vrijdag 3 maart 2017

Marijuana

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

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

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

LEGAL?

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

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

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

PERSONAL

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

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

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

STEREOTYPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGGAE

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

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

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

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

DUB

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

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

SCRATCH

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

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

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

RASTAFARI

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

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

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

SINSEMILLA

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

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

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

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

BACK TO AMSTERDAM

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

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

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

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

SOCIAL CLUB

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

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

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

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

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

donderdag 2 februari 2017

Crucial background : Nambo, Ronnie, and Gaby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACKING

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

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

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

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

NAMBO ROBINSON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RONNIE DAVIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

GALLIMORE SUTHERLAND

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

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

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

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

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

PHILOSOPHICALLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRADITION

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

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

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

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

maandag 2 januari 2017

The Amsterdam reggae scene (2016/17)

Over four years ago I wrote a blog post about the “Amsterdam reggae scene”. I made clear that it was written in (Late) 2012, to emphasize the inherent temporariness.

You maybe can guess what will come now: time for an update. I think it is necessary, especially because of the concrete places, artists, and other people and organizations that I mentioned in that earlier article, of over 4 years ago. Certain developments or trends – I also discussed – are certainly more timeless, and need not repeated too much. Not too specifically, anyway.

Clubs, venues, organizations, musical artists and such are on the other hand potentially very changeable or even volatile. Even music clubs that have been on one location for decades can cease to function quite suddenly, as happened recently with some Amsterdam music places, for instance.

Through 4 headings – subdividing as it were the “scene” -: REGGAE “CLUBS” (places) – REGGAE DEEJAY’S/SELECTAH’S - REGGAE PEOPLE (public, organizers) – REGGAE ARTISTS AND PERFORMERS.

What has changed since 2012 in these areas in the Reggae scene in my hometown Amsterdam, the Netherlands?

SHORT CONTEXT

Amsterdam is the biggest city of the Netherlands (Rotterdam – over 50 km South of Amsterdam being slightly less populous) with now somewhat over 800.000 inhabitants, but located in an urban region of the Netherlands, with smaller cities like Zaandam, Amstelveen, or Haarlem nearby.

In the earlier post I said something about demographics. I will repeat the not very well-known fact – not even in the Netherlands itself I noticed – that Amsterdam is one of the capitals of the EU with the highest proportion of people of “sub-Saharan African descent”. This specific category is in fact quite relevant to discuss the characteristics of the Reggae scene in Amsterdam. Just in case some might wonder what does ethnicity matter: of course not much, were it not that it has a cultural connection that is interesting to study in its impacts. Just like most Jamaicans – who created and make Reggae – are mostly of sub-Saharan African descent, so are the many Surinamese Creole migrants in the Netherlands, of whom relatively many ended up in the Amsterdam area. The Southeast quarter of Amsterdam – Amsterdam-Zuidoost – even has kind of a concentration of Surinamese Creoles, but also with many immigrants directly from Africa (especially Ghana and Nigeria) in that quarter; 70% can be considered of either sub-Saharan African or Surinamese descent in Amsterdam Southeast, roughly about 60.000 people in one district within Amsterdam alone, while Surinamese people are further found all over Amsterdam.

Due to these cultural connections and similarities, Afro-Surinamese often have affinity for reggae – partly or fully -, but also in African countries like Ghana and Nigeria, Reggae is among the most popular of “foreign” music genres.

This made the Amsterdam reggae scene not only existing – there simply is such an active scene –, but also relatively extensive. Even cities/towns worldwide with not much people of African descent, often have reggae scenes, that is on the other hand also true, showing how reggae truly internationalized and “multiracialized” (this word did not exist yet..I think, haha).

REGGAE CLUBS/PLACES

There are in fact now (Late 2016) two clubs or “places” in Amsterdam that are mostly reggae-minded. This means that they play mainly reggae “behind the bar” or through dee-jay’s, including a resident dee-jay (“selectah” as they call it in Jamaica), and new dee-jay’s/selectah’s appearing from time to time.

FRONTLINE

One of these is Café Frontline, located in Central Amsterdam (in the "touristy" Red Light District), which actually functions as “pub” with regular dee-jay’s (every Saturday at least), mostly with reggae played “behind the bar”, and occasional jam sessions with reggae-minded musicians. So also live reggae music. The café’s owner is also a reggae musician of Surinamese descent.

Members from Dutch reggae bands even came to sing or play their instrument, and even some international ones, on such informal “jam” performances in Café Frontline. The pub, as other places in that old part of Amsterdam, tends to be small, yet the sound and acoustics are fine.

I mentioned Café Frontline in that earlier 2012 article. It has at this moment a bit less regular dee-jay sessions (no more on Friday lately, unfortunately), but still the dee-jays are connected – as years ago – to 90 Degrees Sound: a sound/dee-jay collective from Italy (Sicily), with Manjah Fyah having a leading role, but recently he returned to his native Sicily. The last years the Saturday sessions at Café Frontline were most often led by Vybzniko (also from 90 Degrees Sound) who plays varied (though more Roots than Dancehall), and who seems to have a special preference for New Roots (artists like Capleton, Anthony B. , Fantan Mojah, Richie Spicce, and Sizzla).

ZEN.

Café The Zen is the other reggae place in Amsterdam, located in East Amsterdam, a bit outside the Centre. I mentioned it already in the 2012 article, and simply put: it is still going strong. It became a main hub in especially the reggae scene of Amsterdam, and to a point also the Netherlands, especially in the years after 2012. It became better known over the last years, and expanded its activities regarding booking Jamaican and other reggae artists. It has regular reggae dee-jays – not only on Saturday, as Café Frontline – at least Friday and Saturday, and occasionally a few other days of the week as well. They have (mostly) a strictly reggae policy, also when music is played behind the bar.

Café the Zen has space (a stage) for concerts as well, though mostly low-key, but still enough for good shows. The frequency is steady, although it diminished a bit over the last years: still some artists give shows at Café the Zen itself: mostly with tape, sometimes with a band -, such as Queen Omega, recently. There are recurring issues of sound disturbance with neighbours, so such live shows in Café the Zen were for a period sometimes problematic, though creatively resolved. For the Queen Omega show, the audience was provided with headphones. Café The Zen by now is made more soundproof.

Moreover, Café the Zen started in the last years to work together with a “serious” – or at least larger - music venue in the town of Amstelveen (just South of Amsterdam). Here there are less of “disturbance” issues. There, through the ‘100% Zen’ organization of Café the Zen, several great reggae concerts have taken place, with live bands, sometimes local musicians, sometimes even Jamaican musicians. Big names like Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason, Kabaka Pyramid, Fantan Mojah, Jah9, and others, have given shows there in the last years. I have been to many of those, and enjoyed most of them (Jah9 was definitely one highpoint, while Fantan Mojah gave one of the better shows I have seen of him).

Café The Zen is still a steady reggae place, but organizationally expanded its activities beyond this locale.

OTHER PLACES?

Two places that have a mostly reggae policy in the music that is played. For a city of about 800.000 inhabitants that is not very much. I don’t go to the famous Amsterdam coffee shops as much as before anymore, but I asked people who visit several coffee shops, and recently, so in 2016, let’s say. They mostly told me that reggae recurs regularly in several coffee shops, often only a few hours a day, sometimes some days of the week. There seems to be no coffee shop with a “strictly reggae” policy, as there were before: Easy Times, later Rasta Baby. The latter has ceased to exist, while Easy Times has been taken over by a less-reggae-minded owner (long time ago).

In the 2012 article I mentioned Café Caprice, that existed then still. This has stopped by 2016. It held regular reggae evenings/nights, for a period..

Other venues in Amsterdam hold occasional reggae events. Of course the well-known concert venues Paradiso and the Melkweg host several concerts of reggae artists each year. More small-scale shows, or deejay sessions – recur regularly in some smaller places (clubs or bars) throughout Amsterdam. Winston Kingdom in Central Amsterdam seems more hip-hop minded than reggae-minded, but play especially ‘dancehall reggae’ regularly.

A bit outside of Central Amsterdam – in what is called Old West – there are also some places with regular reggae events (deejays, sometimes with vocalists, occasionally live shows). Worthy to mention is definitely OT301, once an important locale in the squatter movement, later reinvented as cultural centre, though still with clear links with international squatters.

There are regular (weekly) dee-jay sessions (mostly) vinyl in the OT301 building (located on the street Overtoom). Reggae dee-jays there tend to have an international background (Polish, Italian, French) as does the most regular audience. There seem to be a preference for “Dub”, though Roots is played regularly. Dancehall less. Maybe there is a link between “Dub” Reggae and the international squatter scene, I am not fully knowledgeable of. That would require a study by itself, haha. Interestingly, they add to spinning tunes the possibility for vocalists or instrumentalists (I know a regular melodica player as well as singer/toaster, at OT301 events, such as the one filmed underneath), to show their skills.

Another squatter-related venue in Amsterdam-West is called OCCII, which aims to hold regular reggae deejay sessions (vinyl). I have been to some of these, and the emphasis was less on Dub, and more on Roots and Early dancehall, but that may vary. OCCII host occasional reggae concerts as well, as well as of course sometimes the bigger venues Paradiso and Melkweg, that goes without saying.

REGGAE DEE-JAYS/SELECTAH’S

I guess Deejay's are somewhat between “places” and “fans”/public. Since 2012 I have seen some developments in this field, with several upcoming new reggae deejay’s/selectah’s, playing in the said places (shortened to Frontine & Zen), or other music venues, such as around concerts. Some were already active in 2012 (Donnalee, DJ Ewa), but became more active, including DJ Rowstone, whom I also interviewed for my (this) blog. Vega Selecta can be mentioned, active now regularly at OT301 and other places. Ill Bill is still active (with connections to the places OT301 and OCCII). DJ Ewa is very active as deejay (also in Café the Zen), and the already mentioned Vybzniko, at this time resident deejay at Café Frontline. DJ Ralph is a newer, Amsterdam-based reggae selectah, active from Café the Zen.

Some other upcoming ones – or still practising ones – can be mentioned. There are in any case enough deejay’s/selectah’s available, so to speak.

REGGAE PEOPLE

This topic is relatively much more timeless and universal. Changes in the Amsterdam reggae public may occur over the years, though. A thorough sociological study might bring that to the fore, but I noted some tendencies “from the inside” (and I am quite “inside” the Amsterdam reggae scene).

Like what I wrote in 2012, Surinamese-Dutch people tend to be disproportionally present among reggae fans in Amsterdam, and also to a somewhat smaller degree Curaçaoan or Antiilean people (or of that descent). Sub-Saharan Africans (Ghanaian, Nigerian or otherwise) are disproportionally respresented among the reggae fans as well. Reggae is, after all, relatively very popular in Africa. Not only in Ghana and Nigeria, but in many African countries, reggae is among the most popular “foreign” genres. That is different from Western countries.

I got a clearer idea of the reggae preference among other groups as well, over the last years. There are quite some White, native Dutch people who like reggae too, I knew that already. I especially mean among the recent migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Some of these are connected to the squatter scene (not all), some migrate for other reasons or simply work (like my parents from Southern Europe – Italy and Spain - in the 1960s did). Many Italian, Polish and other reggae fans I got to know really loved reggae and were quite knowledgeable about it. No less than Dutch reggae fans I knew before. Reggae truly internationalized, or perhaps some Dutch people hold a false image that Amsterdam is “more akin” to reggae because of the liberal marijuana laws since already the 1970s, or the many coffeeshops (using reggae and Rasta symbols).

SPECIAL CONNECTION?

This special connection of Amsterdam with reggae is not really there. There is only a small connection (the weed-smoking “coffeeshop culture”), but other music genres are more popular and can be heard in more venues.

That only two café’s/clubs in the whole of Amsterdam play almost exclusively reggae, like I described, brings that point home. Other European cities have a few reggae clubs too (Madrid, Paris, Milan, Berlin, even Warschau), and Manjah Fyah (a reggae deejay/selectah who used to play in Amsterdam) let me know that also the mainly rural island of Sicily - where he is from (and returned to) - has regular reggae parties.

Like in other Western cities, regarding Black music, hip-hop and R&B or soul are relatively more popular, and reached the “mainstream” more. Many youths hear of reggae through hip-hop, that is true. House and Pop are mostly heard in bars/clubs throughout Amsterdam, as in other western cities. Hip-hop less, soul and funk less, and reggae even less. Thus, like e.g. Latin music, only in selected places.

REGGAE ARTISTS AND PERFORMERS

Well, regarding this area more changes can be noted since that article on the Amsterdam reggae scene by me of 2012. Of course the popular music scene is inevitably volatile. At least a large part of the artists, rise and decline in popularity over a period. Some maintain a steady fan base, which is in fact admirable.

Regarding Dutch reggae artists there is also volatility, of course. Some artists “break through” in a matter of years, or become more active as well. Others seem to disappear from the scene.

After 2012 arose especially Rapha Pico, who showed to be a talented singer and songwriter, increasing his popularity up to now. He is Amsterdam-based. Joggo became better known a bit earlier, and I mentioned the singer Joggo in 2012. Leah Rosier I mentioned too already in 2012, and she is “still going strong”, having had recent, interesting collaborations with Jamaican artists. She seems to develop artistically as well, with recent strong songs. Of Lenny Keylard I heard less recently, though he is Amsterdam-based, and got famous as reggae artist because of television around 2012. That fame has since waned somewhat.

On the other hand, some bands became more active and somewhat more popular in recent years (after 2012, like Rapha Pico), some releasing debut singles or albums. Heights Meditation became more active, though this band longer around in the Amsterdam scene. The mostly backing band Gideon Grounds, played with Dutch-based and international reggae artists (like Harry Mo), like Black Omolo, and Gideon Grounds is also from Amsterdam.

Bredda Marcus is another, recently more upcoming reggae artist in the Amsterdam area, as there are a few others.

From Zaandam – almost bordering Amsterdam – the band Rebel Jam came more to the fore, where also the musical artist Sticko X is from, who is of course also active in nearby Amsterdam.

Jampara and Batallion, an Amsterdam reggae band with a singer from Burundi, are also still active, also performing regularly in Amsterdam..

More located in Amsterdam Southeast – but with connections to another town, Almere (they say they are from both places) - are the Dubbeez, a talented and promising band with members of Surinamese descent. The Dubbeez really came to the fore in the last years, but with strong songs. They won an international reggae prize in August 2016, so very recently, in Poland. Price: a trip for a week to Jamaica, to record there.

Equally upcoming and promising is the band Déjà Vu (or Dejavu), from Amsterdam Southeast, with a Roots Reggae focus (less Dancehall influences than e.g. the Dubbeez), and with sincere, strong songs. They started as reggae band relatively recently (especially taking off after 2014).

Rude Walkin is another newer (since 2010) Amsterdam reggae band, while the Low Budgetarians is an Amsterdam reggae band that has been active for a longer time.

Other artists that were already active and quite popular in 2012 kept on performing and releasing songs, such as Priti Pangi, and Raas Motivated. Rude Rich & the High Notes continues also, with largely renewed members, and a maintained focus on ska, rocksteady, and early reggae.. Bagjuice is a “newer” reggae and dub band. Amsterdam-based, but not very active in the Amsterdam reggae scene itself, touring nation-wide. Other artists and bands I mentioned perform more in Amsterdam itself, including Rapha Pico and Joggo. Members (like singers or instrumentalists) of some of these bands can also be seen regularly in Amsterdam reggae clubs (Café Frontline or Café the Zen notably). This is not surprising, especially when it is their hometown..

I probably forgot to mention some upcoming artists or bands, but it’s difficult to keep up with a dynamic music scene. At least this shows that the Amsterdam reggae scene – especially that of musicians/artists- is dynamic enough.

The continued presence of active recording studios focussing on reggae in the Amsterdam area (like the Robert Curiel-owned Dubcellar in Amsterdam South East, where I have recorded my song ‘Rastafari Live On’ too, by the way, back in 2012), and new studios, such as the Earth Works studio in Weesp (a small town just East of Amsterdam), where experienced Amsterdam reggae musicians at present help, with international musicians, to create new reggae riddims. Crucial facilities! The reggae artist from Leeds, UK – Bunnington Judah – recorded there recently, to give an example.

CONCLUSION

There is of course a connection between the mentioned clubs and places, the reggae fans (public), and these artists/bands, all located in the Amsterdam area. These “meet” each other, making it a scene. This Amsterdam reggae scene is at the beginning of 2017 luckily still very lively and dynamic.

The reggae fans in Amsterdam are quite varied, though with relatively many people of Surinamese descent and to a lesser degree Africans. That has not changed since 2012. Neither should that change, per se, but besides that, reggae audiences consist of people of different backgrounds – besides Surinamese, Caribbean, or African people, also many Dutch people of different ages and different social positions. Both employed and unemployed, to say the least, haha. Further also many tourists temporarily in the city who like reggae can be found, recent migrants from, say, Italy, Spain, or Eastern Europe (countries a bit “poorer” than the Netherlands, increasing this migration). And of course people like me of “another” descent (Italian-Spanish in my case), but born/grown up in the Netherlands.

Moroccans and Turks are large groups in Amsterdam, but the connection with reggae seems (still!) not to have been made strongly with these groups. I think I can conclude this from my experience. I know a few reggae fans of Morrocan descent - a young woman I knew was really into it (I remember some nice conversations) -, but not many. Some say Moroccan youths can be found more in the “hip-hop scene” of Amsterdam, when outside the own group (as many ethnic groups often remain), but of that hip-hop scene in Amsterdam I know less.

This hip-hop scene of Amsterdam is probably larger – numerically –, also among Surinamese Dutch youths, than the reggae scene, but not more “crucial” than the reggae scene, I would say..

vrijdag 2 december 2016

Fidel Castro, Black people, and Africa : a balance

I have an interest in Cuba, and have travelled to Cuba several times, roughly in the period between 2001 and 2006. I made friends there. Solely for that reason, my life has a relation with Fidel Castro, who counted as the ‘líder máximo’ (supreme leader) in Cuba at that time, given as one person a relative large influence in Cuba’s political system. On previous posts of my blog I mentioned Fidel Castro here and there – mostly in relation to my Cuban experiences in that 2001-2006 period, which I treated also, as interchanging with other common themes of my blog, like music (reggae often), other countries (like Jamaica), or other cultural and social themes.

For these reasons, the announced death of Fidel Castro on the 25th of November, 2016 received my above-average attention. Yes, I will dedicate this blog post on Castro, but in a broader international and social setting. It is not going to be a tribute or allegory, as I strive toward impartiality and honesty.

BIASES

The latter is an issue, because I have noticed in many comments – before, and now surrounding his death – in news reports and other pieces (also in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe), that impartiality and honesty are both often dubious. Not always, but often there seemed to be biases. Ideological preferences play a role, both by self-proclaimed sympathizers (communists or not) with Fidel Castro, as by his opponents (in the US and elsewhere). Ideology inherently simplifies reality and human nature. Even the sincerity of such seemingly adhered to “ideology” of some people I doubt, as there exists some kind of “peer pressure” in some Leftist circles toward glorifying Castro and the 1959 revolution in Cuba, also – perhaps: especially – among “armchair socialists”. Likewise, pro-capitalist ideological thinkers consciously exaggerated the flaws or danger of anything seeming too Left-wing and of Communism on the larger Caribbean island Cuba.

More interesting to me are aspects of Castro’s image and legacies that are discussed less in the many comments: social and cultural aspects especially, more than political ones.


Photo I took in Santiago de Cuba (Eastern Cuba) in 2006, with Fidel Castro's image.

IN CUBA

I have spoken with many Cubans (I speak Spanish) in Cuba - or heard them speak – in private, behind closed doors, about Cuba’s political situation. This was still possible, despite a known network of political “informers” active at the Cuban neighbour-hood level, effecting censorship. These Cubans, mostly of the poorer sections, were often critical of Cuba’s political caste (personalized by Castro), or were mixed about it. “Mixed”, because several shared the Revolutionary ideals, and some even thought that Fidel Castro once meant well, but was corrupted himself. Some others thought that the people around him were worse. Some were simply fed up with him, others maintained a bit of sympathy. The period between 2001 and 2006 that I visited Cuba was called by the Cuban state a “Special Period”, without USSR funds to depend on, but instead trade relations with Communist countries like China or Vietnam, or developing, partial ones with certain European or American countries like Spain, Italy, Mexico or Canada. These did not solve most problems as such, as availability of goods remained a problem in Cuba, wherever I went. It was definitely a crisis period, affecting most Cubans..

My Cuba trips in the period 2001-2006 (about five if I recall well, related also to friendships) were educational, pleasant, intense, “fun”, even “magical’ during its better moments, on occasion “warm” regarding human relations.. yet.. it was almost never “comfortable”. Comfortable is not an adjective I would add to these to describe my Cuban experiences. People around me in Cuba very often wanted money from tourists, because that was a large need among many sections of the Cuban society: not just among the occasional bum or needy unemployed person, as in Western countries. This brought a tension for having to remain “on guard” in public and social life, also for me. This tension was not constant there, yet somehow seemed the “default mode”, so to speak.

There were, overall, many, many hustlers on the Cuban streets approaching especially - though not only - tourists, some of them more persistent than others. This is not different, of course, from other "poor" countries.

Noting this poverty and the neediness of many Cubans, I found it too simplistic to explain it away as solely due to US power, enforcing its trade embargo against Cuba. Some nepotism, money staying at the top, the dictatorship of a few powerful persons.. that was partly to blame too, I imagined. Many Cubans in Cuba itself commented that too. Besides this, okay, also US policy had a negative influence.

This poverty, combined with the public political propaganda – sometimes repetitive and grotesque – in public places and transmissions, and especially the lack of freedom of speech for common Cubans – the said informers were omnipresent – made it somewhat hard for me to see the Cuba I visited as a “paradise” or “example” for the world. Or as “pure” (as anti-capitalist), as some say (or imagine). Common sense tells me, moreover, that things like corruption, greed, egotism, lust for power, insincerity, are essential human traits that come to the fore in all political systems (from communist to capitalist), especially when it has an inherent inequality (as all “systems”).


Photo taken of me around 2003: at the entrance of the province of Guantánamo (Eastern Cuba). The text translates as: "Our Party: at the vanguard in the battle of ideas"

LESS LOW BUT EXTENSIVE BOTTOM

True: to a degree the Cuban state took and takes care of its citizens, ensuring (to a degree and not always adequately) basic necessities and education. This ensured that in Cuba the “bottom” of society is not as low as in other countries (even elsewhere in Latin America) – with less intense poverty -, yet on the other hand, that “bottom” is in Cuba proportionally relatively extensive, with many Cubans – even those highly educated – earning too meagre incomes to get by.

People around me (including friends and family members) have expressed sympathy for Fidel Castro, and specifically his social and political contributions. From my Left-wing, progressive own mother (who admittedly had bad experiences in a Right-wing, Fascist-like dictatorship: that of Franco in Spain), and friends of mine of African descent (living in the Netherlands), some in the Rastafari movement, who expressed appreciation for Fidel Castro’s/Cuba’s (anticolonial) aid to Africa (military, health care), and his other social contributions, assuring basic needs in Cuba. These friends (or my mother and other Spanish family members) were not totally mistaken or even misinformed, but there are other sides to the story, as with all stories. I am going to discuss these sides.

Be that as it may, I think it would be especially interesting to analyse what makes Fidel Castro unique as a dictator in Cuba, going beyond the ideologically driven “better Socialism” or “Socialism that worked” explanations. Some things got better after the 1959 Revolution, but many mistakes were made by Castro cum suis as well, that’s enough to resume for now I think.

BEYOND POLITICS

Instead, I would like to discuss social, cultural and racial factors surrounding the person Fidel Castro.

According to more impartial statistics, Cuba has a racially mixed population. It is estimated that about 65 % of the population – at least! - has to differing degrees African blood. About half of which can be considered mostly Black (the rest Mulatto or mixed). Between 30% and 40% is mostly of European descent (“White”), mostly of Spanish origin (and a bit French, here and there). That still makes Cuba one of the “Whiter” islands of the Caribbean, perhaps after Puerto Rico (that had historically proportionally less Africans).

This is relevant, because Fidel Castro is of course a White man, as everyone can see. More specifically, he looks like a Spaniard or South European, with no visible sub-Saharan African traits, unlike many other Cubans. Because of Cuba’s history of racialized slavery, and continued disadvantages after slavery for Afro-Cubans up to the present, it is appropriate to make a point of this Whiteness of Castro.

CARLOS MOORE

Someone who does this in context is Carlos Moore, in his book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’, published in 1988. Carlos Moore (born 1942) is an Afro-Cuban, born in Cuba, but largely of British Caribbean descent, who for a time supported and worked with Fidel Castro (translator English-Spanish), and sympathized with the Revolutionary goals, reason for which he returned to his native Cuba by 1959. Before this he resided in New York, where he met and was influenced by Maya Angelou. She was one of the several Black Power and Resistance thinkers and activists that Moore would have contact with. Others include Aimé Césaire (from Martinique), Cheikh Anta Diop, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X.

To these anti-racism and pro-Black credentials, can be added that Moore wrote the authorized biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. This was the work: ‘Fela, Fela, this bitch of a life’, published in 1982.

This all was before Moore published the book mentioned before ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ (1988). Good to point out, that after joining Castro and the Revolutionary movement, Moore became critical of persisting racial discrimination against Afro-Cubans, and got into conflict with the Castro leadership. Moore was imprisoned, and left Cuba again in 1963, for France, where he obtained some university degrees. Much later, in 2000, he went to live in Brazil.

A quite interesting personality, this Carlos Moore, yet – I gather – relatively unknown. His 1988 book on ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ had a neutral title, but in fact was quite critical of Fidel Castro’s policies regarding Blacks and Africa. It focusses on Castro’s foreign policy, in particular with regard to Africa, and how Castro used his (self-proclaimed) pro-Black and anti-racism stance to gain support for his missions, and in a general sense ensure support for the (Cuban) Revolution and its spread. Likewise, in the propaganda, Castro opposed US racism to the progressive way the 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others fought against racism in Cuba, or even (supposedly) got rid of it.

Well now, Moore looks at other sides of this. At the same time, he does not deny progress since 1959 in Cuba itself, or positive results or effects in Africa of Cuban involvement. The most positive in my opinion is how Cuban military aid helped to ward off (Apartheid) South Africa’s invasion of Angola, after it got independent from Portugal in 1975. Castro sent quite some troops to Angola then. I met some Cubans who served in Angola in their younger years, for some the only place outside of Cuba where they have ever travelled.

Looking beyond – or rather: through – these achievements, Moore points in his 1988 work at the opportunism in play in Castro’s racial proclamations, as well as at Castro actually stimulating the persistence of anti-Black racism, by silencing critical voices from Afro-Cubans, even former allies.

To be short, any proposal for specific Black upliftment within Cuba, specifically for Afro-Cubans, was thwarted and halted by Castro and his regime. It is there where Moore relates this to Fidel Castro’s background.

CASTRO’S BACKGROUND

Moore refers to this background – as well as of most leaders in the 1959 Revolution in Cuba – as White and “Hispanic”. Personal biographies more or less confirm this.

Fidel Castro was born in Birán, in a relatively “White” province in Northeastern Cuba. His father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was a wealthy landowner born in Galicia, in Spain. Galicia is in the Northwest of Spain, a “green” region, with less “drought” issues as other parts of Spain, but with long anticuated, agricultural hereditary customs, increasing poverty for a part of the population and (thus) relatively much migration. Fidel’s Galician father actually ended up in Cuba, after being sent there by the Spanish government as a soldier in the Spanish-American War, thus to maintain this colony for Spain (eventually Spain lost, and the US took over in 1898, giving only cosmetic self-rule to Cuba itself). Through sugar cane Castro father/senior became rich. Castro’s mother worked in the farm (as household servant) for Fidel’s father, and was of Canarian (Canary islands) descent. Most Canarians (differing from island to island) have some Berber/North African blood, mixed with Spaniards and others (like Portuguese).

It is this largely Hispanic background, also of other Revolutionary leaders like Ernesto “Che” Guevara (who had Basque, Spanish, and Irish blood), that Carlos Moore addresses to explain some racial choices Castro made.

The historical denial of racial discrimination in Cuba – a mythical and largely unreal racial unity -, was continued by the 1959 Revolution’s leaders, even after making race and “ending discrimination” a rhetorical goal. Thinkers or activists continuing to protest this racism in Cuba were repressed and sidelined under Castro. If Castro addressed this matter, it had to be under his (quite authoritarian) terms, namely: making no issue of “race” as such, as all are supposedly “nonracial” Cubans in the New Revolutionary Cuba, with a claimed “racial democracy”.

The problem with this is obvious: historical slavery and lack of compensation for former slaves meant that Afro-Cubans remained at a historical disadvantage since the final abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886, with formal and informal racist practices continuing by the overall more wealthy and powerful White Cubans, sometimes supported by very light-skinned Mulattoes. The US became very influential in Cuba by the early 1900s, and brought some US racism to Cuba (part of the Americans that went to Cuba were White Southerners), but a racist base was already there, albeit with a particular Hispanic Cuban twist.

Denying racial inequality was one such persisting “twist”, which proclaimed a living together of different races, a greater ease of the mixing of races in Latin American colonies, when compared to the more socially segregated British and Anglo-Saxon colonies or contexts. To a degree this is true, explaining racial mixture (of Black and White) being relatively much more common in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

Moore relates this further to a “paternalistic” approach inherited specifically from Spain and the Hispanic world, which – he argues – Castro also showed in his attitude toward Blacks in Cuba as well as in Africa. In other words: speaking and acting for Blacks, rather than as equal with Blacks.

The difficulty for Castro to actually and truly relate to the plight of Afro-Cubans – instead “drowning” it in a claimed “racial harmony” – is explained by Moore also in cultural terms. Castro’s Catholic (though Castro would denounce the Catholicism he was taught), Hispanic, and European upbringing and mindset – including initially European/German Marxism -, made that he could not understand the cultural “Africanness” of Afro-Cubans, but neither really Africans in Africa.

The closest relations of Castro in Africa – Moore indicates – were either mixed-raced or culturally very European-influenced African leaders, such as in Portuguese African colonies. Also the much-heralded Che Guevara had some critical, almost-racist remarks about the behaviour of Africans in Congo, that he did not understand or appreciate.

BALANCE

Moore, however, does not exclude the actual presence among the Revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro of “good intentions” in the willingness to help Black people and Africans. A willingness that seemed on occasion sincere and humane. Castro’s cultural formation and paternalistic outlook limited however these good intentions, he contends, while in other cases the intentions were rather “opportunistic” for his own power, rather than really “good” or pro-equality.

The quote by Malcolm X that “Fidel Castro is the only White man I ever liked” is well-known, but at least partly a myth. In reality, Malcolm X mistrusted White Liberals “speaking for Blacks”, and in time got to mistrust Castro as well, largely due to the White leadership of the Revolution, and in general in higher places in Cuba. Afro-Cubans stayed socially below Euro-Cubans in Cuba, also after 1959 (and up to the present). Malcolm X noted, however, that some policies by Castro and Cuba were certainly beneficial for Black people worldwide and in Africa. He therefore became opportunistic as well, in turn “using” Castro, if it could benefit the pro-Black cause, instead of letting Castro use Black people for his own benefit. Malcolm X remained critical, though, of the White leadership in revolutionary Cuba, as well as of the persisting disadvantaged position of Afro-Cubans. This is related in Moore's book.

Equally telling examples in Moore's book relate to the Black Panther members. The Black Panther Party was a somewhat Left/Socialist-leaning, Black Power organization, of which members sought contact with Fidel Castro's Cuba. Black Panther members Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton (and others) found temporary refuge in Cuba, but got into conflict with the Castro regime precisely because of this continued Afro-Cuban disadvantage in Cuba. This was also noted by Stokely Carmichael, who conferred with Castro in 1967, yet was disappointed with the continued racism, Afro-Cuban disadvantages, and the all-White leadership in Cuba. After a critical speech, Carmichael became (as some other US Black leaders) even "persona non grata" in Cuba under Castro. Not too many people know this.

The authoritarian dictatorship that Cuba became after 1959 has been criticized by many, even initial sympathizers. The specific “caudillo” type of dictatorship common historically in both Spain and Latin America was partly also personified by Fidel Castro, even if Left-wing and nominally Communist. Other caudillo-dictators were Right-wing, like Franco in Spain, Perón in Argentina, or Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Interestingly, in Moore’s 1988 book, this typically Hispanic type of dictatorship is related to Spain’s complex history, and said to have both Roman and Arab (Moorish) antecedents, as cultural influences brought by Spanish colonizers. Many early Spanish colonizers came from Andalusia and bordering parts of Spain (like Extremadura), where there were Roman (as elsewhere in Europe), but also Moorish/Arab cultural and social influences.

In short, Carlos Moore’s work ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ from 1988, is an extensive, scholarly study of Cuban foreign policy especially with regard to Blacks and Africa, with as one important conclusion: Castro seemed to support social and political rebellion of Blacks, but did not feel too culturally connected with Blacks, causing a distance in goals and partly results. Even a trivial fact that Castro personally did not like drumming (music) – as he according to some said - becomes relevant in this regard.

Carlos Moore was imprisoned and left Cuba in 1963, as said before, and came into conflict with Castro and other revolutionary leaders. This might shed doubt on the total neutrality of the work. An element of “spite” and subtle revenge might be there, who knows. Besides this, Moore has his own ideological stances, and pro-Black agenda and connections shaping his views. The 1988 book, however, did not come across to me as “vengeful” or small-minded, neither in its tone, nor in its content. It gives a broad, often neutral overview of events. At least in part. There may be – as so often - partisan choices in “fact selection” though, as ironically also Castro and other opponents did/do.

Despite the mentioned critique, it does not fully discredit the positive effects of some of the Cuban Revolutionary policies since 1959, of which Fidel Castro was an important leader: some advancement for Blacks in Cuba, strengthened independence movements in Africa, other aid to Africa and other developing countries, including crucial medical and educational assistance that really, de-facto, helped poor countries and students there. Several Facebook posts/links I read referred to such achievements during Castro’s reign, in that sense eulogizing the deceased Fidel Castro, perhaps to question the simplified negative portrayal in the US and elsewhere. Maybe these positive advancements were achieved by Castro, but: – as the expression goes - “despite himself” (and his limited cultural, pro-European mindset, according to Carlos Moore).

dinsdag 1 november 2016

Rocksteady : a crucial transition

2016 marks the 50 year anniversary of the Jamaican music genre Rocksteady. This musical style appeared in Jamaica in 1966, following on the Ska period (that started around 1960), and gradual musical changes in Ska. Later changes in Rocksteady would of course result in Reggae music, appearing as separate genre in 1968.

This implies that Rocksteady did not have a long period or heyday: from 1966 to 1968; at most three years, as several sources/works on Jamaican musical history state. This short period of a few years – however – in this case says nothing about its relative importance in Jamaican musical history. This importance in fact cannot be underestimated. Limiting Rocksteady to just being a “station on the way” or transitional phase, toward Reggae is doing it no justice. It was a transitional phase, yes, but an influential, “shaping” one with regards to following Reggae. Its influence is still present in current Reggae. This raises, by the way, the interesting existential and philosophical question as to what degree the type of transition defines the eventual type of change.

In this post I would like to focus on Rocksteady, and its importance to Jamaican music up to now, despite its few years of dominance.

PERSONAL NOTE

On a personal note, as the writer, I think it is good to give my opinions on Rocksteady. I consider myself a Reggae fan, and have first started to really get into Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s. This started around 1984, when I was about 10 years old. My taste soon expanded, and Studio One records came more to the fore, also from the 1960s, including both Ska and Rocksteady. I went a bit back in time, one can say.

As a preceding and related genre, Ska had a bit of my interest, though I personally did not take to it so much as to, say, 1970s Reggae. It appealed to me overall less, depending on songs. I liked several slower Ska songs, but found much Ska songs a bit too fast and frenetic to my taste. A bit too simple too at times, though I noted the lively feel. Remarkably, my body danced/swayed automatically to Reggae (without a “manual”), but moving to the faster Ska was somewhat more difficult for me (and yes I “do” have rhythm and can dance on the beat, haha). A matter of taste and habit.

Rocksteady, now, I liked a bit more than most Ska. The first Rocksteady songs I really heard were by the Ethiopians, followed a bit later by Alton Ellis.

Its slower groove attracted me more than Ska, and I liked the increased attention to vocals and harmonies in Rocksteady, with many qualitatively good songs, at least in my opinion.

Also great songs by Alton Ellis in the Rocksteady mode appealed to me at once, although Ellis' great singing played of course a role too.

DIFFERENCES

I noted the similarities to Reggae, but also became aware of the differences in some aspects. The bass guitar became electric and more prominent in Jamaica by 1966, with since then “repeated patterns” in Rocksteady (in Ska the bass was “walking”): clearly a forebode to Reggae. There were however still some differences with Reggae in musical characteristics: in drum and other patterns, or instrument use. Interestingly, yet typically, newer technology also drove changes, starting with the said electric bass guitar becoming used more in Jamaica since the Rocksteady period began (around 1966): Ska tended to have an upright, acoustic bass, with walking patterns on every beat. Also, Rocksteady tended to use pianos, whereas following Reggae used more modern keyboards, somehow causing changes musically, along with new studio technology.

Beyond such technical and musical differences explained in text, there’s – I find – a difference you can also “feel”, and that’s in dancing. I am aware that in European culture, it is not that self-evident that “music is best experienced danced to”, as is more prominent in other cultures (African or African-derived ones for instance).

FROM SKA TO ROCKSTEADY

In the work ‘Reggae and Caribbean music’ by Dave Thompson (Backbeat Books, 2002) the difference between Ska and Rocksteady (that followed on Ska around 1966) is described poignantly as such:

The rock steady was taking over, slower, more considered, more cool (than ska). Instead of honking horns and skipping rhythms, the bass now drove the song, and the heavier the better”.

It was not just about changed (slower) tempo, also drum and other differences arose, as Leonard Dillon (of the Ethiopians) pointed out: Ska and Rocksteady could both be slower or faster: that’s not the main distinction. It is “how” it is played that made them different genres.

GENERAL CHANGES

General changes from Ska to Rocksteady further included less of a "big band" focus (smaller orchestras when compared to Ska.. the Skatalites disbanded also in 1965), a decreased role of the horns (becoming more supportive than leading), and a different bass pattern (more melodic and spacious, when compared to the walking, continuous acoustic bass patterns in Ska). The drum changed along with this too, in Rocksteady accentuating stronger the third beat (of 4/4), known as the One Drop. This continued in Reggae.

Interestingly, Michael E. Veal in his work 'Dub : soundscapes and shattered songs in Jamaican reggae' (Wesleyan University Press, 2007) also adds to this that the new electric bass lines in Rocksteady (he uses two words as some other athors "rock steady") "composed of a mixture of rests and syncopations opening up spaces for other instruments to insert counterrhythms". This is an African retention.

The decreased prominence of horns is said to be due to their costliness, although Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen, in their work 'Reggae Routes : the story of Jamaican music' (Temple University Press, 1998), found this explanation only partly convincing, relating it also to a preference among some of the musicians for a shift to "pure rhythm" or bass. They point out that in a poorer country like Haiti, folk and popular music still uses quite some horns, contradicting their inherent costliness. O'Brien Chang and Chen further point at a variety of reasons for the changes, reasons I will address later on..

The very educational and recommendable online article by the knowledgeable "reggae expert" David Katz addresses this too, pointing also at the shift to the drum emphasis on the third beat (of 4/4), the "One Drop", remaining as said in following Reggae.

The readable and informative work ‘The rough guide to reggae’, by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, in turn, dating from 2001 (published by Rough Guides), devotes a chapter called ‘Rude boys and Rocksteady’ to the genre, stating in this chapter:

The brief flowering of rocksteady – between the autumn of 1966 and the summer of 1968 – was the most important episode in Jamaican musical history, exerting an influence on almost every subsequent development history. The shift of rhythmic focus onto the bass and drums has remained a feature of all later stages of Jamaican music.”

In the work is further explained: early remixes or “proto-dubs” were made in 1967, while the first dee-jay/toaster to record songs in studios, the “originator” U Roy, did this first on largely instrumental versions of Rocksteady songs. So, also for Dub and for Dee-jaying – as current accepted subgenres within Reggae -, the Rocksteady period was crucial.

FIRST ROCKSTEADY SONG

Several songs contest for the title for “first Rocksteady song” (all from 1966) in Jamaican history. This kind of anecdotal history recurs throughout different works on Jamaican music. Most sources agree on a few songs that could be the very first ones, but do not know which one for sure. Even Jamaicans themselves of the time are/were not entirely sure.

These four songs recorded in 1966 all could be the first Rocksteady songs:

  • Alton Ellis-Girl I’ve Got A Date

  • Hopeton Lewis-Take It easy

  • Derrick Morgan-Tougher Than Tough

  • Roy Shirley-Hold Them

REASONS

The use of the electric bass and other technology – as I wrote before – played a role in the musical change. Yet, beyond this there were other factors influencing the change, also mentioned in standard works on Jamaican music and its history, such as the one mentioned above by Dave Thompson, but also in other works.

The increased attention to singing and vocals might, according to the 2002 work ‘Reggae : the story of Jamaican music’ by Lloyd Bradley (accompanying a BBC series), be a cause rather than a consequence of Rocksteady’s rise. This because the slower genre, and less “big bands with virtuoso instrumentalists (as in Ska)”, made it more accessible for aspiring singers from Jamaica’s ghettos to be vocally active in music, but with no money or opportunities for learning to play (or owning) instruments.

Other practical reasons are also anecdotical, such as the known studio story relating how when Hopeton Lewis was recording ‘Take It Easy’ (in October 1966), he found the Ska rhythm accompanying it too fast for his vocals, asking to slow the rhythm down, signalling a first stylistic move toward Rocksteady among the musicians present (according to many).

Other explanations for Rocksteady’s rise relate to Jamaica’s social context. Ska was there when Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1964, when optimism was for a few years strong among the population, with hopes for a better future for Jamaicans. This prosperous future did not come after 1964, especially not for the poorer population. Seemingly only politicians/elite groups among Jamaicans profited from independence. In fact, poverty and inequalities increased in Jamaica after 1964.

This, according to several works, changed the mood among the Jamaican ghetto population attending the dancehalls, away from the jumpy, fast pace of Ska, toward a slower, heavier genre, namely Rocksteady. So-called “Rude Boys”, who also often were involved in crime in response to increased poverty, seemed to favour this Rocksteady over Ska.

In Jamaican music the audience was and is justly influential on what is played at the dancehall (and not the other way around: that big companies decide what is played, for instance, as in Europe and the US). Therefore the audience also influenced changes in Jamaican music’s direction around 1966.

Another influence, as several works on Jamaican music point at, is the influence of Soul music from the US, of bands like the Impressions, whose somewhat “smooth” harmonies were a period popular among many Jamaicans, in turn influencing a change toward “smoother” and slower Rocksteady, also allowing more vocal harmonies.

All these factors mentioned here were I think to different degrees influential in the change from Ska toward Rocksteady, as part of a multifaceted, yet organic process. The music industry, technology, musicians’ studio input, aesthetic/musical/artistic choices, international influences, social changes, and audience expectations.

NAME

Not everyone knows the origin of the name Rocksteady, not even those somehow into Reggae. Of course it means something in English, along the lines of very “tight” or “fixed”. Several sources point out that this name refers to the changes in playing/recording the music. It is said that when the music for Hopeton Lewis’ 1966 tune ‘Take It Easy’ was played slower, one of the musicians present (pianist Gladstone Anderson) called the new, slower rhythm “rock steady”, thereby according to some “christening” the new genre’s name, there and then.

This could well be true, but other sources, instead, relate the name more to the differences in dancing between Ska and Rocksteady in Jamaica. Ska was commonly danced to in a faster, more “moving about” and twisting way, while Rocksteady, with its repeated basslines driving the rhythm, seemed to call more for a “stationary grid”. Thus: steady as a rock. Rocking the shoulders and body to the music, while staying put more or less on one spot. “Rent-a-tile” was a characteristic expression appearing at that “Rocksteady” time at the Jamaican dancehalls (either for a single dancer, or a couple romancing and dancing).

The classic Rocksteady tune ‘Rocksteady’ (1966) by Alton Ellis, refers with its title to a specific dance, different from the Ska dancing.

The added advantage of the Rocksteady dance – especially when it’s busy and crowded in a place – is that when dancing you take up less space as a person, thereby allowing enough space for others as well. This does then end up to be well-mannered, without much effort, haha.

With the importance of the “dancehall” in actually shaping Jamaican music, the influence of dancing as such on Rocksteady’s development should not be underestimated. Indeed, the intricate relationship between music and dance is clear, even (if indirectly) in studio recording.

Trinidad-born author Sebastian Clarke of the work ‘Jah music : the evolution of popular Jamaican music’ (Heinemann, 1980) recognized as much, stating in the book (in a section on Rocksteady in Jamaican music):

Throughout the changes that the music made, dance was a primary element. Without dance there would be no music. The music was played almost exclusively for dancing from its inception via the sound systems to live performances..”

He further describes the differences of dancing to Ska and to Rocksteady, as it developed, describing how on “fast and pacy” Ska the accent was on the feet (“shuffle and split”), whereas dancing on Rocksteady, slower yet with more “tension” in it, the body responded to an inner rhythmic drive. Shoulders tended to be shaken, while the arms and hands made pounding motions (to an invisible enemy or force), while staying on one spot. Clarke concludes from this, interestingly, that “the tension of the external society was internalized by the dancer and expressed physically”..

LASTING LEGACIES

Rocksteady was not “just” transitional, as I said. The “repeated patterns” of the bass, and its leading role along with the drums, turned out to be –as mentioned - a recurring, lasting trait of all subsequent Jamaican music, notably Reggae, and derived Dancehall. Rocksteady and Ska (and Reggae) shared the “afterbeat” as general rhythmic focus of own Jamaican genres, but had further different accents in instrumentation, vocally, musical choices etcetera.

BASS AND RIDDIMS

Those leading, repeated bass patterns started in Rocksteady, and consisted thus of a crucial transition. The whole idea of “riddims”, now sung over by several artists, in fact was made possible by this; different leading bass lines made these Riddims recognizable as distinct. Many “riddims”, or instrumental versions, of Rocksteady songs, therefore recur in current Reggae and even Dancehall. One should only listen to old Rocksteady songs by Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, the Melodians, or the Heptones to “recognize” music still vocalized over today by current artists like Half Pint, Junior Kelly, Sizzla, Capleton, Bushman, Luciano, Anthony B, and Lutan Fyah. Many of whom started their music careers well after Rocksteady’s heyday. These Rocksteady “riddims” thus recur.

Examples abound, but I can name the Slow Down/Love Won’t Come Easy Riddim: this one is based on an instrumental called ‘Frozen Soul’ by the Soul Vendors at Studio One, on which the Heptones recorded their 1968 Rocksteady tune “Love Won’t Come Easy’ (Lutan Fyah’s ’King’s Son’ from 2008 is e.g. on this Riddim), or the Hypocrites/Mr Landlord Riddim, based on the 1967 Wailers’ tune ‘Hypocrites’ (Bushman’s ‘Fire Bun A Weakheart’ is e.g. on this Riddim), . These originals had the typical Rocksteady characteristics. The Pretty Looks Riddim (from the 1968 tune ‘Pretty Looks Isn’t All’) is another example (Dennis Brown’s ‘Hit & Run’ is e.g. on this Riddim).

The Rocksteady “vibe”, so to speak, can thus be still heard throughout today’s Reggae. All “recycled” today, perhaps a bit modernized or “reggae-fied” but still recognizable as older Rocksteady instrumentals from roughly the period 1966-1968. As said, the driving “repeated patterns” of the bass made each song distinct, unlike the “walking bass lines” (with notes on every beat) of the Ska era before.

SINGING

Another crucial and lasting change in Jamaican music, due to Rocksteady, I already mentioned: the increased prominence of singing. This included harmony vocals, eventually influencing the rise of great vocal harmony groups in Jamaican music: the Wailers, but also the Abyssinians, the Gladiators, the Viceroys, the Wailing Souls, the Itals, and the Mighty Diamonds. Even those groups releasing their first records after this Rocksteady period, still stood in the new tradition started in the Rocksteady period. Due to the slower tempo and other musical changes, this vocal harmony could develop in Jamaican music during the Rocksteady era. This became of course a crucial element in Roots Reggae, with bands like Culture or Israel Vibration reaching even international audiences since the later 1970s, and helping to increase Reggae’s world wide popularity beyond just Bob Marley.

Besides this, many influential individual singers in Reggae, started in or around the Rocksteady period, or “developed their vocal style” more, after the more instrumental focus of Ska before it, People like Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis started in the Ska era, but came to more prominence in the Rocksteady era, showing indeed how great they were as singers (and songwriters). Ellis making a song under that title (ascribing the name to a dance), while Ken Boothe became known as ‘Mr. Rocksteady’ at one point. Bob Andy and John Holt also made classic Rocksteady tunes, covered afterwards several times (Bob Andy’s ‘Too Experienced’ or ‘My Time’ for example).

PLAYLIST DEBUT SINGLES

Here is also where a playlist I myself compiled some years ago for YouTube comes in handy: the playlist assembles “first single releases” or “debut singles” of many Jamaican reggae artists. Needless to say: some of these debut singles were in the Rocksteady genre (some in Ska a.o.), dependent on the recording year, of course: Jacob Miller (as a child), Horace Hinds (Horace Andy), Earl Lowe (Little Roy), Enos McLeod, Keith Blake (Prince Alla), Junior Soul (Junior Murvin), the Gladiators, the Renegades (early formation of the later Wailing Souls), the Tartans (including the later Congos’ Cedric Myton and Prince Lincoln Thompson), Al Campbell.. are but some examples of known artists starting their career with a Rocksteady tune.

FROM ROCKSTEADY TO REGGAE

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, important for the Rastafari community, visited Jamaica in 1966 (so also 50 years ago in 2016), a time when Rocksteady was arising in Jamaican music. The large audience awaiting Selassie at the airport, showed that the Rastafari community had increased by then in Jamaica, since the movement’s beginning in the 1930s.

RASTAFARI

The social acceptance in society of the Rastafari was, however, at that stage still problematic in Jamaica. Discrimination solely because of dreadlocks (denied jobs, unjust police arrests or incarceration) was all too common In Jamaica, up to well in the 1970s. Not only in elite or conservative Christian circles, but even extending to the music industry this occurred at that time; certain producers, owners or managers refused to employ or book those with a Rastafari appearance. For that reason, it is said, the members of the Skatalites band – most of whom sympathized with Rastafari – did not wear dreadlocks, to not disturb their musical contracts and assure jobs in the industry. Similar stories of initial caution about presenting oneself as Rasta are told by some Rocksteady artists, having noted that it could exclude them from needed income or “gigs”.

In particular, it is said that producer Duke Reid (of Trojan and Treasure Isle records) - who was influential in the Rocksteady period - did not allow Rastafari messages expressed on his records. Also Coxsone Dodd, of Studio One, did initially not want too much Rastafari references in lyrics, but in time became more flexible, especially when it became more popular.

With Bob Marley’s popularity, the anti-Rasta attitude gradually changed in Jamaica in the course of the 1970s, though discrimination against Rastas does still occur even today in Jamaica.

Despite these odds in the later 1960s, Rastafari expressions can here and there be heard in lyrics of Rocksteady songs, such as of the Ethiopians, and even more broader “black consciousness” protest lyrics. With more attention to vocals, logically, the lyrics also became more prominent. Compared to the period before, at least, the Rastafari influence increased in Rocksteady, relatively. Author Sw. Anand Prahlad of the work 'Reggae wisdom : proverbs in Jamaican music' (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) therefore argues that, after Roots Reggae, Rocksteady was also an important period for what can be called 'Roots' in Jamaican music.

It must also be said, though, that “love and romance” lyrics were a bit more common in Rocksteady songs, although “social comment” was quite common as well, such as about “Rude Boys”, violence, about poverty and inequality, the ghetto, and Black Consciousness.

After all, popular music mainly developed among the poor people of the Jamaican ghettos, thus expressing their grievances and "sufferation" also in lyrics. Political or social protest lyrics increased too, with the Ethiopians' 'Everything Crash' (1968) having the odd distinction of being the first song censored from airplay in Jamaica that was not sexually explicit. Instead, its lyrics apparently criticized the political caste too much, by describing social problems.

This all pointed toward another crucial change, foreboded by Rocksteady, that would become important in Reggae: social comment or protest lyrics, with an increased Rastafari influence, especially after 1969. The Rastafari influence, but also other musical and social factors, influenced the change from Rocksteady to Reggae.

Some authors, distinguish another "period" of what is called Skinhead Reggae or Rudeboy Reggae, placed somewhat vaguely by some authors "between Rocksteady and Early Reggae". Early Reggae and Ska were both fast genres that appealed to some groups of White Skinhead youths in Britain. They say also some Rocksteady songs. Though skinheads themselves speak of "different subgroups" among themselves, their association with racism and pro-White stances make their affinity for black Jamaican music ironic. There were, however, also Black British skinheads and racially mixed skinhead groups. Some say, furthermore, that skinheads' xenophobia or racism targeted overall more Pakistani and other Asians, not adapting to British society and ways, not so much Caribbean-Britons.

REASONS

In fact, the reasons for this change (to Reggae around 1968) were multifaceted, like the earlier one from Ska to Rocksteady, pointing at the interesting dynamics within both the Jamaican music industry and society.

Included among these factors were increased rural influences, including Afro-folk music that rural migrants to Kingston city brought with them, increasing percussion and drum use, from strongly African-focussed traditions as Burru or Kumina, also embraced by many Rastafari musicians. By contrast, Rocksteady – while of course still exhibiting indirect African musical values, as all Black music genres – was seen as a more “refined” and “urban” (Kingston) genre, influenced by US Soul, reaching the city more than rural areas.

Then there is a matter of certain individuals, actually creating and making the music. Lynn Taitt, an influential guitar player, helped to shape Rocksteady (under steeldrum influence in his playing, is said), and the keyboard player Jackie Mittoo (at Studio One) was equally influential on Rocksteady. Both however migrated away from Jamaica by the late 1960s, leaving a vacuum of sorts in studios, resulting in change.

Also in the shift to Reggae around 1968, technology played a role, along with individual choices by certain musicians in studios. From the piano to the modern, electronic keyboard is one such change. Rocksteady tended to use the piano more, in Reggae, the electronic keyboard became more common, shaping musical characteristics (including a kind of “shuffle” groove around the snare drum accent).

Other changes, already set in motion during Rocksteady, continued or were expanded in reggae: the role of the bass guitar increased even more after 1968. Reggae at first was somewhat faster than Rocksteady (listen to some Toots & the Maytals tunes from around 1969, for instance, like ‘Reggae Got Soul’), but later slowed down, especially since about 1971.

EXPERIMENTATION

Several sources, such as the informative ‘The rough guide to reggae’ (Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, 2001) I already mentioned, point at increased experimentation (mixing, in studios) in Reggae, pioneered by influential producers (Lee Perry for instance) that differentiated Reggae from Rocksteady. Reggae became also less “smooth” or “refined” than Rocksteady was, due also to the increased experimentation. There were other influences too. The authors point out that Reggae was in spirit more like James Brown, while preceding Rocksteady had more the smoothness of bands like the Impressions. Initially Reggae was faster than most Rocksteady tunes, though not always. Reggae came to include more diversity within itself, when compared to earlier genres Ska and Rocksteady.

Also in Rocksteady there was variety, with artists or groups adding their own touch and preferences, such as the rural folk (Mento) influence in a band like the Ethiopians, mixing it with “urban” Rocksteady in several songs. Some were influenced more by the Jamaican “country” style (the Ethiopians, but also the Gladiators), whereas other Rocksteady artists seemed more influenced by US Soul artists or Gospel.

Within Reggae, however, much more experimentation and diversity indeed developed. In that sense Reggae can be seen as a fuller being, a “coming of age”, or a final stage, absorbing what came before and expanding on it. Indeed, aspects of Rocksteady but also Ska or Mento returned in Reggae, expanded with other (African a.o.) influences and newer influences. Recently, hip-hop is such an influence, especially on Dancehall, an influence that Jamaican artists absorb and work out in their own creative way. As occurred before...