zaterdag 3 maart 2018

Clock Is Babylon?

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


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

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


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

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

Its significance is described in Wikipedia as such:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

A few nice examples from reggae lyrics:

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


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

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

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

donderdag 1 februari 2018

Conga (of Tumbadora?)

Het woord “conga” heeft internationaal - in meerdere talen - een zekere bekendheid. Het woord wordt in ieder geval toegepast op een bepaald muziekinstrument, een trommel, en ook als zodanig herkend. Het woord is als zodanig bekend in het Engels, Frans, Nederlands, Italiaans, Duits en Portugees. De term “conga” voor het instrument heeft zelfs het Mandarijn, Kantonees, en Japans gehaald. Verder ook het Hindi, waarin het als “Kaanga” uitgesproken wordt. In het Esperanto is het woord er als “la kunga”, merkwaardig genoeg. In het Arabisch klinkt het als “al koenecha”. Enigszins enigmatisch werd “conga” in het Tsjechisch Konfu, en het klinkt als “kongoewe” in het Servisch (dat het cyrillisch schrift gebruikt), en als “konguyu” in het Turks. Maar ik dwaal nogal af..

De bekendheid van het begrip is derhalve breed, zelfs internationaal dus, maar moet ook weer niet overdreven worden. Niet iedereen is even veel met percussie of muziek bezig, dus het komt nog weleens voor dat conga’s (foutief) als “bongos” aangeduid worden – zowel in het Engels, Frans, als het Nederlands heb ik die fout horen maken -, of nogal algemeen als “trommel”, of als deel van percussie. Zelfs “tom tom’s” is weleeens gezegd over conga’s.

Ik durf de stelling, desalniettemin, wel aan dat de conga wereldwijd één van de bekendste percussie-instrumenten is, in ieder geval in de Westerse wereld. Vaak ook een “startinstrument” voor aspirant-percussionisten. Dit deels vanwege de link naar de Westerse popmuziek, ooit vanuit “latin” muziek, eerst gelegd in de Verenigde Staten, en voorzichtig uitgebreid in de Jazz, en Rhythm & Blues vanaf ongeveer 1950.


De conga als instrument is echter ontstaan in Cuba, en was deel van de Afro-Cubaanse cultuur voordat het internationaler bekend werd als instrument. Daar zit een heel, complex verhaal achter – die verspreiding van de conga’s. Dit is extra interessant, naar mijn mening, omdat het verhaal ervan, in zekere zin, ook het verhaal van zwarte muziek in de Amerika’s is.

Voor velen zal deze laatste, vergaande stelling wellicht wat uitleg vereisen. Is het niet specifiek een Cubaans instrument? Ja en nee. Het is ontstaan in Cuba, maar gebaseerd op Afrikaanse modellen, onder Afrikanen die tot slaaf gebracht waren in Cuba. Met name de Makuta trommel, met een gelijkende vorm, uit het gebied van Congo en omliggend Bantu-sprekend gebied in Centraal-Afrika, wordt als een directe voorloper gezien.

Deze Makuta trommels waren al een tijd in Cuba in gebruik, voordat de conga als zodanig zich ontwikkelde in Cuba, in de loop van de vroege 20ste eeuw. De Rumba als genre bestond al eerder (al rond 1900), maar werd eerst op een soort “dozen” gespeeld, een soort voorlopers van de huidige “cajón”. Het verbod op trommels vanuit staatswege – of het tegenwerken van trommelgebruik -, hinderde de ontwikkeling ervan, net als elders in het Caraïbisch gebied. De Son, uit Oost-Cuba, kende eerst vooral als trommels de kleinere maar dubbele “bongo’s”, met net als de conga een open onderkant, en eveneens Centraal-Afrikaanse wortels, maar in Cuba als zodanig gevormd.

Zeker sinds ongeveer 1930 werd de conga al algemener gebruikt in Afro-Cubaanse muziek, waaronder de Rumba, en andere Afro-Cubaanse genres, zoals de Son uit Oost-Cuba. Soms naast andere percussie-instrumenten en trommels. Dit kon vanaf toen “openlijker” in de populaire cultuur. De deels Congolese/Centraal-Afrikaanse wortels van de Son muziekstijl, dat steeds populairder werd in Cuba vanaf 1920 – en later sterk salsa zou beïnvloeden – leek goed te passen bij het Conga instrument, met ook Congolese roots.


Die Congolese roots hoor je ook aan de naam “Conga” (oud-Spaans voor “uit Congo”)..zou je zeggen. De ironie is echter dat hoewel een van de bekendste Cubaanse muziekinstrumenten, de ”conga” niet bekend staat onder die naam in Cuba zelf. Het muziekinstrument Conga heet daar “Tumbadora”.

Conga is in Cuba de naam van een soort dans, deel van een parade tijdens carnaval. Een Conga is in Cuba de naam voor zo’n parade met weliswaar verbonden muziekgenres en instrumenten. Zowel in Havana als in Santiago de Cuba (de tweede stad in Oost-Cuba) ontwikkelde zich een rijke carnavaltraditie, vergelijkbaar met die van Rio de Janeiro, met gaandeweg ook een sterk stempel van de Afro-Cubaanse cultuur en folklore. Hoe dan ook, de conga als instrument verscheen ook tijdens zulke carnavalparade’s voor het eerst in de jaren 30 van de 20e eeuw, toen als noviteit, maar goed passend bij de andere trommels. Het verschijnen in de Conga parades van (onder meer!) deze Tumbadoras (conga’s in andere talen dus), heeft de begripsverwarring buiten Cuba mogelijk veroorzaakt.

Een andere oorzaak van dat laatste kan zijn de “deel wordt geheel” fout, die wel vaker taalkundig wordt gemaakt, bijvoorbeeld ook in geografische begrippen. Conga’s hebben verschillende maten, en die van middengrootte staat ook wel bekend als “conga” (Tumbadora conga), de kleine als “quinto”, en de grote bijvoorbeeld als “salidor” (naast andere namen, als Tumba).


Vóór de Cubaanse Revolutie die Fidel Castro aan de macht bracht in 1959, waren er nog veel, gemakkelijke betrekkingen tussen Cuba en de nabijgelegen Verenigde Staten. Cuba was dan ook “onafhankelijk” geworden van Spanje in 1892, na de Spaans-Amerikaanse oorlog, waarbij de VS in naam Cuba hielp tegen Spanje, maar uiteindelijk de macht overnamen. Militair, maar ook na 1892 en de “officiële” onafhankelijkheid. Wellicht gemankeerde onafhankelijk, want ingrijpen van de VS bleef wettelijk verankerd bij een “ongewenste regering”, als ware Cuba toch nog een soort puppet state. Ook deze constructie en verhouding zorgde natuurlijk voor veel “verkeer” tussen Cuba en de Verenigde Staten. Ook cultureel.

De VS politici die macht uitoefenden in Cuba na 1892 waren veelal blanken uit de zuidelijke staten van de VS, vaak met een racistische “Jim Crow”-mentaliteit, komend uit een wereld van segregatie en achterstelling van zwarten in de VS. Dit werd deels voortgezet in Cuba, waarbij blanke Cubanen ook bevoordeeld werden, en onder de Amerikanen vooral de politiek en cultuur domineerden. De meer gemengde Cubaanse samenleving hield dat echter ook deels tegen, of gaf het een eigen draai in Cuba. Met de tijd veranderde het ook, en werd bijvoorbeeld trommelen steeds meer toegestaan, en Afro-Cubaanse in het algemeen cultuur meer ruimte gegeven, met name vanaf ongeveer 1930. Reizende jazzmusici uit de VS kwamen er op Cuba mee in contact, en zo ontstond een muzikaal contact. Meerdere Cubaanse muzikanten reisden of emigreerden ook naar de VS na 1930, waaronder bekende percussionisten en conga-spelers.


Dan komen we bij twee Cubaanse muzikanten uit die bij de ontwikkeling van de conga in muziek cruciaal waren. Arsenio Rodríguez en Chano Pozo. De eerste, Rodríguez, was de eerste die bij Son-formaties conga’s (Tumbadoras) toevoegde, en een soort standaard-format voor de Cubaanse populaire “big band” tot stand bracht. Met dus die conga’s. Dit was rond 1940. Voor het eerst werd de conga “standaard” in populaire muziek. Dat bleef het. Arsenio Rodríguez was een blinde muzikant en bandleider, speelde vooral de tres gitaar, en was van Afrikaanse (ook Congolese) afkomst. Hij had veel invloed in Cubaanse muziek.

Hoewel er meerdere vroege congueros (Conga-spelers) waren, is met name Chano (van Luciano) Pozo ook zeker van belang. Vooral vanwege het punt dat ik met dit essay wil maken. Chano Pozo (geboren in 1915) was namelijk een van die Cubaanse muzikanten die naar de VS, New York, emigreerde, en wel in de 1940s. Hij was toen al een ervaren conga-speler, en kwam via Mario Bauzá – een Cubaanse muzikant al wat meer gesetteld in de VS- in contact met Dizzy Gillespie. Deze jazzartiest Gillespie experimenteerde graag met Afro-Caraïbsche en Afro-Braziliaanse muziek als uitbreiding van zijn jazz-universum, toen zich bewegende richting het vrijere, improviserende “Bebop”. Hij wilde een Cubaanse conga-speler toevoegen aan zijn band en dat werd dus Chano Pozo. Pozo trad voor het eerst op met Gillespie in 1947. Dit was eigenlijk voor het eerst in de wereld van de jazz. Conga-spelers in de VS waren daarvoor eigenlijk alleen bezig binnen Cubaanse muziekgenres, of als deel van reizende Cubaanse gezelschappen, maar in ieder geval in Cubaanse genres. In Dizzy Gillespie’s jazzband hadden conga’s nu echter ook een plaats, en werden nu bekender buiten Cubaanse genres.

Je zou kunnen zeggen dat Dizzy Gillespie de conga’s, en daarmee deels Afro-Cubaanse muziekgenres, introduceerde binnen zwarte genres in de VS, en daarmee uiteindelijk de popmuziek, via Rhythm & Blues en Funk. Die invloed bleef. Denk aan het latere gebruik van conga’s bij James Brown en Motown, om maar wat te noemen. Afro-Cubaanse muziek beinvloedde eerder echter al de jazz in New Orleans, zoals ik in een eerder blogbericht al schreef. Gillespie consolideerde dat wel zogezegd, via Pozo en de conga’s in zijn band, en eerdere contacten met Cubaanse musici. Pozo was co-auteur van twee nummers bij Gillespie, het bekende Manteca, en Tin Tin Deo.

Het nummer Manteca, uit 1947, is een klassieker in meer dan een opzicht. Een van de bekendere nummers van Dizzy Gillespie (samen met bijvoorbeeld Night In Tunesia). Het wordt zelfs beschouwd als grondleggende song in de Afro-Cuban Jazz, en was de eerste song, ritmisch gebaseerd op de “clave” (zie verderop in deze tekst) die een jazz-standaard werd. Zelfs hen met slechts vage kennis van de Jazz zouden het nummer best weleens gehoord kunnen hebben.

Helaas overleed Chano Pozo al jong, na zo’n jaar met Gillespie gewerkt te hebben, namelijk in december, 1948. Dit was in de Rio Bar in Harlem, New York. Pozo kreeg naar verluidt ruzie met een Puerto Ricaan, ene El Cabito, die hij ervan beschuldigde hem slechte of eigenlijk “nep” marijuana te hebben verkocht. Deze Cabito nam hardhandig revanche, en vermoordde uiteindelijk Pozo. Chano Pozo werd slechts 33 jaar oud, maar had dus zeker muzikale invloed gehad.


Dan kom ik bij een van de interessantste dingen die ik de laatste tijd heb gelezen. Naar mijn mening, maar dat spreekt vanzelf. In het boek ‘Cuba and its Music : From the First Drums to the Mambo’ (Chicago Review Press, 2004), door Ned Sublette, schrijft deze laatste over de tijd van Chano Pozo bij Dizzy Gillespie sinds 1947. Hoe twee “muziekculturen” elkaar troffen. De Afro-Cubaanse aan de ene kant, en de (VS) African-American aan de andere kant. Allebei te vatten onder de generieke term “zwarte muziek”, maar met essentiële onderlinge muzikale verschillen. Gillespie wilde ook wat “nieuws” toevoegen aan zijn muziek, en niet iemand die paste binnen een vooropgelegd kader. Chano Pozo en zijn Cubaanse conga’s konden blijkbaar aan die experimenteerwens voldoen.

Het genoemde boek van Ned Sublette is overigens deels een basis voor mij, voor dit artikel.


Die verschillen binnen “zwarte muziek” in de Amerika’s – muziek van de Afrikaanse Diaspora dus – vind ik een interessant thema, dat ik dan ook vaker behandeld heb op mijn (dit) blog. Onder meer in Ned Sublette’s boek, is dat een belangrijk thema, maar ook bij andere auteurs, en bij historici en antropologen in de sociale wetenschappen. Zoals in de “Black” of “Africana Studies”, zoals dat in sommige landen – de VS – als academische discipline bestaat, bijvoorbeeld. In Nederland bestaat dat niet als academische discipine, vooral omdat de “poortwachters” in wetenschappelijke kringen, ook wat betreft de studie van zwarte, Caraïbische thema's, of de Afrikaanse diaspora, vooral nog blanke Nederlanders zijn. Ook cultureel en politiek, blijkbaar.


Het heeft namelijk te maken met het verleden van kolonialisme, de slavenhandel van Afrikanen naar de West door de verschillende koloniale mogendheden, en de verschillen daartussen. De kolonisering van de Amerika’s begon uiteraard met de “ontdekking” van de Amerika’s in 1492 door Christopher Columbus, Genuees (en kort vóór 1492 nog residerend in Portugal), maar in Spaanse dienst. De “nieuwe” gebieden werden geclaimd door Spanje, deels hardhandig veroverd, en de aanwezige Amerindianen tot slaaf gebracht. Het zware werk, mishandeling, en meegebrachte ziekten zorgden echter voor snel vele doden onder hen, en genocidale gevolgen. Spanje begon toen Afrikaanse slaven in te voeren, naar verluidt naar Portugees voorbeeld. Portugezen handelden al eerder in tot slaaf gemaakte zwarte Afrikanen langs de Afrikaanse kusten, en ook Arabieren en Moren voor hen deden dat.

Deze geschiedenis is verder bekend, of zou dat in ieder geval moeten zijn. Die slavenhandel en slavernij van Afrikanen in de West breidde zich uit, ook nadat andere Europese landen gebieden gingen claimen en veroveren op de Spanjaarden en Portugezen. Zo ontstonden er Britse, Franse, Nederlandse, en zelfs Deense koloniën (wat nu de US Virgin Islands zijn) in de Amerika’s. van verschillende omvang, en waarvan sommigen heel erg slavernij-gefocust waren.

Die verschillende mogendheden haalden Afrikanen voor slavenwerk grotendeels uit verschillende delen van Afrika, in verschillende perioden. Er was een beleid wat betreft Cuba om slaven uit niet-Islamitisch beinvloede delen van Afrika te halen: Centraal en “tropisch woud” Afrika. Dit leek deels bewust beleid om culturele of religieuze redenen van de in naam Christelijke Spanjaarden. Deze laatsten waren overigens – ironisch genoeg – zelf wel Islamitisch beïnvloed, gedurende de Moorse periode in Iberië. Daarnaast waren de meer sedentair levende Afrikanen in het gebied van Congo en Angola, cynisch gezegd, “easy pickings” (makkelijk te verkrijgen), ook door vroege toegang van Portugal tot Angola. Relatief veel Afrikanen uit het gebied van Congo en Angola kwamen derhalve in Spaanse en Portugeze koloniën als Cuba en Brazilië terecht. Daarnaast ook relatief veel Afrikanen uit het Yoruba gebied (ZW Nigeria en Benin).

De Britten hadden weer meer toegang tot slaven in andere delen van wat nu Nigeria, zoals de Igbo en Ijaw gebieden, in Kameroen, en Ghana. Deels ook Senegambia en het Guinea-gebied. De Fransen hadden vooral veel toegang tot slaven uit wat nu Benin is, en omliggende gebieden als Togo en Ivoorkust, en ook deels Senegambia en de Sahel-gebieden rond Guinea. De Nederlanders ook relatief wat meer in Ghana, en ook wel Angola.


Deze relatieve verschillen hadden uiteraard invloed op de cultuur die de Afrikanen meebrachten en nog deels konden behouden in verschillende delen van de Amerika’s. Een pijnlijke geschiedenis ligt erachter, maar muzikaal heeft het leerzame en interessante gevolgen gehad.

Vrijwel in elke kolonie in de Amerika’s met slavernij van Afrikanen, kwamen deze Afrikanen uit verschillende delen van Afrika, maar met concentraties. Deze kennis is wat wijder verspreid – ook onder het “gewone volk” in de gebieden zeg maar, hoewel wat versimpeld en soms wat verdraaid. Derhalve was er relatief veel Dahomey/Benin invloed onder Afrikanen in Haïti, van Twi-sprekende Afrikanen uit het gebied van Ghana in Jamaica, en enkele andere plekken, zoals Suriname. Igbo kwamen iets meer op Jamaica en andere eilanden, vooral Barbados, terecht.

In Cuba zowel relatief veel Afrikanen met een Yoruba achtergrond, maar ook veel met een Congo achtergrond. In Brazilië – deels gelijkend - ook veel Yoruba, maar ook veel met een Angola achtergrond.

De VS ontving relatief veel Afrikanen uit het Sahel, Guinea (Mande-sprekend) gebied, en Senegambia, hoewel verschillend per staat.

Dit alles had invloed op de cultuur en ontwikkeling van de zwarte muziek in deze gebieden, en de dominante Afrikaanse invloeden daarbinnen. Dat lijkt nogal vanzelfsprekend. Evenwel zijn de implicaties ervan wat minder bekend.


Kort en wat simpel gezegd: dat hele idee van “swing” in de zwarte muziek in de VS is een erfenis uit “Griot Afrika”, de grotendeels Mande-sprekende, Sahel-gebieden van Senegal tot Guinee en Mali, en tot noordelijk Nigeria. Delen van zwart Afrika, maar met veel Islamitische en Arabische invloeden,en met veel “snaarinstrumenten”, en wat minder “trommels” dan zuidelijker in Afrika. Zoals overal in sub-Saharaans Afrika is “ritme” belangrijk in de muziek in dit gebied, maar minder “polyritmisch” en enkelvoudiger. Deze Griot muziek had een duidelijke invloed op wat we nu kennen als de Blues, wat zelfs de relatieve leek makkelijk kan horen. Het idee van “swingen” rond de tel van een maat kan moeilijk los worden gezien van de karakteristieken van snaarinstrumenten.


Afro-Cubaanse muziek had weer iets andere invloeden en wortels. Ritmisch op een andere, veelzijdigere manier, en gevormd door Afrikanen waarvan de muziek vooral gedomineerd werd door trommels en andere percussie, en “polyritmische”muziek (meerdere ritmes tegelijk , rond een basis “sleutelmaat”, of in het Spaans: “clave”). Dit vormde Afro-Cubaanse genres als de Son, Rumba, en uiteindelijk de Afro-Cubaans gebaseerde Salsa. In Brazilië onder meer de bekende Samba. Noten/slagen zijn bij deze clave polyritmiek “straight”op de tel, op de achtste noten. Maar dan dus met meer ritmes tegelijk.

Son en Rumba dragen duidelijk een “Congo-stempel”, hoewel met name in de Rumba ook ander invloeden niet onbelangrijk waren. In deze culturele context in Cuba verscheen dus ook de conga als belangrijk percussie-instrument. Eerst in Rumba, kort erop ook in Son, en daarmee ook in Mambo, en de Salsa. De Salsa is muzikaal gezien vooral gebaseerd op Afro-Cubaanse muziek, met name Son, met ook Rumba-invloeden. De term Salsa dook voor eigenlijk Cubaanse muziek op in de 1960s in New York. Conga’s werden toen al enkele decennia gebruikt in Cubaanse muziek in Cuba zelf, en dus ook in de 1950s in Latin Jazz, of door Latin beïnvloede jazz, zoals van Gillespie.

De term “Salsa” voor het muziekgenre is vaag, en onderwerp van discussie. Weliswaar is het ontstaan in een omgeving met veel Puerto Ricanen (New York), en andere Spaanstaligen (Dominicanen e.a.), en heeft dat invloed gehad, maar de muzikale structuur bleef vooral Cubaans-gebaseerd. Veel bekende Salsa-artiesten en muzikanten waren Puerto Ricaans (Tito Puente e.a.), en beïnvloedden zo Salsa deels. Salsa werd voorts populair in heel Latijns-Amerika, waar ook Salsa artiesten opkwamen, soms ook met internationale faam (Sergio Blades uit Panama, of Oscar D’Leon uit Venezuela).

In de Salsa waren de Conga’s vanaf het begin een belangrijk instrument, als belangrijke “drager” van het ritme. Drumstellen zoals we die in popmuziek kennen, waren in het begin niet gangbaar, dus de rol ervan ging naar andere trommels.

De link van de conga met andere niet-Latin of Cubaans-gebaseerde genres in de VS was toen (na 1960) echter allang gelegd, via Jazz, Latin Jazz, en later ook Soul en Funk. In Motown producties waren vaak conga’s te horen, vaker dan andere Cubaanse percussie (af en toe bongo’s, raspen wat minder), in het werk van James Brown en Curtis Mayfield e.a.


Dat maakt de term “conga” (oud-Spaans voor “Congolees”) voor de trommel wel symbolisch interessant, ook al is het foutief. De conga als trommel heeft als soortnaam altijd “Tumbadora” geheten. De term is ook weer niet absurd fout. Het is gemodelleerd op trommels uit het Congo gebied, de genoemde Makuta, waar open onderkanten van trommels gangbaar zijn, wat je ook aan de bongo’s ziet. Het is van oorsprong ook grotendeels “Conga/Congolees”.

Het gemak van het stemsysteem zoals dat later ontstond (metalen stemschroeven), maar ook het krachtige, “ronde” geluid - vanwege de goed doordachte half-conisch/half-ronde klankkast onder het koeievel - hielp bij de verspreiding en populariteit van de Conga trommel. Het vel was en is vooral van koeiehuid gemaakt, anders dan bij de meeste bongo’s en djembe’s (daar vooral van geit), wat het een zwaardere en lagere resonantie geeft, en relatief veel volume.

Tegelijkertijd is de verwijzing naar de Congo en Bantoe-sprekend gebied interessant om historische redenen. Afrikanen uit het gebied van Congo waren relatief wijd verspreid terecht gekomen in de Amerika’s, als zijnde een van de grootste slachtoffers van die mensenhandel in Afrikanen. In wat nu de VS is, kwamen aardig wat slaven uit het Congo-gebied terecht, met name rond Louisiana, en enkele andere staten. Naar schatting zo’n 25 % van de Afrikaanse slaven in Jamaica kwam uit het gebied van Congo, tegen zo’n 50% uit het gebied van Ghana. Zo’n 40% van de slaven in Cuba kwam uit het gebied van Congo. De invloed van slaven uit het Congo-gebied is ook merkbaar in Haiti, Colombia, Curaçao, Martinique en Guadeloupe, en voormalig Britse koloniën. Dit vertaalde zich ook muzikaal. Vodou-muziek, in Haiti, is met name Benin/Dahomey-beïnvloed, maar ook met duidelijk Yoruba en Congo invloeden, in delen ervan. Denk verder aan Bantoe/Congo namen als Tambú en Tumba voor muziekgenres in Curaçao ( een Nederlandse kolonie). Ook in Suriname zijn er aanwijsbare Congo invloeden, in het Winti geloof, maar ook daarbuiten.


Ik ben zelf vooral een Reggae-liefhebber, en heb mij derhalve in dat genre verdiept door de jaren heen. Dat blijkt ook uit mijn (dit) blog, dat vooral Engelstalig is. Het Jamaicaanse genre is rond 1968 ontstaan uit eerdere genres Ska en Rocksteady, die eerder in de jaren 60 ontstonden, onder verschillende invloeden.

Ik ben zelf behalve reggae-fan, ook een conga-speler (naast van algemene percussie), dus heb daar zeker op gelet. Hoe gangbaar is de Conga in Reggae?

Wel, niet zo gangbaar als in Cubaanse muziek en (dus) Salsa, maar het is terugkerend als deel van de standaard-percussie set, zoals ook in andere genres als Funk. Daarnaast worden vooral lokale Afro-Jamaicaanse trommels gebruikt, zoals de op de Ghanese Akete gebaseerde, meer cylindrische Kete trommels, die ook Rastafari-aanhangers gebruiken bij Nyabinghi sessies.

In meer seculiere Reggae-muziek, maar ook die met vaak een Rastafari bodschap, werden echter ook vaak Conga’s gebruikt, samen met andere Afro-Cubaanse instrumenten, zoals de “guïro” rasp, welke zelfs best wel vaak te horen is in Reggae (met name sinds de 1970s). Bob Marley’s band the Wailers maakte er veel gebruik van (van conga’s, vooral ook live), alsmede de Roots Reggae artiest Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), die zelf overigens ook conga’s speelt. Hoewel in Cuba in die moderne vorm ontstaan, is de conga natuurlijk vooral “African-based”, en daarmee passend bij ook de tekstuele boodschap van veel Roots Reggae.

Het gebruik van de conga’s is in reggae beperkt en veelal subtiel, vanwege het dragende karakter van het standaard aanwezige “drumstel” in de Reggae , zoals in andere Westerse of pop-muziekgenres. De Conga is derhalve meer “toevoegend” in reggae, dan dragend (zoals in bijv. Salsa, of Rumba), maar vaak wel hoorbaar aanwezig. Net als andere percussie naast het drumstel, zorgt het voor ritmische verdieping en verbreding, en daarmee een connectie met de Afrikaanse wortels; Afrika bekend staande als meeste percussieve en ritmische continent. Een cliché – dus zeker te versimpeld – maar in de kern niet onwaar. Europa = harmonie, Azië = melodie, en Afrika = ritme, is nog zo’n “kort door de bocht” cliché. Deels kloppend, maar de realiteit is dat op alle continenten alle drie de elementen (harmonie, melodie, en ritme) een rol spelen in de muziek.


Helemaal interessant vindt ik het gegeven dat de Cubaanse invloed, onder meer via die Conga, zwarte muziek in zowel de VS, als in Jamaica – waar Ska eerst beïnvloed was door R&B uit de VS – hielp de muziek “pan-Afrikaanser” te maken, inclusief polyritmische “clave” principes uit Congo. Dit kwam dan bovenop een muzikale “swing-basis” (met Griot Africa-wortels), met name in de VS.

Lokale Afrikaanse invloeden in Jamaica waren echter ook vaak polyritmisch en clave, maar konden vanwege verboden en ander koloniaal beleid minder bewaard blijven dan in Cuba. De Congo-gebaseerde “Kumina”-religie en –muziek bleef nog wel bewaard in sommige (oostelijke) delen van Jamaica, en beïnvloedde daar deels Reggae, via een omweg. Via Afro-Cuba kwam het dan nog meer terug, of werd versterkt, zou je kunnen zeggen. Dat heeft iets rechtvaardigs, tegenover de koloniale deculturalisering door Europeanen. Een soort herstel van een pan-Afrikaanse balans.

Zo bekeken dient de Conga als Afro-Cubaans instrument in genres als Reggae, Soul, of Funk dan ook gezien te worden als meer dan een “Latin” of Salsa-invloed. Het is meer dan dat symbolisch een noodzakelijke Afrikaanse invloed, die muziekgenres van zwarte mensen beter doet aansluiten met de rest van de Afrikaanse Diaspora, maar ook met delen van Afrika waar ze oorspronkelijk vandaan komen, en niet alleen een specifiek, door de Islam beïnvloed, Mande-sprekend, of Sahel-deel, ervan. Het klopt historisch beter, zou je kunnen zeggen. Maakt het gebalanceerder..

Welnu, de al genoemde Chano Pozo was de eerste die conga’s speelde op de Swing-gebaseerde genres in de VS als Jazz of R&B van Dizzy Gillespie. Hij paste Cubaanse Conga-patronen aan om ruimte voor andere instrumentalisten te laten om te “swingen” zoals in de Jazz traditie. Gaten laten vallen, die in Son of Rumba gevuld zouden zijn door de conguero.

Ned Sublette beschrijft het in het werk ‘Cuba and its Music : from the first drums to the Mambo’ als volgt:

Chano Pozo created the role of the conga soloist in the modern band, somewhat the way Coleman Hawkins created the solo tenor sax”.

En, even verderop:

It’s not natural for a conguero to play in swing time, but Chano could make a pocket for it… He’d played in jazzbands in Cuba, and had already figured out how the two feels – African American and Afro-Cuban - might mesh instead of contradicting each other”.

Zo werd het al met al toch polyritmischer, met daarnaast nog steeds die swing. Sommige genres, zoals Funk, werden onder deze Afro-Cubaanse invloeden, wat strakker en polyritmischer. De Conga-patronen op veel James Brown nummers, bijvoorbeeld, zijn toch vaak deels afgeleid van Cubaanse patronen als de Tumbao, of uit de Rumba.

In andere genres, zoals Soul, combineerden de Conga’s meer met een soort Swing – denk aan fraaie Marvin Gaye songs als What’s Going On en Mercy Mercy Me - , wat op zich een leuk effect had. Chano Pozo deed dat dus al sinds 1947, in de band van Dizzy Gillespie..


Wat nu de D.R. Congo is heeft een rijke, gevarieerde cultuur, mooie tropische oerwouden, maar helaas grotendeels ook een onfortuinlijke geschiedenis. Hetzelfde geldt voor het aangrenzende Angola en Congo-Brazzaville. In het geval van D.R. Congo is nog te noemen dat het een Belgische kolonie werd, hoewel eerst eigendom van de Belgische koning Leopold, sinds 1885. Dit werd het in dezelfde periode dat de slavernij in Cuba werd afgeschaft.

Die koloniale, Belgische tijd in Congo was wreed en genocidaal, gericht op exploitatie, met racisme en geweld als sturende middelen. Miljoenen doden onder de Congolese bevolking had dit ten gevolg, en daarnaast vele verminkingen; handen en armen afhakken was een gangbare straf door de Belgen, toegepast op Congolezen. In die zin past Koning Leopold in hetzelfde rijtje als Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, of Stalin. De miljoenen doden in Congo tijdens dit koloniaal bewind zijn echter relatief veel minder bekend.

Zoals gezegd, was hetzelfde gebied van Congo eerder – tussen 1500 en 1900 - een belangrijke (want “makkelijke”) bron van slaven voor Europeanen, en de lokale bevolking dus een van de grootste slachtoffers. Heden ten dage zijn er nog demografische, maar zeker ook economische en maatschappelijke gevolgen merkbaar in D.R. Congo en Angola.

De Conga trommel – van oorsprong uit ditzelfde gebied – herinnert aan die periode van trans-Atlantische slavenhandel, maar meer als overleefde kracht van de cultuur van Congo, nu wijdverspreid te vinden en bekend als muziekinstrument in het Westen, Latijns Amerika, en daarbuiten, waaronder Afrika zelf. Zoals ik aan het begin schreef: een van de bekendste percussie-instrumenten ter wereld. Dat is een symbolische ironie. Het is een ironie die pijnlijk is, maar ergens toch ook grappig. Misschien zelfs “mooi”. Dit juist door wat het vertegenwoordigt: de kracht van cultuur tegen de verdrukking in..

dinsdag 2 januari 2018

Glass percussion?

The world of percussion is essentially a world of “sound”. This is of course so for all musical instruments, not just percussion instruments. It is however so that when it comes to percussion, sound is taken more at a base, barer level, perhaps because percussion and drums are not “chording” instruments. Drums and percussion tend to have rhythmical or atmospheric functions, thereby reaching more directly and less mediated our ears, our physique, with less cerebral intervention or “translation” required.

Such “bare” sounds can be enormously varied, just like all the sounds possible to produce by “touching” in several ways (striking, shaking, scraping, rubbing and otherwise), everything around us. Man kind has throughout history come up with many percussion instruments derived from materials in the natural environment, even if later more synthetic. The drum – a wooden frame with animal skin – is one of the world’s oldest instruments, found on different continents. Percussion instruments with wood – like tree logs or branches - being struck or scraped are also very old, and likewise with long histories on several continents.


Metal is a relatively later human “invention” and not a natural material as such, of course, yet the technique of making it has been developed early, so that metal instruments like bells or gongs have been present already 1000s of years Before Christ, such as in Ancient Egypt, parts of Africa and Asia. Metal bells came to play prominent roles in traditional South East Asian music - the word “gong” even simply means “drum” in China - but in time also in some parts of Africa, often as a time-keeper. The relatively “loud” and “clear” sound of metal bells gave it that “time-keeping” (or “clave”) function in some sub-Saharan African music, played alongside several drums. The Yoruba word for “bell” is Agogo, having also a meaning like “time” or “base”, besides bell. The Brazilian double bell of that name is indeed derived from the Yoruba, African bell of the same name.

Symbolism is also there among the Yoruba and other African peoples by associating the bell with the “head”, and the drums (after all made of animal hide and wood) with the body or corporal.

Metal church bells are now common throughout Europe and the Western world. It is not generally known that these are only used as such since about the 10th c. Before that, Early Christians used “wood bells” to alert or call the faithful, such as in Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, while also the Basque Txalaparta in Northern Spain and SW France is associated with such earlier Christian times.


Metal dominates the Gamelan orchestra’s known from Indonesia. Gamelan are percussive pieces that may be an “acquired taste”, even for some liking mainly percussive music. It has a specific structure that is hard to grasp for the layperson, especially when more accustomed to “key beats” or “grooves”, being simplified inheritances from traditional, polyrhythmic sub-Saharan African music.

Interestingly, the hand drums that are also used in Gamelan register the beat, around which the metal instruments are structured. Kind of the opposite as in much of traditional African music, and derived music in the Americas. Think about the crucial “clave” bell structuring the rhythms in Afro-Cuban music. This shows an interesting cultural difference in sound preference. It probably is also the case, though, that availability determined the preference in part (metal or drum). This all resulted in international differences.

Africa can be called justly the most percussive and rhythmic continent, regarding its traditional music. Even that is overly simplified, but still has some truth to it. In Europe the emphasis is more on “harmony”, and in Asia more on “melody”. All traditional music all over the world, however, has aspects of harmony, melody, and rhythm, but with different proportions and interpretations.

One who will expect to hear African-like “call-and –response” patterns in traditional Gamelan or other Asian percussive music (including in India and the Arab world) will listen in vain. There is “rhythm” and beat, but interpreted differently. The same applies to the wooden Txalaparta instrument the Basques use. The rhythms tend to be “mono”, and originally not syncopated. A bit more “answering” rhythms and syncopation can be found in other parts of Spain, including in music with the castanets or guitars (Jota, Fandango, Flamenco). Historians tend to attribute this to an African influence from Moorish times (the Moors also had sub-Saharan African slaves who played music), or even earlier back to Egypt or Phoenician times, when African principles of rhythm might have reached Spain and other parts of Southern Europe.

Europe is not the most percussive instrument, though percussion play occasional roles in tradition European music, especially in certain countries. The already mentioned wooden castanets associated with Spain, is an example, being known in Spain from before Roman times, thought to have an origin in Ancient Egypt (see my blog post about it). Celtic music uses rhythm through frame drums (perhaps a North African influence).

Ned Sublette goes so far to argue that “drums” as such only came to Europe with the Moors, but also with the Turks. Turks originally had no drums in their culture, but had African slaves who did.


The most commonly used percussion instruments include the hand drums the Conga’s, the Bongó, both from Afro-Cuban culture and with Congo region origins, as well as the Djembe from the Mande-speaking Guinea region in Africa. Wood blocks and bells, tambourines, scrapers and shakers are all quite widely spread though, as are the metal bar chimes. These latter, common instruments have diverse origins, with often a link with Africa, but often also a mixed creation over time. Several percussion instruments have been “invented” over time, but often based on existing, Afro-Cuban or African models, but also from elsewhere. The “wood block” – is known as instruments in parts of Africa, but is said to have Chinese origins. Rattles are known in several cultures world wide, so the origin is not always easy to pinpoint, as some Western instrument companies came to produce them.

Earthenware is also commonly used in musical instruments, on different continents, serving as the base (with an extra hole) of the traditional Udu instrument from the Igbo culture in Nigeria, Africa, while clay or stone is also used as resonator in several parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean region.

Stone is also struck in some cultures, resulting for instance in “lithophones”, while Vietnam is known for indigenous, stone-based musical instruments. Very small stones – pebbles – are used for “shaker instruments”, of course. Bamboo and gourd (calabash) have been used for musical instruments a long time now, in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Bamboo is not “wood” by the way, as it is a type of grass, as most may know.

Of course, in modern times, synthetic materials became used more and more, starting in the Western world, resulting in several plastic instruments, also percussive ones. Think of the “jamblock” a hard, plastic version of the mentioned woodblock (stronger and more durable), shakers, the modern “cabasa” shaker instrument, often made of plastic and metal beads, derived from the African Shekere shaker, made of gourd and seeds. Modern, plastic versions, you might say. Synthetic heads are of course also used for drums, instead of animal skin; while seeming – and often sounding – less “real”, these have the advantage that no animal had to die for it.

So, why I am discussing so much the “material” of percussion? Well, I mean it as some sort of overview of specifically percussion instruments. This overview led me to wondering? What about glass?


What about it? Well: why is it not so commonly used in percussion (produced nor played), not even in such later inventions? Wood, stone, plants and fruit, metal, plastic..

Not that it is absent. In wider music, many of us may have encountered street performers playing melodies on glasses, wine glasses especially, or bottles. Here glass is used more melodically, as a kind of xylophone, organ, or harp.

Some people created over time the “glass armonica”, and the “glass marimba”, somewhat broader used in Classical, mostly Western circles by now. Some experimented with glass resonators (a glass violin, for instance).

“Glass harps” are also quite well known by now. These consist of tuned bottles – filling it with water changes the pitch per bottle. The first glass harp was invented in 1741 by Irishman Richard Pockrich.


In percussion, however, glass never seemed to have become widespread or standard, unlike e.g. metal bells or cymbals.

In pop music, it can be heard on occasion, mostly as “novelty”. One step above “gimmick” at times, at other times adding musical value. It is different enough from metal bells to be interesting in a wider soundscape. It has an “airiness” – for lack of a better word – that metal cowbells don’t have. Metal sounds firm yet “closed” or “round”, or even “blunt” by comparison to glass.

I will look in the remainder of this post to the percussive use of glass or crystal. I know that some musicians used glass (e.g. bottles) melodically, simply replacing a marimba or organ pattern, with an original feel, due to the glass sound. The Dutch-language hit Hilversum III by Herman Van Veen is a good and nice example of it, but there are more pop songs with a melodical use of glass.


It’s time for a “sweeping statement”. I opine that there is one thing that the whole of man kind on this world can learn from percussion instruments: that is: enjoying the “small” things in life. Details that define and shape your mood. Hand drums added to a drum kit adding to rhythmic density, or a bell pattern at the right, groovy moment, or shakers, rattles, friction sounds, or scrapers that help determine the mood of song.

That is what being active with percussion taught me also: the importance of enjoying the small yet crucial details. More than other, chording instruments, having the all-encompassing burden of “directing” a piece. This “beauty of small things” extends in my experience even beyond music, to – for instance - a cute birdie, a cat climbing, a small decoration, details in nature, one of the spices in a meal, etcetera.

From this perspective, the difference of sound between glass and metal can make a crucial, and nice difference in some songs, also when used percussively.


A well-known example is Bob Marley & the Wailers’ song Jamming. I liked the use of the bottle in it; a bit rhythmically, but even more because it relates to the lyrics: a free, makeshift musical jam with everything available, that is what the “glass bottle” sound on Bob’s Jamming evokes for me.. Upon closer listening it gets even better: the combination as “call-and-response” with a block and cabasa shaker in the percussion is very nice in Jamming. A pity that – as I discussed in another blog post – the percussion is often too subdued in Bob Marley songs, probably because of Island’s commercial reasons.

I am a real reggae lover, and so I know a lot more about Reggae than Bob Marley alone. Indeed, there are more examples of “glass” use in Reggae. I cannot recall them all, but some songs come to my mind. The creative genius within Reggae and Jamaican music, producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, used bottle/glass sounds on several of his recordings, sometimes hidden in the mix, at his Black Ark Studio since the 1970s. Jamaican Roots Reggae artist Earl Zero used a glass sound on the nice Home Sweet Home song, also from the 1970s, so Perry was not the only one experimenting with it.

In fact, even before Reggae music arose in the 1968, in older Jamaican music genres, Ska, Rocksteady or Mento, bottles or glass were sometimes used, mostly rhythmically. The Ethiopians original Rocksteady tune The Whip (1967) being a notable example. The glass use is here – as mostly in Jamaican music – percussive, added to other more common percussion instruments in Reggae (shakers, scrapers, bells, drums, wood blocks etc.). I do not know of melodical use of glass in Reggae (as keyboard-like pattern), but maybe some one knows examples..

Even in later Reggae and Dancehall – from the 1980s up to now - I hear glass at times in the mix, sometimes with synth effects. Even in this digital age. Sometimes I hear it echoed in the more experimental Dub tunes. Some examples that come to my mind now are Chronixx’s “Ska-ish” song Rastaman Wheel Out (2014), and the Dancehall song Limb By Limb by Cutty Ranks, from the 1990s. The Black Uhuru classic Sponji Reggae (1981) has ”glass-like” sounds in it, but they are probably high-pitched bells. Glass sound is, however, probably “buried” in the mix of several, also recent Reggae and Dancehall Riddims, I failed to mention now, though bells are used much more often (and woodblocks, scrapers, hand drums a.o.).

The same applies to Funk and Hip-hop, where glass sounds often appear as “novelty”, but sometimes with a rhythmic function. Not in many songs though.

As a percussion instrument, though, the use of “glass” still remains relatively rare in popular music. As it was before.


An obvious question is.. why is this? This historical rarity or absence as musical instruments in general, or as percussion specifically.

To answer this question, one must know the history of glass and crystal: since when was it used and produced? In some parts of the world more than others? Was it expensive or hard to get by, when compared to e.g. metal or brass? The answer to the last question is simply yes. Metal was since long more and more cheaply available than glass. For this reason, the initial use of glass material was often as luxury, jewellery, as it was in Ancient Egypt. Musical use was first recorded much later, around the 14th c. in Persia (present-day Iran), involving glasses.

Glass cups and bottles as such, though, became first developed in Europe, as was a wider use of glass for all kinds of inventions. It led not only to glasses for wine or bottles, but also to the invention of mirrors, lenses (the first glasses, telescopes, microscopes), and even electronics. All things taken for granted in later modern times. This development of glass gave Europe a competitive edge over China, where it became used later than in Europe. Before that, China was more inventive and advanced.. yet..not hopping on the glass train set them behind Europe. Ironically, Chinese wear relatively (not just proportionally, duh) more often glasses, as myopia is more common among South East Asians than among Europeans (relatively, percentage-wise), for instance. The invention of lenses (through glass) could have been useful to them too before, with many Chinese having a less than optimal sighting sense.

Until a few years ago I did not know all this: I saw it in an insightful episode of the BBC knowledge quiz QI, then still presented by Stephen Fry. The surprised questions by the panelists showed that they did not know either about this crucial role of glass development in European advancement.

Only since about the 18th c. did glass spread slowly world wide, reaching Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It remained relatively expensive for a long time, though. This may have caused why few “glass instruments” were developed in Asia (there are a few exceptions) alongside the “metal” gong focus, or, as in Africa, adding to drums or wood- and fruit-based percussion instruments. No glass was made in China, for instance, until the 19th c. This of course helps explains its limited role in music.

In The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), the film set in Botswana, Africa, the native African Khoi San people come across such a glass item (thrown from a plane), up to then unknown to them. At first it was seen as a handy hard and smooth object, but eventually disrupted their way of life in a bad way. Of course, metal would be likewise unknown for them at that stage. In more urban parts of Africa, glass in time became more common, although glass cups or bottles are still overall much less common and widespread than in Europe.


We go back to the sound as such. Pitched bottles mainly imitate organs, harps, or xylophone, yet with a different sound. The use of a bottle – they say a milk bottle – on Bob Marley’s Jamming is distinguishable from – say – a bell or metal percussion instrument.

How is that difference described online? I just now used the term “airy” (which gets a whole other meaning when used for wind instruments, by the way), Pockrich, the Irish inventor of the glass harp called his invention an “angelic organ”.

The website speaks of a ”clear” sound, indeed as in the common expression “crystal clear”, also known in Dutch (kristalhelder). This website also adds that glass has a “delicate resonance” and “ fragile beauty”. This indeed sets it apart from metal bells, or other instruments of e.g. wood.

Glass can be touched at the rims, hit with a stick, but likewise, of course, scraped or blown into. The specific sound of glass nonetheless still comes through.

Scraped bottles are found probably among experimental musicians world-wide. I even heard of instruments made of potatoes, for instance. A bit more standardized, though, it is known in Spanish traditional music. The “botella de anis” is a makeshift instrument originally, as the decorated, accidented glass of these bottles used for liquor, are scraped by tradition during several festivities throughout Spain.

Other such once makeshift instruments – once just household items - that became more or less common in Spain include bones, saucepans, spoons, and mortars. Their use is mostly rhythmic and percussive, giving “rhythm” in certain types of Spanish folk genres a relatively prominent role. This is somewhat exceptional in European traditional music, where rhythm tends to be more relegated to the background, especially in Central Europe.


The more limited historical availability and access to glass might explain that metal is common for small percussion instruments, but glass rare. There is an obvious irony here, though. In modern Western societies, glass is all around us: mirrors, glasses, windows, cups and bottles, and of course in computer, tv, mobile phone and microwave screens. Glass is in electronics.

That it is so little used as percussion instrument is therefore somewhat strange.

Do I miss that sound? I personally like the use of glass in several songs I know: I like it in Bob Marley’s Jamming, Earl Zero’s Home Sweet Home, and also the melodic use in some pop and folk songs. The sound is indeed “clear” and with a “delicate resonance”.


As a percussionist I therefore began to use glass in my own compositions as well. I find all “sound” interesting, but in time sought something different and “new”. I primarily used olive oil bottles from Córdoba, Spain, that were empty, and placed them in a cardboard being the resonator. I filled most with varying degrees of water for a pitch change. I played it both with a wooden and a bamboo stick. The bamboo stick on the lid, giving an interesting “Udu” like feel, but with the glass sound. The olive oil bottles are relatively heavy and thick, so they are also in sound, rather than “light” as wine glasses sound. I am glad that gave it something unique. The milk bottle used on Jamming sounds a bit similar - sound-wise - though.

I also scraped a ribbed glass cup for a composition, once. In addition, it is an idea that I can play glass objects to jam sessions sometimes, to use it among other musicians, as I do now with more standard percussion instruments (hand drums, bells, jam and wood blocks etc.), that I also enjoy to play. Glass cups and bottles tend to be there anyway, haha.

It’s not that I am going to make “glass percussion” an obsessive life mission of mine now. I like all music and percussion, essentially, in its variety. I just happen to notice some disregard for the possibilities of glass sound in percussion, in recorded and composed music in general.

In addition, tellingly: as a percussionist I regularly have visited music instrument stores, and even specific percussion shops, and do not recall seeing any “glass” items between the bigger and smaller instruments.

Bob Marley’s song Jamming, for one, certainly proved that, despite all this, good use can be made of glass in percussion, beyond being just as gimmick or novelty.

zaterdag 2 december 2017

As old as..

It is stated by many historical authors that “slavery is as old as organized man”. This sounds quite cynical, if not apologetic by itself. After all, also “rape”, “mass killings”, “discrimination”, “torture”, or more general “violence” and “intimidation” are probably as old as organized man.

The matter of modern-day slavery came more to the fore in recent times when news about the slave trade in African migrants in Libya became known. This reminded many of older practices, of – some said – centuries ago. Their enslavers were Libyan Arabs, although often aided by Black Africans, and slave buyers mostly local Libyans. This reminds indeed of the slave trade of Africans to the Americas, in which several European nations engaged (Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, Netherlands, even Denmark and Zweden, albeit in smaller numbers). Even non-unified territories that would later unite to form Germany and Italy are not “off the hook”; Genoese and Venetians traded in African slaves alongside the Portuguese, while some German kingdoms (like Brandenburg) were active in this African slave trade too. Independent American countries like the US and Brazil continued this African slavery for a period too. Brazil (by then independent from African slavery-pioneers the Portuguese) was the last country formally abolishing slavery, in 1888. Some readers may know all this.

Though these facts are historically correct in broad terms, regarding figures – numbers of slaves transported to the Americas, or of who died along the way -, place/region of origin of enslaved Africans, and some other aspects (e.g. reason for abolition) there is more controversy and discussion. This controversy turned out to be fruitful, and also recent studies increased our knowledge of numbers of African slaves transported, their origin (aided by the discovery of DNA genetics, used in study not before the 1950s), and other – less Eurocentric – perspectives on history. I applaud that.

Well, to some the dehumanizing slave trade of powerless African migrants in Libya reminds of this African Holocaust. I agree that it does.


In the margins of the discussion of this topical issue, there is however still much uneven and untruthful information. Every person interprets the news as he/she wants. This is not unlike the controversy some issues studied regarding colonial slavery of Africans in the Americas. Often, biases and emotions, unspoken yet sensed allegiances/identifications, distort the truth. No European nation likes to have an image of “wicked enslavers of Africans”, even if referring to a closed past. For that reason much distortion or avoidance is found, even in academic circles.

There is a professor in the Netherlands, White and Dutch, who kind of specializes in Dutch slavery studies, called Piet Emmer. He became criticized as apologist of slavery, going against claims of extreme cruelty and human rights violations. Emmer diminishes in his rhetoric the Dutch cruelty or even agency, and similar distortions. These, what were seen as “apologies”, understandably enraged some anti-slavery activists, and led to sensible counter-opinions of other scholars.

Early enslaving nations like Portugal, and a time after that Spain, are more of the “evading tactic”, as slavery of Africans is hardly discussed or studied academically as a theme, neither much by activists. Portugal was even a pioneer in slavery of Black Africans, practicing it long and widely in its extensive colony Brazil for centuries, while providing many African slaves for other states (like Spain). Also in several Spanish colonies, African slavery was common in most of its colonies and here and there even quite structurally present (Cuba, Dominican Republic, parts of Colombia and Venezuela). This slavery history receives some attention in academic circles, though also limited. It even begins to reach the political debate a bit, in both Portugal and Spain, if hesitantly. In Spain, Left-wing opposition party Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias mentioned it in passing during a televised debate about another theme. This is as “relatively much” as new attention for this slavery past in Spain.

Not that the academic or political attention in a country like the Netherlands is better, as the mentioned debate around Piet Emmer (a more general colonial historian) might suggest: there is not anywhere a – not even one - scholar active specifically regarding this part of Dutch colonial history. There is thus evasion here too. Distortion thus combines with denial in different European countries.


The slave trade in Libya also brings about another historical parallel, though. Also a matter surrounded with both distortion and denial: the Arab and Islamic slave trade and slavery. Of Africans. Myths, emotions, unspoken allegiances, and biases made many distort this history, again, even in some academic circles, though there is sometimes correction within those circles.

The biases and , let’s say, an unease with this theme – Arab and Islamic slave trade – surround this theme in my opinion. Some are part of what I call “historical Pavlov reactions”. Arabs or Islamicized peoples in Africa are non-Europeans and were colonized too, and are often seen as part of “the coloured peoples of the world” kept back or exploited by Western colonialism.

This is called by some by a French term “Tiersmondisme” – translateable as “Third Worldism” –, with some finding patronizing echoes of Rousseau’s “noble savage” in it, but also of a naïve Orientalism or exoticism.

At the very least, categorizing all non-Europeans as “the coloured peoples” is also Eurocentric, and hopelessly simplifying. Skin tone or ethnic traits are in fact irrelevant, even without the counterargument that many Arabs, Berbers, and Persians have similar features as many people in parts of Southern European countries, like parts of Italy, Portugal, and Spain. There are after all so many differences between cultures world wide, including often within countries and continents.

I think that the fact that Libya is an Islamic country also plays a role with this unease from bias. Islam is a major world religion, like Christianity, likewise spreading and converting – or rather: conquering -, but did not become the emblem of Europe, but outside it: the Middle East, and after that Third World territories. It has therefore a better image among Tiersmondistes, one might say.

However.. do these so-called “Third Worldists” perhaps have a point in this case? Did Islam spread less violently, or imperialistic when compared to Christianity? The answer is difficult.

Important for this post is to stress the role of slavery in the early spread of Islam. According to religious laws, the first Muslims could only enslave non-Muslims, or those refusing to convert. So they did, and in quite large numbers. These included many Black Africans as Islam spread throughout Northern Africa. Sudan, Chad, Cameroun, Ethiopia, and other areas, became “sources” for slaves for Arabs and later Islamicized Berbers or Arab-Berbers too. These included relatively many women for harems, also male domestic servants, and eunuchs.

Castrating male African slaves was quite common, not only for eunuch’s (being after all harem guards), but also for genetic – well, racist – reasons of rulers. Some racial mixture still took place in Islamic areas though. There are Afro-Turks for instance, people with African blood in Iran , as result of this slave trade, while in parts of South Morocco –around the city of Essaouira - there are part-sub-Saharan population groups, such as the Gnawa, with different ethnic and cultural features from other Moroccans. Also, there is a historical community of about 2 million Afro-Iraqi’s (mainly around Basra), as a result of the Arab slave trade.


This may be an unpleasant truth to Islam adherents who connect with Black Africa – the US-based Nation of Islam for instance -, Islamic Black Africans, or those supposed “Tiersmondistes” among liberal white people.

Moreover, its legacies continue in the present times in several Islamic countries. Until recent decades (after 1950), a country like Mauritania had at least 10% of its population living as enslaved workers, generationally passed. These were generally the people with more sub-Saharan African blood in them, enslaved by lighter-skinned Arab-Berber groups. In 1956 it was outlawed officially, but continued for decades after it.

The treatment of African workers, from Ethiopia or Somalia for instance, in wealthy oil states like Saudi Arabia, Quwait, and Qatar includes abuse and situations of semi-slavery too. Racial discrimination of the darker “Gnawa” people is also still a social problem in Morocco, as well as of “darker” Africans in Egypt or Sudan, where many prefer to uphold an “Arab” national identity.

All unpleasant truths for some, but I prefer historical veracity, over distorting the truth for ideological reasons, or vague emotional preferences and identifications.


Such distortions are quite common, also regarding other historical epochs. Especially interesting is, I think, in this regard the discussion of slavery in Islamic Iberia: the period between the 8th and 15th c. when large parts of Spain and Portugal were under Moorish, Islamic rule.

This followed on the spread of Islam in North Africa, and by then included many Berbers alongside Arabs and other people. Arabs were highest in the hierarchy, but many soldiers in Spain and Portugal were Berbers or mixed.

Simple and plain: I find that quite some nonsense has been written about this historical epoch, though to varying degrees. The Islamic Moorish society brought several innovations (like paper, related to agriculture, architecture a.o.) to Iberia, and was relatively advanced and “modern” for the time. It was, however, also an unequal society.

I am aware that Internet is a source of ideology, bias, interests, fake news, and is not a reliable scholarly resource. Not unfiltered, anyway.

Yet, even a more “serious” website like Wikipedia includes some strange biases regarding Moorish Iberia (though of course by contributors, not by Wikipedia itself). More impartial historians (Iberian and outsiders) have studied the area, describing how there was slavery by the Moors in Spain and Portugal, that included relatively many Black Africans, like in North Africa, alongside slaves of other origins.

There was a hierarchy in Moorish Iberia: Arabs on top, Berbers below them, and converted local people, and Africans at the bottom as servants and slaves (along with slaves of other races in lesser proportions). Non-Muslims (Christians and Jews) were further second-class citizens, having also to pay special taxes, perhaps a reason why early Islamic rulers did not always convert them immediately (though this remained a goal).

The two photos above I took in the mid-1990s, and are of the Alhambra (Moorish) palace in Granada, Spain. This was said to have been built by Christian slaves.

Within all this, there was not always a sharp distinction – must be said, and there was occasional flexibility. Some “darker-skinned” Muslims could reach an higher position, and so did some converted Muslims of local origins (for instance Galician, Basque, Castilian, Valencian or Basque) , such as as kings of certain kingdoms, called Taifa’s. Racial and ethnic mixture was also quite common, with resulting changes of social position.

Overall, however, the Arab image of the Black African as slave and servant, was noticeable in the general social structure of Moorish Spain and Portugal. The name of a documentary I once encountered: “The Moors in Spain: when Blacks ruled Spain” is therefore somewhat, well, mistaken, or distorted.


Some authors go further. Tidiane N’Diaye is a French-Senegalese economist and anthropologist who wrote about the Arab slave trade in his work ‘Le genocide voilé’ (‘The veiled genocide’), first published in 2008. N’Diaye was indeed kind of groundbreaking regarding this taboo matter of Muslims enslaving Africans. His work was largely based on historical facts, and could therefore hardly be reasonably disputed.

With such an emotional theme, that includes a sensed, by now multiracial identification – Islam –of course this book has come under close scrutiny. Quite some predictable apologist nonsense by pro-Arab and pro-Muslim critics, who couldn’t bothered to be impartial, and some more sensible critique the work has received, but the main historical facts remain there. Perhaps, like all authors, even scholarly ones, N’Diaye, might have some blind spots, but overall it was a balanced work, with the historical facts on its side.

N’Diaye and other authors – and current reports – confirm moreover the continued – but hidden - existence of slavery or semi-slavery in the Islamic and Arab world, often also of African people, even before the world heard about the slave trade in African migrants in Libya. Many relate this to the continued existence of racist views toward Blacks and Africans in many Arab and Muslim countries. Racism dehumanizes by definition, demeaning those affected to subservient, inferior roles in society. Human history more than proved this.

Some other intellectuals and authors were neither afraid to discuss the matter of the Arab slave trade openly. One difference is maybe that N’Diaye came himself from a (Senegalese) Muslim background.


Marcus Garvey jr. is one of the sons of the early Jamaican Black Power advocate Marcus Mosiah Garvey. He continues his father’s work and movement more or less; promoting Black and African self-respect and pride, against the historical and continued White and western colonial denigration and discrimination, keeping Black people in inferior positions. To this Black empowerment agenda – or as part of it -, he added attention also to what has been done to Africans, not just by the British, French, Portuguese etcetera, but also by the Arabs. This lecture – based on written material and scholarly sources – is to be found on YouTube, and is more about “facts” than anything else: hardly any “activist” or biased distortions.


Also, in works on overall other themes the issue is discussed without fear. This is the case in the work ‘Cuba and its music: from the first drums to the mambo’ (2004), by Ned Sublette (who is also a musician). I referred to this work in other blog posts of mine, then in relation to cultural or musical issues. Yet, it has a general historical introduction.

That the author Sublette discusses the Arab slave trade in a book about Cuban music is not so strange. This relates to Spain’s Moorish, Islamic past, just prior its colonial ventures. Cuba was of course a Spanish colony, and the colonizing Spaniards were just recently under Islamic influence. This would feed partly into Cuban music, along with several influences from sub-Saharan Africans imported as slaves into Cuba.

Sublette looks from a musical perspective, and as part of that discusses the fact that many Arabs enslaved Africans, of whom many served also as musicians (and as prostitutes, domestic servants, workers and otherwise of course) in the Arab and Islamic world. He argues that with that inevitably traditional Arab music became more “rhythmical” and here and there even polyrhythmic, bringing that influence also to Spain and eventually Spanish music, and from that to other parts of Europe. Some Spanish folk music genres, like Fandango, Flamenco and Jota, are indeed relatively rhythmic (for European standards, at least). This can have other causes too, of course (earlier African migrations, colonial influences coming back to Spain etcetera), but Sublette examines all possible cultural relations.

Specifically about this Arab slave trade, anyway, Sublette even argues in this work that historically the Black African as “slave” was first “framed” in the minds as such by Arabs and early Muslims, even before the Portuguese.

He, and other authors, even go so far as to argue that the Iberians – at first the Portuguese – got the idea of “Blacks as (natural) slaves” during their Moorish period, from the Moors, and indirectly thus from Arab enslavement of Africans. Arabs and other Muslims not only enslaved Africans, but seemed to have a relative preference for them. This racist idea then would shape the Portuguese slave trade, and after that the African slavery in Portuguese and Spanish colonies. The British and Dutch (and others) later expanded and modernized plantation-based slavery in the West (the Americas), etcetera etcetera.


It is quite plausible, but on the other hand a bit too simple, perhaps. One can “copy” or adopt” practices of others by one’s own choosing. Those practices that fits one’s interests and prejudices are then copied, others not. It is documented that racist stereotypes - e.g. as supposed animal-like - of Black Africans existed for a long time in the Arab world. It is however likewise documented that such negative stereotypes existed in Europe before colonialism. Even in places where actual Africans were at that time hardly seen (Northern France, Northern Italy, Germany, Britain, Eastern Europe etcetera).

Broadly said, anyway, it can be impartially concluded that the seafaring Portuguese, Genoese, and soon after other Europeans, were influenced in trading in preferably Black Africans by earlier examples by the Arabs, when Islam “conquered” parts of Africa. This can hardly be denied, but does of course not rid the Europeans from own responsibility.

The current unfortunate reviving of slave trade of Black Africans by Lybians with an Arab identification is therefore “nothing new”, but because of that extra tragic. Not just that slavery still exists is a scandal, but that specifically Africans are targeted (including racial motivations) makes it extra painfully reminiscent, rendering it a sad “continuity” .


With this essay I do not want to say –even if it might seem this way – that not only Europeans traded in African slaves, but also Arabs. Neither is it solely a “diss” of Islam, to use modern speak. That is not my main point. My main point is that I call for open recognition and excuses to sub-Saharan Africans populations. By both European states as Arab states, and others involved (in the Muslim world). Beyond stated excuses, even reparation is not out of the question in my opinion, especially in light of the relative wealthy that certain European countries and Arab countries nowadays are, when compared to most African countries. While it is true that Africans participated – some would say: collaborated – with this enslavement, this still seems just.


At the very least “open recognition” of these dark pages in history as severe human rights abuses and dehumanization, and factual genocide, seems to me nothing more than reasonable and just.

Persisting racism in several Islamic countries, as well as in Europe and North America, and among White Latin Americans, also relates to this denial, I think.

In the Netherlands, for instance, Black inhabitants object for some time now against the folk festivity (when children receive gifts) of Sinterklaas, taking place every 5th of December. As part of this folk tradition, Sinterklaas has traditionally Black helpers/servants, with White people wearing blackface and dressing up for the occasion. Some of these still put on fake Black people’s (e.g Surinamese or Curaçaoan) accents, making it even more offensive and, well, racist. Recognizing the dark epoch of African slavery also part of Dutch colonial history, really openly recognizing it, might help White Dutch people understand the sensibilities and argumentation of Black inhabitants of the same country, feeling demeaned by Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete” as these Blackface servant is popularily known).

Likewise and more broadly, this open recognition and knowledge about it, might limit negative stereotypes about Blacks still existing more generally throughout Europe. More blatantly known in parts of Eastern Europe, but certainly also present among some Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Britons, Germans, Belgians, Dutch, or Scandinavian people.

The greatest misconception is, I think, that this making excuses about the enslavement of Africans would taint the image of the national identity. I am Dutch and can only be good, also historically is a strange, disturbed, and megalomaniac way of viewing the world. It is found among other Europeans as well, and is caused by an irrational identification with a country and one’s known national origins.

Of course, each nation and culture or even religion (though I personally am not a believer in such large-scale, politically dominant World religions like Islam or Christianity) has an interesting history, with intriguing aspects, teaching potentially all humanity about human development, power play, human interaction, civilizations, and cultural mixture and change.. That is what makes travelling to and visiting other places interesting for many: differences in culture and history.

The way Dutch “handled” water is for instance interesting globally – and still outstanding today -, and likewise the interesting interplay between Celtic, Roman and other cultures in what would become France, Germanic, Celtic, Roman interplays in historical Britain, or the broad Mediterranean, Moorish, Roman and other historical influences that shaped a country like Spain. Also, Arab and Islamic history has interesting aspects, that even helped shape broader human history (e.g. influencing Europe through Spain, but reaching also all the way to Indonesia)..

Recognizing the wrongs committed as part of that same history – e.g. affecting another group - only shows the continuous dynamic of an open, educational, and humanitarian zeal, also present within those countries or cultures/religions. It would not taint their image, but rather improve it.

Moreover: knowing and recognizing history helps to avoid repeating the wrongs..


Maybe the misinterpretation - mixed up, as Bob Marley sang on Stiff Necked Fools - “with vane imagination”, is that when some proud (patriotic) Portuguese, Englishmen, or Arabs hear “your people once enslaved Africans”, they hear more than what is said. They understand that “your people/nation is the “kind of” people that owned African slaves”. This is hardly the main message, since – as I said at the start of this essay: “slavery is as old as organized man” (not just “some kind” of man).

Despite this, it certainly can be argued that Arabs and Muslims began partly “racializing” slavery, even if they had slaves from different races (also European ones, but proportionally less than Black African ones), toward an association with Black Africans. This racialization was taken to even more extremes by European colonizers later, with the Portuguese and British having and trading in numerically the most African slaves overall up to and into the 19th c.. across the Atlantic. The total number of enslaved Africans that Arabs and other Muslims transported, before that, is however not much lower than that by Europeans to the Americas.

From this perspective, the current practices of slave trade in Africans in Libya – often also by criminals – beyond being just incidental, does in fact follow a cruel historical pattern. I see no sense in denying this.

vrijdag 3 november 2017

Fats Domino as milestone toward Ska

Recently, the 24th of October of 2017, Fats Domino passed away. Always sad – how nice if we all could live forever – , but at least this was no relatively untimely passing – as all too common among musicians -, since Fats Domino was at the blessed age of 89 when he died. The New Orleans Rhythm & Blues artist was in and by itself an interesting musician, selling almost as much as Elvis Presley, they say. He was unique and influential as musician and artist in several ways.

Moreover, he was also relevant for this – my – blog on which I pay relatively much attention to Reggae music, as one of my main interests. Yet, the relevance is also there regarding other themes I discussed on my blog.

It is largely pointless to repeat here what everyone can study for oneself about Fats Domino – or read in the Wikipedia article on Domino. A general introduction is still useful, though.


In light of his relevance for the development of Jamaican music, beginning with Ska around 1959, it is good to know Fats Domino’s musical “position”, so to speak, within the genre known as Rhythm & Blues in the US. This term – often shortened to R&B – is not without ambiguity, more recently also being used for what seem variants of Soul- and Funk-influenced Pop songs.

This is more recent, though. Originally Rhythm & Blues developed in the 1940s among African Americans in US cities, combining largely elements of Jazz and Blues. Louis Jordan was an influential, early figure in its development, and before him people like Cab Calloway, T-Bone Walker, and Count Basie.


In the course of the 1940s and later, as other music genres, this R&B developed further, with regional differences. There were for instance differences in the classic Mississippi Blues, and particular variants of New Orleans blues. The latter, New Orleans Blues and Rhythm & Blues, showed more Afro-Caribbean influences, including from Afro-Cuban genres like Son and Contradanza. This relates to Louisiana’s past as French and Spanish colony.

Cuban patterns like the tresillo, based on sub-Saharan African polyrhythmic 3-2 “clave” patterns, were absorbed into this New Orleans variant of R&B. Also Cuban musical instruments became used at times after 1949 in New Orleans and the wider US, such as the maracas shakers, and the hand drums the bongos, and conga’s.

Professor Longhair was an influential New Orleans R&B singer and pianist, who was influenced by Afro-Cuban music. This in turn later influenced – some say – to musical change toward the genre Funk.

Anyway, several distinct Afro-Caribbean connections helped give the New Orleans R&B, its distinct touch, including a “back beat” feel. It is in this particular R&B tradition that the popular New Orleans artist Fats Domino stood.

So New Orleans – commonly known as the birthplace of what we know as “Jazz” –has been influential in more than one sense on US music and beyond, especially Black music. Also, “whitened” Rock & Roll was influenced by New Orleans R&B, many assert.


It is also this New Orleans tradition that reached Jamaica, often more than other US or Blues genres, through US radio stations in the US South, Louisiana being simply geographically closer to Jamaica. Fats Domino songs became known and popular in Jamaica, along with the R&B or “jump blues” of other US artists like Louis Jordan, by the 1950s.

It is said that this R&B variant influenced the development of Jamaican own music, as musicians in Jamaica started to make their own music, under several influences. The back-beat shuffle of some Fats Domino songs - and related New Orleans Rhythm & Blues - influenced the feel of Ska, albeit along with other influences. Drum-wise, for instance, local Afro-Jamaican drumming influences (with both Akan and Congo origins) influenced Ska too from early on, as did the preceding, more rural Jamaican folk genre Mento (which was not unlike Calypso).

Interestingly, Afro-Cuban influence came to Jamaica too – partly at least – via Louisiana, while Cuba is located closer to Jamaica than Louisiana. It must be the language barrier.

Ska and Reggae historians tend to mention especially the song of Fats Domino called ‘Be My Guest’ as influencing early Ska strongly. This song was a big hit in the 1950s at the Jamaican sound systems, as were some other Domino songs. Listening to this song, Be My Guest, which accentuates the offbeat, one easily notices the influence.

There is thus a quite direct link between Fats Domino and Ska, and following Jamaican genres like Rocksteady and Reggae, all maintaining this offbeat characteristic.

However, Jamaican Ska legend Prince Buster maintains that another R&B song from 1950 was even more influential on Ska, and was likewise popular at sound systems: Willis Jackson’s ‘Later For The Gator’. Jamaican sound system and studio owner Clement “Coxsone” Dodd had this record as a kind of “rare speciality”. Here also a possible influence on Ska as you hear it, but it took some years for Ska to develop.


Just as interesting, however, is in my opinion the cultural and musical history behind this. I alluded to this already a bit: the Afro-Cuban influence on New Orleans R&B, that in turn influenced Jamaican music. This relates to degrees of African musical retention in Black music genres in the West.

As a percussionist, having studied Afro-Cuban patterns (and soon also other Afro-Caribbean and African patterns), this has a practical interest for me as player. Yet, I also find it an intriguing theme at a purely theoretical level, from a strictly cultural/historical perspective..

There is some kind of intriguing and ironic contradiction here. On the one hand, the popularity of New Orleans R&B, at least for a period, at Jamaican dances/sound systems in the 1940s and 1950s – especially in urban parts of Jamaica – shows how musical influences are international. It influenced to a degree the developed own genres in Jamaica since the later 1959; Ska to start with.


On the other hand, it is certainly not correct to see this Jamaican Ska as an “offshoot” of this type of R&B. there is much more to it. In fact, it is more appropriate to conclude that New Orleans R&B by people like Fats Domino were just one of the influences absorbed into Ska, resulting in a new musicial idiom (Ska). This idiom included however local Jamaican influences too: from Mento (a more rural Jamaican folk genre, not unlike Calypso), or Afro-Jamaican drumming traditions, including those from African “spirit religions” such as Burru and Kumina.

Rastafari drumming called “Nyabinghi”, in turn absorbing Burru and Kumina influences, influenced Ska too in some sense, noticeable in the early Ska song Oh Carolina, for which Rastafari drummers (Count Ossie a.o.) were employed. Their drums combine here with a R&B-like “boogie shuffle”.

In addition, New Orleans Rhythm & Blues itself, as has been said already, was the result of various influences. Afro-Cuban ones, but also Haitian ones: Louisiana was a period a French colony, and also a period a Spanish colony (up to 1800). These French and Spanish influences set it culturally apart from the other Southern states in the US, and enabled connections with other French colonies like St Domingue (known as Haiti after independence in 1804), and Cuba. Afro-Haitian music genres, probably influenced the New Orleans sound too.

The slave regime under the Catholic French and Spanish had some differences with the slave regime of Anglo-Protestant colonies. Africans were – under conditions – allowed to play their traditional music, at certain occasions, mostly on Sundays and specific places of the city New Orleans, the famous Congo Square, notably. More of the traditional African music –like in Cuba – could be maintained this way, giving the New Orleans variant its stronger polyrhythmic characteristic.


Author – and musician - Ned Sublette, furthermore, argues that increased Afro-Cuban influences on New Orleans music, such as on the mentioned Professor Longhair, a bit also on Fats Domino, helped “re-Africanize”in a broader sense US Black music. Afro-Caribbean (Cuban, Haitian) influences were there in New Orleans before this already, though..

Blues that developed elsewhere in the US South and the Mississippi delta, seems to have this polyrhythmic and offbeat focus less, but have more a “swing” influence. Africa is also there, however. The same Ned Sublette also pointed at the differences between influences from different parts of Africa between US Black music on the one hand, and the Caribbean and Brazil/Latin America on the other.

Especially in US Black music the influence of the “Griot” tradition from the Guinea and Senegambia regions in Africa is more evident. Relatively more slaves brought to the US came from that region (especially also around the Mississippi), bringing Griot traditions, based a bit more on “string instruments” than on drums. This string-instrument focus was partly an Islamic/Arabic influence, sharing this ironically with the “guitar culture” in the former colonial power Spain; where what we know as the “Spanish guitar” indeed arose.

These string instruments in the Guinea, Southern Mali, Northern Ivory Coast, and Senegambia regions –however - were given a distinct African interpretation, including own instruments as the Kora, as well as distinct “swinging” playing styles, markedly different from string instruments being played in Arab or even North African cultures. It is a Black African interpretation, so to speak, that also travelled to the US with the slaves, feeding into Blues. That whole idea of “swing” (“around” the beat), is thus also af African (Mande) origin.

Enslaved Africans brought to other parts of the Americas brought other Black African traditions, less influenced by Arabs or Islamic cultures, more based on percussion and drumming. This included more complex polyrhythmic structures, cross-rhythms, and call-and-response. These aspects were also present in the Griot/Guinea region music in Africa, but more limitedly.

A general polyrhythm and drum focus of Africans from what Ned Sublette calls “forest Africa” (closer to the Equator), from people like the Yoruba, Igbo, Congo and Angolan people, Coromantee/Akan (Ghana), Ewe-speaking peoples (Benin), and others, thus came to the Americas, with the slave trade. While this slavery certainly caused a cultural destruction and alienation, it was not a full one, as it survived even strict legislation in certain colonies, and making use of the few channels in colonies with less strictly prohibitive legislation, such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies. Both “Griot” African as “Forest” African music could survive slavery in the Americas.


There exist several different books and documentaries on the historical development of Reggae and other Jamaican music. All more or less confirm the role of R&B’s popularity in the 1950s in Jamaica, especially in urban, Kingston sound system and dancehalls, in helping to shape Jamaica’s own Ska music. Different works – though – accentuate somewhat different aspects of this process, mainly remaining within the realm of veracity.


Some sources claim that even one specific song set Ska in motion, the already mentioned ‘Be My Guest’ by Fats Domino, or the one by Willis Jackson.

Others have a broader view, pointing out that Jamaican sound system owners played some popular Fats Domino tunes, but also searched “rarer” R&B, after Domino became perhaps a bit too mainstream. These were often, though not always, also of the New Orleans R&B variant, or – as also referred to it – the “shuffle boogie” R&B. Jazz, bebop and swing, or other blues or R&B reached Jamaica too.

This is related as such by Dave Thompson in his work ‘Reggae & Caribbean music’ (Backbeat Books, 2002). In that same book, however, influential Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin pointed at this shuffle boogie R&B, or “shuffle rhythm” (characteristic of New Orleans R&B, such as by Fats Domino) as “point of departure”, after which Jamaican musicians like himself first playing this, then went their own direction. They for instance placed a stronger emphasis on the second beat, resulting in what can be deemed “proto-Ska”.

Thompson in this work, on the other hand, also mentions the influence of Laurel Aitken in Ska’s development, someone who also played Mento music, and was influenced by latin styles, bringing these probably into the mix creating Ska too. He also mentions other people and influences.


Others, such as Lloyd Bradley in the book ‘Reggae: the story of Jamaican music’ (BBC, 2002) – accompanying a BBC TV series - even argue that while there is a link between R&B and Ska, the overall influence of Jazz musicians on Ska’s development is actually larger. The main studio band in the early Ska stages, the Skatalites, were indeed experienced as jazz music performers by the time Ska arose around 1959. The space for horn solo’s in several Jamaican Ska records, - with Skatalites members as musicians - can be attributed in part to this.

Jazz is known as originally as coming largely from New Orleans, so there is another link.

Also, by the way, - not everyone knows this - the standard idea of a modern “drum kit”, now so common in Western popular music, originated they say in the New Orleans music scene. The combination of different types of drums with cymbals, notably. Earlier, Caribbean genres like Mento (Jamaica), Son and Rumba (Cuba), Merengue (Dominican Republic) were quite percussive, but the “drum” or “beat” part was mostly covered by hand drums, often combined with shakers or scrapers. With Ska the standard drum kit as we know it now in pop music began to be used more in Jamaica, but that happened in other genres too, showing another international influence of New Orleans globally (along with Jazz since around 1900).

The drum kit spread with Jazz, can be said somewhat simplified. At first Jazz was in Jamaica mostly popular with more wealthy people, where some drum kits might have been used earlier, whereas ghetto residents often preferred the rawer R&B. Musicians like the Skatalites, though, played in different circles and for different groups. The first two musicians to own an electric bass were also active in Ska, Byron Lee, and Lloyd Spence, the latter being also a jazz musician before that.

Bradley writes that Ska partly derived from R&B boogie, changing the emphasis from the upbeat (as in R&B) to the “downbeat”, giving it a distinct Jamaican touch. He points out, however, that this was done by mainly local Jamaican jazz musicians, that came to form the Skatalites, driving Ska forward. He stresses that besides “sound systems” there was also a vivid “live music” scene in Jamaica and Kingston, albeit in part class-related. This was simply because instruments and learning to play them cost money. However, the famous nun-run, Catholic Alpha Boys School in Kingston gave music lessons to its pupils (including Skatalites’member) since the 1940s, and was thus an alternative avenue for children from poor families to learn to play musical instruments.

Jazz (with some Blues influences) brought some ‘swing” (as musical term) aspects to Jamaican music, indirectly a Griot influence that can be partly traced back also to Mande-speaking parts of Africa, despite the “whitened” image swing jazz or Dixieland music got over time.

I myself was advised when I learned to play the bongos and conga’s that Afro-Cuban patterns could be used on Reggae too (I figured that out a bit already), but that an element of “swing” should be added to fit the Reggae rhythms, especially with the Left hand. It was supposed to be less tight on the beat as in Salsa or other Cuban music: Afro-Cuban music tends to be relatively more polyrhythmic (clave-based), but tighter on the beat than, say, Blues, Jazz, Soul, or Reggae. I tried the “tighter” Cuban patterns on Reggae too, and it “kind of” seemed to fit too, though perhaps not fully. So the advise I got seemed appropriate.

Alongside these R&B and Jazz (and other) influences there were many other influences on Ska, and following genres Rocksteady, and Reggae. The rural Mento genre should not be forgotten. Most of these, like Mento, are also from the local Afro-Jamaican tradition, as well as from the Rastafari cultural influence (signifying a focus on Africa). The Rastafari movement also originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, not long after the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia in November 1930.

Further there were other Caribbean (Latin, Cuban) or African influences. Rastafari drumming, known as “Nyahbingi”, combined local Afro-Jamaican influences of ancestral African, Akan and Congo, origins, while also Yoruba drumming, such as by the well-known Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, is said to have influenced some early Nyahbinghi drummers. Rastafari influenced Reggae music culturally, lyrically, and also musically, such as through this drumming. The “heart beat” drumming characteristic of Nyahbingi, even gave Reggae rhythms their own feel, especially Roots Reggae since the 1970s, while also the “answering”, freer, repeater patterns of Nyahbinghi recurred (and still recurs) on Reggae records and rhythms.

This all combined, in a varied and interesting African Diaspora connection with the said influence from Black American music, and in this New Orleans R&B was a large proportion.


That is what makes Reggae, the genre that originated in Jamaica first around 1968, having Ska and Rocksteady as precursors, interesting also from a cultural and philosophical perspective. The combination of influences from it, from different cultural zones within the African diaspora, and ultimately Africa itself. The “swing” tradition – stemming mainly from “Griot” cultures in the Guinea and Mande-speaking part of Africa (around the Sahel) - entered Jamaica via Jazz and Blues from Black US music; “clave-based” polyrhythmic structures and Congo-influences from Central and “Forest” Africa entered via Afro-Cuban music, as well as from local Kumina, Burru, and Nyahbinghi traditions, but also via New Orleans R&B; and African storytelling music left legacies in Mento and Calypso also influencing Reggae, having partly also roots in what is now Ghana.

Reggae represents thus, in a musical and cultural form, an African unification, in that sense well along the lines of Marcus Garvey, a thinker influential on Rastafari, who aimed at uniting Africans at home and abroad. Another important person for Rastafari, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, was also very active with a Pan-African “uniting Africa” focus, also in a political sense within the African continent, starting the international Organization of African Unity.


Rather than a divertion from Fats Domino, the above tekst of mine, can better be seen – I argue – as a “contextualization”. How the recently departed Fats Domino stood within the R&B tradition in the US, I sketched more or less, becoming – many say – also influential in what would be called “Rock & Roll”, and an influence on Elvis Presley.

Rock & Roll, as a “Whiter” more Country-influenced derivation of R&B, never became very popular in Jamaica, unlike earlier, 1950s R&B. Partly because of that, probably, Jamaicans were stimulated to make their own music, instead of following what came from the US. Fats Domino was in that sense one of the “last milestones” in tracing the influence of Black American music on the development of Ska.

In later decades, other US Black music would to degrees influence Rocksteady and Reggae (Soul, the Impressions, James Brown a.o.).

Yet, in the development of Jamaica’s first own urban, popular music genre, Ska, that would feed later into Rocksteady and Reggae, in this crucial, pioneering phase of Jamaican popular music, Fats Domino was one of the crucial influences, along with the wider shuffle, New Orleans R&B tradition he represented.