zaterdag 1 december 2012

Zwarte Piet

Je zou kunnen zeggen dat de discussie elke keer weer oplaait, maar dan heb je het wel over een bepaald perspectief. Vanuit het perspectief van blanke Nederlanders laait die discussie “weer elke keer” op. Negatiever: “dat gezeur weer” of “herhaling van zetten”. Ik heb het over de Zwarte Piet-discussie. Zwarte Nederlanders, van Surinaamse en andere afkomst, blijven bezwaar maken tegen de rol van Zwarte Piet als knecht van Sinterklaas bij het grote, jaarlijkse kinderfeest van 5 december. De stereotiepe, koloniale rol en even stereotiepe nabootsing van zwarte mensen lijken mij echter moeilijk te relativeren.

In zijn column in de Vrij Nederland van de week van 17 november 2012 relativeert (de zelf gekleurde) Stephan Sanders het op de enig mogelijke zinnige manier: namelijk historisch. Hij wijst op een historisch verloop. De Surinaamse accenten, kroeshaar, en andere verwijzingen naar reëel bestaande zwarte mensen waren niet deel van het oorspronkelijke feest maar ontstonden alzo sinds de jaren 70 en 80 (van de 20e eeuw). Oorspronkelijk werd een vage verwijzing naar verre, exotische “Moren” uitgebeeld, enigszins in verband staand met Spanje waar Sinterklaas vandaan zou komen (hoewel eigenlijk Turkije).

MOREN?

Moren waren vooral Noord-Afrikanen, dus, dacht men, zwarte, exotische mensen. Nog steeds waren deze mensen “knechten” van de blanke Sinterklaas, dus een deel van de stereotiepe, koloniale rol was er toen dus ook al: ook zonder nagebootst Surinaams accent. Los daarvan neemt de mythe het hier over van de feitelijke historische realiteit.

De Moren, Moslims die eeuwen lang grote delen van het huidige Spanje overheersten, waren ietwat gevarieerder dan sommigen vermoeden. Hoe mooi de gedachte ook is dat zwarte Afrikanen Middeleeuwse Europeanen beschaving leerden in dit inderdaad relatief ontwikkelde rijk, klopt het helaas maar ten dele. Althans volgens de meeste historische bronnen. Er was een hierarchie: bovenaan in het Moorse Rijk stonden de Arabieren, daaronder – in een middenpositie – bevond zich een grote groep Noord-Afrikanen, veelal Berbers, soms gemengd met Arabieren of zwarte Afrikanen en later “autochtone” Spanjaarden. Daaronder waren er de slaven, die helaas vaak zwarte Afrikanen waren. Helaas gold ook in Moors Spanje, net als in het latere Europese kolonialisme: hoe blanker hoe machtiger en hoger.

Daarbuiten was er een repressieve tolerantie voor andersgelovigen, maar nog steeds “Abrahamistisch” of “van het boek”. Joden (Spanje kende toen naar Europese begrippen relatief veel Joden) en Christenen. Flink wat van deze Christenen (autochtone Spanjaarden) bekeerden zich in de loop der tijd tot de Islam.

Er was wel aardig wat flexibiliteit binnen deze hierarchie. Het was niet onmogelijk voor een Berber, of een (deels) zwarte Afrikaan om hoger in de hierarchie te komen binnen rijken of deelrijken. Daar zijn meerdere voorbeelden van. Hetzelfde gold voor Spanjaarden en Joden. Er waren soms zelfs incidenteel invloedrijke Joden en Christenen die niet bekeerd waren. Het kwam voor dat geboren (Christelijke) Galiciërs, Noord-Castilianen, of Basken Islamitisch werden en leiding kregen over Moorse deelrijken in Zuid-Spanje met een gemengde bevolking. De tolerantie voor Joden in Moors Spanje is weleens overdreven en wisselde per rijk en vorst/leider. Er waren, naast perioden van vreedzame coexistentie (zij het met discriminerende wetgeving), wel degelijk ook pogrom-achtige acties tegen Joden - door Moslims - in Islamitisch Spanje geweest.

In het licht van dit alles is het wat simplistisch en deels incorrect om de Moren als zwarte mensen af te schilderen.

Historisch incorrect, maar goed: het is een theatraal, carnavalesk en folkloristisch kinderfeest, dus dat hoef je niet zo nauw te nemen, zou je kunnen zeggen. Ze bedoelden gewoon donkere “exotische typen”. Theater en folklore zijn echter weerslagen van de realiteit: het staat er niet los van. Een eventuele speelse draai (zoals in carnaval-tradities) kan er in latere instantie aan gegeven worden: ná een correcte weergave van de realiteit. Eerst de realiteit dán de draai: niet de draai in plaats van de realiteit. Een denkfout die naar mijn idee wel vaker wordt gemaakt.

Dat is rationeel gesteld één van de problemen van het Sinterklaas-feest: Moren waren niet echt (of slechts deels) “zwart” (hoewel donkerder dan de gemiddelde Europeaan), en Sinterklaas was niet Spaans. Maar deze geschiedkundige incorrectheden vormen uiteraard verre van het enige probleem omtrent het fenomeen Zwarte Piet.

Ik ben het regelmatig eens met wat Stephan Sanders in zijn columns en essays stelt, met name als hij hypocrisie, paternalisme en zelf-felicitatie bloot legt bij (schijn-) linkse mensen. Toch vind ik in de eerdergenoemde column van 17 november iets waar ik het mee oneens was, namelijk zijn wijzen op de “onschuld” van het feest voordat de eerste zwart geschminkte witte Nederlanders (vermoedelijk in de jaren 70 van de 20e eeuw) Creools-Surinaamse accenten gingen imiteren. Ook vóór dat imiteren was er echter een duidelijke koloniale, raciaal stereotiepe rolverdeling.

Een kritiek van Sanders luidt dat zwarte tegenstanders, zoals Quinsy Gario - die de Zwarte Piet Is Racisme-actie leidt -, Zwarte Piet te letterlijk nemen (ondanks dat Sanders de hardhandige arrestatie - zie hieronder - van Quinsy Gario in Dordrecht voor diens anti-Zwarte Piet demonstratie betreurde als ondemocratisch). Dit snijdt geen hout, want niet-letterlijk nemen lijkt mij moeilijk omdat Zwarte Piet kroeshaar heeft, in de meeste gevallen met een Surinaams accent praat, en doorgaans ook via schmink extra grote lippen krijgt.

Wel klopt denk ik Sanders’ analyse dat de connectie met reëel in Nederland bestaande zwarte mensen – met name Creoolse Surinamers - pas later, vanaf de 1970s, gemaakt werd.

In de Vrij Nederland van 24 november 2012, de week na deze column dus, schreef Stephan Sanders zijn column wederom over Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet. De pre-Sinterklaas-periode was immers begonnen (al eind november dus). Dit maal geen relativeringen, maar een goede neutraal lijkende beschouwing van de essentie van het feest. Ook wijst hij op hoe het in de toekomst dan zou kunnen. Sanders stelt dat áls Zwarte Piet racisme is, dat dan de tegenstanders, zoals Quinsy Gario, moeten ijveren voor het wettelijk verbieden van Zwarte Piet. Daar zit in de kern wat in. Het feest kan dan een andere vorm krijgen.

(Toevallig zat ikzelf niet ver achter Quinsy Gario in oktober van 2011, zoals te zien op de foto hieronder. Deze foto is genomen in bioscoop Ketelhuis in Amsterdam, tijdens het Africa In The Picture festival. Quinsy droeg toen ook een Zwarte Piet Is Racisme t-shirt. Dit was een maand voor de eerdergenoemde arrestatie in Dordrecht (in november, 2011).

BELEDIGEND EN HYPOCRIET

Het fenomeen Zwarte Piet is, welbeschouwd, racistisch, beledigend, en ook nog eens hypocriet.

Racistisch/beledigend omdat Zwarte Piet een knecht is van een witte man (zogenaamd een “bisschop” of zelfs “goedheiligman” ook nog), wat een ongevoelige verwijzing is naar de slavernij. Zwarte Piet wordt ook vaak als dom uitgebeeld. Dom en angstwekkend: kinderen die “stout” zijn worden volgens de verhalen meegenomen in een zak naar Spanje door deze Zwarte Piet.

Stel je een voornamelijk blank dorpje in Nederland voor: waarschijnlijk de eerste verwijzingen naar “zwarte” mensen die kinderen er vernemen: een dom, raar bewegend, geforceerd pratend, maar ook eng en gevaarlijk, straffend iemand. Ik neem aan dat de lezers van mijn blog intelligent genoeg zijn om in te zien waarom dat racistisch en mogelijk schadelijk is. Voor het geval de connectie met die enkele Surinaamse mensen in dat dorp nog niet is gelegd, praten de Zwarte Pieten ook nog eens met een Surinaams accent. Mochten er Antilianen of Afrikanen in het dorp wonen in plaats van Surinamers dan kan het accent aangepast worden. Dat is wel eens gebeurd, heb ik begrepen. En dan verbaasd zijn als kinderen in zo’n plaats donkere mensen, al dan niet plagerig, “zwarte piet” gaan noemen.

De verwijzing naar de slavernij heeft een connectie met Spanje. Daarmee – en dat is wellicht iets minder evident – is er denk ik ook sprake van hypocrisie van de kant van Nederlanders.

Inderdaad had Spanje een koloniaal verleden dat hardvochtig en bloedig, onderdrukkend was. Sinds de Genueze Italiaan Columbus in Spaanse dienst Amerika “ontdekte” gingen de Spaanse veroveraars ruig en moordend te werk in de Amerika’s. Gebieden raakten zelfs deels ontvolkt van de oorspronkelijke Amerindianen. Deels onbewust door meegenomen ziekten, maar voor een flink deel ook door hardvochtig beleid en overwerken. De Spanjaarden voerden daarna Afrikaanse slaven in.

Het Sinterklaas-feest als speelse, folkloristische verwijzing naar die geschiedenis (en niet alleen naar Moors Spanje dus)? Nee. Ook dat is niet goed te praten. Simpelweg vanwege het feit dat Nederland zelf ook Afrikaanse slaven invoerde (onder meer in Suriname, Guyana, Brazilië, en de Nederlandse Antillen), en deze te werk stelden onder onmenselijke omstandigheden in de Amerika’s. Dit geschiedde zonder hulp van Spanje: dit was zelfs een concurrerende natie toen. Sterker nog: Nederland was destijds een drijvende kracht achter de modernisering en intensivering van het op slavernij gebaseerde plantage-systeem en de overgang ervan van Brazilië naar het Caraïbisch gebied.

BLACKFACE

Het fenomeen Zwarte Piet heeft een nauwelijks te vermijden connotatie met wat in de Verenigde Staten Blackface of the Minstrel traditie wordt genoemd: het karikaturaal en stereotiep afbeelden van zwarte mensen: inclusief karikaturen van accent, (vermeende) cultuur, en gedragingen. Dat was historisch niet alleen te vinden in de Verenigde Staten, maar ook in andere landen met een slavernijverleden zoals Cuba en elders in Latijns Amerika.

Interessant is om die Blackface traditie nader te beschouwen. In welke historische context ontstond het? Waarom zo? Door wie?

Het boek ‘Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895’ (2005), door Jill Lane, is wat dat betreft leerzaam. Karikaturen van Afro-Cubanen werden gangbaar in Cubaans theater, in wat Teatro Bufo werd genoemd. Net als in de Minstrel traditie in de Verenigde Staten werd het accent nagebootst, hadden als zwarten uitgebeelde acteurs domme gedragingen die soms kinderlijk “ondeugend” waren.

Opvallend genoeg kreeg deze Teatro Bufo juist een impuls ná 1840, toen de onafhankelijkheidsstrijd in Cuba tegen de Spaanse overheersers begon. Blanke Cubanen wilden wel van die Spaanse koloniale macht af, maar wilden ook de raciale hierachie in stand houden: men wilde de voormalige slaven, de Afro-Cubanen, geen illusies geven dat ze echt gelijkwaardige partners in zo’n komende, onafhankelijke natie zouden worden. Derhalve werden Afro-Cubanen als kinderlijk en dom – minder dan menselijk - uitgebeeld. Ook al zijn die Spanjaarden weg: de blanken blijven de baas: dat je dat maar weet.

Een vergelijkbaar verhuld politiek motief was er te vinden in de Minstrel/Blackface traditie in de Verenigde Staten, ook na de afschaffing van de slavernij aldaar. En overigens niet alleen in de zuidelijke staten (“Dixie”). Zwarten werden verbeeld, waarbij ze als dom en infantiel, en dus afhankelijk werden gepresenteerd. Net als in Cuba om de angst te bezweren dat ze echt gelijke rechten en mogelijkheden zouden krijgen.

Ik zag pas een zeer interessante film op YouTube, geregisseerd door Spike Lee, bekend om zijn kritische weergave van de rassenverhoudingen in de VS. De film heet Bamboozled (volledig op: http://youtu.be/KhnsaMLtQM8), en komt uit 2000. Het was een interessante - en wat merkwaardige – satirische film. Hier en daar was het ook “over the top” zou je kunnen zeggen. Hoe dan ook kan ik het aanraden aan mensen die het nog niet hebben gezien.

Een zwarte televisiemaker met een middenklasse-identificatie werkt bij een tv-station, maar kan zijn ideëen voor programma’s moeilijk slijten bij de top in het bedrijf. Te middenklasse en Cosby Show-achtig luidt het verwijt ongeveer: te weinig rauw en “echt zwart”, krijgt hij van zijn baas te horen, die ridicuul genoeg zelf blank is. Zijn reactie op deze koers van zijn baas is wat merkwaardig maar wel symbolisch. Daarin zit het “over the top” van de film ook, en het feit dat Spike Lee maatschappelijke kritiek deels vermengt met absurde humor.

Iedereen kan de film zelf zien, maar het komt hierop neer: de stereotiepe, oude Minstrel traditie wordt door deze zwarte televisiemaker van stal gehaald en alle stereotiepe rollen uit het verleden in het kwadraat bevestigd: Aunt Jemima-kleding, simpele, onverantwoordelijke en kinderlijke zwarte mensen, een band met de naam ‘Alabama Porch Monkeys’. Domme, racistische karikaturen dus. Dat is blijkbaar wat ze willen.

Kort en goed: deze show wordt wel een groot succes en zelfs een trend. Ik kan niet voor Spike Lee spreken, maar ik vermoed dat één van de boodschappen die hij met Bamboozled wilde uitdragen was dat zwarte mensen niet als volwaardig en gelijkwaardig worden gezien door in ieder geval de media (en de maatschappij), en afhankelijk blijven van blanke, stereotiepe oordelen.

PARALLEL?

Ik wil geen parallel trekken met Zwarte Piet. Alhoewel, ik wil dat eigenlijk wel. Dat de Zwarte Piet-discussie als vervelend wordt ervaren door “gewone” blanke Nederlanders wijst op onbegrip of gebrek aan kennis onder deze groep. Het bewuste negeren ervan door blanke Nederlanders met meer macht dan die “gewone” Nederlanders is echter nog erger.

Het betekent dat men in Nederland niet klaar is voor de gelijkwaardigheid van zwarte mensen in Nederland. Die horen hier óf niet te zijn, óf afhankelijk te zijn van “ons”, blanke Nederlanders. Als (verhulde) tweederangsburgers. Dat is wat de Zwarte Piet-traditie uitdraagt. Vooral het stevig vasthouden eraan.

Maak ik het wellicht te zwaar? Blaas ik een wellicht verwijtbare maar marginale folkloristische traditie teveel op? Dat kan zijn, ware het niet dat ik het toch symptomatisch acht voor de schijn-tolerantie ten opzichte van “de exotische ander” in de Nederlandse samenleving. Hoewel er veel mogelijkheden zijn voor zwarte mensen in Nederland, en op papier (grotendeels) gelijke rechten, zijn er toch nare, terugkerende signalen.

Ik kan het boek en de film 'Alleen Maar Nette Mensen' noemen, waarop naar mijn inzicht terechte kritiek gegeven is op de (soms ronduit racistische) stereotiepen over Surinaamse vrouwen (en mannen) in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, maar die kritiek wordt op dezelfde manier afgedaan als de Zwarte Piet-discussie (“dat gezeur weer”, het is maar een film/fictie). Het gebrek aan een goed articulerende, middenklasse, en (“cultureel Nederlands”:) nuchter en rustig pratende “woordvoerder” - a la Henk Krol of Ronnie Naftaniel - om kritiek op de film te geven, was er daarbij niet. Of werd niet (genoeg) aan het woord gelaten in de media.

Dat laatste is niet al te verwonderlijk wanneer men beseft dat in de Nederlandse media “niet-westerse allochtonen” nogal ondervertegenwoordigd zijn. Ulbe Bosma geeft aan in zijn artikel ‘Why Is There No Postcolonial Debate In The Netherlands?’, verschenen in de bundel ‘Post-colonial immigrants and identity formations in the Netherlands’ (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), dat halverwege de jaren 90 van de 20ste eeuw van de werknemers de Nederlandse media zo’n 1% van de werknemers in de media “niet-Westers allochtoon” was tegenover 10% van de gehele bevolking. (Wat betreft universiteiten, en de hogere regionen in het bedrijfsleven en politiek, had Bosma geen cijfers voor handen, maar vermoedt eenzelfde ondervertegenwoordiging). Bosma wijst op enkele successen van het multiculturele beleid in Nederland sinds de jaren 80, zoals wat betreft politieke participatie en burgerschap. Hij stelt echter ook:

but in terms of allowing cultural diversity into how the nation presents and perceives itself, the performance of the Netherlands is rather bleak”…

Folklore, kinderfeest, cultuur/film, media.. maar ook de wetenschap. Het wetenschappelijk instituut ‘t NINSEE (Nationaal Instituut Nederlands Slavernijverleden En Erfenis) was ooit in 2002 begonnen door zwarte Nederlanders om het Nederlandse slavernijverleden vanuit een ander, zwart perspectief meer aandacht te geven. Terecht, kun je betogen, en zelfs als men dat niet vindt blijft het een democratisch recht. Het NINSEE is kort geleden (augustus 2012) alweer opgeheven, of grotendeels ontmandeld. Dit nadat de rijksoverheid - vanaf het begin een opmerkelijk intimiderend blok aan het been van dit instituut - de subsidie introk. Het zou zogenaamd niets toevoegen aan bestaande wetenschap over slavernij en had zogenaamd niet het vereiste niveau. Het NINSEE heeft een kort en liefdeloos leven gehad. Zo pijnlijk is het.

Het vasthouden aan de Zwarte Piet traditie is derhalve symptomatisch voor een breder probleem in de Nederlandse samenleving: namelijk dat zwarte mensen - nog steeds - niets te zeggen hebben in Nederland, zelfs niet als ze zelf het onderwerp zijn. Ik kan dat geen volwaardig burgerschap noemen..

vrijdag 9 november 2012

The Amsterdam reggae scene (2012)

The topic surrounded me all the while. It came and went, while lingering around. I encountered it as I made my way. It was both relevant and present. It was part of my reality. I did not ignore it, neither did I take it for granted..I just lived it. Almost the same as that you do not think all the time of your breathing, while that is the proof that you are alive. It’s just there. Yet, I have as yet not taken up writing about it.
Until now.

REGGAE SCENE

I am talking about the reggae scene in my hometown, Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. More specifically, the state of it in the present (2012). I have written about the reggae scene of Bristol on this blog, the English city with about 450.000 inhabitants. On the Bristol reggae scene a CD, or actually by now a series of CDs, have appeared, compiling songs of Bristol reggae artists. Amsterdam has more inhabitants than Bristol, the city itself at present about 790.000. Moreover: Amsterdam also has a substantial reggae scene.

Related to Jamaican migrants and other (colonial) connections with Jamaica, the English/British reggae scene may be somewhat older and bigger than elsewhere in Europe. This must however not be “inflated”. Since the 1970s especially, several other countries in Europe have an extensive reggae fan base as well, and “reggae scenes”, some maybe more than others: including at least France, Italy, Germany, and yes, the Netherlands. All these countries have also local reggae artists, consisting mostly of black people, but even of local white people (similar to Britain).

DEMOGRAPHICS

In this light something I wrote in the post on Bristol is relevant here. Amsterdam is one of the capitals of Europe with the highest percentage of people of sub-Saharan African origin (including of course Afro-Caribbean people). Reggae is black music and still particularly popular in the Caribbean region and Africa. Along with migrants from Suriname - a former Dutch colony - or the Dutch Caribbean islands, black people in Amsterdam also consist quite substantially of people migrated from sub-Saharan Africa, relatively most from Ghana, but from other countries as well. Afro-Surinamese migrants started coming to Amsterdam in higher numbers since the 1970s.

Amsterdam’s (geographically) somewhat suburban quarter called Amsterdam Zuidoost (Amsterdam South East) came to house relatively many of the Afro-Surinamese and other Caribbean migrants as well as, in a later stage, migrants from Africa. This makes it a quarter, with now about 90.000 inhabitants, with a majority – estimated at about 70% - of black inhabitants. It gave it an image somewhat like the Amsterdam version of Brixton (London) or Handsworth (Birmingham): the black neighbourhood. Though like all such images this is partly exaggerated.

REGGAE “CLUBS”

Reggae is relatively popular in Amsterdam South East, but it is not confined to it. That idea would be too simplistic. Formal bars, clubs, and also the “coffeeshops” (places where marijuana can be bought) for which Amsterdam is internationally known, are in number actually relatively limited in this outer, residential quarter. It does have a Black Music record shop, with much reggae albums and related material, called Pico. It survived the digital age, but barely. I checked the collection of reggae CDs not too long ago (September 2012), and it was not too comprehensive, though a good selection. But I guess this decrease is similar to other still existing record shops in a time of overwhelming digital downloading.

The sleeve notes on the first compilation CD of ‘The Bristol reggae explosion’, said something interesting about reggae-minded clubs in Bristol. That is that of the three reggae-minded clubs before there (1970s/1980s) only one at present remains (in 2010s). The term “reggae-minded clubs” speaks I think for itself: a club where they often (that is: regularly) play reggae music, often with dee-jays or sound systems: you done know.

Now this provides a good comparison point. How many of such reggae-minded clubs are there at present in Amsterdam? More than the one of Bristol? I would say yes. There are a few reggae-minded clubs in Amsterdam, as I write this now in 2012. Especially when you define “reggae-minded club” as I did before, as well as by taking the word “club” loosely. The difference between a bar, a coffeeshop, or a “club” is not always that clear.

Using a strict – but not too strict - definition I would say there are now four (strongly) reggae-minded clubs in Amsterdam, as I write this (late 2012). Sources: own experience, conversations, and research (on the Internet mainly).

Club Caprice (several times a week dee-jays play dancehall and, somewhat less frequent, roots); Brasil Music bar (though dubious: only Tuesday and focussed on dancehall); Café Frontline (relatively more New Roots and roots reggae); Frontline has actually several times a week, including the weekend!, reggae dee-jay’s/selecters: now we’re talking. These 3 places are all in the city centre.

Then on the East side is worthy of mention definitely Café the Zen, a few kilometres East of the Central Station, so not too far from the city centre. The Zen also tends to have several days a week reggae-deejays and even concerts at times. The focus seems (like in Café Frontline) a bit more on New Roots and roots reggae, but dancehall is also played.

I have been to most of these places/clubs. Besides these venues with regular reggae, concert halls in Amsterdam (Melkweg, Paradiso) of course also have occasional reggae concerts, and some other places have occasional reggae nights/dee jays, but not in a regular sense.

Then there are a few coffeeshops in Amsterdam that mainly play reggae music. There are over a hundred of coffeeshops in Amsterdam’s city centre alone, and these free places for smoking marijuana have a predictable connection with reggae. This is not always the case though. Reggae is played on occasion in most coffeeshops, but variated mostly with pop, funk or other genres. Some rarely play reggae.

The few coffeeshops that only play reggae or dancehall are unfortunately no longer in business, as I write this. Up to a few years ago there still were a few. It is a volatile economic sector..
I've also heard about the Easy Times coffeeshop before this, near the Leidseplein in Amsterdam’s city centre. Easy Times almost had a mythical, legendary status among reggae fans, especially among the ganja smokers among them. Many spoke to me in nostalgic terms about it. Strictly reggae, dee-jays, sound systems, “keeping it real”, while under a a marijuana scent and smoke. That must have been a special, magical reggae place. About 12 years ago, however, it was bought by a non-reggae-minded owner. It changed drastically soon after.

In conclusion: unfortunately there are no (full) “reggae clubs” in Amsterdam at this moment (late 2012), in the sense of a place totally devoted to reggae and/or dancehall and exclusively playing it the whole week. Yet there are a few reggae-minded clubs with reggae – taken in combination - on most days of the week (notably Frontline and Cafe the Zen).

Having been to several of these clubs - regularly in some cases – I wonder what the one remaining reggae- or reggae-minded club in Bristol would be like. I did not have the chance to visit it when I went to Bristol in 2011. Maybe dee-jays/selecters and sound systems also play, or live acts perform, on occasion in several (also normally non-reggae-minded) clubs, as is also the case in Amsterdam.

Even if so, both in Amsterdam and Bristol the “venue volume” is relatively little, reflective of reggae’s troubled relation to the “mainstream” culture. Reggae is not mainstream, it stays outside it. Yet it has overall quite some fans, in Bristol and in Amsterdam. These fans have to rely on indirect and mostly informal sources and ways to find the reggae-minded places in their hometown. Tourists – Amsterdam attracts many tourists - have also asked me about reggae places in Amsterdam.

The number of reggae-minded venues seems to a degree satisfactory, but in a sense “by default”, as if it goes against the grain of popular culture. In the year 2012 reggae still remains an “alternative” culture within Amsterdam. That while Amsterdam’s liberal, coffeeshop image makes some think that it is like a “Jamaica of Europe”. That is exaggerated, though I like some aspects of Amsterdam, and I think separating soft and hard drugs - and quasi-legalizing soft-drugs - is overall a wise, thoughtful policy, even non-smokers should realize.

Okay: we discussed the locales, the places. Now let’s go the another crucial component of a reggae scene: the people.

REGGAE PEOPLE

The mentioned clubs and bars and (and coffeeshops) that are reggae-minded are in most cases owned – at least in part – by Surinamese people. We thus go back to the Amsterdam demographics earlier in this post. From my experience and acquired knowledge I can tell that a large part of the Amsterdam reggae scene: people who frequent the mentioned clubs, go to reggae concerts or other reggae events, are also Afro-Surinamers. Probably because their Afro-Caribbean culture and history of slavery share several similarities with Jamaica. Even the Creole languages in Suriname have certain similarities with Jamaican patois. Among these Surinamese reggae fans a large part is also Rastafari-adhering, to differing degrees.

Not all reggae fans in Amsterdam are however Surinamers, of course: these include also local Dutch and/or Amsterdam people, other migrants or of migrant descent (like I-man), reggae-loving tourists from various countries, and relatively many sub-Saharan Africans. Reggae is after all very popular in Africa.

Reggae audiences in Amsterdam tend to be consequently mixed in most cases, but just as often majoritarian black or Surinamese. White guys or girls among these crowds are however not a rare sight on such occasions: they are not even necessarily “lost” or “experimenting”: they can be reggae fans for years, even without connections to Surinamese people.

Reggae fans in Amsterdam are overall interracial, but there is at the same time taken as a whole a connection between the fact that Amsterdam is one of the capitals in Europe with most people of sub-Saharan African origin, and the fact that its reggae scene is mostly racially black: that “fits” somehow culturally and sociologically. It can be seen as predictable, but also as authentic: it’s how you look at it. The other way around would be just plain odd.

Now I am talking about reggae fans: people who enjoy and dance to reggae music. A (-no disrespect to good dancers!-) mostly “passive” interest, you might say. But what about people making reggae themselves?

REGGAE PERFORMERS AND ARTISTS

This is another component of a reggae scene: musicians, artists making reggae. I will define this broader. I will in this case also include “selecters”: people who play music by others with a few vocal additions and some effects. These are called in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) “dee-jays”, but in Jamaica – as some may know – dee-jay refers more to a vocalist (or: toaster): one who “rides” or vocally “versions” the music/riddim, rather than primarily just puts it on a turn table or in a CD player.

So I will include musical groups, artists, dee jays and even selecters under the broad category Reggae Performers. Needless to say: this is mostly a subgroup of the previous category Reggae People. Selecters tend to be of different origins, but among them there are also relatively many Surinamers, often playing in the clubs mentioned before.

Are Surinamese people further strongly represented among Amsterdam reggae acts? The answer is yes, as is maybe to be expected. Again, this must not be exaggerated. It is a good sign that it fits the public. That means reggae is music by the people and for the people. There are however also reggae acts – or aspiring ones – that are African in origin, and also white Dutch or something else. An Amsterdammer who got famous on a popular talent show on television (The Voice of Holland) is a dreadlocked reggae singer, Lenny Keylard, who is white, with some Asian (Indonesian) blood. He says he makes “melodic reggae”. I find his tunes here and there a bit too poppy to my taste, but I like some of his songs as well, and he definitely shows songwriting talent.

Leah Rosier is a Dutch, Amsterdammer lady reggae singer who has gotten more active recently, officially releasing an album through common distribution channels. She collaborated for instance with Marlon Asher on a nice tune on Amsterdam. Her style is quite original, roots-influenced, but I also assume an early dancehall influence (Half Pint, Barrington Levy, Michael Prophet and others). Though I think she herself can better tell about influences on her.

Leah is not ashamed or hesitant to connect herself openly and in public outings with marijuana smoking and, relatedly, Amsterdam’s “coffeeshop culture”. An interesting difference with Lenny Keylard who chose on his debut album (‘Jah Is The Remedy Love Is The Cure’) not to make references to marijuana (for perpetuating clichés?).

Other more settled reggae acts from Amsterdam tend to be mostly of Surinamese origin indeed (partly with a connection with Amsterdam South East). With "settled" I mean artists who are actually recording, producing albums, or at least songs, for the market, and who tour regularly.

There is besides this a large grey area of home-made recordings put on CD and sold on the street, or – less commercial - simply made public on the internet. Home recordings and musical experiments put on YouTube or Soundcloud or other "share sites" are not on the market, seldom official (legally correct and marketed), but are not necessarily crappy. Even if the sound quality is not too far behind what studios can accomplish: you however often will search in vain on i-Tunes, or Amazon for instance. Neither can you find their albums on CD to buy on e.g. Amazon or in stores.

Monetary, legal, and practical hindrances make that such aspiring reggae artists or those with only limited official output - or marketing - in Amsterdam, outnumber the fewer "bigger", settled, and well-organized artists having an official album or more on the market. Of the latter I can, besides the mentioned Lenny Keylard or Leah Rosier, also name the talented Surinamese artist Joggo (little brother of football player Clarence Seedorf). He can write good, rootsy songs and has a good singing voice.

Other Amsterdam reggae artists I have seen perform live include Kenny B, Barka Moeri (New Roots), Rass Motivated, KaliBwoy (Dancehall) and others. These seem not to put out much material on the market. Barka Moeri has certain talents, good songs, and I experienced he can be a good live performer. Nonetheless, I only found about one song of Barka Moeri on sale for digital download. Yet he seemed to have put out albums in the past: not for sale digitally apparently. Maybe KaliBwoy’s time will still come (he won a national, Dutch pop price I heard, in the dancehall/reggae category) but only a few songs are “out there” to buy from KaliBwoy. He does tour and perform though. Ziggi Recado is one of the other more talented, and settled, Dutch reggae artists: but he is based mainly in Rotterdam now, not Amsterdam. So he is at least partly in another scene.

Another Amsterdam reggae artist I also have to mention: yours truly. Let me introduce myself: I’m Michel Conci. I have recently put a song on the market, recorded with a producer in an Amsterdam (Amsterdam South East) full-fledged studio, called the Dubcellar. It can be considered my official debut single. The producer is multi-instrumentalist Robert Curiel, and he made and produced the music. Curiel has been long involved with several especially Dutch reggae- and ska-acts (not confined to Amsterdam). The vocal song I recorded is originally mine. The song is called ‘Rastafari Live On’. It is legally done right and on sale through common (digital!) distribution/download channels, all over the world.

I own the copyright, and have distribution channels, but not a label behind me. The latter means that I have to do all promotion myself. Internet offers possibilities though. Meanwhile I have made a promo for my official debut single, and also one in – believe it or not – Japanese, for the Japanese market. These can be seen on my YouTube channel.

This debut single followed on many years of my practicing: in writing songs, melody and rhythm, musical structures, singing, and creating vocal parts, sometimes on existing riddims, sometimes public (not for commercial gain thus legal). I have actually put several songs of mine (mostly on existing Jamaican riddims) already on YouTube. Of most I feel satisfied - else I would not make it public - but they are not really "official": regarding sound quality or copyright for sale. Yet they are public: some songs of mine published before prove popular. Party Tonight on a riddim once used for a Dennis Brown song but dating back to rocksteady from the 1960s - is for instance much viewed in Romania (for some reason...). Some were surprised that I could actually sing (e.g. on Revelation Revealing), though the song was mixed - I admit - inadequately. Also my early song Ideology was appreciated by some people internationally, as was my Lutan Fyah-esque half-toasting, half-singing song Made You Crazy, and other songs. I give thanks.

People who want to assess my songwriting - and vocal - skills for these "unofficial yet public songs" can check these and other songs on my YouTube channel ( http://www.youtube.com/MichelConci)

I leave the opinion of my more official song Rastafari Live On to others. If you feel the need to share your opinion I would prefer that you combine it with something called “argumentation”, but that is up to you.

So this makes that by now – in late 2012 - I am in more than one sense part of the Amsterdam reggae scene. I in fact have belonged to that scene for years before this debut single though. Actually for at least the 10 years I almost live in Amsterdam now.

I am not a “group thinker”, yet I was already all these years part of the reggae scene, at least mentally. In that sense my debut single Rastafari Live On is more an “outcome” than anything else. Also this song’s lyrics are a sort of “conclusion” I drew: on the importance of Rastafari for me and my life. As I Wayne sang “Rastafari is life and of this I’m sure”..

I can also quote from another song, the Mighty Diamonds’ 'Reggae Man': “I’m the reggae man, try to understand…”.

woensdag 10 oktober 2012

James Brown and reggae

‘The One : the life and music of James Brown’ (published in 2012) is a biography on James Brown: it digs deep, while staying humorous. It’s loose yet serious. Engagingly written: partly anecdotic but without losing sight of the bigger story and themes. In other words: it’s a kind of biography I like. Now, it is a fact that I have a liking and strong personal interest for certain biographies, and of course especially of musicians I like the work of, but there may be writers out there able to mess up an interesting life story with poor writing or the wrong (research) priorities. This was not the case with this well-written biography.

PSYCHOLOGY

It was engagingly written, and the author, R.J. Smith, seems to have a particular interest for individual psychology of especially Brown, as well as persons around him. He describes this well. Smith is in my opinion less successful in this work in evoking visual images: description of specific places, or venues, landscapes, cityscapes and such. He seems more internally than externally focused. This tips the balance to good writing more than enough, however, so as to engage me throughout. He does this also with a good sense of humour. The inner life and behaviour of Brown, and how this relates to his life philosophy, provide an intriguing read. This is also the case because I knew some things about Brown, heard before through other media: controversies in his life, conflicts with other musicians, his strict discipline for his band, trouble with the law, his controversial support of President Nixon and in part the Republicans, and his belief in do-it-yourself capitalism.

In this book this is put adequately in the proper, broader context. This starts with his growing up in the racially segregated South as relatively dark-skinned, and in poverty, as well as amidst criminals. Indeed Brown himself got involved in petty crime (stealing) as well, and spent as a youngster time in detention. Brown’s growing up and rearing by his family seemed to have variated between negligence, discipline, and violence. Less constant and present were love and lasting care: this must have formed him. More than cynical, this made him distrustful (which is not the same).

SELF-ASSURED

I think that in Brown’s youth a foundation was laid for a crucial - and widely known - trait of Brown: his well-developed ego. His later monikers – most probably coined by himself – “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business” (the adding of “in show business” makes it actually kind of funny..), “Godfather of Soul”, “Soul Brother Number One”, and more, further attest to this. You can call it self-assured, or boastful, even megalomania, but what it essentially comes down to is this: survival. This book made this clear: survival physically, but as well survival of his personhood, of his basic dignity: always threatened to be denied by people around him, both white and black.

Jamaican thinker Marcus Garvey - the early Black Power activist - said that: “Without confidence in self you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you have started”. This seems to apply to James Brown. Smith mentions Marcus Garvey further in this work as well. He compares Brown in a sense with Garvey in relation to the several business ventures that Brown started, but that failed due to his mistrust of others he worked with. Smith sees a similarity with Garvey’s ambitious Black Star Liner project in the 1920s, that ultimately also failed.

I think that in line with his other character traits, Brown was indeed often distrustful of people around him. This also developed in his younger days, I suppose. Due to this mistrust, he did not think equal relationships with people would fulfil his personhood, but rather destroy or limit it. Illustrative of this is his expression “Jump back, I wanna kiss myself”. He repeated this in songs and on stage (and was parodied by Eddy Murphy). Brown felt saver detached – and above – other people: above both white and black people.

This was not in any way out of racial shame: neither did he see the white man as more than him, so he had some genuine Black Power ideas “avant la lettre” (the term as such was popularized in the later 1960s by the Black Panthers and Stokeley Carmichael). This was, however, in a very individualistic way: Brown was not a group or collectivist thinker.

At a later stage, when he had become more famous, he put himself on the same level – mentally – as the president of the US. He did not know his place. I myself tend to admire to a degree people going against the grain, ready to face consequences by not knowing their place, not doing what is expected of them. This was also admirable in Brown, and also the reason why he had so much musical influence. For the genres soul as well as funk he was a crucial originating figure, precisely because he took new routes to distinguish himself as a musician.

RHYTHM

A very important, much-used term in this book is “rhythm”. James Brown’s music was relatively rhythm-focussed, and he was also stimulating this, by introducing innovations over time: the accent on the One (of 4/4) for musicians, and the importance of drums. Brown in time started to use two, not one, drummers and two drum kits, on stage and for recording, complementing each other. Related to this is his strong passion for dancing, since he was a child, even performing at a young age as a dancer. It helped make him more self-assured. Just like confidence, dance and music helped him “survive”. The three were interrelated.

The dancing is an interesting parallel with what I read in another biography, by David Katz: of reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry (which I discussed elsewhere on this blog, see post of August, 2012). Like Brown, Perry was also a dancer as a youth – even winning dance contests – before he really entered the music business of Jamaica. You know how to make good music - with good rhythms - when you know how to dance to it. Self-evident but nonetheless a truth.

Like in other biographies of musicians, Smith refers to specific songs and their creative context and specific historic importance. That is good reading. Today, with YouTube, these can also be easily checked, adding extra value. He points at songs of Brown considered “early or pre-funk”, songs that pioneered Brown’s rhythmic focus, the latter being his hit song ‘Out of Sight’ from 1964. That song still had some Rhythm & Blues (R&B) characteristics, but also meant a shift. It was in turn a forebode to his even “funkier” song ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ (1965).

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JAMES BROWN AND REGGAE

I am primarily a reggae fan myself. I have been so for over 25 years now. This does not mean that it was all I listened too during that time, of course. I listened to some James Brown songs and albums, and liked the funky grooves and soulful singing. There was also some hip-hop I liked, that often recycled elements of James Brown’s music. These share with reggae that they are Black Music genres, but there are more connections between James Brown and reggae.

In the recent biography of Brown by Smith this is not ignored. Smith says on the matter that Bob Marley asked producer Lee “Scratch” Perry to make him sound like James Brown, apparently influencing Jamaican musicians by then (the 1970s). No conflict there, I think, because in David Katz’s biography of Perry it was mentioned that James Brown was also one of the heroes of Perry himself. Before this, also some Jamaican drummers and others since the 1960s were influenced partly by James Brown’s music. Not that surprising in light of the continuous influence from US Black Music on ska, rocksteady, and reggae. While earlier soul groups like the Impressions influenced some Jamaican artists, the edgier, groovy funk influenced other artists later, especially after reggae originated in 1968.

In my previous blog I mentioned that an Afro-Jamaican (percussive) base was another strong influence on Jamaican music. This is one of the reasons that it is wrong to see reggae or other Jamaican genres as Caribbean offshoots of US Black Music. They stand as original by themselves, while absorbing partly some R&B, soul, and funk influences. These were however creatively absorbed in a Caribbean/Jamaican musical context.

That being said: the connections with other, US, Black music genres remained important: related to ethnicity, language, a shared history of slavery, culture, or comparable social positions. Significantly in this light: while blues and rhythm & blues from the South of the US were also popular among the Jamaican populace in the 1950s, when the (“whiter"/country-influenced) offshoot rock & roll became more popular in the US, Jamaicans lost interest and developed their own styles/genres, loosely based on R & B, along with Afro-Jamaican music etcetera: thus they originated ska, to begin with, around 1960. And the rest is history...

Interest in US Black music later shifted among Jamaicans to some soul, and later funk: including James Brown. It is essentially a black connection. Also James Brown’s ‘I’m Black and I’m proud’ message resonated well with the conscious-minded reggae of the Roots Reggae era since around 1972. James Brown influenced a part of the “feel”, more extrovert, of reggae and roots reggae, also musically. I notice this in a funky feel in some songs by different artists. There are however not too many James Brown covers I know of in reggae. I know of some Marvin Gaye covers in reggae, of songs of the Impressions, Curtis Mayfield, other soul singers, for some reason several of Bob Dylan, even of Elvis Presley, and others, but not so much of James Brown. Yet, Brown’s influence was there.

I notice this influence – to give an example - in the musically somewhat funky song ‘Jah Jah gonna get you’ by the Twinkle Brothers, from their album Rasta Pon Top (1975). It has a groove similar to many of James Brown’s tunes.. Funny how lead singer Norman Grant even seems to include some James Brown-ish “screams” into the vocals, but that may be coincidence..

Smith in his biography on Brown also mentions how the record presses of King Records - used for James Brown songs - were after King Records was sold, shipped off to and bought by interested parties in Jamaica: so there is also a musical “hardware” connection.

Interestingly, Smith also wrote that the entire subject of James Brown’s influence on reggae is worthy of a lengthy essay by itself. I for one would be very interested in reading such an essay, which could be written for instance by a reggae historian like David Katz, or by others. Most of what I know about it I wrote in broad lines in this essay you are reading right now. There is probably enough to unearth on this matter for a more detailed study.

In any case: overall I found R.J. Smith’s 2012 biography ‘The One : the life and music of James Brown’ to be a good read: as informative as it is entertaining.

The One : the life and music of James Brown: RJ Smith. – 455 p. – New York : Gotham Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-1592406579

maandag 10 september 2012

Distant yet near hand drums

PRELUDE

Holguín airport had a “rural” feel. No “hustle and bustle”, no uptight businessmen, neither other travellers willingly or unwillingly transmitting a tense vibe, probably for sensing to be “where it’s happening”, at the center of it all. By contrast: the general atmosphere on this airport in Eastern Cuba was relaxed. No fuss, just doing our job. This was after all not the center of it all, but far removed from the busy spots where more important things happen. Things just went their usual, slow, not very spectacular way.

I found this all in all pleasant. A nice way to start a holiday. I am of the opinion (with the necessary nuances and conditionalities) that big cities – and even some not too big ones - , busy traffic, and busy, modern urban life in the Western world in general make people at least unstable: and often crazy. Rural life can also have its disadvantages, a limited focus, limited options, narrow-mindedness, and a small and closed cultural frame, but this time I found the rural, “easy” feel relaxing and welcome, at and around Holguín airport. Apart from a somewhat annoying customs officer – a relatively strict one – the atmosphere was nice.

The customs officer wanted to have a precise staying address of me in Cuba: by law a requirement for tourists. This perhaps betrays the totalitarianism of the state, but I am not sure if similar laws apply in other (more democratic) countries. Forces who want to control travel probably do not like a nonchalant attitude along the lines of “I’ll look for some hotel in town”, or “I’ll find something”. That is to free for them and those. The respective customs officer responded slightly agitated to the (somewhat vague) way I answered his question of where I stayed in Santiago de Cuba (where I was heading for). I had telephone numbers, and also had an address but that was the home address of a family in Santiago de Cuba I befriended before. I was hesitant to bring them into possible trouble. The Cuban regime “discourages” (with varying intensity and legality) contacts between Cubans and tourists, though not all contact is strictly speaking forbidden, or actively persecuted.

In similar occasions before, I just said that I stayed at a hotel that actually existed, and that was somewhat big. A small bed-and-breakfast – I imagined – would be easier to check upon by an over-zealous bureaucrat: a hotel in central Havana or Santiago de Cuba with over 50 rooms and people of all nationalities would be more difficult to check, I reasoned. That is what authoritarian rule brings people to, I suppose: having to find clever ways to lie, without doing anything immoral.

Anyway, some bad vibe from “Babylon in a communist jacket” was there, but I got through the customs. Outside the airport the rural feel was confirmed. While in other parts of Cuba, such as the biggest cities Havana and Santiago de Cuba, at least the suggestion of a developed infrastructure was present, here I felt to be dropped in rural lands where only resident farming folk knew the way. I exaggerate a bit, because adjacent to the airport there were buses (or better said: bus stops), taxis and some other facilities commonly convenient for international travellers. Because it was getting later in the evening I acquired via via a taxi to take me to Santiago de Cuba. I have taken taxis for longer distances within Cuba before, or paid other people with cars for long distances, so that was not that extraordinary to me. The distance between Holguín airport in the north of East Cuba, to the city Santiago de Cuba, in the south of East Cuba is about 120 kilometres, so a car trip of a few hours was ahead.

It has just become dark outside, since it was close to 20.00 hours (after sunset). The taxi driver was an informal, talkative guy – not untypically Cuban I’d say – and spoke to me about international politics, expressing some temperamental irritation about the foreign policy of the big neighbouring country to the north (regarding Cuba, but also Iraq etcetera). He looked white, of European descent and was from the nearby city of Holguín, the capital of the province of north east Cuba. We stopped a short while in the city of Holguín, because the taxi driver had to get something from his home, while I waited in the taxi. I saw people in the streets and with some I talked. Most people looked mostly white or European. After his return the taxi driver gave some general information about Holguín and the province. He pointed out that the population was different from other parts of Cuba in that most of the inhabitants of Holguín are white, of European descent. You apparently have two East Cubas or “Orientes”. My destination in the South East of Cuba – as said 120 kilometres away -, Santiago de Cuba, is in turn the “blackest” province of Cuba. In the city of Santiago de Cuba (with about 500.000 inhabitants) about 75% of the population is of African descent, of which most also primarily African, although its mixed population is substantial. In Holguín I estimate that 75% is in turn mainly of European, mainly Spanish, descent.

Not far after Holguín city we passed Birán: the birth village of the president Fidel Castro, who of course indeed looks also phenotypically white. Fidel’s father was actually a Spaniard from Galicia, and his mother largely of Canarian descent. Two relatively large groups among Spaniards migrating to Cuba, especially later (even when it was no longer a Spanish colony).

Saying now something along the lines of “I was traveling from white to black Cuba” (or from Euro-Cuba to Afro-Cuba) may sound rhetorically sharp. Yet in a racially and culturally intensely mixed society as Cuba, this is somewhat simplistic, though it has some truth to it. Rationally, through figures, scientific research, and other reading, I was aware of this cultural and historical difference. This undoubtedly shaped my perspective. On the other hand I sensed, emotionally and intuitively, that the atmosphere began to change. The landscape changed from more plane to mountains and hills around Santiago de Cuba, but also the cultural “vibe” changed, I felt somehow. I have been to Santiago de Cuba before this, so maybe there was an element of recognition here, a renewed connection to the familiar that I also sensed. However: I certainly experienced a difference. On arrival in Santiago de Cuba it was about 22.00 and there were still quite some people on the streets. These looked mostly mulatto or black. I was (again) in one of the main centres of Afro-Cuba.

Left: the central Parque Cespedes square in Santiago de Cuba





BONGOS

Santiago de Cuba and its surrounding province is the main birthplace of the Son music genre, that arose at the end of the 19th c., which in turn strongly influenced Salsa in a later stage. The province Santiago de Cuba and the bordering province Guantánamo to the east (also with mainly inhabitants of African descent) also are the place of origin of the musical instrument known as “Bongos”. This is interrelated: it can be said that the Son and the Bongos mostly developed historically in tandem. The Bongos are attached drums of differing size, commonly used as percussion in son music, but soon also other Cuban music, later on Cuban-derived salsa, and over time also in other Caribbean genres, or even genres in the US and Europe (funk, soul, pop). The bongos also made their way to Brazil. It is said by several musicologists and others that the bongos – along with the Congas (also originally Cuban in that form) – are among the most internationally spread of Caribbean musical instruments, or indeed of all percussion instruments.

ORIGINS

That begs the questions of the origins of the bongos. At least it would among those with a reasonably inquisitive mind. I’ve studied literature on this, and found differing explanations, including contradictions, and revisions. I think I can come to some reasonable conclusions, however.

Fernando Ortiz is a famous early (white) Cuban anthropologist, since about the 1930s. He had some dubious sides to him: in his early “scientific” stage he even believed in Lombroso’s theory that criminal tendency can be seen in physical features. This is, well, plain stupidity. That Ortiz believed in this is almost enough to discredit him, but not entirely, because he corrected himself in a sense and changed his views and general opinions toward more progressive and human, with a detailed interest in Afro-Cuban culture.

He wrote in a work released in 1954 about the bongos that they originated in Cuba and is in that sense a creolized local Cuban invention, albeit based on African models. These African drum models, with one membrane (and hide) and an open bottom are mainly of Congo/Angola origin, just like the conga. The connecting of two drums of differing sizes on the other hand most probably developed for practical purposes in Cuba. The bongos (the instrument is actually called “bongó” in Cuba: the emphasis on the last o and singular) appeared in that form probably since the late 19th c. in South East Cuba, as said in tandem with the development of the Son music genre. It appeared in Havana since 1909, foreboding its wider spread.

Other, later musicologists and anthropologists seem to confirm most of this, though there are some differing opinions. Some trace the origin to the Abakuá secret society among Afro-Cubans origin from the Calabar region (now Nigeria/Cameroon). The fact that slaves from the Congo/Angola region were relatively more common in Eastern Cuba historically makes a deeper Congolese origin of the bongos however more probable. Also the bongos’ partial similarity to specific (historical) drum types in Central Africa/Congo region make that more plausible, although there are certain similarities in percussion and drums throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

It is documented that probably about 40% of the African slaves brought to Cuba came from the Congo/Angola region (or Central Africa). Other substantial percentages came from the Yoruba region in Nigeria, Benin, and from the said Calabar region. Especially Yoruba slaves tended to be concentrated more in the later developed plantation areas in Western Cuba (around Havana, Matanzas), though they were spread all over the island, as were to a degree slaves from the Calabar region. Congo/Angola region slaves, while also spread all over Cuba, were relatively more concentrated in Eastern Cuba, especially in parts where there were many slave imports and plantations: the south eastern region around Santiago de Cuba. Holguín to the north had much less of this plantation slavery, hence the racial difference in the present.

BONGOS AND RITUAL AFRO-CUBAN DRUMMING

The bongos are thus probably (or mainly) of Congo origin, reworked in Cuba. But besides this, other historians and musicologists explained other interesting features of the bongos, especially regarding their relation with other Afro-Cuban percussion. There were, since slavery, other drums used among Afro-Cubans, mostly in religious African rituals of Yoruba, Calabar, Arará, Congo or other origin. These ritual drums have - some point out convincingly - their echoes in the bongos. The latter’s two connected drums of differing size have an inherent flexibility, and a strong emulative potential of the drums used in the Yoruba-based Santeriá religion (called Batá drums), or in other religions/traditions. These drums may have different shapes and sizes, but their sound can be approached or emulated well with the bongos. The bongos thus, so to speak, “translate” Afro-Cuban ritual drum use – with often a direct spiritual aspect - for use in popular or secular music. They thus integrate these in the popular music genre called son. I found this culturally and musically very interesting and significant. Also because this process has parallels in other Caribbean music genres. I will return to that later.

METHOD OF PLAYING

It is of course a hand drum, which was long frowned upon in elite (white) circles in Cuba. Drums played by hand were seen by some as too “African”, preferring a military-type drum hit by sticks, seen as more European (though in fact Africa also has many drums originally hit by sticks). Despite this the bongos were one of the first Afro-Cuban drums to reach broader Cuban, “national” music since the early 20th c. Cuban bongo players point out that most fingers can be used to play the bongos properly, but that the emphasis is on the middle finger. The bongos are mostly held between the knees (slightly bent). The larger drum is traditionally held on the side of the most apt hand (when right-handed on the right or left when left-handed) and is called “hembra”, female, while the smaller drum on the other side is called “varón" (male). Most Cuban bongo players recommend a tight (though not too tight) tuning of the hides.

MUSICAL FUNCTION

To (help) keep the rhythmic timing is the most obvious function of percussion and drums. Indeed this is also from early on, within son, an important function of the bongos. There was of course no modern drum kit back then. Son ensembles tended to include a guitar, a Cuban tres guitar, later on an acoustic bass/double bass, horns, and of course from early on percussion. Percussion included in most cases the bongos, maracas (or other “shakers”), and often also congas, as well as the “clave” (wooden sticks). These clave sticks were most literally and limitedly used for keeping the timing, though not throughout the entire song. There was even an old-time son song, from the 1950s, by the Cuban band Orquesta Aragón named ‘Sin clave y bongo no hay son’ (‘Without the clave and bongos there is no son’).

The function of the bongos was also that of keeping the rhythm, but in a broader sense. Still within the overall timing the bongo players improvised, broadened the rhythm from within, you might say.

TALKING DRUMS

This is related to the historical role of the drums in African music. More specifically the idea of the “talking drum”. Of course there is a specific instrument used in Africa by that name, but the idea of drums that talk, tell stories, is more broadly spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Some musicologists found that the principle is also to be found in some cultures outside of sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Asia, but is most common in Africa. Different types of drums “talk” there to some degree, not just the instrument known as Talking Drum. Less elaborate when they lack the capacity to regulate the pitch as the Talking Drum has, but they still “talk”. This can be connected to social or practical functions, as well as spiritual meanings. Especially in the Bantu/Congo area, communicating with (the spirits of) ancestors is often a function of the hand drumming.

Due to this African heritage, from its beginnings in son music, it became known in Cuba that good bongo players should have a good sense of rhythm, know how to keep it. This is self-evident, but not as simple as it sounds (see for instance how some people dance without any regard for the timing). The “martillo” (means “hammer” in Spanish) technique used by bongo players in son, is mostly “built around” the basic rhythmic 3-2 structured timing (indicated by the clave sticks), in turn based on a 12/8 or sometimes 4/4 beat. Beyond this, it became common knowledge among Cuban musicians that good bongo players should also know how to make the bongos “talk”. This almost became a prerequisite for a bongo player. People who know about Cuban son, know that the son style known as “Son Montuno” has a more improvising part at the latter part of songs, when the bongos (and other instruments) start to improvise more, while the vocals turn (again) to call-and-response. Many salsa songs maintain this basic song structure of more improvisation at the end.

During my travels to Santiago de Cuba, roughly between 2001 and 2006, I noticed that there was much live music in the city. Many bands performing in some regular venues (like the Dos Abuelos club and the Casa De La Trova), and outside them, including the streets. These were often acoustic performances, often of traditional son. Several of these bands had the bongos as only or main percussion (at times along with a conga). In electric or fuller ensembles it would “drown” more in the general soundscape (which in itself says nothing about the quality, by the way). More acoustically and sparse, however, - and in a small-scale live setting of course - I could hear better how the bongos kept the rhythm, but also how and when they “talked”, and “told”.

Photos underneath: bongó players in bands in the Los Dos Abuelos club in Santiago de Cuba. I took these in 2006













JAMAICA

I mentioned before how the bongos served as translator of Afro-Cuban ritual drums, translating these to the secular/popular son music genre and related genres. Not too far south of Santiago de Cuba lies the island of Jamaica. Geographically it’s very close, but a different colonizer and other historical differences makes them seem worlds apart. Often just the language barrier sets for many these islands apart, but I speak both English and Spanish, so for me that is not so the case. I have been to Jamaica as well, which I discussed on this blog as well. Furthermore I have learned a lot about reggae since I am a reggae fan for over 25 years now. I have also read much about it, also historical and cultural studies. I have also studied Cuban music. This is not at all to brag, but I have a point with this: I think I am in a position to compare the music cultures of both islands.

There are some historical differences, but also similarities. Both Jamaica and Cuba knew plantation slavery. This was in Jamaica’s case relatively more intense, making that in the present about 85 % of Jamaicans are primarily of African descent. In Cuba only the region around Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo comes somewhat close (though there was relatively more racial mixture). I think that for the whole of Cuba about 60 % is (partly) of African descent, which includes bi- or tri-racial people.

Slaves that were forcibly brought to Jamaica came, like in the case of Cuba, from several parts of Africa, with certain concentrations. From what is now Ghana (Ashanti, Coromantee) came relatively many, from what is now Nigeria and Benin, some from the Senegambia region, and also from the Congo/Angola region. Some parts that were less common for slaves brought to Cuba, but also similarities. Studies estimate the percentage of slaves from the Congo/Angola region arriving in Jamaica at about 20% of all slaves. More than many would imagine.

This Congolese cultural influence (including from liberated slaves after Britain abolished slavery) is according to studies strongest in eastern parishes/regions from Jamaica: St Thomas and Portland. A remarkable mirroring of the Cuban situation. Slaves of Congo/Angolan descent have further been reported all over Jamaica, but there is some concentration. Like the religion Kumina from St Thomas and surroundings, the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Monte in Eastern Cuba has strong Congo/Bantu influences, thus also in ritual drum use. Yet also other Afro-Jamaican religious systems like Burru – found in central parishes Clarendon and St Catherine - show Congo influences.

DISTANT DRUMS

In light of this I would like to point at an interesting article I read about the influence of hand drums on the originating and developing of Jamaican music genres: from ska, to rocksteady, to reggae. This was published in the scholarly journal Caribbean Quarterly, Volume 56, nr. 4 (2010): the article was titled: ‘Distant drums : the unsung contribution of African-Jamaican percussion to popular music at home and abroad’. It was written by Kenneth Bilby.

I found this article interesting and revealing. Some say a movie like ‘The Matrix’ was life-changing for them. I consider this article in a sense life-changing for me. At the very least it made clearer what I assumed or knew vaguely. Ska and following music genre rocksteady originating in the period 1960-1966, ultimately resulting in reggae arising in 1968, were influenced in their origins in part by US Black music, like R&B and Blues, but also clearly by Afro-Jamaican music and percussion.

This article by Bilby reveals convincingly through interviews with influential Jamaican musicians and percussionists, with intriguing nicknames like Count Ossie, Bongo Herman, Seeco (percussionist for Bob Marley & the Wailers), Sticky, Skully, and Sky Juice. Reggae fans may know these names at least from credits written on the back or inner sleeves of albums, as most have played with many artists during the Roots Reggae era as well. Besides the names known among reggae fans, Bilby also pays homage and gives credits to lesser known – yet influential - hand drummers and percussionists, who were active in Afro-Jamaican cults like the mentioned Burru tradition. Bilby describes Watta King as a crucial link between the Burru hand drumming and the Nyabinghi drumming tradition among African-centered Rastafari-adherents in West-Kingston, in Jamaica’s capital. Watta King taught several (Rastas) there to drum, including Seeco and the mentor of Count Ossie, while serving as a model for other (later) studio musicians/percussionists as well. Interestingly, this Watta King was of Congo descent.

The Nyabinghi tradition thus developed influenced reggae strongly since reggae originated, as well as earlier genres in Jamaica. Drumming patterns eventually helped shape reggae’s rhythmic structure, as the musicians explain in the said article. This includes the “Heart Beat” (one two, one two) one of the drums called “Funde” in the Nyabinghi tradition regularly play. This Funde drum’s basic rhythm, by the way, combines in Nyabinghi with other more “talking” drum patterns. It influenced according to some the One Drop rhythmic structure, but also indirectly the guitar strum (chick! chick!) on the second and fourth count of a 4/4 beat, characterizing reggae. The great Tarrus Riley song One Two Order (from 2006) refers to this “heart beat”, one-two rhythm of Nyabinghi (and includes it at the beginning).

PARALLELS

The parallels between the Cuban and Jamaican situations are evident: especially with regard to the “translation” of African-based ritual (hand) drumming to percussion and rhythmic structures in popular music genres. Both include a Congo/Angola original influence as well, through Watta King and Kumina on the one hand, and son and the bongos on the other.

The musical worlds of Cuba and Jamaica are not so far apart when looking at origins and essence. Not just in their shared (part) African-based origins – which a wider public already may know - , but also how these influences actually developed, with “hand drums” being the key term. At least frowned upon, but often also conscribed or actively limited by colonial and later elites, this African-based hand drumming nonetheless survived and thus helped maintain African musical traditions through the centuries. Up to the present.

POSTSCRIPT

I myself took up playing the bongos not too long ago. Mainly to practice, I have improvised on some reggae riddims. This originally Afro-Cuban instrument does not seem or “feel” at all out of place - and is in fact occasionally used - within reggae. This is in line with the connecting of musical cultures of this post.

I’ve uploaded my bongo improvisations on my YouTube account: on the Real Rock Riddim I focus more on “rhythmic base”, while on the Columbus Riddim I “talk” more: of course with the rhythm in mind as well. I also tried to use some Nyabinghi patterns, especially in my improvisation on the Columbus Riddim. For the improvistation on the Columbus Riddim the drums were tuned tighter, as one can hear. I still haven't figured out of what animal the hides are from, but they are definitely animal skin (and not synthetic). The manufacturer of similar bongos, the Germany-based Meinl company, tends to use most commonly buffalo hides, so it could be that.

These videos can be seen underneath, or on my YouTube Channel..

zaterdag 4 augustus 2012

The genius of Scratch

Lee “Scratch” Perry (also nicknamed “the Upsetter”) has been a very influential figure within reggae music. Noticing the relative paucity of biographies of reggae artists or producers, – other than Bob Marley –, I was therefore pleased to know that a biography of Perry has appeared. This was written by US-born reggae journalist/writer David Katz, and is called ‘People Funny Boy’, subtitled ‘The genius of Lee “Scratch”Perry’. It first appeared in 2000, and a revised edition in 2006 (the latter one I read). I not only knew of its existence, but actually owned it for a while before I found time to read it. It is quite voluminous (around 540 pages), and has much eye for detail.

Perry or Scratch (as I will call him from now on) was a producer as well as a musical artist, and he worked with many artists in Kingston (Jamaica) studios: studios of others, such as Clement Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, and later, since 1973, his own Black Ark studio, which was housed adjacent to where Scratch lived with his family in the Washington Gardens area, somewhat outside the ghetto areas, in Kingston.

For many reggae fans the Black Ark studio was almost a holy spot, where the pinnacle of Roots Reggae in the 1970s was reached. Scratch likewise is seen as even more iconic than other icons within Jamaican music. Scratch’s magic touch shaped reggae and other directions in Jamaican music, and launched or at least stimulated - the careers of the Wailers, Max Romeo, the Congos, Junior Murvin and others. He was a producer who was considered by many a genius; he got out of artists and songs what other producers in Jamaica could not. The said book relates adequately the why and how of this, while detailing Scratch’s life.

To put it shortly: I enjoyed this biography ‘People Funny Boy’ very much. The above significance for reggae was explained with detail, but also Scratch’s life, so you get to know the person behind the producer well. Recommendable for anyone interested in reggae and/or Scratch. I don’t think it is translated in many other languages though: I read it in the original English.

While it was a good read, of course some points of critique can be articulated. Yet I think that all in all the balance tips to the good. I assume that there were certain aspects that even intensive investigative journalism could not uncover. The writer Katz, an experienced reggae writer, interviewed Perry, who was quite open, it seemed. Whereas Jimmy Cliff, on which Katz wrote another biography, was more reserved in giving personal information, Scratch seemed to keep less secrets.

Thus, several interesting details came to the fore, of which I will not betray too much to keep it interesting for the prospective readers. I will, however, selectively highlight certain aspects from Scratch’s life story which I consider relevant for my view on reggae’s history.

DANCING

In his younger days, while still living in the Jamaican country area of Clarendon, Scratch loved to dance at parties, and became even known widely for his dancing. My opinion is that the genius of Scratch, his magic touch with reggae, relates to this: he was used to feel the music (back then it was not reggae yet, but still) with his whole essence and body/structure. Later in his Black Ark studio he danced while recording/producing songs, thus helping to shape these songs. He probably danced while writing songs himself as well. His productions became popular with the public, often (not always) more than those of other producers (Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Joe Gibbs and others), maybe because he “felt” the music better while dancing.

Another crucial aspect in Scratch’s role in reggae is his openness to Rastafari adherents and messages in his recording and studio. Unlike some other producers who distanced themselves from Rastafari personally, while allowing artists nonetheless to record such messages, albeit hesitantly, such as Coxsone, Scratch actually sympathized with the Rastas and seemed like-minded and similarly rebellious, also personally. At least initially.

The “Deep Roots” recorded at the Black Ark, such as by the Congos, the Rastafari message of Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon album (and several others by different artists), testify to that.

DREADS

Yet as time progressed, the story of Scratch became more enigmatic. He was called a musical genius by several artists who respected him for bringing out the best in them and their songs. His role for the Wailers was crucial, albeit not without conflicts. As it seemed, while Scratch and Bob Marley went along well as good friends or “bredren” until Bob’s end, the relationship between Bunny Wailer and Scratch was much more tense and not always amicable.

At the end of the 1970s, Scratch’s behaviour became more “crazy”, mad, and erratic. He even seemed to radically shift his views. He got in a conflict with the Congos, and more broadly complained about the Rastas, the Dreads hanging around the studio, bringing, as he states, “unclean spirits” in it. He seemed to consider those as unreal, false Rastas, but why becomes less clear.

What I got out of the book is that the conflicts focused on money: many people wanted something from Scratch, especially that he would help finance and maintain associated artists, among them many “dreads” apparently having burdensome requests. This seemed to be too much for Scratch, and there’s the suggestion of money scams, foul play, though not too much concrete events and cases were explained. Thus, the Congos fell out of favour with Scratch, as did other artists or musicians hanging around the studio.

Combined with other madness this made Scratch (probably himself) burn the Black Ark studio in 1983. In his mind it was too polluted with bad spirits (again, without becoming quite clear in what way), disturbing what Scratch once envisioned as a righteous, Rastafari “Ark of the Covenant”.

Following this, Scratch made bold, seemingly irrational statements that he didn’t want to work with dreadlocked artists and Rastas any more. Later in his career he - a black man himself of course - even tried to avoid working with black musicians. He was not too consistent in this: he later still worked and socialized with Rastas and black people whom he still considered friends.

Over time he also got to share the stage with the same Congos he was once in conflict with, such as at the 2011 Summerjam festival in Germany, so they patched things up apparently. It nonetheless may seem odd for reggae fans to know about this tension, as many hold the Congos-Scratch combination for the Heart of the Congos album (1977), recorded at the Black Ark, as one of the most iconic moments in Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae.

Scratch’s mad behaviour: drawing and painting on everything (walls, loose items), throwing liquids on studio equipment, the said burning of the studio, suddenly shocking people, seemed however more calculated than thought. He acted mad and crazy to “keep people off his back”, keep them away from him, those people who wanted money and favours. This “mad” behaviour continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. While his musical genius was still acknowledged - even by artists who he had quarrelled with - he thus became even more known as a ”mad genius”. Enigmatic, odd, and not always totally clear were the causes of such conflicts and quarrels (what did these “dreads” at the studio actually do?, or how much money did they ask?). They however are fascinating stories in some sense, and are related engagingly in Katz’s book on Scratch.

A FOREIGN

The latter part of the work deals more with Perry abroad (“a foreign” as they say in Jamaican) since the 1980s, where he went to reside, seemingly escaping the hassle he perceived in Jamaica. It discusses how Scratch developed his career in Britain, the Netherlands (during the peak of his Pipecock Jacksone persona), the US, and elsewhere. Further, the artists (reggae and other) he worked with, such as Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and eventually his meeting of Mireille, his future Swiss wife, and his taking up residence in Switzerland, where he worked with more artists, such as Yello.

He over time had relationships with some other women as well. Earlier is his life, in Jamaica, he and his earlier Jamaican wife, Pauline, got separated. Pauline at that time got in a relationship with a member of the band the Meditations. And yes, that was a “dread”. The work is thus even detailed regarding Scratch’s intimate relationships, such as in the elaborating on temporary conflicts with his wife/partners and marital problems. But in fact that is quite in line with the rest of the book: also other relationships, with his children, musicians, former partners, other family members etcetera, tend to get much attention. Quite different therefore than the less personal “extended discographies” (even if nominally biographies) I have also discussed on my blog.

MUSICAL CHANGES

Especially in the latter part of the book Scratch’s performing in Europe and elsewhere is discussed, describing the vocally improvising, free-floating style of Scratch. On stage as well as in studios, where he voiced tracks/instrumentals this way, sometimes lyrically absurd. That is maybe one manifestation of his penchant for constant innovation and experimentation, a deterrence of being “fixed” in formulae.

It is maybe here, in part, where his musical genius also lies. In the Black Ark days he used to shift course once in a while, and innovated more than other producers. Scratch’s famed song ‘People Funny Boy’, also one of the earliest reggae songs, from 1968, used the crying of babies (his own children), as well as Afro-folk religious Pocomania church rhythms and musicality. Also on the Congos’ album and other albums he used inventive studio techniques – often despite limited means and relatively dated equipment - contributing to a specific Black Ark ”sound”, which seasoned reggae fans probably can dream (echoed guitar chops, among other things).

Scratch did not invent reggae - that was an organic process including several people -, not even dub - which can be credited mainly to King Tubby -, but he certainly did help to shape and develop both reggae and dub since their early stages.

This knack for constant innovation makes another episode from the book’s latter part all the more interesting. Scratch (also) got in a temporary conflict with white British producer Adrian Sherwood. Scratch accused Sherwood once for being evil, and for limiting him, “keeping him – Scratch – in the past”, musically. Sherwood apparently while working with Scratch indicated he wanted Scratch’s Black Ark sound revived, which Scratch found too confining. This reminds of the all too common, quasi-anthropological “freezing in the past”, Westerners sometimes like to do with cherished exotic cultures..

DOCUMENTARY

Not long after finishing the book by Katz I saw a recently (2011) appeared documentary on Scratch, called ‘The Upsetter’, subtitled ‘The life and music of Lee Scratch Perry’, made by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough. Years after the book was published, so I wondered how the book and documentary interrelated.

Again, I try not to betray too much for people anxious to view this documentary, but I can say that I only recognized selective parts of the book in the documentary. Scratch himself is seen being interviewed, as well as in his daily activities, which adds much that a written work can’t show. Here the visual complements, rather than distracts from, the content. There were, however, also lesser, or too superficial aspects in the documentary, but overall it is certainly worth a watch, and is informative and engaging. Also after having read the book.

Some information is repeated more or less from the book, but there is also (partly) new information in this 2011 documentary 'The Upsetter'. His beef with the, according to him, polluting, unreal Rastas or dreads in the later Black Ark days, is discussed again. Further, his ideas on himself, the world, and music, Scratch expressed throughout the documentary, prove insightful and entertaining. His statements vary from inventive, to odd, to excentric, or crazy, but clearly have a vision behind them. Scratch’s vision of life comes across as spiritual and religious, or Biblical in some sense, Rastafari-derived as well, but in an own, distinct way that is as individualistic as it is free. Difficult to “nail down”, “fix”, or categorize. Indeed similar to other people who are considered geniuses. Some people for instance compare Scratch (also in the book) in this sense with Salvador Dali.

CONCERT

I myself have visited, as I write this – and if I recall well -, 4 concerts of Lee “Scratch” Perry, of which one was a shorter one at a festival in Amsterdam. The other 3 times were in concert halls the Melkweg and Paradiso, in Amsterdam as well, and were longer in duration. I’ve seen him both with a white Swiss backing band, and with black British musicians and Mad Professor (who was not on stage). The latter was the last time I saw him, in early 2012, in Paradiso.

I enjoyed all these concerts, and understood soon not to expect too much “clear-cut” songs on forehand. Scratch started improvising around his known songs and on his riddims vocally. Crucially, he did this very well and engaging. Almost naturally he added much to the mostly good music with both his singing (or chatting/toasting), and his lyrical associations, in what can be called “free musical poetry”. It lifted the music up. Maybe his extravagant attire, painted hair (red and short, the last time I saw him), and hat with mirrors on it, helped somehow in experiencing it.

In light of the earlier mentioned conflicts with some dreads - and his short, punky hair - it may seem remarkable that he made during this 2012 Amsterdam concert many references to Rastafari and Jah in a positive sense, as part of his “free musical poetry”. Although I already assumed he somehow was still a Rastafari-sympathizer, from recent interviews and lyrics.

I already had gathered rationally from documented/written Reggae History that Scratch’s creative talent or genius is outstanding and real, not just a hype. During this fantastic 2012 concert I got to “sense” it as well.

People Funny Boy : the genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: David Katz . – 542 p. – London [etc.] : Omnibus Press, 2006 (revised edition). ISBN: 978-1846094439

donderdag 5 juli 2012

The tragedy of race : the documentary 'Marley' (2012)

Something seemed dubious to me from the start. The very first time I heard about the then upcoming documentary on Bob Marley, called ‘Marley’ – to be released in 2012 –, directed by Kevin MacDonald (known for among other things the movie ‘The last king of Scotland’), I had an unpleasant feeling about it. This feeling combined confusion and fear. It is in a way similar to meeting persons involved in criminality: you sense that something is not communicated. No eye contact, no open communication, you encounter subtle intimidation or what can be termed “avoidance behaviour”. In the same way I thought there was something tricky going on with this newest documentary on Bob Marley.

DEFINITIVE?

My mistrust was triggered by a few things. Not the least of these was the word “definitive” used in promoting the documentary film ‘Marley’: “the definitive Bob Marley story”. This is annoyingly arrogant, but can be excusable when this statement can actually be backed up somehow. The term “definitive” is however vague. Regarding Bob Marley you can ask whether “definitive” applies to the person Bob Marley, then what aspects of him and his life? Or definitive regarding him as person but also as musician, as well as his location within Jamaica and reggae music? And within Rastafari? Can it really be definitive in all these fuller senses, and can this be impartially measured? I doubt it. Does it really add that much to earlier documentaries on Marley? Or are we dealing here with commercial tricks?

I understood that the main makers of the documentary were not really reggae experts (though they were advised by some), which makes the boast “definitive” all the more astonishing. It is comparable to when, for instance, a white, non hip-hopper – an outsider not having lived the culture – would say he will make the “definitive hip-hop song”. Thereby insulting much of the scene. This is I guess the difference between a sense of superiority and a (healthy) sense of competition.

NEW INSIGHT?

I had these feelings of unease, but had not seen the documentary itself as yet. So I still tried to look at it impartially. Is it really that new and good? Do I really get a new, insightful perspective on Bob Marley after having seen the documentary film? It was relatively lengthy - close to two and a half hours -, so maybe there’s a lot of new information.

I’ve covered the topic of Bob Marley, his image, and his role in reggae’s internationalization before on my – this - blog, so I could let it rest. It was, however, exactly the boastful propaganda and apparently extensive marketing surrounding the documentary that made me decide to review this documentary. I will among other things broadly (in my own mind!) compare with (some) other documentaries on Bob Marley, of which there have appeared several already, as well as with was has been written about Bob up to now. Like with documentaries – I think “biopics” is a word some people use – several written, biographical books/works have also appeared on Bob Marley (and unfortunately very few on other reggae artists).

This latest documentary ‘Marley’ (2012) is different from earlier ones on Bob in that it is aimed at the cinema and movie theatres, whereas most other documentaries may have been shown in theatres, but were intended for television or video/DVD. This suggests another, broader target audience of this latest ‘Marley’ movie, which seems to confirm my fear of excessive commercialism. Yet it is premature to assume that on forehand, so I’ll just start analyzing the documentary/movie.

INTERVIEWS

The format chosen is of a sequence of interchanging people connected to Bob Marley being interviewed. Most probably this is edited in a certain way, as is common in many documentaries. Somehow exceptional is that there is no “narrative voice” as such. Then there are many photographs, as part of the visual aspects, shown according to the makers for the first time. This way the close to two and a half hours were filled.

These aspects in themselves do not make a good documentary. Yet, the list of people interviewed seems relevant and interesting: Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, Ziggy Marley and his other children, girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare, other reggae musicians, producers, friends, family and others. I think his children (now older since earlier documentaries) are relatively “new” in Marley documentaries, and potentially most insightful. Not just potentially, as I viewed the film I found it was relatively more newsworthy what Bob's children (like Ziggy and Cedella) had to say, though some of the others interviewed had interesting stories and facts as well, such as Bunny Wailer. Also Rita Marley had interesting portions and stories.

The information on Bob’s white father – early in the documentary - was hardly new. The age difference with Bob’s mother of Bob’s father during the “conception” (an older, 60 years-old white man thus slept with a black girl/young woman of 18 years old) was even bigger than told earlier, but that also has been known already years before this documentary.

I hate to admit it but I had an unpleasant feeling about Cindy Breakspeare, the once Miss Jamaica who became Bob’s girlfriend (while Bob was married to Rita), and accompanied him on tour as well. She spoke relatively often in the documentary, and indeed knew him intimately. I felt a certain irritation and mistrust about her, maybe irrationally. Not because she was a “home wrecker”, since Bob had several girlfriends “on the side”. It was more her general demeanour and subdued arrogance that told me she had something to hide. “Everybody wants the girl” (if she’s a beauty contest winner?) she said without modesty about Bob’s interest in her. I am almost certain that she chose him – subtly of course – not the other way around, even if she presents it that way. But maybe she is a good person, I don’t know. Why the winner of a beauty contest in a predominantly black country should be a light mulatto type like Breakspeare is also beyond me, but that’s another issue.

SUPERFICIALITY

The pace of interviews and of the changing of speaking people in the film were kept high and kept entertaining me, I must admit, even throughout the relatively lengthy documentary. In this I notice the hand of a feature film/fiction movie director – Kevin MacDonald – rather than a documentary maker’s. The pace was high, the suspense always there, and there was excitement, ”action”. Yet a disadvantage of such an approach became clearer to me as the film progressed: superficiality. Most things said I heard already in other documentaries on Bob, some even as public as nowadays viewable on YouTube. Some of the things were written before in books. Okay, maybe it is meant for another target audience (who have not seen the other documentaries, nor read those books), but still... This way it does not lead to new or even deeper insight.

Occasionally a remarkable comment was made, such as when the early Wailers manager Danny Sims stated that Bob was “chosen” to be the famous front man by record label Island amongst the original Wailers band (which also included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), probably because of his (lighter) colour. Those suspicions were longer around, but seemed confirmed here! Unfortunately this was not followed upon in the documentary. The subject was changed (read: abandoned), following the time line of Bob’s life. My opinion is that this is too interesting and socially relevant to not discuss in more detail.

RACE

The reason why further delving on this is avoided may be to spare Bob, and not give him a bad name. Racially privileged, yet presenting himself as the black rebel in Jamaica and world wide. But one thing I respect about Bob is the absence of this hypocrisy. Having read and heard much about Bob’s career and life – and knowing most of his songs - my conclusion is this: Bob was genuinely a pro-black rebel (not just pretending to be), a real proponent of black rights and freedom (and of all people), and at the same time – ironically – he was in a later stage privileged over blacker musicians or “rebels” around him, because he looked more European. But this was mostly later in his life and beyond Bob’s control: international, commercial interests dictated this.

It was confirmed by Peter Tosh in an earlier documentary that the group the Wailers was “one/united” from the start (i.e. when it were up to Bob). Another interesting anecdote is also illustrative in this regard: Bob used shoe polish to make his hair blacker, and to not stand out too much in Kingston’s ghetto Trench Town. Other stories relate about some negative remarks he got because of his lighter colour among blacks in Trench Town.

One of the tragedies of Bob’s life is thus race. A defining tragedy, that was beyond his control. It excluded him (sometimes) from people around him, while he was just as poor, and it made him be favoured without really wanting, ultimately resulting in distance from his old friends Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who left the Wailers. Had he been white he never would have grown up in the Trench Town ghetto. Had he been fully black, he probably would not be as (internationally) famous, and would have not internationalized reggae and Rastafari as much. Yet he never sold out, and kept true to his message. This is admirable.

This philosophical, sociological theme and contradiction could have been a major thread in the documentary, raising its intellectual level. It also would have shown how strong a personality Bob Marley was. Unfortunately the makers chose a thrill-based, Hollywood-like approach, too superficial for such deeper dilemmas. Bob was revered in the documentary as above human, larger than life, but in the insincere, superficial way of superstardom. More like Prince or Bruce Springsteen than like Martin Luther King.

REGGAE

Bob Marley was presented as somehow above ”reggae”, as the unreachable top of reggae. As I argued elsewhere on my blog: Bob had several good songs, good lyrics, charisma, and certain talents for music. But the same applies to several other reggae artists in Jamaica! He was essentially just another talented reggae artist, no more no less. With, maybe, the difference of relatively more commercial influences in his work, and better connections. I know there are other documentaries more dealing with reggae than with just Bob Marley, but you simply cannot make a documentary about Bob which is not substantially about reggae and Jamaican music. The same applies to the Rastafari philosophy and beliefs, which were very important for Bob.

This makes it extra troublesome that one of the more ignored aspects related to Bob in the documentary was his place within reggae, within the broader reggae scene. There was some attention to Rastafari – though not as adequate as it could have been. Reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry appeared for a while, without much substance, as well as Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, but not so long.

An interesting fact, for instance, that one does not get to know from this documentary, neither from other documentaries I must add, is this: there were US soul artists, like the Impressions, who influenced Bob musically and vocally, that is more widely known. The main Jamaican vocal influence on him is not mentioned. According to Bob himself this was Little Roy (b. Earl Lowe), a Rastafari-inspired singer with soulful, anguished vocals, active since the 1960s. One listen to a Little Roy song would make this similarity apparent. Bob was influenced by him, not the other way around. Bob himself in turn would later inevitably influence later singers. Apart from his sons (which may have genetic reasons), newer artist Nasio Fontaine sounds vocally “Marley-esque”. So do several other artists, especially outside of Jamaica. Marley’s vocals sound rather “Little Roy-esque”. You dig?

One of the people interviewed about Bob, especially telling about his Trench Town years, was Lloyd “Bread” MacDonald, member of the roots harmony reggae band the Wailing Souls: a band – I dare to argue – with as much an excellent body of work as Bob Marley & the Wailers. But the documentary aims to revere Bob well above reggae, it seems, as international star in a broad sense. His place within reggae and Jamaican music is unjustly sidelined.

I contend that the reggae scene defined Bob more than a sensationalistic aspect the documentary partly focused on: the fact that Bob had children with several women, had several girl friends and affairs while being married to Rita.

Regrettable, maybe, and probably inconsiderate toward Rita, but not saying too much about his personality. He was often approached by women, not the other way around, as said by some in the documentary (and as my common sense makes me assume). He was a heterosexual and the women were willing adults. Not so extraordinary, neither very immoral (essentially). At most irresponsible.

I think, for instance, that what is at least equally relevant is the question whether he ate meat: many Rastas opine that Rastas should not eat meat (who call it “deadas”); some say Bob ate chicken sometimes, so he seemed (if this is true) to take it loosely, and share part of his diet with common Jamaicans. He also criticizes meat-eating in his own (strong) song ‘We and Dem’ on the album Uprising. I assume that womanizing is probably considered more sensational for a broad public than dietary traditions.

Like I said, the stories and comments by his children were among the more interesting, including on how he was a distant father because they had to “share Bob with the world”, and he had always plenty people around him. Also the story of his cancer treatment in Germany was interesting, though not much new information was given. Also the coming death and actual dying of Marley in 1981 was related movingly, I must admit. This for a change included some new information, namely on how Bob and the other musicians lived the concert given in Zimbabwe in 1981, when the cancer was already strongly affecting Bob’s body. This was at least “new” in the sense of “expanding” on what we know.

Marley novices probably learned more from this documentary, but still not as much as they could have. They are in a few aspects even misled, I argue, though often the information was correct, if superficial. If the target audience indeed included Marley novices or newbies, some more information on reggae could have been given. Now its origins were sketched so broadly that it was almost the same as saying: you have funk, soul, jazz, and in Jamaica originated reggae, after rocksteady and ska. Okay, it was explained a bit more than that, and I also liked how Bunny Wailer describes reggae. However: the quick, too concise way reggae was overall treated made it seem like an irrelevant side path to Bob. I do beg to differ..

Rastafari was more or less explained, especially what it meant to Bob, but also quite superficially, in line with the rest of the documentary.

CHRIS BLACKWELL

After the documentary the end credits rolled, which showed the name of (record label) Island producer/strongman Chris Blackwell as also involved in the documentary. That explains certain choices, I think. Blackwell had some merits for reggae, especially internationally, but I also am very critical toward his commercial watering-down of reggae, which was too excessive up to the point that it violated authenticity. I’ve argued this before on my blog. He was relatively influential, so his choices in commercializing and “whitening” reggae were likewise influential. Ultimately this contributed to almost permanent damage to reggae’s authenticity and international image. Just because Chris Blackwell wanted to make money. Placing Bob above and not within reggae is part of that, and is unfortunately also the norm in this documentary ‘Marley’. As a true reggae fan, and being very knowledgeable on Bob Marley, I can only deplore this. But maybe true reggae fans were not the target audience of the documentary.

Despite all this, I was entertained and “kept busy” during the documentary, and it had its outstanding moments. Nonetheless, after it was finished I asked myself: what have I learned about Bob that I did not know before? Not very much, I am sad to conclude.

OTHER DOCUMENTARIES

As the reader may have noticed, I did in the above text not compare “in detail” with earlier documentaries that were specifically on Bob Marley. And yet, in a way I did. I departed from what I have learned already from earlier documentaries – and on what has been written - , and then analysed from that perspective the documentary ‘Marley’. It seems only fair to say what documentary on Bob Marley’s life and career I have seen has been the most insightful for me: it was ‘Rebel Music : the Bob Marley story’ from 2001, directed by Jeremy Marre. This was partly an Island production, but was luckily no “Chris Blackwell show”: it was interesting, with relevant people being interviewed, relevant information given, well-structured, entertaining, and educational: information given was then mostly new. The recent documentary ‘Marley’ adds little to this. (Hereunder a link to 'Rebel Music').

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dr3O5MFVjBE

The documentary ‘Catch A Fire’, which I discussed elsewhere on my blog, mainly dealt with Bob Marley’s breakthrough album ‘Catch A Fire’ and was more superficial than ‘Rebel Music’, and of overall lesser quality, I argue.

There are of course several other documentaries on Bob Marley, especially when taking into account television documentaries. Some of these can be found in their entirety on YouTube. Some seem comparable in quality to ‘Rebel Music’, though not everything related is new. Information and stories seem to be repeated from documentary to documentary. You can even speak of recurring “Bob Marley documentary clichés” . At times, though, documentaries expand on known information. Perspectives can also differ, such as through different people interviewed on the same matters.

Not that the earlier documentary ‘Rebel Music’ was flawless – neither was it “definitive” -, but overall it was good and informative. ‘Marley' on the other hand was entertaining, but overall mediocre, and – after other documentaries and books – very limitedly informative.