiro”, a scraper instrument, originally used in Afro-Cuban music, including son and salsa. I found that this güiro scraper was in fact used quite often by percussionists in reggae music, even throughout some entire albums. Often also quite “noticeable” (loud, audible) in the mix. Lee “Scratch” Perry seemed sympathetic to this scraper instrument’s sound, as were other artists and producers, like the band Culture, Burning Spear, the Congos, or influential Augustus Pablo and Sly & Robbie productions. More generally, they liked to add percussion sounds, also beyond the güiro scraper.

BOB MARLEY

Bob Marley & the Wailers, by contrast, used the güiro scraper – and other percussion -relatively less prominently. There are some exceptions (Africa Unite, Crazy Baldhead, Get Up Stand Up, some songs on the Survival and Uprising albums). More generally, beyond just the güiro, on most Bob Marley songs percussion is used, but relatively sparse and limited, it seems, and often soft or somewhat “drowned” in the mix.

Africa Unite, a great song from the Survival album, is a case in point. There is a güiro audible, along with other percussion instruments, but barely audible without headphones. To really hear it well and prominent, one needs to listen in detail and preferably with headphones. That way I also found out that there is an African-type “talking drum” on the song Zimbabwe. I find those perrcussive details interesting.

So, not just that güiro, but the other percussion used in Bob Marley songs – at least on the well-known Island albums - tends to be soft, subdued (volume-wise) in the mix, compared to the other instruments. The woodblock (or jamblock) is used more in Bob Marley songs – quite regularly even – but somewhat hidden (read: soft) in the mix, as are bells and triangles. Only on a few songs of Bob, percussion was allowed to become more prominent. The bottle on the song Jamming, the audible cuíca friction drum on Could You Be Loved, and the interesting güiro scraper-woodblock interplay by Bob’s percussionist Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, on the song Crazy Baldhead (from the 1975 Rastaman Vibration album). These are exceptions, rather than the rule in the overall song book of Marley.

Many reggae fans may know that there is a bottle sound in Jamming, or a güiro scraper in the final part of Crazy Baldhead (or on Max Romeo’s Chase The Devil). They may also remember hearing a bell in several Bob Marley songs. They might, however, never have noted the talking drum in the song Zimbabwe. This is because it got “subdued”, drowned in the mix, amid the other (some say “main” instruments), namely the trap drums and electric instruments (bass, guitar, keyboard).

Zimbabwe is actually an interesting example. Most prominent is the (cow)bell, which is audible even through superficial listening. That bell (mainly a triple and double tone interchanged) is even kind of “driving” the energy of the song’s flow. Yet, upon closer listening it becomes evident that several percussion instruments are used on Zimbabwe, including hand drums (probably nyabinghi kete drums and congas), wood blocks, talking drums, and varied shaker sounds (cabasa, maracas).

The irony is that the song Zimbabwe is relatively “full” with percussion, yet that this is not very prominent or noticeable. Superficially, anyway, without giving it detailed attention. Nonetheless, it gives a song a depth, perhaps even subconsciously, that has an effect on the listener. That is a mark of good quality, in and by itself. It nonetheless still leaves the question open why the percussion could not sound louder in the final mix.

PERCUSSION

In the remainder of this post I want to focus on how percussion plays a role in Bob Marley’s songs, being the best-known reggae artist, world wide. Bob played a main role in internationalizing reggae, that is evident. Several of his songs are known all over the world.

Bob’s natural charisma and personality played a definitive role in his worldwide fame and appeal, yet, also Island and Chris Blackwell’s commercial thinking and promotion. The translation to the mainstream, non-reggae markets can only affect reggae’s authenticity. In fact it did affect this authenticity, although Marley – especially in (Rastafari) message and lyrics - largely kept his integrity. It did musically, though. Especially since Chris Blackwell and Island took Bob under their wings since 1973, his music became – at least partly - more “Westernized”, and mainstream. It got to differ – albeit to differing degrees - from the kind of Roots Reggae Jamaicans themselves preferred, already in the 1970s. The more culturally authentic, or “raw” Jamaican reggae, with some “rough edges” from the ghetto, as some describe it. Or “Blacker” as some also call it.

Does this difference relate to the relatively subdued percussion on Bob Marley songs?

PERCUSSION FUNCTIONS

Percussion in the African and Afro-American traditions, from which reggae developed, has (simply put) two main functions: one is a rhythmic one (driving, leading the/a main rhythm), the other is more, well, additional, filling up, or “embellishing”. Decorative, and more marginal. Overall, in African-derived music, percussion is relatively important, especially in music with – in part - sub-Saharan African roots. That may be a known fact, as African drumming traditions are quite well-known, even among non-experts. Africa is the most “percussive”continent (also maintained by anthropologist scholar Robert Farris-Thompson), so the balance of percussion’s function in African music often igoes towarrd “leading”and “driving”. To a lesser degree, percussion can have also derived, more decorative functions in African music.

ALVIN “SEECO” PATTERSON

Especially in the context of this particular post, Bob Marley’s steady percussionist Alvin “Seeco” Patterson has to be mentioned. Throughout most of his career, since the 1970s , Seeco was Bob’s steady percussionist, until the end.. He was actually named Francisco Willie (Seeco as nickname derived from the Spanish first name), and was born in Havana, Cuba. Cuba is percussively influential globally, but I do not know whether this influenced Seeco’s instrument orientation.

Looking at album liner notes, however, one sees mentioned that percussion on several albums (Exodus, Uprising and others) also Aston & Carlton Barret - and occasionally Bob himself - were credited with playing percussion, alongside Seeco. Nevertheless, Seeco remained the main percussionist. Besides this role, Seeco was also influential early in the Wailers’ career, introducing them to Studio One owner Coxsone Dodd, for an audition, around 1964 (in the Ska era). Seeco knew Dodd and the Jamaican music scene already quite well, being then already some years active as musician, also in the Jamaican folk genre Mento (though he had to work in a mine on the side).

It is interesting to focus on Seeco’s (and sometimes others’) percussion contributions to Bob Marley’s albums and songs, including the well-known ones and big hits.

The said main – if simplistic – distinction between rhythmic, “carrying” percussion on the one hand, and atmospheric or decorative/embellishing on the other, is I think useful when listening to percussion on Bob Marley songs . The distinction cannot always be made, must be said. Especially in the African and Afro-American traditions, a counter-rhythm can be part of the overall call-and-response structure defining the song in its totality.

Though I am a percussion aficionado, I am not that biased or narrow-minded that I think that all reggae songs should have percussion, or that songs can only be good with added percussion. Some trap drummers are very creative with hi-hat patterns or added hits or rimshots, filling songs up quite nicely, as can dub/echo effects, or more rhythmic keyboard/synth or added guitar patterns. So much percussion is not always that indispensable. I like music in general (“soul”, melody, lyrics, harmony, rhythm), though I admittedly focus a bit more on rhythm, generally speaking. Probably, because I like to dance or move to music.

I have enjoyed songs, not really consciously aware of percussion present in it (or not). On the other hand, I do also encounter regularly songs, in reggae and other genres, of which I think: that could have used (more) percussion, to make it (even) better. Just to spice it up, groove it up, or fill it up, haha (I don’t even know if “groove it up” is an expression, but let’s continue). Some songs by the St Croix reggae band Midnite are examples of songs I thought could use more percussion, sounding somewhat “empty” to me.

Likewise, I “missed” more percussion also on some Wailers’ songs from the 1973 Catch A Fire and Burnin albums. These two “earlier” crossover albums were aimed at a White rock audience (in part) in Europe and the US, explaining perhaps the subdued role of percussion on the albums. Maybe Island records boss Chris Blackwell (co-producing these and later Bob albums) thought too much percussion was too, well, Black, Afro-Caribbean, or “ethnic”. In fact, Blackwell was the Executive Producer on Bob’s albums since 1973. I am afraid that Exeutive means something like “the final say”.

It is true that on most Bob albums Seeco was free to add percussion. This became, however, often soft in the mix, but upon closer/headphone listening – simply necessary to hear it well – even in earlier Bob Marley songs, some variety of percussion instruments can be heard. Not on all songs, however.

INSTRUMENT CHOICES

Among these percussion instruments, there seemed to be some preferences. Cowbells, other bells, and wood/jam blocks recur regularly, shaker instruments, jingle sticks/tambourines too, a bit less regular also an Akete hand drum or conga’s. Occasionally a rattle can be heard (on the songs Satisfy My Soul and Sun Is Shining for instance). Less heard (though not absent) is the scraper or güiro instrument. This is interesting, because scrapers were used quite commonly in other Jamaican Roots Reggae at the time.

Through a representative sample from different Bob Marley’s albums I can draw some general conclusions about preferred percussion in Marley songs.

-bells (cowbells) are used relatively often
-the triangle (!) can be heard regularly
-woodblocks/jamblocks are also used relatively often
-cabasa and other shakers also quite regularly
-tambourines and jingle sticks recur as well

Their presence reflects general trends in both pop and reggae music (apart from maybe the triangle use, more common in European classical music and Brazilian music forms than in pop).

More specific to reggae as an Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Jamaican genre:

-hand drums (especially akete/nyabinghi drums) regularly too
-rattles and güiro’s share a somewhat rasping, scraping sound and are quite commonly used in reggae, in other Caribbean genres (e.g. Cuban and Dominican ones) even more, but less so in pop, rock, soul, or funk. In Marley songs, the rattle is used more than the güiro scraper, but not so much.

Exceptionally some other, “extraordinary” instruments appeared, such as a cuíca friction drum, a bottle/glass, or a talking drum.

Quite some variety in percussion instruments, not unlike other reggae or perhaps even more varied in instrumentation, though with some specific accents. Marley songs used relatively more metal percussion when compared to other reggae (bells, triangles), and also the woodblock/jamblock. The güiro, however, seems relatively neglected. Tellingly, earlier/other versions of Small Axe, a song appearing on the Island-produced Burnin’album too, had a quite prominent güiro pattern, that however disappeared from the Burnin’album version.

These might show a slight preference for “safe”choices, derived from Western pop music, besides perhaps the akete drums. Yet, overall there is quite some percussive variety in Marley songs, I must admit. The variety of instruments is not so much the problem. It is more the way it is played and recorded/mixed: simple, not very “full” patterns, that furthermore ended up soft and subdued in the final mix.

PRODUCTION CHOICES

A matter of choice, and maybe not even that important. The musical composition as a whole has to have quality, has to impress artistically, that’s what is most important. The combination of sounds and vocals. Quality is however largely subjectively defined. Furthermore, tastes of the public, of listeners, can be “shaped”, or at least influenced. Blackwell and others shaping the Bob Marley reggae sound – as known, more commercial and aimed at the mainstream than other Roots Reggae – made choices, which included – apparently – subduing percussion. Percussion was added, but was usually drowned and softened in the final mix.

Other producers in reggae since the 1970s, especially the more experimental ones like Lee “Scratch” Perry, Niney The Observer, or Augustus Pablo, made other choices. This includes often more prominent percussion. Especially on 1970s Roots Reggae albums produced by Lee Scratch Perry, percussion instruments were made deliberately prominent (scrapers, bells, hand drums, wood blocks, rattles, etcetera). Often even with “carrying” or “driving” rhythmic roles. Also the Rockers era, such as Henry “Junjo”Lawes productions, from around 1980 (the Wailing Souls album Fire House Rock, for example), did regularly have quite prominent roles for percussion.

On most Bob Marley songs, however, percussion is softer in the mix, drowning it more sonically. On the plus side, this has on several songs a nice atmospheric effect of “filling up”. Subtle, but notable. Adding indeed “depth”. I personally like this subtle effect of percussion on Bob’s song So Much Trouble In the World, and several other songs on especially the later albums Survival and Uprising. Also on earlier songs I liked the subtlety of added percussion, such as on the fine song Guiltiness (from the Exodus album), or the nice touch percussion (bell, block, rattle, hand drum) subtly adds to the excellent musical piece Misty Morning (on the 1978 Kaya album). Subtle and tasteful, similar to adding just the right amount of a spice to a dish, not too much and not too little.

I notice that the percussion became more varied in the later Bob albums Survival (1979) and Uprising (1980). More varied percussion, but generally not “louder” in the mix, and still subtle (or subdued). It adds to the nice feel of some songs like We and Dem (scraper/güiro, cowbell a.o.), Zimbabwe, Africa Unite, Forever Loving Jah (hand drums, triangle a.o.), and other songs, if partly subconsciously. An interesting approach to “playing with sound” found in other genres (like the “wall of sound” idea), but a bit less common in most reggae. There has to be variety in reggae, and there are different ways to add percussion, all effective and good in their own way, I guess. In most Bob Marley’s songs, especially for Island records, thus, the percussion was subtle and subdued.

Regarding the aforementioned “percussion roles” distinction, I think that the balance on most Bob Marley songs (with several exceptions) tipped toward “decoration” or “embellishing”, rather than more prominent “carrying” or “driving” rhythmical roles. An European influence, simply said.

There are exceptions, though, such as the great, relatively acoustic, Nyabinghi-based song Babylon System (on the album Survival), the glass sound on Jamming, or the groovy effect of the friction drum cuica friction drum on Could You Be Loved. The already mentioned song Crazy Baldheads had quite prominent percussion, and also on a song like One Drop (on the relatively “percussive” 1979 album Survival) the percussion is quite “carrying” and rhythmic, rather than just embellishing, due to a driving jam/wood block pattern in it.

CONCLUSION

Like I said, I found it interesting to study these subtle roles of percussion in Bob Marley songs. Especially because he was a relatively well-known reggae artist, internationally, reaching the mainstream. Plus, it is a nice change for me to analyse from another perspective songs I often know already well by now.

The Bob Marley sound, as Island and Chris Blackwell helped shape it, did not become a dominant influential model in Jamaica itself. The concessions to White, European tastes were probably all too evident and deemed inauthentic by most Jamaican musicians, preferring instead to “keep it real” and original culturally. Only some acts went a similar crossover direction, through modern, Western influences, notably Third World and Chalice, and to a lesser degree artists like Prince Lincoln Thompson. Most artists however wanted to sound original, Jamaican, and “real”, even sacrificing for that commercial success. You can consider this a self-sacrifice, or even in a sense “culturally heroic”.

The soft, subdued percussion on most Bob Marley songs were, I argue, part of a wider approach by Island and Chris Blackwell, to promote Bob Marley’s music to a more mainstream audience. They may have even have considered it more “sophisticated”. This combined with a greater role for the electric guitar in Marley songs (compared to other reggae) – to appeal to Rock fans? – synth additions, other influences from genres like blues and funk, relatively modest drum parts (Carlton Barret was certainly skilled as drummer, but kept it mostly steady, rather than being too experimental or polyrhythmic), and a not too low or prominent bass guitar. The “heavy bass”- common in a part of Jamaican music, influenced by Dub and Rub-A-Dub subgenres, was mostly avoided on Marley albums.

This bass guitar, though, was still quite prominent in Bob Marley’s music, when compared to other genres, and - as main chord instrument - at least audible and musically “leading”. Percussion was compared to the bass more often relegated to the background, subdued and soft, and even mostly marginal/decorative, at least on many songs. Also compared to the guitar. Percussion still added to the overall feel of Marley songs, but subtly. Occasionally, I appreciate this subtle approach to percussion on some Marley songs, I must admit. More often, though, I find it too subdued or too understated.

I think that the “wall of sound” notion, popularized by Philip Glass, and which suggests “Western sophistication” (justly or not), made the percussion be “drowned” or “buried” more in Bob Marley songs, when compared to other reggae. Most other reggae since the 1970s was “rawer” – so to speak – but also “sparser” in sound, with more open spaces sonically . Author Michael Veal noted this openness or “spatiality” in sound too, when studying Dub Reggae. Any percussion added to this more “open” or “spatial” sounding reggae, would therefore be more easily audible and identifiable.

Moreover, also important of course, many artists in reggae, increasing with the Roots Reggae period starting around 1972, preferred to use different percussion instruments regularly. This probably was in part due to cultural or spiritual reasons. The Rastafari movement focussed on Africa, and influenced Roots Reggae strongly in the 1970s. Using hand drums like the (Nyabinghi) Akete, or Congas, assured at least a symbolical connection to the African roots and Rastafari, but also other rhythmically used acoustic instruments like scrapers, shakers, or wooden instruments, had connections to the African motherland, and to “traditional culture”. The latter meant also a connection to the “folk”, away from too much attachment to Western -Babylon, as Rastas call it - modernized culture and technology, even though the use of it seemed inevitable in modern pop music. Percussion became thus part of a way to “keep it real”, differing from the polished, commercial approach aimed at Euro-Western cultural that the Island-shaped Bob Marley sound represented.

This is not to say that Bob Marley’s songs lacked quality. Bob Marley released several great albums and songs, that not entirely, but at least in part kept a musical integrity and represented Jamaican reggae. A bit more polished, but hey.. Bob Marley had good songwriting skills and talent, and proved this. Lee “Scratch” Perry especially appreciated his melodies. Marley also had good, effective lyrics, seemingly simple, yet full of wisdom. His singing voice was also okay, although there were – in my opinion – better singers in Jamaican music at the time (Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Horace Andy, Ken Boothe and others) with a wider, or more soulful vocal range. Overall, however, Bob was very talented as songwriter, musician, and artist.

I merely contend that the too commercial, “slick” and polished production and arranging and mixing choices of Bob Marley songs, made at Island by Chris Blackwell cum suis, diminished the power and “raw authenticity” of this talent. That’s what the relatively subdued percussion of Bob Marley songs in my opinion represents.

vrijdag 3 maart 2017

Marijuana

I live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. That city is associated in some circles – quite widely and internationally – with the “coffeeshops”, or in other words: a relatively liberal soft drugs/marijuana legislation. This was set into motion in the 1970s, and made the sale of marijuana semi-legal, or at least “decriminalized”, in certain shops or café’s. These became for some reason known as “coffeeshops”.

Certainly at that time (the 1970s), the Netherlands was relatively progressive in that regard. This got known internationally, attracting many marijuana-loving visitors, even from outside of Europe. These often had to hide their use often in their home countries (in some more than others). It gave Netherlands, and especially its tourism-oriented capital Amsterdam, a “cool” image among “potheads” world wide.

Indeed, most coffeeshops in the Netherlands were established in Amsterdam, numerically and proportionally, mostly related to tourism in the capital. We’re talking about a few hundred locales in Amsterdam alone (400 around the year 2000), though coffeeshops appeared all over the Netherlands, especially in the cities. The very first coffeeshop, though, is said to have been started in the city of Utrecht, central Netherlands, already in 1968. They say, though, that this locale in Utrecht, called Sarasani, did not have the form of a coffeeshop as it got known, as the decriminalization legislation was not really implemented in 1968 yet. In Amsterdam, Mellow Yellow was founded as the first “coffeeshop” as such, in 1972.

LEGAL?

A common myth – or misconception - is that smoking or selling marijuana is legal in the Netherlands. Strictly speaking, this is not the case. The selling of certain quantities of marijuana (over the years the maximum became less and less, by the way) is just “decriminalized”, while police turns on occasion a blind eye to how these coffeeshops obtain their marijuana to sell. That is namely largely through illegal trade, although cultivating your own marijuana plants is allowed by law. Again, up to a maximum (five plants at present). Most weed/marijuana to be bought in coffeeshops comes however by necessity from this illegal trade, often via international routes. South America to Northwest Spain (Galicia) is one such known and much used route, unfortunately – as on other routes – mixed up with other, harder drugs as well (like cocaine).

It must be said that over time drug laws, especially regarding soft drugs like marijuana, eased up in several countries outside of the Netherlands. Countries like Spain, Italy, Belgium have decriminalized its private use up to certain quantities. It is moreover at present still illegal but little enforced in the United Kingdom and Germany. In these countries there are no “coffeeshops” as in the Netherlands, but you rather have to “know people”, or they approach you informally in busy places (tourist areas with many young people, subway/underground stations etcetera).

Also some US states (like Colorado) have by now legalized marijuana use for medical purposes, while in Africa, South Africa has recently made a move toward liberalizing marijuana laws.

PERSONAL

I live in Amsterdam now for about 15 years, but I used to live in a village about 20 kilometers south of that city, called Nieuw-Vennep. There was no coffeeshop there.

I got into reggae music in that village at about the age of 11 or 12, even before I made much visits to the city Amsterdam. And no, I did NOT get into reggae through smoking marijuana, because I did not. I have up to then never used marijuana (neither alcohol or cigarettes, but of course I was young), when I got into reggae music, nor for years after this. I am therefore the living proof that that is not necessary. It was strictly for musical and cultural reasons that I fell in love with reggae, partly because it connected with other Black music genres I got a liking for at that time.

Of course, when I got more into reggae, and thus into the “reggae scene” (well, in that village Nieuw-Vennep, where I grew up, the “scene” consisted of a handful of individuals, among which my brother and me), I found out about the connection to marijuana smoking, that was of course also alluded to in reggae lyrics (Kaya being one of the first Bob Marley albums I heard, another early one being the Wailing Souls’ album On The Rocks, with the song Ishen Tree). Especially some older kids in my surroundings, who visited Amsterdam or also nearby Haarlem regularly, took up the habit of smoking marijuana. Sometimes secretively, as not all parents were that liberal or understanding. I found it funny or intriguing, but did not feel a pressing need to start using marijuana too. I did not seek it actively, let’s just say.

STEREOTYPE

I find this important to point out, because, to be honest, I object against the cliché and sterotypical association of both reggae music and Rastafari with smoking marijuana. This stereotype is in part perpetuated by many coffeeshops in Amsterdam, using Jamaican, reggae, and in some cases even Rasta-derived terms as their names, while often using other Rasta imagery as well (the red, green, and gold flag, the Lion of Judah, dreadlocks etcetera), but in most cases just for commercial reasons, not as statement of faith. This makes it somewhat insincere and dubious.

All this is too stereotypical, and therefore oppressive and denigrating. Reggae music is an interesting music genre, born of different cultural and artistic influences, part of the African Diaspora in Jamaica. An important expression of poor, oppressed people. Likewise, Rastafari is a beautiful spiritual movement, born of specific historical circumstances also part of that African Diaspora in Jamaica, as an intelligent, rebellious response by prophetic, inspiring thinkers as Marcus Garvey, and personified by an inspiring personality as Haile Selassie I. One may adhere or not to that faith, but it is certainly not of lesser value than known “religions” as Christianity (and its variants), Islam, or other ones.

What I find unfortunate, therefore, is that Rastafari becomes sometimes associated mainly with marijuana smoking, as is reggae music. With music scenes you might at least argue that “drugs” or certain substances (alcohol, cocaine, speed, lsd, xtc, meth) were/are associated with other music genres too (rock, punk, heavy metal, blues, country a.o.), having to do with the way certain artists/musicians supposedly are unadapted, free spirits living rough, alternative lifestyles, Not every artist can deal intelligently with that, leading even to self-destructive behaviour, stimulated by the “confusion of fame” (Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix). Some known artist thus were effectively alcoholics or hard drug addicts. Compared to that, the common use of a soft plant-based substance like marijuana by many (no, not all) reggae artists and fans, is more harmless or ”innocent”.

The association of marijuana smoking with the Rastafari movement is more problematic, though. That cliché is upheld by the coffeeshops, the “mainstream media”, but also “fake Rastas” or wannabe’s, along with many “outsiders” seeking to denigrate a faith or movement they do not adhere to (nothing to do with them, therefore “bad”.. human being often are that biased). My problem with that is, is that it is not seen as – which it is - part of the ritual complex that some Rastafari adherentes choose (marijuana for meditation), but seen – unjustly - as essential or quintessential to Rastafari. That is not necessarily the case. Sure, some Rastas love to smoke marijuana when and after “sighting” Rastafari – perhaps connected in their mind-state and consciousness. That is, however, an individual choice. Just like some may like avocado more than mango or vice versa, or prefer lentils over beans or vice versa. Or like some like to swim, and others prefer riding the bicycle.

Rastafari is, however, primarily an entire Afrocentric movement with spiritual connections to Africa and Ethiopia, inspired by Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I.

Marcus Garvey was furthermore not known to smoke marijuana (or cigarettes for that matter, neither did he drink alcohol much), and according to his own testimony, heard about marijuana use in Jamaica, of which he was in fact distrustful, regarding its effects.

In Jamaica, using marijuana had become common even before Marcus Garvey’s lifetime. According to historical sources, it was first brought by Indian indentured labourers working alongside Afro-Jamaicans, although other sources state that it started among Africans in Jamaica before that. The common term “ganja” for marijuana or weed among Jamaicans is of Indian (Hindi) origin. Anyway, it became a common practice among many poorer Afro-Jamaicans, as a relief from daily pressures. Just like some Europeans do with beer or wine (or even strong drinks like whisky) after work, or in the evenings.

REGGAE

Some argue (or hope?) that the creation of reggae music – or its development – was influenced by the custom of smoking marijuana in Jamaican culture. Its pace and feel and such. The rhythmic, polyrhythmic, and call-and-response stem of course from the African heritage, but the specific form reggae took might have been shaped by weed smoking by influential musicians.

It is hard to deny that in many recording studios, or among musicians where they gathered in Jamaica, marijuana smoking was common, often even while creating and recording songs. Different testimonies and videos from the 1970s and 1980s simply confirm this. Again, not so different from blues bars or studios where whisky or gin is drunk in quantities by the musicians. When one is drunk one feels different, thinks temporarily in a different way. The same applies to the THC effect of marijuana. This all might affect the kind of songs one writes, or how one plays.

This must in my opinion not be exaggerated. There is after all a deeper truth, confirmed by serious scientific studies. That is that “drugs”, alcohol, or hullucinogenic substances in general, do not change how a person “is” (character-wise), but rather how one “feels”, as it changes one’s mood. Ideally, it “relaxes the mind” when necessary, “focusses” it maybe, but does not change it. The good become better, the bad worse, very simply put. It does not change personalities so much.

I think that reggae’s development as a rich, creative music genre can be attributed more to an artistic, cultural, and social (poverty) climate, inducive to it. Thus, more to personalities, than to moods. Much broader than the marijuana use custom alone.

DUB

For his book on Dub Reggae called ‘Dub: soundscapes & shattered songs in Jamaican reggae’ (2007), author Michael A. Veal recorded testimonies of people connected with the origins of the instrumental, “remixing” Dub genre in Reggae music. Dub, with some “spacey” aspects, is by many associated most with the marijuana influence in Jamaica. Testimonies in Veal’s book about the originator of Dub, King Tubby, however contradict this. King Tubby was an inventive technician and musician, creating a new genre from Roots Reggae, building his own studio, remixing existing songs into essentially a new “rhythm pattern”, using echo, other effects like reverb, and fading in and out of separate instruments. Then, this was very innovative. People working with King Tubby at the time (since the late 1960s and in the 1970s), said King Tubby never smoked marijuana, nor allowed it inside his house/studio (people had to go a while to the yard or patio to smoke). Neither did another influential engineer in reggae and dub, Errol Thompson.

For this reason, the author Veal does not consider Dub a Jamaican, reggae, “ganja” variant of “psychedelic music” that arose elsewhere. Not in its origins, anyway.

SCRATCH

Lee “Scratch” Perry, another influential person within reggae, wih his Black Ark studio since the 1970s, was more lenient. Musicians actually liked that he allowed people to smoke freely inside his studio. He smoked marijuana then as well, although he drank alcohol at times too. Maybe it influenced his producing, music, or in general the music recorded by several artists at the Black Ark. On the other hand, later in his life, Perry said that – looking back – he imagined that his creative ideas from that time had more to do with himself, his own personality, than with the effects marijuana might have had. Later, already in his seventies and residing in Switzerland, he – according to his own testament – stopped smoking marijuana for that reason. He still drank occasionally “weed/marijuana tea”, though. This tea is by the way commonly drank by especially older Caribbean and Jamaican people, for its attributed health benefits, even by those who do not really smoke (like aged women). It is said to help against stomach ailments, and assure a general feel of balance. Wisdom from folk medicine.

The general move in Jamaican music since the 1980s toward faster and less “mystic” music (which characterized the Roots Reggae era), is likewise attributed to changes in substance use, as cocaine became more commonly available in Jamaica since the 1980s. Thus the music became faster and more frenetic, the reasoning goes. General effects of marijuana on moods and paces of music, or of cocaïne, can in this case not be excluded, and it might indeed have had an influence.

Again, though, I think this should not be exaggerated, as it can relate to other factors as well (social and cultural changes), while faster paced music arose elsewhere too, where cocaine use is not very common (Timba in Cuba for instance, or Reggaeton).

RASTAFARI

Much of Roots Reggae is influenced by the Rastafari movement. This became evident especially in the 1970s and early 1980s. Many Rastas sang or toasted about marijuana smoking, as a sacrament or not. Anyway, that it should be free (only recently has it been officially decriminalized in Jamaica). Yet, these lyrics point at economic aspects as well: for many poor people, among them Rastafari adherents, cultivating marijuana was the main source of income, with connections to local and even foreign trade. They had to, being discriminated and excluded from the rest of the economy and society. That the first Rastafari “village” in Jamaica, led by Leonard Howell, and started in 1940, called Pinnacle, included marijuana cultivation as income source, cemented an early connection between Rastafari adherents and marijuana. That it gave state forces an excuse to persecute Rastas, was however also an unfortunate side-effect of this.

Rastafari is not a spiritual movement with many set, written rules. That marijuana smoking is used as a sacrament and strictly for meditation is adhered to by many Rastas, yet there are many Rastas who do not smoke marijuana, or smoke it for recreational reasons too, though stricter Rastas sometimes oppose this.

This shows that the connection of Rastafari and marijuana should not be exaggerated (neither simplified).

SINSEMILLA

Talking about reggae lyrics (Rastafari-influenced or not), it is interesting to note that besides several other terms including “ganja”, “collie”, “herb” or “ganja herb”, or simply “marijuana”, another term is also regularly used by Jamaican artists for “marijuana” (or “weed” or “cannabis”). “Sensemillia” or “sinsemilla”. Like marijuana, the word sinsemilla comes from the Spanish language (probably Mexican Spanish). Marijuana means “mary jane”, as a playful allegory, perhaps, in Spanish (Maria and Juana combined). The Spanish J sounds guttural, especially in official, European Spanish (North and Central Spain mainly), but less in many parts of Latin America where it became more an aspirated H sound (as in much of South Spain, and the Canary islands). This translated in the pronunciation like “MariWanna”for English and other non-Spanish speakers.

I am Spanish-speaking, and Spanish was in fact the first language I learned (through my Spanish mother), so these linguistic and pronunciation issues interest me. Sinsemilla is even more interesting. It comes from “sin semilla”, meaning “without seed” in Spanish, referring to the female plants used for marijuana smoking (having most THC). The double LL is mostly pronounced as Y sound in Spanish, also in standard Spanish. In some Northern Spanish accents and in Catalan (and Portuguese, by the way), also differently, as LY, so two separate letters. Dutch people tend to pronounce it as such (and thus wrongly). They say “CastiLYa” (for the region, former kingdom of Castilla, or Castile), while the correct pronunciation would be “CastiYa”. Or pronounce the known Spanish saffron-based rice dish Paella wrongly as PaeLYA, and not as PaeYa.

Likewise, Semilla (seed) should be pronounced as SemiYa and not as SemiLYa, which is done anyway. In the Netherlands, by English-speakers and others, and thus strictly speaking wrong.

Interesting to me is how most Jamaican artist pronounce Sin Semilla or Sinsemilla, yet again different. Not the LL as LY, neither really as the “correct” Y, but the LL in Semilla tends to become a NY (like the Spanish letter ñ) in Jamaican English, so with a slightly nasal sound. The Sin (“without” in Spanish) tends to become a E sound (as in GET), rather than as EE (as in KEY or DEED) as Spanish pronounce it. In many reggae lyrics, therefore, Sinsemilla has come to sound as sensemiña (senseminya) or sensimiña (sensiminya) in Jamaican reggae lyrics. Perhaps a Creole, or indirectly, African influence, while other Europeans than Spaniards pronounce it yet again different, but then according to norms from other European languages.

BACK TO AMSTERDAM

Local and national authorities have become in recent times less complacent with the “coffeeshops” in Amsterdam. With the proclaimed aim of improving Amsterdam’s image and tourism, the number of coffeeshops has diminished, due to stricter regulations and withdrawn licences. Coffeeshops can – for instance – no longer be too closely located to schools. So, the number of coffeeshops has diminished somewhat in Amsterdam, though they still are quite numerous, especially in central parts and around. And yes – predictably – there is also a coffeeshop (I think) named after Sinsemilla in Amsterdam (West), yet with a name spelled as Sensemillia. Let’s hope their weed is better than their Spanish spelling..

This is not to say that “coffeeshops” are by definition innocent, unproblematic paradises that wicked authorities just want to bully. At times unreasonable legal restrictions or policies indeed come down to bullying. Aside from this, like with many things in this world, there are corrupted and immoral aspects regarding many Amsterdam coffeeshops.

The almost inevitable connection (at the “back door”, as they call it) with criminals and maffiosi, often at the same time involved with hard drug traffic and other crimes, is an already alluded to problem. Not always that visible, but certainly there.

Another problem is the quality of the marijuana product itself. Most popular (and expensive) types of marijuana or hash, with brand names like White Widow, Purple Haze, or Amnesia, tend to have high THC values, that are in fact “pumped up” artificially. This distances it more and more from being a “natural plant” that cannabis originally is/was, and even brings it closer in effects to cocaine. It is proven that this can have more negative health effects (on physiology and psychology). Yet, this artificial, “pumped up” marijuana is what is sold most in most coffeeshops. It is not “high grade”. Natural, “outside” marijuana/cannabis can be bought too, fortunately.

SOCIAL CLUB

Talking about health – and returning a bit to the “reggae” theme – a new iniative has been taken on by Café The Zen, a reggae-minded club/café in the East of Amsterdam. Café the Zen is known as one of the “reggae hotspots” in Amsterdam, organizing reggae events and concerts regularly. Now – in fact: starting in Early 2017 - they added to their activities a cooperation with an organization called Suver Nuver, and the phenomenon of “(medical) social clubs”. These were already active in other cities in the Netherlands. Earlier initiatives of similar social clubs were started in Spain too. These social clubs aim at promoting the proven beneficial health effects of marijuana derivatives, like “weed oil”. It is known to help especially older/aged people, yet access to it was difficult due to its illegality. Suver Nuver seeks to improve this through the social clubs, gathering once a week (Sunday afternoon, I understood) at Café the Zen.

Around its opening a reggae party was organized, confirming a stereotype – that is true -, but understandable in its context. Plus, the health focus is a positive, empathic one, and the social clubs also have accessible prices, even for “low-budget people”.

One might be sceptical and think: “many plants, everything growing in nature can have beneficial health effects, why just marijuana?”. I must admit, that I myself have thought and said this once to a few of the people involved. On the other hand, a focus on a proven product like “weed oil”, that is furthermore more easily obtainable in a city like Amsterdam, makes some sense. They intend to work together with growers, but also coffeeshops, but for medical purposes, not commercial ones (like coffeeshops).

They see this furthermore as an innovative and better way toward legalization of marijuana, with which I in itself agree. Spanish reggae singer Morodo too, by the way. In an interview I saw with him, he claimed he was (like several other reggae artists, haha) in favour of marijuana legalization. He feared – though – that then big, powerful commercial companies and multinationals (like Phillip Morris, or Shell) might take over/dominate, allowing no more space for smaller growers, but neither for health, social justice, or environmental considerations.

Anyway, this reggae club Café the Zen, on the eastside of Amsterdam, happens to be a convenient and sympathetic place for Suver Nuver, and its medical social club.

donderdag 2 februari 2017

Crucial background : Nambo, Ronnie, and Gaby

In the recent days in January 2017, as I write this, three veteran Jamaican musicians and singers have deceased: Nambo Robinson, a veteran trombonist and horn player, playing on several reggae albums and songs since especially the later 1970s (Black Uhuru, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Marley a.o.), member (backing vocals as well as rhythm guitar) of the Gladiators Gallimore Sutherland, and member (backing vocals) of a.o. the Itals, and artist in his own right, Ronnie Davis.

To a degree, you might see these three as “at the background”, whereas other reggae artists in the extensive Jamaican music scene are more at the forefront, as figureheads. Ronnie Davis recorded under his own name too (as composer and lead singer), but besides that, “background” is not really appropriate. Making music is a joint effort, also harmony vocals, in which each contribution adds to the whole. In that sense they are crucial to the whole “vibe” the songs bring across, and with that the specific voices or playing styles become relevant.

Furthermore, the trombone (that Nambo plays) is not an easy instrument to play, chord and note-wise, as a musician once told me. Instead of “pushing” or “plucking” to get specific notes, you have to “slide”. Not per se a “less natural” movement for humans (than e.g. how you play a guitar), but requiring practice. Likewise, schooled singers often argue that backing vocalists should ideally be better singers in a more technical, musical way, tighter at least. A lead singer can be allowed more idiosyncratic playfulness, even seemingly off-key, but adding “personality” to a song. Backing singers should however be tighter in a musical sense. In that sense, Nambo, as well as Gallimore Sutherland and Ronnie Davis had to be skilled in more than one way. They could not improvise too much, safe incidentally, but had to be mostly “tight” and steady as musicians or backing singers.

I myself have enjoyed much songs during my life of the Itals and the Gladiators, mostly with Gallimore Sutherland (Gladiators) and Ronnie Davis (the Itals), adding to the songs’ feel. I also heard and enjoyed several songs with Nambo Robinson as trombonist (Black Uhuru’s ‘Bull In the Pen’ for instance, but also on several albums of Burning Spear, Wailing Souls, Culture, Pablo Moses, Bob Marley a.o.). Luckily I have seen Nambo live, at the reggae festival Sundance near Eindhoven, in the South of the Netherlands, in 2014, accompanying several artists (older and newer). Maybe also at concerts I saw before of bands like Culture, or of Luciano or others.

Ronnie Davis has a quite distinctive, “wailing” voice, and he sometimes took the lead on some Itals’ songs, but his backing vocals were equally distinctive, if more subtly “hidden” in the mix. The same applies to Gallimore “Gaby” Sutherland, who in the Gladiators complemented Albert Griffiths’ “sharp”, and Clinton Fearon’s “high”, somewhat froggy voice. All crucial in the end-result, and how I lived and heard the songs. That is sometimes forgotten, as the attention is often drawn by the lead singer, and “general” harmony vocals (call-and-response being a common singing style in reggae, as an African heritage). Sutherland’s “rhythm guitar” is comparably structural, but not very spectacular. Rhythm guitarists in reggae must keep the pace and rhythm “tight” on the 2nd and 4th count (of 4/4), at least as much as possible, with only little room for sonic variations. Yet crucial in the musical structure.

All three of these musicians were active a long time in the Jamaican music scene, starting around the later 1960s. When they died in January 2017, they were all in their sixties, which is not old as a dying age (at least according to modern, Western standards). Ronnie Davis died after a massive stroke at the age of 66. Strokes (or brain hemorrhages) occur all over the world, especially when people get older, but tend to affect poor people relatively more. Strokes are not welfare-augmented as some types of heart diseases, quite the contrary. In the US – to illustrate - studies show that strokes are most common among poor African-Americans in the Southern states, less among other groups and social classes. Massive, often fatal strokes occur among poor African-Americans more often and at relatively younger ages than among other groups (like Whites). They tend to be poverty-related diseases.

Sadly, also the “premature” death of Gallimore Sutherland, was due – according to statements of his loved ones - because he lacked the financial means to combat the disease he had been struggling with for some years. As a sad fact, poor people die relatively younger, and are susceptible to more diseases, apart from certain “welfare diseases” (too much food e.g.). Jamaica is of course a poor country, and music not necessarily a way to easy wealth, even if the Jamaican music industry is extensive and globally known. Not even lead singers (with international fans) always reaped all benefits of their songs, let alone session musicians or backing vocalist. Many musicians remained poor, or were lucky to get by.

As a tribute, I think it would be nice to honour these three musicians/singers and their decades-long work on Jamaican songs. They certainly helped me to enjoy many reggae songs. In the remainder of this post I would like to analyse this, and in what specific ways they contributed. As a tribute to them specifically, but also a bit a tribute to all “backing” musicians and singers, and their often underestimated roles in music.

BACKING

I myself play and jam with other musicians, often playing several percussion instruments, as other people sing. A bit less frequent, I also sing. I mean, I can relate from practice. In this post, I would therefore pay tribute to the “steady” musicians. I guess you can call me a musician, and primarily a percussionist. I studied bongos and congas with an experienced teacher, and had lessons with teachers in some other instruments too (talking drum, djembe). Further, I am self-taught regarding several other percussion instruments.

The thing with percussion – an aspect I like of it actually – is that it is one of the “freer” instruments, regarding their roles in musical pieces. It is – often - a flexibly applicable “sauce” or “seasoning” adding in an improvised way to add spice to songs/music. Just like you decide to add more thyme or cinnamon next time to your pasta or rice sauce, or perhaps oregano, ginger, or pepper this time: that’s how percussion operates more or less in several genres of music. . This is especially so, when there is usually a trap drummer too (as in funk, soul, reggae, pop). Conga-driven genres like salsa, rumba, or son require more fixed patterns (that I also studied for a time), though also with varying percussive space. Most other instruments cannot improvise so much: they have to be tight, adapt to the chords, carry the rhythm and chord structure, with some – but not too much – room for deviation and creativity. That is not “boring” or uncreative, it is necessary as “carrying” the song and bringing its strength across: a firm base. Important roles, requiring a disciplined and tight outset, that “free spirits” (common personality types among some singers, producers, and some percussionists) might not automatically have affinity with.

I noticed it myself when I tried to drum (as trap drummer, on a drum kit) more, copying basic reggae one-drop and rockers rhythms. Groovy and enjoyable, but mostly tight and fixed throughout the song. Not too much polyrhythmic playfulness – around the basic rhythm – as percussion allows, and I was accustomed too.

Horns and trombones are allowed playfulness, but to a degree. Rhythm guitars even less. . Backing vocals are structured as well: it is the lead singer who “plays” more around the “responses” of the choir/backing vocals (also an African musical retention, found in all Black music in the Americas). Yet, the harmony vocals make groups like the Itals, the Gladiators, the Mighty Diamonds, Israel Vibration, the Abyssinians and Culture extra interesting, showing how harmony vocals have a good and developed tradition in Roots Reggae. Lead singers are certainly interesting and often good singers too, but they do not bring the song across on their own.

NAMBO ROBINSON

Nambo died at the age of 67 of a heart attack, also in January 2017.

Nambo Robinson was mainly a session musician, playing mostly trombone and horn, but on many albums and songs, of many different artists, including “names” like Burning Spear, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, Pablo Moses, while he also worked with Sly & Robbie.

Interestingly, he began with the Nyahbinghi-focussed group the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. I have played nyabinghi drums (funde) with a trombonist by the way (Serbian musician Hornsman Coyote). However, in a much later stage, – late 1990s – Nambo converted to Islam, as I heard in an interview of Mutabaruka with fellow-hornsman Dean Fraser, in the radio show Stepping Razor of the 26th of January 2017. Fraser also pointed out that Nambo was a very spiritual person, who – incidentally – did not smoke weed or drink. In that radio show, Mutabaruka also rightly pointed at the fact that “live” session musicians like Nambo have become rarer nowadays, with all the digital “replacements” of actual instruments, increased also in Jamaican music.

Nambo played trombone (or: horn) on some of my favourite albums: the Wailing Souls’ Fire House Rock (1980), the Mighty Diamonds’ Deeper Roots (1979) notably, but on many others I found great as well (Pablo Moses’ A Song to name but one).

The horn contributions on the Wailing Souls’ Fire House Rock are quite important for the feel of several of its songs, with great effect. These include the title track, Bandits Taking Over, Act of Affection, and A Fool Will Fall, while other songs have less or no horns, and more a bass & drum focus. The horn contributions are tight and quite rhythmical – often playing groovy counter-patterns - , although also with minor-key, nice effect on the great song A Fool Will Fall, contrasting the lively horns on for instance the title track. Very varied and skilled overall. Dean Fraser plays sax on this same album.

The Mighty Diamonds’ album Deeper Roots, another favourite of mine, has also Nambo playing. Interesting how this album, recorded at Channel One in 1979, seemed to have made different production choices when compared to Fire House Rock: the horn contributions are softer, more buried in the mix, whereas on the Wailing Souls’ album it came more to the fore on songs. Yet, on beautiful songs like Blackman of the Deeper Roots album, the horns certainly are crucial to the overall experience. The contrasting heavy bass with the dreamy horns on a song like Blackman are simply musically brilliant. Only on a song like 4000 Years the horns are more prominent. Even non-musicians or horn players can probably hear here that specifically a trombone is used in this song, along with other horns, due to the specific, audible trombone pattern.

The patterns seem again quite rhythmical, sometimes reminiscent of what you can do with percussion: “answering” through semi-rhythmic patterns. I only don’t know if the trombone player, Nambo Robinson in this case, could create his own patterns, and was thus one of the creative artists of the songs, or that he just played what others said he should. I think it’s a combination of both, with some ideas by Nambo himself.

I discuss just these two albums, else it would be too much (some other great albums with Nambo playing, not mentioned yet: Peter Tosh’s Mama Africa, Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Forward, and Bushman’s Signs). These two (and several other albums) were quite important for my enduring love of reggae, so in that sense Nambo contributed to that. This shows the importance of background musicians.

RONNIE DAVIS

Davis started - as several other Jamaican artists – in the Rocksteady era around 1966, with the vocal groups the Westmorlites, where he already worked with other future members of his later band, the Itals. The Westmorlites refers to Westmoreland, the parish in Western Jamaica, where Davis (and the other Itals came from). This is in the less mountainous western country side in Jamaica. (The eastern part of Jamaica is more mountainous). After this, in 1968, Davis joined another Rocksteady group, the Tennors. Thus, former Westmorlites and Tennors members ended up in the Rastafari-inspired group the Itals by the 1970s.

The Itals are representative of what some authors on reggae call “country-style” harmony vocals. “Country” not referring to the genre, but obviously to the Jamaican rural origins. Culture and the Gladiators are also seen as part of that style, characterized by – among other things – quite “raw” call-and-response singing, and a “folksy” feel to their music. I like that style as well, and I also liked the Itals.

Ronnie Davis sang harmony on Itals’ albums I liked, occasionally taking the lead vocals. He wrote and sang Living In The Ghetto for the Itals, and co-wrote Give Me Power, thus alternating Keith Porter, the main songwriter and lead singer of the Itals. His background vocals nonetheless contributed to the whole. That whole I enjoyed.

On the Cool & Dread album (1988) of the Itals, Ronnie Davis wrote and sang two songs, Material Competition and Peace And Love. Both type of songs that were quite typical of his songwriting, also as a solo artist. Seemingly underwhelming, but with an emotional, soulful delivery, and catchy melodic parts.

In a later stage, he went solo as Ronnie Davis and the Idren. And I got to know several songs of him. Jah Jah Jehovia I liked, and several others. He has a quite characteristic “wailing” singing voice – a bit “droning”, somewhat different from Itals’ lead singer Keith Porter, whose voice is “sharper” or “brighter” somehow. Comparing In A Dis Ya Time (the biggest Itals’ hit, sang by Porter), and Davis’ Living In the Ghetto is enough to notice that. Davis’ voice went especially well – in my opinion - with his minor-key, “rootical” songs on conscious themes, such as Jah Jah Jehovia, Beware of Evil Men, or Run Come. A bit less with some of his love songs (some were still good) or cover versions, though these were still fine songs, overall. He also had songs with intriguing lyrics, like I Created A World Of My Own.

Most songs of Ronnie Davis I heard I liked, though a few of his cover versions seemed unnecessary to me (done too much, or not really fitting his voice). Yet, overall I can conclude that he was a great, talented singer and songwriter, with several good and varied songs on his name.

GALLIMORE SUTHERLAND

Gallimore Sutherland, known as “Gaby”, sang harmony vocals and was rhythm guitar player (occasionally other guitar too) in the band the Gladiators. In fact, the Gladiators were one of the few bands in Jamaica that combined this: singing, songwriting and playing an instrument, as some Western pop bands, like the Beatles did and do. Players of instruments and singers tend to be more often separate in the Jamaican music industry, although many singers know how to play instruments (e.g. guitar, helping their songwriting), though not often record that along with their singing. The Gladiators are an exception.

The reason for this being rare, relates to Reggae’s background: it originated among poor Jamaicans in ghetto areas. Many aspiring singers lived there, but few had money to actually buy instruments, let alone take lessons, as common in middle-class circles. Instrument players needed some funds, so mostly came from other parts of Kingston or Jamaica, that were less impoverished. They joined forces in the studios, that’s how it often went, although the Gladiators broke that pattern in their case.

Like the Itals, the Gladiators are characterized by a rural, raw, and folksy “country” style of roots reggae (harmony). I found this overall appealing, and liked the Gladiators’ works . Sutherland was one who seemed content with a supportive role as backing singer and rhythm guitar player. These musical roles in Reggae do not allow much improvisation, but rather a tight sense of “rhythm” and steadiness. Sutherland surely proved capable of that, thus contributing to the Gladiators sound and music, enjoyed by many reggae fans world wide. Again: not on the foreground, but crucial.

He recorded a song as lead singer, partly a cover, and apparently not very pretentious, again showing some more contentment with a “backing” musical role. Interesting to hear his solo voice, though.

While such roles may seem boring, being a “free spirit” is not always as rewarding as one might expect, as the history of Jamaican and other music shows. Expressive and creative singers, used to the spotlight, might lose focus on themselves in the process. Some become unstable mentally, addicted to drugs or alcohol.. Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Amy Winehouse are just some examples of famous and known singers/musicians who became unstable, and fled through addictions to hard drugs and alcohol. This phenomenon is not entirely unknown in Reggae, though less than in Western “Rock”. Lee Perry, but also Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown, were said to have “unstable” periods, using substances (like cocaine or strong drinks) not associated with Rastafari, that they were associated with publicly. I’m not saying that using those drugs and alcohol discredit them as being Rasta, that is too simplistic, but it is contradictory. It is I think caused by the “confusion of fame”, so to speak.

PHILOSOPHICALLY

This is psychologically and philosophically interesting. The “system”, what the Rastas call “Babylon”, is based on “fitting” flexible and internally diverse human beings into systematic structural “molds”, mainly for economic goals of people in high places. This is oppression, there is no way around it, and some call it even modern slavery.

Being too free a spirit mentally does not go well with that, and while music seems a “free”, creative world, the industry around it is still influenced by that money-based system and inherent inequalities. Being a professional musician requires, after all, a structured life and “agenda”, planning, accountancy and such. Not things one immediately feels attracted to when wanting to be a “creative artist”, expressing oneself freely as human through music. This industry can cause an imbalance and unease within a person, especially a so-called “free spirit”.

Well now, more technical (backing) musicians, content with keeping steady paces and chords, routinely doing/playing their required parts, with little demands of their creativity, can allow more that Zen-like state of contentment and ease in them. The lack of ambitious demands within themselves and by others puts their mind at ease. Their life seems less intense or inspiring, yet often fulfilling. They do not “create” so much, perhaps not even write great songs inspiring many people, as many Jamaican artists have done (like Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh and many others). I think for that (writing great, moving songs with “soul”) you – cynically put – must have “lived”, or rather “suffered”: know about the highs and lows of life and human existence. That you can express in music, rendering great, soulful songs, with – not unimportant – credible lyrics.

Yet to eventually accomplish that, you need “stable” people around you too, stable musicians keeping the musical base steady and structured.

To differing degrees (they were partly creative too, of course), that was the important, underestimated role that musicians and (background) singers like Nambo, Ronnie Davis, and Gallimore Sutherland played in Jamaican music, thus contributing to its appeal and (international) popularity.

This shows that making good music provides a positive, promising alternative for life in the Western economic (Babylon) system. Instead of oppression and restriction of free spirits toward systematic, semi-forced economic/social roles, people choose what roles they want to take on: free spirits remain free, while others take on structural, steady roles, but because they want that, and want to contribute to something beautiful. Working really and genuinely together.. Ideally, at least.

TRADITION

Essentially, there is nothing new under the sun here. In arguably the oldest music in the world, drum and percussive music, there have always been drums with more steady pulses and patterns, combining with specific drums for variation and improvisation. In Africa this tradition has been known to be well-developed traditionally, being known as the most “percussive” continent. In some parts of Africa the higher pitched (or smaller) drums take on the improvising role, in other parts the lower-pitched, bigger (bass) drums. Sometimes more melodic or harmonic instruments have this role (balafon, kalimba, wind instruments, string instruments) This reflects of course in Afro-American music styles. The widely known Conga instrument developed as such in Cuba, based on Congo region African models (hence the name), with the smallest conga drum – known as “quinto” – improvizing more, whereas the medium one, the “conga”, as well as the biggest one, the “salidor”, keep more steady patterns.

Variation on this very same principle, however, translated also to electric instruments as Black music genres as Reggae, Funk, Soul, and others developed.

Also, call-and-response, the crucial principle in traditional sub-Saharan African music, widely spread on the continent, also reflects in several older and newer Afro-American music genres, including Reggae. This can be through instruments (counter or answering patterns) or through vocals (call-and-response literally).

Nambo Robinson, Ronnie Davis, and Gallimore Sutherland with their musical contributions therefore evidently stood in that African-inherited tradition.