dinsdag 3 december 2013

Blood Dunza : money in Jamaican reggae lyrics

Reggae is originally ghetto music. In essence it still is. It arose in the Jamaican ghettos, with influences from equally poor (once) rural dwellers. Readers may know already that reggae – similar to other Black music genres – developed among poor, oppressed people, who use music to survive, and to express themselves and their situation and rebellion. Jamaica is overall also a poor, developing country, with high rates of poverty and, relatedly of course, unemployment.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in reggae lyrics “money” is a recurring theme. Yet, in fact, money is to some degree worldwide a theme in popular culture and music, also in the wealthy Western world. There are of course (relatively) poor people everywhere. “Money runs the world” as some say.

I choose in this post, however, to discuss how money is mentioned and discussed in specifically the Jamaican music genre reggae (including dancehall). I relate this to cultural and economic characteristics of Jamaica.

A characteristic of the lyrics in reggae (especially Roots Reggae), moreover, and which sets it apart from other genres, is the fact that social critique and social and topical issues are a common part of these lyrics. This is much less the case in other genres like soul, country, funk, salsa, Western pop, techno, and much of hip-hop and rock, wherein (overall) either love/romantic or "party" lyrics tend to be the norm.

This also makes that "deeper" lyrics on money and its meanings can probably be found more in reggae lyrics than in those of other genres.

DUNZA

A local Jamaican Creole term for money is “Dunza/Dunsa” (also “Dunny”). The origin of this term is according to linguists to be found in the Jamaican word for “done” (as in “finished”). It means thus that it – money - is always finished too soon. This in itself says something about its social context. It makes the term Dunza somewhat “fatalistic”, you might say. At least when compared to more optimistic “slang” words for money that also exist in the world. These often point at least at possibilities money give: e.g. the common “dough” in English, which has translations in several languages, including as “pasta” – slang term for money in Spanish, or the similar "blé" - meaning "wheat" - slang for money in French. Other slang terms for money seem neutral (e.g. "green" or "paper"). There is in US hip-hop slang also the somewhat enigmatic term “gusto” for money. It is enigmatic, because in Spanish “gusto” means “taste” (or "pleasure"), which perhaps denotes a social class characteristic.

In the world of today one hardly can live without money. It is needed. In poor countries like Jamaica, especially among the poorest people, it is even more urgent than elsewhere. Some cultures outside of the West tend to be heralded as less materialistic than the Western world, for maintaining certain spiritual values. That these values are more there than in the West is often true, but in daily practice it’s a struggle for survival there, and thus a heightened focus on getting money, seemingly belying the less-materialistic culture.

RICH OR WEALTHY

I saw recently a documentary on white, European reggae artists Gentleman from Germany and Alborosie from Italy, called ‘Journey to Jah’ (2013). Gentleman in it said how the materialistic focus in Europe/Germany was something he wanted to free himself from, and for this reason went to Jamaica.

Materialism in wealthy European countries like Germany (and North America) is of course more than in a practical sense searching for or making money: it is a whole life ideology and broader cultural and societal complex, historically shaped by industrialization, economically favourable circumstances, and being accustomed to wealth. It has I think in a sense to do with the difference between being “rich” and being “wealthy”. Chris Rock, the US comedian, said that black people can be rich, but white people are in fact “wealthy”, the latter being a more enduring, powerful way of being rich, passed generationally.

Chris Rock points at the instability of being rich, when compared to stable “wealth” spread from generations from generations. In the latter sense – Chris Rock asserts - there are no “wealthy” black people in the US, only some “rich” ones. The same can be said of Jamaica of course, where the majority - like US Blacks - mainly descend from enslaved Africans who for generations got no money for their forced work, and thus could not gradually acquire wealth to pass on generationally, unlike (albeit to differing degrees) most white, free people. One of the historical inequalities slavery perpetuated..

In today's world Black people are thus economically still dependent on white people, in Jamaica and in the whole world (British-Dutch company Shell "owns" all oil in Nigeria, whereas Arabs own it themselves, to give an example). A dependency on white men and their wealth that Marcus Garvey in his day sought to end, by making economic independence of Africans part of his program.

The quest for money, as part of the struggle to survive thus remains relevant, especially “inna di ghetto”, among other (like rural) poor, and also to degrees among the lower middle class, in the developing country that is Jamaica.

The lure of making “quick money” by going into crime is a temptation that not all poor people can avoid, amidst their desperation. This found a way into musical expressions, thus degenerating in lyrics more and more. Gangsta rap of US artists like NWA, 50 Cent, and others, moved far from lyrics on black consciousness, social issues or injustices, and discuss instead boastful their gangster ways, girls they get through their acquired money, sex, or lyrics on (expensive) parties.

SLACKNESS

Similarly, in Jamaica some lyrics in the Dancehall subgenre moved away from the African consciousness, and social issues, or spirituality, of the Roots Reggae from the 1970s that was more influenced by Rastafari. Many lyrics - especially since the mid-1980s - moved instead to “Slackness” (sex, boasting, violence, materialism). A difference is maybe that boasting about being a criminal or gangster is a bit less common – at least in a direct way – in Jamaican music when compared to US hip-hop, although there are here and there some lyrics that glorify violence or crime. More common were and are however “cheeky” lyrics about explicit sex. Already earlier dee-jays like General Echo and Yellowman in the 1980s, and later Shabba Ranks and others – or now e.g. Elephant Man or Vybz Kartel – made/make this their trade mark. Some of these made/make occasional references to Rastafari or Black history, but more as an exception than as a rule.

Materialism is also a part of this. Dancehall artist Vybz Kartel for instance had (with others) a big hit called ‘Clarkes’ about fashionable shoes. Vybz Kartel is reputedly connected to criminality and gang violence, though he does not refer to this too directly in his lyrics. Also some other artists were accused – justly or unjustly – of criminal connections, some even going through trials or spending time in prison. The possibility of unjust accusations is in this case however not so absurd: especially artists critical of established powers can be “set up” due to a corrupt police/political system, and may not be involved in crime at all. Some others might be, or more indirectly.

The slackness in non-conscious lyrics in dancehall reggae emphasize parties, sex, women, fun, ego, violence, vanity….in other words: what you can do with money, how to spend it. Or: how to get it as easy as possible.. This materialist focus is thus in essence a lack of a “broader” vision, and lack of a deeper intellectual or spiritual focus. The daily, practical takes precedence over the eternal and philosophical.

MONEY IN SONG TITLES

A telling example is dancehall artist Vybz Kartel who has at least 10 (!) songs with “money” in the title alone (let alone elsewhere in the lyrics). Mostly in a not very “conscious” vein, though he sometimes refers to social problems. If in the title it is given logically more significance than other issues, that’s why the fact that a word is in the title is important (as “main theme” after all). Mavado, an artist in a similar lyrical (slackness-like) vein as Vybz Kartel, also has at least 7 songs with the word “money” in the title.

Among the lyrics of the Roots Reggae icons since the 1970s, e.g. Burning Spear, Jacob Miller, Culture, Bob Marley, Wailing Souls, Dennis Brown, Pablo Moses, Horace Andy,- by comparison - money figured/figures much less in the song titles (at most one or two titles per artist), though it was/is discussed, mostly critically, here and there in their lyrics. I, for example, don’t know of any - not even one - song title with the word "money" of either Bob Marley or Burning Spear. Also New Roots artists (Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Queen Ifrica a.o.) have the word “money” less or rarely in their song titles, though I know of at least three song titles by Anthony B. and several by, for instance, Jah Vinci.

Anyhow, in a general sense one can say that the word "money" in song titles is more common (i.e. more the main theme) in slackness lyrics when compared to conscious/cultural lyrics.

The artist Gentleman’s view of Jamaica as less-materialistic than Western Europe is still not entirely untrue though. In the documentary ‘Journey to Jah’ (2013) I mentioned before, his view of this also reminded me – on the other hand – of the overly romantic naïveté that some Westerners showed - especially since the 1960s - when they glorified (and simplified) e.g. India and its people as “really spiritual” when compared to Westerners.

Specific examples Gentleman gave, however, also showed he really knew the specific Jamaican culture to a degree, and not – or not just at least – romantically searched just any “spiritual exotic Other” in the vein of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage”. Noble savages who, when involved in crime and trickery, can nonetheless turn out to be as cold-hearted and wicked when smelling money as European colonizers were back then. Similar to Columbus, his crew, slaving pirates, and other European colonizers for the last 500 years. Not for nothing reggae artist Winston Rodney, a.k.a. Burning Spear, called Christopher Columbus the “first gangster” of the so-called New World.

RASTAFARI

A very good and "to-the-point" summary of Black history in Jamaica and of Rastafari in reggae lyrics can be found in a song that is not too well-known, not even among many reggae fans. It is recorded at the Black Ark studio and produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, and is the song ‘History’ by Carlton Jackson, from 1977. The lyrics include the crucial phrase: “the Rastaman a bring civilization on ya (Jamaica)”: that is: after Babylon’s/Western colonial robbing, wickedness, slaughter and enslavement. Money (and greed) were main stimulators of the colonial project of Europeans, combined with a racial and religious sense of superiority. In that sense a departure from Babylon/Western oppression and greed is a sign of civilization brought by Rastafari.

Of course these values are most notable in Rastafari-influenced, or “conscious”(or “cultural”) Roots Reggae from the 1970s and early-1980s, as well as in New Roots, coming up later in the 1990s with the “Rasta Renaissance”, including artists like Sizzla, Capleton, Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason, I Wayne, Buju Banton, Fantan Mojah, Richie Spice, Chronixx and others.

These latter artists are contemporaries to Vybz Kartel, Elephant Man, Shabba Ranks and others, but have overall a different lyrical focus. Specifically focussing on the theme “money”: they discuss money more philosophical and socially critical, - at a higher level, so to speak -. Not just what to do with it, or as part of mere “party or sex lyrics” (for which money tends to be needed). Of course there are exceptions to this general rule – Vybz Kartel’s strong song ‘Poor people land’ can be deemed socially critical.

MONEY IN RASTA ARTISTS' LYRICS

To be more concrete, in Rasta artists’ lyrics money is for example discussed as “the root of all evil” (e.g. Horace Andy’s song ‘Money, money’ from the 1970s), these lyrics also relate how “for the love of money brothers/men/people fight against each other”, and criticize “blood dunza/money” paid by politicians or other powerful groups to employ poor in violent power struggles (as is common in Jamaican politics), to kill, or for warfare. Further, “seeking vanity, and “having no love of humanity” recurs throughout lyrics. So does the lamenting of friends (or female partners) who seem only opportunistically interested in your money. The Biblical quote “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to go to heaven” is also quoted by some artists.

Greed, including of those who do not want to share, or those in higher positions, is also a recurring theme (the Wailing Souls' 'Bredda Gravalicious' for example), as is stealing and robbing.

Also, “the best things in life are free” recurs – in these or other words - in several reggae lyrics, in the same vein as what Bob Marley said in an interview that “money does not make you rich”, conveying an anti-materialist approach, that can be associated with the spiritual Rastafari way of thinking. This can thus be found in lyrics of many Rastafari (-identifying) artists, and can mostly be considered sincere (with exceptions of course).

TWO STRANDS

Overall, lyrics specifically on money help to exemplify two main strands – lyrically – in Jamaican music – in a simplified, general sense of course: Conscious, Rastafari lyrics on the one hand, and Slackness and party lyrics on the other. Of course, some artists switch between these two lyrical strands. One strand discusses the social effects of money, others do not discuss this, but only the practical, daily – superficial - effects of money. The word “conscious” for certain (deeper, broader) lyrics seems thus well-chosen. Like in other societies, in Jamaica and Jamaican music some focus more on the philosophical and deeper truths (“intellectuals” or “thinkers” if you will), others live predominantly for the moment, don’t think too deep, or want to learn or analyze less.

Such differences in mind-set are partly differing personal, individual dispositions or choices, but are often also guided and influenced by other people, social contexts and influences, or social and spiritual movements one encountered. Rastafari is one such movement in Jamaica. Jamaica is also a very Christian country, so the more formulaic warnings about money from the Bible (often also quoted by Rastas) can also have that source.

There is also some Christian or Gospel Reggae in Jamaica. That is another strand. Another strand is the “love song” strand – or “lovers rock” – dealing with romantic themes, but for this post on money lyrics and their meaning the contradiction between Conscious and Slackness lyrics seems more relevant to me.

CORRUPT

Moreover, the specific history and current context of Jamaica makes a Black pride movement necessary for self-worth, that was long denied to Black people. Also poverty leads people into desperation, and at times crime, especially when moral values in oneself do not encourage empathy toward other human beings. Politics is also very corrupt in Jamaica: giving money and benefits in return to votes and power, hereby making use of criminal leaders and gangs, giving these more intimidating, power over citizens. Likewise the police is – as in other countries - often also very corrupt in Jamaica. Junior Murvin (who passed away recently as I write this) referred to his in his 1976 song ‘Police and Thieves’, with money showing visually in the cover art of the album with the same name (police stealing from thieves and vice versa).

This complex of problems largely explains the high crime and murder rates in Jamaica: a combination of historical racial subjugation and oppression, resulting in lack of racial and ethnic pride and confidence, power differences, political lust for power and corruption, and persisting poverty and social inequalities.

Rastafari arose as an “antidote” or alternative to all this, and specifically also against an (over-)emphasis on materialism/money, albeit out of mere necessity, among poor people.

RESPONSES TO POVERTY

What both strands – “conscious/cultural” and “slackness” - in Jamaican music’s lyrics share is that one’s poverty is – understandably - lamented. After all, like I said in the beginning of this post: reggae and Jamaican music is ghetto music, discussing ghetto conditions, and later spread to wealthier (or just richer) “uptown” in Jamaica, and internationally. Artists thus grew and grow up generally poor, maybe to differing degrees. Their response and “solution” to this poverty is a matter of life choice, of values one upholds. As an example, the great, classic Mighty Diamonds song ‘I Need A Roof’ from 1976 (a number one it in Jamaican charts) lamented poverty, but also referred to Marcus Garvey’s words and what “the Rasses” (Rastas) say.

A life of crime can be seen as the negative choice – as it is at the cost of others - , and on the other end Rastafari is the positive, rebellious choice. In between are the humble, hard-working poor, who just work for their family – in any way the system allows - and don’t want - or don’t have the time – to stand out in any way: in actuality these are most residents in the ghetto. These may on occasion be Rastafari-sympathizers (or not, or Christian), or sometimes opportunistically deal with Dons (local criminal leaders in their area) to get some financial benefits.

Yet, I opine that the Rastafari-inspired artists and musicians are also necessary: as messengers, to tell the world through their music about the plight of poor people (in Jamaica in this case), black and African history, and to get a positive, redemptive message across. Since Bob Marley this message was spread internationally, and it continues to be by current artists. Discussing many social ills and injustices, including those related to money as “the root of all evil”.

maandag 4 november 2013

Schijn

Het is al een tijd in het nieuws: een internationale economische crisis, deels voortkomend uit een financiële crisis, houdt meerdere landen in een soort paniek. De politiek verspreid het idee ervan, mede om gewenst beleid doorgang te doen vinden. Veel burgers gaan daarin mee.

Dit is al aan de gang sinds ongeveer 2005: begonnen in de VS, onder het presidentschap van George W. Bush. Toen werden onrealistische hypothecaire leningen verstrekt, die vele gezinnen in de VS in de schuld staken, en deze waren een belangrijke bron van de start van deze crisis. Dit werd vanaf 2005 – tot ook op het moment dat ik dit schrijf – een terugkerend thema en referentiekader en, in de praktijk, ook vaak een excuus, op macro- en microniveau. In de VS, en vroeg erna Europa, Azië, en de rest van de wereld.

Welbeschouwd is deze “crisis” discussie echter een schijndiscussie. De oorzaken en kenmerken ervan zullen wel aantoonbaar zijn, en sommige analyses, of delen ervan, zullen ook best correct zijn. Ik bedoel schijndiscussie echter in bredere en “diepere” zin. Zoals het voetbal een “schijnbeweging” kent, die afleidt van de eigenlijke beweging, zo leidt een schijndiscussie af van waar het eigenlijk over moet gaan, wat echt van belang is voor mensen.

De economische crisis is een crisis van de economie op grote schaal. Een crisis van het huidige, megalomane, Westerse economische systeem, met gevestigde machten en belangen. Gevestigde belangen die onder controle staan van een minderheid in de wereld. Zij bepalen dat het een crisis is: het is sowieso hún speeltje. Een speeltje waarvan wel veel mensen in de wereld – een meerderheid – afhankelijk zijn gemaakt. “Als mensen weten dat je afhankelijk van ze bent, dan maken ze misbruik van je”, zei mijn moeder eens tegen me.

Even interessant is de observatie die ik pas hoorde op een Rastafari-bijeenkomst, in Amsterdam: een dia-voorstelling over een landbouwproject in Ethiopië. Er werd toen gezegd: “de wereld is gekidnapt” - in economische zin - door Babylon. De Rasta-term “Babylon” is deels vertaalbaar met “’t Westerse systeem” (hoewel breder bedoeld). De wereld met mensen – en hun eigen economische initiatieven – wordt dus gekidnapt door grotere economische krachten (Babylon), uit op eigenbelang. Die willen dat je afhankelijk van hun bent, en blijft. Op dezelfde bijeenkomst werd treffend gezegd: “als je niet voor jezelf werkt, leef je andermans (en niet je eigen) droom”.

SCHAAL

Een belangrijk begrip hierbij is “schaal”. De grote schaal waarop de economie zich begeeft. Een grotendeels zelfvoorzienend dorpje met enkele boerderijen en wat land, dat handelt met omliggende gebieden, heeft niet die macht in deze wereld zoals de financiële markten in de VS, Europa, en Japan, en grote multinationals uit vooral die landen. Deze hebben de macht om hele economieën te sturen – wereldwijd -, het onderwijssysteem te beïnvloeden, het soort (geestdodende) werk voor de massa te verspreiden, en de politiek aan zich te verbinden. Ook hebben ze internationaal invloed op welvaartsverschillen (deze veelal vergrotend), en de natuur, inclusief negatieve gevolgen voor het milieu. Door die grote schaal zijn die negatieve invloeden ook massaal van omvang. Het probleem is dus de grote schaal van het Westerse systeem of, dit omvattend, “Babylon”.

Er zijn veel voorstanders in de wereld van dit Westerse systeem, veel mensen die ertegen zijn, en een nog grotere groep die eigenlijk geen van beide kanten heeft gekozen, maar er niet over na denken, omdat ze moeten overleven. Geld verdienen om te eten en voor het gezin te zorgen. Dan maar een saai lopende band-baantje bij die grote Amerikaanse, Britse, of Japanse fabriek. Geestdodend werk en zeker niet je persoonlijke kwaliteiten aansprekend, maar hé: je krijgt een maandelijks loon. Het voedsel wordt ook steeds minder natuurlijk en gemanipuleerd..maar goed: dat is wat er nu eenmaal te krijgen is omdat het massaal, goedkoop beschikbaar wordt gemaakt. En toch ook leuk en interessant al die technologie, speeltjes, nieuwe plastic dingen, verschillende typen auto’s, merkschoenen, en smaken. Misschien vinden mensen het ook leuk om zo deel uit te maken van iets groters, in dit geval de moderniteit.

DE MENSELIJKE MAAT

De interessante vraag nu, in mijn beleving, is in hoeverre die egocentrische economie van de grote schaal echt aan menselijke behoeften beantwoordt. Het is voorbij de menselijke maat: je weet niet wat je eet, waar het vandaan komt, of hoe het gemaakt is. Het komt ergens hogers vandaan en je slikt het maar. Daar is toch een onbalans. Een vervreemding, kun je zeggen. Ook de manipulatie en onnatuurlijke verwerking van producten die oorspronkelijk uit de natuur komen, kunnen nooit goed zijn voor het menselijk lichaam. Kan het menselijk lichaam onnatuurlijke dingen wel aan: onnatuurlijk verwerkt voedsel, luchtvervuiling? Nee, zou je zeggen. Dat lijkt ook logisch.

Evenzeer is het werk dat van veel mensen wereldwijd verlangd – eigenlijk vaak geëist – wordt, deel van een productieproces dat ook niet goed te overzien is. Beleidsprocessen in bedrijven en organisaties waar men werkt zijn ook zelden goed te overzien, en mede daardoor ondemocratisch. Men draait mee in een bedrijf, en op veel werkplekken, proberen sommigen de iets leukere, iets minder geestdodende (iets hogere) functies weg te kapen voor hun collega’s, waardoor een negatieve sfeer ontstaat van naar beneden trappen en naar boven likken. Bij de verdeeldheid van mensen aan de onderkant hebben mensen hoger in de hierarchie uiteraard belang.

De vervreemding kan geleidelijk zo toenemen en normaliseren dat mensen hun persoonlijke identiteit verbinden aan een bedrijf waar ze werken. Vooral als hen in zo’n bedrijf een hogere, invloedrijkere, of uitdagender positie gegund is - of tijdelijk lijkt - dan wordt het bedrijf deel van hun identiteit. Ook omdat er zoveel tijd van iemands leven aan besteed moet worden.

Ook deze gevolgen van dat systeem zijn bij veel mensen eigenlijk min of meer bekend. Het bewustzijn is her en der aanwezig, zelfs op dergelijke werkplekken. Zelfs bij hen die meedoen met het systeem: ze weten ervan om ervan te kunnen profiteren.

‘Gewenning aan de afhankelijkheid’ staat hier echter een rebels bewustzijn in de weg. Het bewustzijn is er vaak wel - al dan niet latent – maar daar worden geen rebelse, radicale conclusies aan verbonden. Te ingrijpend, te onzeker. Het komt voor veel mensen inmiddels neer op: alles opgeven wat je kent. Je weet wat je verliest maar niet wat je wint…dat type argumenten. Nogmaals: gewenning aan de afhankelijkheid. De schijnbare rust en zekerheid van de status-quo en van het burgerdom..

ERNST FRIEDRICH SCHUMACHER

Kritiek op dit economische, onmenselijke systeem is er dus ook, en was er al langer. In de jaren 70 waren er alternatieve denkers die anders naar de economie gingen kijken, zochten naar een menselijkere economie, meer in balans met de natuur. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, geboren in Duitsland, later naar Engeland verhuist, schreef zijn essay-achtig boek ‘Small Is Beautiful’ in 1973 vanuit deze gedachte, en dit boek werd toen een bestseller. Een inspirator voor de “groene” sociale en politieke beweging (tot op de dag van vandaag!), alsmede andere werken van Schumacher. Schumacher streefde – kort gezegd - naar een kleinere, menselijke schaal voor de economie.

Interessant vind ik na te gaan welke argumenten hij daarvoor aan draagt. De kracht van zijn argumentatie.

Ik heb pas een boek van Schumacher gelezen, in het Nederlands vertaald als ‘Hoe kleiner, hoe beter’, wat destijds (1979) wat later verscheen dan ‘Small Is Beautiful’ (postuum: twee jaar na Schumacher’s overlijden in 1977), maar Schumacher behandelt erin hetzelfde thema en draagt erin dezelfde boodschap uit als in zijn eerdere werken: de wenselijkheid van een andere, kleinschalige economie. Het boek is een verzameling teksten en toespraken van Schumacher, die econoom was, gegeven op universiteiten en elders. Ik kreeg er een goed beeld door van Schumacher’s ideeën dienaangaande. En van zijn argumentatie.

HOE KLEINER, HOE BETER

Mij spreekt aan dat Schumacher ook aandacht geeft aan de dagelijkse werkdag van een gemiddeld persoon. Zijn pleidooi voor een kleinere schaal heeft zeker ook een milieu-component, maar “de menselijke geest” is er ook één. Mensen willen volgens hem echt zinvol werk, echt hun persoonlijke talenten kunnen ontplooien: aan iets werken dat bij hen past en waarbij men overziet wat tot stand komt. Waar men meer invloed heeft en echt meetelt. Dit alles verplaatsen naar de schaarse vrije tijd vindt Schumacher, terecht naar mijn idee, immoreel en absurd. Het komt erop neer dat de meeste mensen in de wereld een groot deel van hun tijd - voor sommigen de helft van hun “wakkere” tijd, voor de rest zelfs de meerderheid van die tijd - doen alsof ze robots zijn, en dan echte menselijke ontplooiing of vervulling voor de resterende, vermoeide tijd bewaren. Terecht klaagt Schumacher deze merkwaardige status-quo aan.

Daarnaast analyseert hij vind ik op goede wijze de oorzaken van dat grootschalige systeem, maar meer nog hoe dat in stand gehouden wordt. De historisch koloniale oorsprong van een grootschalige export-economie in ontwikkelingslanden (en eigenlijk wereldwijd) lijkt mij van belang om te beseffen.

Dit sluit verder aan bij het citaat wat ik eerder aanhaalde over deel zijn van andermans (en niet iemands eigen) droom. Sommigen denken hun “eigen droom” een beetje binnen dat grotere systeem “afgesnoept” te hebben – al was het soms ten koste van anderen -, maar dat blijft beperkt en marginaal. Dit “afsnoepen” kan verschillende vormen aannemen: carrière maken – hogerop komen - in een of ander bedrijf, ondernemen en dingen verkopen/bieden die mensen meestal niet eens echt willen, of de criminaliteit, parasiterend op dit systeem, en er dus deel van. Helder beschouwd “verdwaald” overlevingsgedrag, als antwoord op vervreemding.

Schumacher beschrijft verder ook in praktische termen hoe hij die kleinere schaal via een verband van kleine netwerken ook echt in praktijk trachtte te brengen. Dit was onder meer gericht op het maken en leveren van “intermediaire technologie” aan ontwikkelingslanden, en onderontwikkelde gebieden, die de gevorderde, modernste technologie gewoon niet konden betalen. Deze intermediaire technologie werkte echter wel in arme gebieden. Ook dit praktische en technische voorbeeld wist Schumacher inspirerend genoeg over te brengen, als reële mogelijkheid.

Schumacher lijkt nog enigszins gematigd, omdat hij niet pleit voor in een keer een radicale omverwerping van het systeem, maar geleidelijk een alternatieve weg er vandaan wil creëren, eerst met behulp van dat systeem. Dat kan evenwel ook vanuit strategische overwegingen zijn.

Toch pleit Schumacher - uiteindelijk - voor een Derde Weg van kleinschaligheid, niet het grootschalige kapitalisme, en evenmin de even grootschalige planeconomie van het communisme.

Interessant en boeiend opgeschreven, dit werk met de visie van Schumacher. Historisch ook wel leerzaam: echo’s van dit denken hoor ik bijvoorbeeld tegenwoordig terug komen bij een politieke partij als GroenLinks in Nederland, of bij de Duitse Grünen, soms ook met dezelfde terminologie als die Schumacher gebruikte.

Helemaal origineel en nieuw was het echter niet, ook niet in de vroege jaren 70 toen Schumacher zijn boeken begon te publiceren.

Het was niet “nieuw” in de zin dat - toen nog iets meer dan nu – veel mensen in delen van de wereld nog in een kleinschalige economie leefden, zonder doorontwikkeld te zijn naar die grote schaal. De menselijke maat en biologische landbouw waren er van oudsher nog in wat afgelegen, niet-centrale gebieden, hoewel steeds meer aangetast. Meer aangetast, want neokolonialisme, economische globalisering en multinationals rukten op.

Schumacher bouwde deels voort op bestaande - oude, beproefde - ideeën (hij gaf dit ook toe), maar wel aangepast aan de huidige tijd.

RASTAFARI

Zijn ideeën waren echter ook niet nieuw, omdat dezelfde kritiek al langer geuit werd, onder meer als deel van de Rastafari-beweging. De Rastafari-beweging ontstond in de jaren 30 van de 20ste eeuw op Jamaica, en internationaliseerde later, mede door de muziek. Inhoudelijk is het in feite een Afro-centrische Black Power-beweging. Al vroeg ontstond er evenwel onder de eerste Rastafari-groepen een focus op een kleinschalige economie, zelfvoorzienendheid, biologische landbouw, en natuurlijk eten. Al van de 1940s is dat gedocumenteerd op Jamaica: Rasta-gemeenschappen, zelfvoorzienend, in rurale delen. Dit was als antwoord op, of ontwijking van, het aanwezige onderdrukkende systeem (“Babylon”). Dus vóór Schumacher, en – belangrijk – ook als bewust antwoord op/tegenwicht tegen het systeem. Rasta’s waren hiermee dus ook eerder dan sommige hippies (ik bedoel hier die hippies die het om meer dan LSD en seks ging, en die in alternatieve, zelfvoorzienende commune’s gingen leven).

Interessant genoeg komen ook ideeën over het mensbeeld van Schumacher deels overeen met ideeën van Rastafari-aanhangers. In het laatste deel van ‘Hoe kleiner, hoe beter’ ontvouwt Schumacher zijn mensbeeld, dat in zijn geval evangelisch/Christelijk geïnspireerd is (hij beschouwt zichzelf als katholiek), maar breder is getrokken. Hij was ook beïnvloed door het boeddhisme, overigens. Hij ziet de mens als wezens met een goddelijke functie in deze wereld, als goddelijke wezens. Zonen en dochters van God, zegt hij letterlijk. Deze komen volgens hem het beste tot hun recht door zinvol werk, echte controle over het eigen leven, en zelfvoorziening (dus niet als robots). Ook dit zeiden de Rasta’s al eerder - tenminste iets van dezelfde strekking -, namelijk de bij de meeste Rasta’s heersende visie dat het goddelijke in de mens zit (niet apart, in de hemel of zo), wat een duidelijk emancipatoir gevolg heeft: je geeft daarmee zelf richting aan je leven.
Dat goddelijke zit in iedereen dus zorgt daarnaast ook voor connectie en gelijkheid.

Of Schumacher door deze ideeën geïnspireerd is (de Rastafari-beweging was in de jaren 70 ook al wat bekender in Engeland) is echter moeilijk te achterhalen. Het kan toeval zijn.

TERUG NAAR DE CRISIS

De economische crisis sinds 2005 leidde in de Westerse landen niet tot de tegenreactie in de vorm van massale aanhang voor een andere, “kleinschalige” economie. In Duitsland groeide de Grünen als politieke partij wel qua aanhang de laatste tijd, maar die pleiten ook niet voor een radicale omverwerping. In Nederland verkleinde GroenLinks als partij zelfs na de laatste verkiezingen. De meeste politieke leiders zochten manieren om diezelfde economie te behouden en te versterken, en veel burgers leken en lijken daarin mee te gaan.

Er bestaan overigens complottheorieën (van het soort dat nog geloofwaardig lijkt ook) dat die hele economische crisis een verzinsel is van de “powers that be” om hun gewenste “verharding” en “verscherping” – maar uiteindelijk versterking – van dat economische systeem te kunnen bewerkstelligen. De macht dus nog iets meer vergroten van de hogere en bezittende klassen ten opzichte van de massa armeren en van de lagere klassen. Laten zien wie de baas is: afgedwongen bezuinigingen voor sommige landen doen dan ook denken aan het zonder eten naar bed sturen van kinderen, wat sommige ouders als disciplinaire maatregel gebruiken.

NATIONALISME

Er is al langer een reactie op globalisering, de grote schaal – versterkt door de crisis - maar die is toch vooral kritisch over de grote schaal van de politiek. Denk aan de kritiek in Nederland en elders dat steeds meer dingen voor Nederland in Brussel, in EU-verband, beslist worden, de ridicule scepsis – want toch meedoen – in Groot-Brittannië ten opzichte van diezelfde EU, en meer algemeen de kritiek op de EU van (rechtse) nationalistische, populistische politieke partijen in Europa.

In dat licht is een artikel wat ik pas in ’t weekblad De Groene Amsterdammer las wel interessant. Het stond in De Groene van 5 september 2013 en was getiteld ‘Wel grommen, niet bijten : de opkomst van progressief nationalisme’, geschreven door Daniel Boomsma en Thijs Kleinpaste. Het behandelt de opkomst van een “nieuw” nationalisme in Europa, dat positiever zou zijn dan het oude nationalisme, besmet door het nazisme, fascisme, racisme, en massamoord, en dat nu, anno 2013, slechts een soort welbegrepen eigenbelang is geworden, om solidariteit en loyaliteit op nationale schaal overzichtelijker te houden. Als tegenwicht voor globalisering dus.

Als men in dit nieuwe Europese nationalisme ook iets van een menselijke zoektocht naar een kleinere schaal ziet, dan vergist men zich. In datzelfde artikel wordt immers een citaat van de Franse historicus en filosoof Ernest Renan aangehaald, die in zijn lezing ‘Wat is een natie?’, uit 1888, de natie en het bijbehorende nationale bewustzijn doopte tot “solidariteit op heel grote schaal” (letterlijk citaat). Zo begon eigenlijk het grootschalige systeem dus. Dat werd later versterkt, globaler, door het reeds genoemde kolonialisme.

Daarvoor had je stadstaten, en andere geografische eenheden, die zich dan weer samenvoegden tot grotere politieke eenheden. Zo zijn verschillende huidige landen in Europa ontstaan. Al deze politieke eenheden – zelfs bij kleinere landjes – hadden uiteindelijk weinig met de menselijke maat van doen. Er was ook in zulke staatjes duidelijk machtsongelijkheid met een politiek-economische elite die anderen de wil kon opleggen, ook economisch.

Het beschreven type nationalisme in het huidige Europa fungeert als schijnoplossing, als wederom een afleiding van het eigenlijke probleem.

In het artikel in De Groene Amsterdammer wordt terecht ook op de economische grondslag van nationalistische bewegingen gewezen. Vaak wordt nationalisme gepresenteerd als een rebels opkomen voor een eigen culturele identiteit, een eigen volkswil, bruut onderdrukt door een centrale macht. Het Noord-Italiaanse Lega Nord ageert tegen geldafdracht naar de rest van Italië, waaronder het armere zuiden. Beperkte solidariteit, zullen we maar zeggen. Ook het nationalisme in de Spaanse deelstaten Catalonië en Baskenland is grotendeels economisch: deze regio’s behoren tot de welvarendste van Spanje. Catalonië is – zoals het genoemde artikel ook stelt – “netto-betaler aan de rest van het Spaanse koninkrijk, net als de Vlamingen en de inwoners van de Po-delta in respectievelijk België en Italië”. Apelleren aan culturele eigenheid is daarbij deels ook een excuus – vrijwel alle regio’s in die landen hebben een culturele eigenheid - : het is egocentrisch nationalisme.

Het is eigenlijk rijkdom voor jezelf houden in een politiek kader. Hetzelfde egoïsme dat de grootschalige economie uiteindelijk historisch vorm gaf, met alle interne ongelijkheden erbij. Het is als carrière maken in een bedrijf (na “ellebogenwerk” ten koste van anderen), en dat bedrijf dan zelf niet beter maken, maar alleen om zelf comfortabeler te zijn. Dat dit nationalisme vaak mensen “van buiten” uitsluit en tot racisme vervalt (denk aan onder meer Vlaams Belang, en de Lega Nord) hoeft daarbij niet te verbazen. Het gaat immers niet om mensen maar om “belangen”, in een naar mengsel met culturele superioriteitswaan en blut und boden-denken. Dergelijk denken is ook in Nederland breder aanwezig dan sommigen willen geloven, ben ik bang. Ook hier is de menselijke maat zoek, want mensen worden geabstraheerd tot mensen die er wel of niet bij horen, die wel of niet in het grotere plaatje passen.

Een schijnoplossing is dit nationalisme dus, en tegenwoordig ook ingezet als antwoord op de schijndiscussie rond de economische crisis..

donderdag 3 oktober 2013

The Deejaying T(h)ing : historical overview of vocal techniques

The “Disk Jockey”, or shortened: DJ, Dee Jay, or Deejay, is an important figure in Jamaican music. Yet, the term Deejay has a different meaning in Jamaica than in many other parts of the world. A “Deejay” in the US or Europe got to mean: someone who spins records (by others) for people to hear, while often choosing and interchanging such records. In Jamaica it got to mean: a rhythmic vocalist on an existing song. This chatting in the mic was done at mobile discotheques, called Sound Systems. The “Selector”, in turn, had at such sound systems in Jamaica the function to play and choose records, over which the Deejay as a “vocal entertainer” chatted rhythmically. This was called “Toasting” in reference to the term as in a “toast” before a drink or a dinner, a type of introductory speech.

Indeed early - what were called - Deejays of Jamaican sound systems since soon after World War II, began doing just that: introducing the records that then got spinned. From there it evolved into yells and short intersections during/on the songs themselves, short responses to what the singer sang (like “tell about it!”, “tell dem”, “lord have mercy”, or “wow”), and eventually gradually into longer, “fuller” deejays “toasting”, chatting rhythmically over a whole length of an existing song.
This was sometimes partly with chanting, alongside rhythmic chatting/toasting. This is the deeper origin of what would become later “Rap” (originally influenced by Jamaican migrants in New York) in the 1980s. It was going on at Jamaican sound systems since at least the 1950s..

In this post I choose to focus on one specific aspect of the “deejay t(h)ing”: the vocal techniques and styles of the deejays in the Jamaican sense: the toasting/chatting itself, done when the microphone was in front of their mouth. How did these vocal techniques/styles develop in relation to developments at the dancehall (i.e. to distinguish oneself in style from other deejays), in the reggae scene and industry, and to cultural or even social changes?

EARLY STAGES

What’s interesting about the deejaying is the organic development of this vocal practice, quite unique to Jamaica. It started at sound systems: for a live audience that showed appreciation (or not), in interaction with this audience. It also began as very improvisational. The Deejay (from now on I mean deejay in the Jamaican sense of the word of vocalist) in the early period did not know on forehand what song the Selector would play. He had to improvise lyrics spontaneously, “on the fly”, over this song. In the first years this was over vocal songs (during breaks for instance), but with the rise within Jamaican music of instrumentals or “versions” (later called Dubs) since the 1960s, over instrumental versions of (popular) songs. This practice also influenced the development of “freestyling” in later hip-hop.

These deejays or toasters in Jamaica were connected with specific Sound Systems, owned by specific people. They travelled throughout Kingston and Jamaica. This way they could gain popularity among audiences. In a later stage, these deejays found their way to recordings, and could record such “toasting” songs in studios, for sale on the market, apart from sound systems. “Fixed” in studios you might say.

Photo: early, pioneering toaster King Stitt performing at the Garance reggae festival in France, July 2011

Early “deejays” generally only talked or chatted over parts of songs (not over the entire length of them) in that stage, including the early toasters Count Machuki and King Stitt. These did not record their vocal interjections yet: it was improvised, and only aimed at the crowds in the dancehalls present at the time. Many doubted that serious songs could be made of this. Yet little by little such recordings were made: Ska-ing West by Sir Lord Comic, recorded in 1966, with the singer talking partly over a ska record, was probably the first “toasting/deejay” song recorded on disk.

ORIGINATOR

In a later stage, close to 1970, U-Roy really helped develop the toasting/deejaying genre. U-Roy’s important contribution was the spreading of his vocals and lyrics over an entire song, interacting with the music and vocals of original songs - local hits mostly - by other artists, resulting in time in recordings that were aimed at studio recording, rather than – as before – a sound system practice that happened to be recorded in the studio as an exception. U-Roy’s toast songs - both from the year 1970 - ‘Wake The Town’ (over the rocksteady riddim of Alton Ellis’s song ‘Girl I’ve Got A Date’) and ‘Wear You To The Ball’ (over a Paragons slow ska song of that name), pioneered the deejay as full-fledged vocalist. That’s why U-Roy is called “the Originator”.

This full-fledged toasting continued over early reggae and roots reggae songs until later years of the 1970s. Then, Rastafari-inspired lyrics came also from these deejays, contributing to what can be called “dread” sounding deejays like Prince Fari and others. I above discussed the period from the developing Jamaican music industry from about 1945 to the 1970s. From imported R&B records played in Jamaica by sound systems (with deejays introducing them) to the own, distinct music genres that developed in Jamaica since the late 1950s: ska, and in the 1960s rocksteady, and later in the 1960s reggae.

The example of the early songs by U-Roy (both rocksteady and ska) shows that genre changes did not correspond directly to differing vocal techniques in the broad sense. The deejay had to “ride the riddim” vocally adequately and engagingly to please an audience or a public. Whatever riddim or genre. First often foreign genres, later (since the 1960s) mainly Jamaican genres.

RECORDED

Vocal styles/techniques changed more directly, though, when toasters were recorded. The very “fixing” on record, and conventional musical timing of songs, limited the too free-flowing, improvisational style of earlier deejays at interactive sound systems. The word says it: recording is “fixing”: 4/4 timing had to be considered more thoroughly for example. That deejaying got recorded aimed to make records to sell – and not going to a sound system phase first – meant a change in vocal technique. The deejaying vocals had to be, simply put, “tighter” regarding musical timing. More structured as well. In the sound system, freer, improvisational deejaying was still done, of course, interacting with audience response.

Still: structured or not, or even recorded or not: one underlying skill had to be there when vocalizing over records. As self-evident as it is crucial: the deejaying/toasting vocalist had to have a good sense of rhythm, had to “feel the song”, and use his vocals right to entertain the crowd enough. That deejay should vary enough to keep attention: partly “chatting” /toasting, partly chanting or even singing, catch-phrases, voice effects, distinct yells or screams…all meant to show rhythmical and vocal entertaining skills. That is where specific talent should show.

In the Jamaican musical culture, furthermore, the sound systems played what people wanted to hear or were hoping to hear, much more than the mainstream, elite radio stations. The deejay thus had to test this skill or talent also in direct interaction with an audience: on the streets. At the very popular base of musical appreciation. The way it should be, I think.

A far cry of what would develop in Western pop cultures of the US and Europe: big corporations or slick businessmen manipulating (or at least misdirecting) musical public tastes from the top-down: think MTV, commercial pop etc. In Jamaica this order is the other way around. People on the streets liked it, therefore someone got popular and recorded in studios.

ROOTS REGGAE

Roots reggae came at a high point in the course of the 1970s after an early, faster reggae phase. The Rastafari influence increased protest lyrics, spirituality, social critique, as well as in a sense a mystique, what is called a “dreader” sound (linguistically a beautiful reggae term, I think: “dreader”). The lyrics of deejays – when Rastafari-inspired – obviously changed to Rasta social and spiritual (called “cultural”) themes – also those of early pioneers like U-Roy. Also a “wailing” or “thunderous” quality in vocal technique came more to the fore, befitting such lyrics. This was often also an adaption to the “dreader” and slower original Roots Reggae songs (more “minor-chord”) that were now often toasted on.

Prince Jazzbo was one who used a gruff, slightly wailing voice accompanying such lyrics. Although he had more or less this gruff voice with his debut singles as well, which were just about dancing and partying. Some reggae books call Prince Jazzbo for this reason an early predecessor of more recent current gruff-voiced deejays like Buju Banton, Capleton, Bounty Killer, or partly Sizzla. Jah Lloyd/Jah Lion had a less-gruff, sharper, but in another way also “dread” toasting style.

Prince Fari had a “voice of thunder” (also the name of one of his albums) befitting his Rastafari lyrics, that he used in his best songs with rhythmical skill and variety: even if he at times seemed to just talk over a riddim: there was still more to it. I Roy also toasted in such a “dread” vein, as did Big Youth: one of the early deejays in expressing Rastafari lyrics. Some deejays/artists – especially closer to the 1980s - had a somewhat intermediate position: combining a Rastafari with a general “dancehall party” vibe, like Dillinger, Ranking Dread, or Trinity, though still with Rasta references.

Both lyrically and musically/technically, the heyday of Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae certainly had its impact on deejaying.

1980s

The 1980s consisted of a transitional period. Regarding reggae in general, and specifically in the “deejay ting”. There were broader musical changes accompanying this. The rise of digital riddims, with the Casio-based ‘Sleng Teng Riddim’going back to 1984 having a pioneering role. In this post, though, I focus on vocal techniques. A most notable practical change in the course of the 1980s among deejays consisted of the move to “on the beat” chatting.

ON THE BEAT

Early recording deejays like U-Roy, Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, and I-Roy had to be as said somewhat “tighter” and structured in the studios when compared to the – looser - live sound system setting they started in. Nonetheless their “meandering” vocal style was still free and loose in some senses, also on record. It was rhythmic, of course – else it would not appeal - , but a bit more indirect: more AROUND the beat, rather than on it. This changed around the year 1980 in Jamaican deejaying. One influential artist/deejay influencing this change cannot go unmentioned: Lone Ranger.

Lone Ranger was a deejay of the second or third generation, you might say, who to be distinct (a necessity in the competitive Jamaican music/dancehall scene) innovated by toasting ON the beat, rather than meandering around it, like others did before. It created a nice, catchy flow that appealed to audiences. He had several hits in Jamaica, such as the catchy ‘Love Bump’ in 1981, on the music of an older Slim Smith tune (‘Rougher Yet’) at Studio One. This On The Beat toasting would signify a lasting change, continued by other 1980s toasters and by following generations of the 1990s and beyond: Admiral Bailey, Charlie Chaplin, Brigadier Jerry, Josey Wales, and Yellowman. Along with the mentioned rise of digital riddims, this would help shape the Dancehall subgenre within reggae.

Barrington Levy was one who helped “bring singing back” in the dancehall, and more singers (rather than deejay-ers/toasters) were active in reggae and popular, but many toasting/chatting deejays also rose to popularity. The term “Chatting” instead of Toasting probably relates to the new ON the beat vocal style of these next-generation deejays.

I personally have mixed feelings about this latter deejay phase. Too much slackness-lyrics (though not all) is one point of critique I have, but strictly musically I found it was in worst cases also to simple and monotonous. I overall was more into the old 1970s style of deejaying of U-Roy, Jah Lion and the likes. I enjoyed it overall more, though I did like some later 1980s deejay songs as well. Maybe it has to do what I first encountered, e.g.: my path, or with my age. I appreciate some later (1990s and later) and current chatters too, by the way, so my taste is not limited time-wise.

POST-1980s

Dancehall continued, and there came a later generation of deejays. This can be considered the third or fourth generation of deejays (who chatted rather than sung). It coincided with a “return to Rastafari messages” - though it was never totally absent within reggae – in the 1990s, and was led by Rastafari-adherent artistes/deejays, belonging mainly to the Bobo Ashanti branch within Rastafari. Sizzla, Capleton, Lutan Fyah, Anthony B, Jah Mason are artists that played crucial roles in this type of deejaying. Most of these started in the later 1980s, and some of them started out lyrically in a less-conscious vein.

Did these Bobo Ashanti/Rastafari-deejays introduce new chatting/vocal techniques and styles? Interesting question. It is hard to say, but I think they did a little, though each artist often has an own, distinct, very personal vocal style. As I said: in the competitive Jamaican dancehall one had to distinguish oneself as an artist.

On the one side: these Bobo Deejays like Sizzla and Capleton continued in a general sense the ON the beat chatting technique started in the 1980s, more than the meandering, early Toasting style characteristic of the 1970s. This latter “meandering” is not totally absent though: especially in some songs by Sizzla, as well as artists like Lutan Fyah, Junior Kelly and some others, you do find at times a looser chatting style. In addition, the deejaying of these artists includes singing (or: chanting) parts, typical of what became known as the Sing-Jay (singing and deejaying) style.

SING-JAY

The sing-jay tradition is older than these Bobo-deejays. As I said: early deejays as I-Roy, U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and Big Youth included chanting/singing parts to alternate the rhythmic toasting. Yet, a more structured combination - generally with the verses chatted rhythmically and the choruses sung - developed later. Singer, later turned deejay and sing-jay Michael Rose (of Black Uhuru fame) was one of the pioneers of this. Before him deejay duets like Michigan & Smiley had this structure (toasted verse, sang or chanted chorus) as well.

Current artists like Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason, Turbulence, Louie Culture, and several others can be mostly called Sing-jays, rather than just chatting deejays. It became so common in the course of the 1990s that reggae reviewer Mark H. Harris on his website (no longer updated, but still online at www.reggae-reviews.com) jokingly remarked about an artist between commas that “…is a new sing-jay…(but who isn’t nowadays)”. It became that common by the early 2000s in Jamaican music.

Besides this there were still singers continuing, and also new singers arrived on the scene (Luciano, Bushman, Chezidek, Richie Spice, Tarrus Riley a.o.), and on the other hand those who chatted rhythmically mainly. Yet, overall, now singing qualities could/can be judged also of deejays, besides their rhythmic flow. I find Lutan Fyah a good singer and a good chatter, for instance. Also Turbulence, Fantan Mojah, and for instance Junior Kelly are okay singers. Some find Sizzla’s singing annoying or even bad, though I find it in instances appealing. Others find the singing of, e.g., Anthony B not very special, though not bad per se. “White men” Gentleman and Alborosie have mixed results, in my opinion, and are too often mediocre in my opinion, in both their chatting and singing attempts (with a few good exceptions among their songs). Queen Ifrica, on the other hand, and newer talents like Chronixx, can I think both chat and sing very well. Also some of Marley’s sons (Damian and Kymani for instance) show talent in this regard. But all that is a matter of opinion or taste.

In any case, the balance of combining good chatting and good singing remains an interesting artistic challenge to follow within current Jamaican music. Also, the broad (grey?) terrain between singing and rhythmic deejaying enabled several artists to make a very specific mark, and hard to “classify”. Many are “sing-jay like” but not quite, more singers than deejays or vice versa.

Understandably in light of (required and desired) musical creativity: strictly rhythmical vocalizing and strictly singing could not long remain fully separate domains. Sing-jaying became another original Jamaican contribution to world-wide music, later to be copied in hip-hop, R&B, and other genres. Just like deejaying before it had influences beyond Jamaica..

INFLUENCES

The organic development sketched above was shaped of course by interrelation: action-reaction, as so much of human behaviour. Jamaica knows several highly individualistic musical artists, going a different way of their own. This often influences other people, going in a similar direction. This is also the case with vocal techniques of deejays. Most of them would admit this openly, by the way. U Brown and I Roy derived not only their artist name from U Roy, but partly copied his style. As did Dillinger, who admitted to at first simply copy older deejays like U Roy and Dennis Alcapone. I already mentioned the ON THE BEAT innovation by Lone Ranger.

The very early toasters like Count Machuki and King Stitt, as well as U Roy and others, were partly influenced by Black US radio presenters talking “jive” and speaking “Ebonics”, using specific terms to introduce records, as heard on US radio stations that reached Jamaica. Soon after Jamaican deejays would influence other, later Jamaican deejays.

GRUFF LINE

U-Roy was as said influential, but the “gruff” case is also interesting. Prince Jazzbo has recently (11th of September 2013) deceased as I write this. He was one of several deejays becoming popular in the 1970s, but like others had to find his distinctive mark, his own style. Whether sought, or just naturally there, he had a somewhat “gruff”, wailing voice, that several reggae historians see as early precursor to the style of Buju Banton and comparable later deejays.

Photo: Prince Jazzbo performing at the Garance reggae festival in France, July 2011

Earlier deejays than Buju Banton had this of course as well: Prince Fari a bit (though perhaps more “thunderous” than gruff), or Big Youth. An apprentice of U Roy (at the same Stur Gav sound system as U Roy), namely Josey Wales, rising in the early 1980s, also had a gruff voice.

A bit later in the 1980s, a deejay called Burro Banton, who is known as “the original Banton” distinguished himself with a very gruff, aggressive style. Buju Banton said he was influenced by Burro Banton, reason why he also took the name Banton. So there’s an interesting “gruff” line of vocal influence from Prince Jazzbo in the 1970s, passing through Josey Wales, Burro Banton in the 1980s, to Buju Banton or other gruff-souding artists (Mega Banton, Terror Fabulous, or Alborosie and Bounty Killer) in recent times. Burro (Banton) still took the “gruff” in his voice the furthest though.

This gruff voice is an acquired taste, even among some dancehall fans, but I think it really gives a nice energy to songs – especially “inna di dance”, and when the chatting/toasting is done well rhythmically. Buju Banton has I find a very good flow. In fact, Burro Banton and other gruff-voiced deejays were very popular at the dancehall before recording.

I-Roy was known as one of the more intelligent deejays lyrically. I-Roy was vocally influenced by U-Roy, and sounds according to many similar, but he still had a distinct vocal technique of his own, characterized by a sort of (natural) “reverb”, that sounds a bit like one is in a tunnel. I have not read yet about this having influence, although I think I Roy might have influenced several deejays at the time. Or later: current artist Busy Signal (also more or less a sing-jay) has this “reverb”. Also a bit artists like Mavado or Vybz Kartel. Of course this can also be coincidence.

While Josey Wales and also Charlie Chaplin toasted at the same sound system as U Roy (Stur Gav), they were active since the early 1980s, in a later stage, when the “on the beat” chatting had come into vogue: that’s why Josey Wales and Charlie Chaplin still sounded different (“updated”) than their older mentor U Roy, though having still similarities with him. They (Wales and Chaplin) chose “cultural”/conscious/Rasta lyrics over slackness lyrics, unlike many of their contemporaries by the 1980s. The specific vocal technique of 1980s deejays, e.g. Charlie Chaplin and General Echo, often had similarities (on the beat chatting), but their lyrics differed: General Echo focussed on slack and sexual lyrics, with song titles such as ‘Bathroom Sex’.

The same is the case, of course, with present-day deejays with similar chatting styles/techniques, yet different lyrics.

PERCUSSION

I finally focus on one less obvious aspect about deejay vocalizing or “riding the riddim”. I myself am active in percussion, especially playing bongos, for a few years now. I learned some standard Afro-Cuban/African and other patterns (son, “martillo”, conga, nyabinghi, samba a.o.), but also enjoy improvising on reggae riddims. This improvizing is rhythmical and therefore similar to freestyle toasting. I recognize that similarity. Also the vocal meandering of artists like U Roy, I Roy, and Big Youth was after all rhythmic, varied but rhythmic. On the bongos you likewise make quasi-melodic patterns on a rhythmic base, interchanging these. This is especially possible when you have several drums tuned different or of different size. A varied rhythmic (“talking drum”) improvizing, just like I Roy and the others do/did vocally. Interesting parallel!

It is however also self-evident, since toasting/deejaying is, like percussion, “riddim pon de riddim”. I even suppose that some of the deejays consciously use drum patterns in vocalizing.

The Jamaican variant of toasting/chatting is, like Wikipedia also states, relatively more melodic and varied than most of what would become US “rapping”. Therefore Jamaican toasting and chatting overall approaches even more the varied drum and percussion patterns.

CONCLUSION

According to many, there was a general downward trend in Jamaican music regarding quality, since the 1980s. The re-use of riddims took often precedence over original riddims, which many found less original. The deejay dominance was furthermore accompanied by a change in lyrical content (albeit with much exceptions). The emphasis in lyrics came on partying, but also on boasting and slackness (violence and sex). I also find that less intelligent and negative lyrics became too common, although I found some joking (not too negative) lyrics on sex or otherwise at times funny and entertaining, if they were not violent or degrading.

The re-use of riddims is strictly speaking also less original, but can be explained by economic reasons: lacking funds for studio time to create new riddims, therefore reusing old (Studio One, or other) riddims.

Still, despite these flaws, I also find that the “deejay ting” has its merit and can be considered creative and artistic. The need for vocal creativity, in chatting/timing/ rhyming and entertaining, for deejays was certainly there, also needed more to be distinct from others on the same riddim/instrumental. This led to more or less original art. Even traditional drum patterns seemed revived, like I said, masqueraded as rhythmic vocals, along with heritages of rhythmic vocals from African music historically..

Moreover, deejaying made/makes evident the positive, healthy aspect of the Jamaican music scene: deejays - as well as more via studios singers and instrumentalists - gain popularity “on the streets”, among the common people in the ghettos and elsewhere, through sound systems at dancehalls. Popularity from the bottom up. After this came recording or specific live shows (often with live bands) at international concert halls. Popularity is in this case no “big corporation” taste manipulation from the top down, but truly popular, democratic and organic. This makes it more real..

woensdag 4 september 2013

The biography of Peter Tosh

The biography of Peter Tosh has been long awaited in more than one sense. In the general sense that Tosh simply deserves a biography as an important reggae icon, being in fact long overdue when compared to the several biographies already appeared over the last decades on (fellow-Wailer) Bob Marley. Not even Peter Tosh’s sudden and shocking death in 1987 seemed to have occasioned a biography on him at the time. It was not until much later that British journalist John Masouri announced that he would write a biography on Tosh, initially scheduled to appear in 2011. There comes the long-awaited in another sense: this date was postponed, and eventually the biography, written by John Masouri, would appear under the title ‘The life of Peter Tosh : Steppin’ Razor’, in 2013.

WRITING THE OUTER AND THE INNER

You guessed it: in this post I will review this biography, placing it in a broader perspective. The work was with its 486 pages quite voluminous. Yet it was a good and pleasant read, from the beginning. Masouri knows how to write engagingly, which can of course be expected from a long-time experienced professional writer and journalist. I find, however, that there are different layers of good writing. In my experience some biography writers have a more personal, opinionated style, while others take a more detached, almost neutral stance. Some seem better in eliciting images, landscapes, and scenes, while others are better in describing psychological processes.

The author of the biography on James Brown, which I also reviewed on this blog (see post of October 2012), R.J. Smith, seemed in my opinion much better in describing internal psychology (in this case of James Brown) than outer scenes, landscapes or cityscapes etc. David Katz had a better balance in his biography on Lee "Scratch" Perry, called 'People Funny Boy' (see my review on this blog of August 2012). Colin Grant wrote the biography on Marcus Garvey ‘Negro With A Hat : the Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey’ (2008) as well as the 2011 work on all the three Wailers in their interrelation ‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer’ (also reviewed on this blog by me, see post of May 2011). Grant combines several of these writing qualities, I think: both the outer and inner processes were described engagingly by him.

Masouri combines qualities as well, but less balanced in my opinion: he is apt in eliciting physical images, city-and landscapes, atmospheres, views of e.g. Kingston, Jamaica, or wherever Tosh went on tour, such as the US, Europe, and Africa. Yet he also pays attention to internal psychology. He has the latter quality to a degree, but I think Masouri is somewhat better in describing physical scenes, or ”situations”, than the deeper layers of Tosh’s psychology. He tries to unearth these deeper layers of Tosh’s personality, including through anecdotes, but stays a bit too superficial in this regard. Colin Grant achieved this better, I think, in his biography on Garvey. Masouri refers to how Tosh’s life experiences shaped his personality, but bases this on what Tosh said himself, of course, and on what others say about Tosh. This is fair enough, but besides people really closer to him, he also includes many people who had a shorter, more superficial or distant (working) relationship with him, saying not much more than how he “came across”. This is often part of anecdotes. This can be interesting still, goes even a bit deeper at times in the book, but never really too deep. Here and there in the book he tries to delve deeper in Tosh’s psyche, though: but with varying degrees of success.

PERSONALITY

Chronologically the biography departs from – obviously – Tosh’s life story since his youth in rural western Jamaica. Though somewhat broadly sketched, you get an idea of the environment he grew up in. Also broadly sketched his entrance in Kingston’s music scene is related, though it is very engagingly written. The biography then becomes a page-turner (in the good sense). The interaction with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer when forming the Wailers is interesting reading, but seems to provide for Masouri also a way to emphasize Tosh’s character traits, when compared to Bob and Bunny. Uncompromising and rebellious as a proud black man knowing his rights (different in this from the somewhat more compromising and “malleable” Marley, according to several people), Tosh could be displeased and angry on occasion, but also was often described as good-humoured, full of jokes, charming, and attentive (different from Bunny Wailer, of whom some said that "he seemed angry all the time”). Tosh was also said to be funny, and often joking. This personality formation of a rebellious pro-black stance, fighting against Babylon oppression and (related of course) his staunch Rastafari views, combined with an often charming, attentive and humorous disposition, is of course not necessarily contradictory. This despite the simplistic archetype existing among some of the “angry black man”. Even with some white people he went along well, though he was openly critical of some white people he (had to) work with, when he felt wronged by them.

This is in line with the “combined biography” I reviewed earlier on this blog: ‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, & Wailer’ (2011), by Colin Grant. Interestingly, Grant sees the three Wailers as somehow representative of three main types of Black attitudes in a white-dominated world (or: “Babylon”): Marley represents “adaptation” to it, Bunny Wailer “retreat” from it, and Tosh “rebellion” against it. Of these three original Wailers, this biography thus focuses more extensively on one of these, the said to be most “rebelling” and uncompromising one Peter Tosh, among other things through many anecdotes and life episodes. These stories in a sense confirm his rebelliousness, but of course not one-dimensionally. Aspects of adaptation or retreat are also to be found.

ROLLING STONES

A large portion of the book describes how Tosh joined the label of the Rolling Stones, also as a way to reach the international market. This part is also entertaining, though here and there a bit too much about the Rolling Stones (it’s not their biography), and some other white rock acts. Perhaps predictable, the in essence patronizing idea of settled white rock artists helping Tosh to cross over, “giving him a break”, so to speak, would spark Tosh’s irritation, though seemingly he bottled this up until later. While perhaps helpful, the patronizing aspect of this became in a funny way clear in an anecdote Masouri relates. A club in New York, apparently owned by a local reggae lover, invited many Jamaican reggae artists, while also the Rolling Stones and other rock acts with a love for reggae would visit regularly. When the Jamaican reggae band Culture, with Joseph Hill, was performing, two members of the Rolling Stones (not Mick Jagger though, who wasn’t there) went on stage – out of respect – to join them in the roots reggae vibe. Culture did not know who they – even if famous the world over – were and therefore - shocked - stopped playing and singing, only later to find out who these white men were.. I found this anecdote both funny and illustrative..

Later the conflicts between Rolling Stones members and Tosh increased, due in part to pride – or a sense of justice – of Tosh, continuously finding himself to be small-changed financially in dealing with big record companies, even if he specifically joined the (artist-led) Rolling Stones label to avoid this.

LATER CAREER : GATHERING MOSS

The biography continues then in the period after Tosh left the Rolling Stones label (and worked for big labels like EMI), and went further on his own with a changing Jamaican band accompanying him: first Sly and Robbie, and later the Soul Syndicate, including drummer Santa Davis. The interaction with the band provides further interesting reading. Masouri pays much attention to the tours he went on with this band, trying to reach large international audiences in the US, Europe, and Africa. The trips to Africa (Swaziland, Nigeria, and other places) had a special spiritual meaning for him, as can be expected for Tosh as a black Rastafari-adherent, who furthermore also as a hobby read much about Africa and its history, as related in the book.

Interactions with other music groups and artists continued, even with white artists, some with more commercial success than others.

The reception and quality of these concerts, and also of Tosh’s albums and songs, constitute another large part of the biography. Masouri, somewhat odd, gives his opinion on the concerts and the albums, though luckily in a moderate sense. Even if in some instances I agreed with Masouri (we both liked Tosh’s song ‘Feel No Way’ from the Mama Africa album apparently), I opine that biographers should be careful to give artistic opinions, due to the confusing pitfalls associated with subjectivity, hindering the required distance of a biographer. But, as said, he does this moderately. In describing Tosh’s concerts, Masouri shows how he is apt at describing vividly and evocatively the atmosphere and ambience during these concerts, on stage, as well as in and around the different concert venues.

Masouri further relates how Tosh reached success among some groups, though not always among whom he wanted: like Marley, Tosh lamented the fact that among his US fans were relatively few Black Americans, but much more a growing group white liberal (often marijuana-loving) kids. All in all, he had less commercial success than Bob Marley, as many of course know. Although some presented him as the next Bob Marley.

BAD PRESS

The critical British press on him is another interesting theme, and justly Masouri is critical about the arrogance in some British press pieces vilifying Tosh as inadequate or even fake. Masouri’s citing of these press reviews makes evident the both self-assured as denigrating tone this British press critique could have regarding Tosh. Apparently these critics saw themselves as arbiters of good taste. This is already elitist and condescending, but in this case they claim to be judges on music from another culture than their own (which they only claim to understand), while comparing with other reggae icons (of course Bob Marley)..

I guess bad reviews are part of being a famous artist, but too often such critiques are a mix of self-interest, too much believe in one’s own prejudices, in turn stemming from a sense of superiority of these critics, not seldom with a racist origin. A type of neo-colonialist attitude that dresses itself as ”hip”.

Two main problems that keep confronting - and hindering - the reggae industry come to the fore in this biography on Tosh: the first one is, as just discussed, non-Jamaicans and whites determining what reggae should be like and/or should reach the mainstream. The second one is the continuous, inappropriate comparison with Bob Marley. Both these aspects have racist overtones. At the very least both are depreciative.

It is almost painful to read how Tosh tried to circumvent these hindrances of reggae’s molested image while trying to keep his dignity. He even seems to compromise at times to these Western ideas to develop and broaden his career. It is a revealing aspect of this biography.

ANECDOTES AND MORE

This biography consists of quite a few anecdotes, and can be even called “anecdotic” to a degree (like many biographies). The anecdotes are combined with historical facts/backgrounds, interviews, concert and album descriptions (as I mentioned), opinions/evaluations, and - not unimportant - life events described broader and longer than often shorter and less serious anecdotes. These life events getting more detailed attention, includes the time when Tosh was in Jamaica beaten and abused by the police at the station, probably in retaliation for a critical speech against authorities he held at a concert in Jamaica not long before. Tosh was in fact beaten severely by several policemen, and maintained damage (recurring headaches for instance) from them long after. Similarly traumatic - and grim - is also the story of the armed robbery and murders in his own house, leading to Tosh’s death (and the surrounding events) in 1987.

On a lighter, more funny note are then the several anecdotes which say something about Tosh’s personality and sense of humour. Unavoidably, several “marijuana-smoking” anecdotes can be found in this biography, but also other ones. They also show how Tosh could be attentive and considerate – especially some women he worked said they experienced this –, but also at times a bit impolite or rigid in his beliefs. When he worked with British-based reggae artist Dennis Bovell, for instance, who first wore dreadlocks, he at a later time refused to meet and talk to him after Bovell cut these dreadlocks. Tosh later said to Bovell that he never should have cut his locks. A different, but also interesting anecdote relate to the California band the Grateful Dead, led by Jerry Garcia, who wanted to meet Tosh, who, however, had objections against the band name and said, when he had the band on the phone, that they instead should be grateful to be alive.

PERSONAL LIFE AND DEATH

His personal life gets more attention in the latter part of the book. His friends and musicians he worked with criticized the too strong hold his new partner Marlene had on him, becoming his manager without - according to some – proper skills, and further estranging his long-time friends from him, and having a general bad influence on him. Some even suppose she used “obeah” (Vodou-like) magic to control him and continue her evil ways. A woman standing between her man and his earlier friends is a story I’ve heard before – even in my own life and circle - , and whether all these accusations against Marlene were actually true is hard to ascertain. Some who criticized her were spiteful, probably, or maybe she actually dominated him too much. It is difficult to know for sure.

Then the drama increases in intensity as the biography comes close to how Tosh died. He was shot to death in his own house in Barbican, uptown Kingston, when he and his partner Marlene were in there with a few friends, including other musicians. An old acquaintance from Trench Town – in fact living as a criminal and/or parasite (asking for instance musicians he knew for money) –, named Dennis Lobban, entered Tosh’s house with a few friends and demanded money at gunpoint. While asking where the money was, they hit the people present, threatened them, and shot their guns several times. The main perpetrator – Dennis Lobban – had criminal priors. The gunshot at Peter Tosh proved fatal, as for others, such as dee-jay Free I, who also died. Others, such as drummer Santa Davis and Marlene were also shot but survived the ordeal. This took place on the 11th of September of 1987 (another “9/11” indeed). The day Peter Tosh died. He was only 42.

A tragic, dramatic end of the life of a sincere, talented musical artist who only wanted to “free Jah people”, strived to righteousness, but got caught up by the wickedness around him.. This is no sanctifying of Tosh on my part, but a balance of his life’s reality, based partly on this biography. He was not perfect – like no one is – and was for instance sometimes irresponsible, hot-tempered, stubborn, impolite, or temporarily vindictive, but that was it. So the Biblical phrase ”the wages of sin is death” – that ironically many reggae artist repeat in lyrics (including in other words Tosh as well) - does simply not apply.

CONCLUSION

Overall, I found this biography insightful and enjoyable. It would be better in my opinion if it stopped after relating this death in 1987, or perhaps his funeral. This because the last episode on his legacy, was for me not necessary and even disturbing. Readers can summarize his significance for reggae and his unique talent for themselves after having read the rest of the book. That renders it somewhat superfluous, even if some interesting comments can also be read in this last chapter.

What’s much worse is that Tosh is devalued in this last part by a comparison with - again - Marley, seeking to explain why Marley was more popular, crossed over more to broader audiences. This related according to a Paul Khouri to the fact that while Tosh was more revolutionary, Marley had (he thought) better lyrics, and lacked prejudice in approaching his art. Khouri called him also a better “storyteller” than Tosh.

I am not sure what “prejudice” Tosh had supposedly more than Marley. Because Marley was half-white he trusted white people more? Maybe, but this biography relates how Tosh had worked with white people and often amicably (though not always). Because Tosh had a more rebellious, militant pro-black stance? Against injustice you can never be too militant, I would say. He was pro-black and pro-humanity, not anti-white to be anti-white. To add insult to injury, the same commentator, Paul Khouri, said Tosh’s lyrics lesser mass appeal related to Tosh’s lacking sensitivity in this regard. Khouri believes therefore that Tosh’s lesser mass appeal than Marley’s “had more to do with Tosh’s music than any lack of corporate push”. I do beg to differ..

I think Khouri is also mistaken in his evaluation because some of Tosh’s lyrics in fact do tell more or less a “story” (‘Stand Firm’, ‘Pick Myself Up’, ‘Peace Treaty’, 'Maga Dog' a.o.), but maybe it is true that Tosh tells less stories in his lyrics than Marley, having instead “structured messages” in them. Such lyrics can be interesting as well, only in a different way. Tosh could, I find, evoke images with his lyrics (‘Downpressor Man’ being an example), which is a type of story-telling, you might say. Also daily life was quite prominent in Tosh’s lyrics, while relatively less Biblical references (compared to other Rasta artists, like Marley), which might well relate to his stronger anti-Christian feelings. Despite his slightly “thunderous” voice (though much less than a vocalist like Prince Fari), Tosh also could convey sensitivity in his lyrics and songs. So, I do not agree with this critique of Khouri and some others.

Masouri wrote a good biography, but showed in my opinion bad judgement when he reserved this critique to the end, giving the idea that it is a final evaluation (maybe unintended, but still..). Added to the inherent nonsense of comparing what need not be compared: Marley and Tosh were both interesting artists - musically and lyrically - in their own rights. Not the one “better” than the other. Only the mentioned “corporate push” made some believe that.

A missed opportunity, I opine, in this last chapter - note: named ‘Legacy’ - is furthermore that Masouri did not really pay much attention to how Peter Tosh’s music influenced later Jamaican artists. Bushman (who made a tribute album with Tosh covers) is mentioned in this biography, but also other Tosh-influenced artists/singers could have been mentioned, including outside of Jamaica, notably Lucky Dube. Also that Tosh’s late-1970s songs ‘Downpressor Man’ and ‘Equal Rights’ - both lyrically showing his militant side - were relatively oft-covered later by other reggae artists is an interesting fact that could have been mentioned.

So, apart from these and other flaws – the main one being that it could have (if possible) delved deeper in Tosh’s psyche - I can recommend this well-written, informative, entertaining, and overall insightful biography, even to those who know already some things about Peter Tosh and his life.

The Life of Peter Tosh : Steppin' Razor: John Masouri. – 486 p. - London : Omnibus Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-18477-2836-4

zondag 4 augustus 2013

"Earlier" Jamaican (folk) music

Mento is known as the earliest recorded Jamaican music genre. It was according to historians (and several sources I found) already recorded in the 1920s, and would remain popular up to the 1950s. It is seen as a - rural and acoustic - precursor to the later genres originated in Jamaica since the late 1950s/early 1960s: ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Mento shared similarities with Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso genre, but is a different genre with an own history and origin. Musical similarities between mento and calypso should be attributed to a shared African-Caribbean origin, rather than one being an off-shoot of the other: similarities go back to before: the African roots, combined with some (British/European) colonial influences.

CONFUSION OF TERMS

The confusion of terms can partly be attributed to the selling of mento songs as “calypso”: for commercial, marketing reasons, especially in the 1950s. For some reason “calypso” as a Caribbean music term was more known in the US than “mento”, and in the 1950s – when mento and calypso reached more commercial success outside of Jamaica, especially in the US – many mento songs were called “calypso”. Also Harry Belafonte (US resident of Jamaican origin), who became the very first artist world wide to sell over a million copies of an album, presented what were actually Jamaican mento songs as “calypso”. Most well-known (and very well-known at that) of that album is the song ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day O)’: actually a Jamaican-originated mento song, but known better (if: wrongly) as calypso.

RECORDING

This confusion of terms aside, it is known, or at least said by serious historians, that mento was the first recorded Jamaican music genre, in the 1920s. “Recording” can have different meanings though, not so much a mistaken confusion (as in mistaking mento for calypso), but correct, varying meanings. Recording in a professional music studio, with the goal of selling music to a public - or in colder economic terms “put on the market” - was in the 1920s not that common in Jamaica, a bit more in richer countries like the US, though it was upcoming. (The first “phonograph” recording device was invented and put to use for commercial records in the US since about 1887, especially increasing by the 1910s: since then records came more massively on the US and European market).

However, “recording” music does not necessarily involve direct commercial purposes. Recordings of traditional, folk music were also made by cultural anthropologists and other social scientists, with often modest equipment: for scholarly/scientific or research purposes. These are known as "field recordings". Focussing on Jamaica this is also interesting, especially since such academic, “anthropological” field recordings have been made also from early times, since the 1930s, both by Jamaican and foreign anthropologists. These recordings were of religious, spiritual and folk music at mostly religious African-based or Afro-Christian (religious) gatherings, whereby the music tended to have spiritual/religious and community functions, and not commercial or “pop culture” functions.

JAMAICA FOLK COMPILATION ALBUM

This brings me to an interesting compilation album I recently encountered: ‘Jamaica Folk Trance Possession’ with as subtitles both ‘Roots of Rastafari, 1939-1961’ and ‘Mystic music from Jamaica’. This CD was released in 2013, and can be bought on common channels such as Amazon (see: http://www.amazon.com/Jamaica-Folk-Trance-Possession-1939-1961/dp/B00BL319YQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1375651914&sr=1-1&keywords=Jamaica+folk+trance).

It consists of such early anthropological recordings of Jamaican folk music, from – as the subtitle says – between 1939 and 1961. Before common popular music formats, radio and commercial goals (for instance the 3-minute rule/convention for pop songs that developed later), this album thus consists of excerpts of research “fieldwork” – as it is called in scholarly terms – of anthropologists recording what happened to go on at musical/spiritual meetings related to folk religions and community gatherings among Afro-Jamaicans.

These religions - or spiritual movements - were often clearly African-derived, and in turn would influence mento. The recordings include examples of Kumina (Congo-based) folk traditions, early mento, Afro-Christian Revival Zion or Baptist sessions, Pukkumina or Pocomania (African-based) music, music of the John Canoe festival, and early Rastafari gatherings and Nyabinghi music. I find interesting also that Count Ossie (influential Rastafari-adherent Nyahbinghi drummer and musician) is included in the musicians on some recordings. Further it included work songs, and traditional songs starring the famous folk poet Louise Bennett.

LINER NOTES

The liner notes - in an accompanying booklet - further say that these are the oldest Jamaican recordings that exist. That is quite a statement, and, if true, it would make this compilation album all the more historically relevant. Mento might have been recorded since the 1920s, but unfortunately these recordings seem to have been lost, since the liner notes also say that the oldest existing recording of a mento is on this album: its mento opener (a Jamaican folk classic) ‘Linstead Market’, recorded in 1939.

These liner notes – written by Bruno Blum - are a general historical and musical overview, and here and there quite informative, but I can not evaluate if they are totally correct. Largely what is said is confirmed by other sources and scholars I know, though there are a few doubtful – or better said “controversial” - aspects. The author Bruno Blum traces for example in his account the roots of Ras Tafari to the (Afro-Christian) Zion Revival churches, which shared with Rastafari an own (African/Black) interpretation of the Bible and Christianity. Yet, I understood from other sources that it is not the only root of the movement, as some pioneering Rastas indeed had connections to Revival Zion churches, whereas others, at least according to some historians, distanced themselves more from such Revival religious aspects (including Leonard Howell, as well as Rastafari inspirer Marcus Garvey).

Besides this, many Rastafari eschewed from early on practices like spirit possession or evoking the spirits of the death, albeit of direct African origins, keen as these were on separating life from death. The same reason a part of the Rastas did and do not visit funerals, not only of some distant “generals” as a few reggae songs relate, but some not even of loved ones. This is not common to all Rastas though. It is similar to the “priests” in the Jewish tradition (from the Levi priest order) who eschew contamination with the dead and death and do not dwell close to death (or e.g. cemeteries). An example of how a Biblical/Old Testament influence outweighs African traditions.

This last issue is not just a sidepath, since it is interesting in light of this that Congo (music) traditions so strongly influenced Rastafari’s Nyahbinghi traditions. Congo drumming often has the spiritual function of evoking the spirit of foreparents (i.e. the dead). This all seems contradictory, but makes sense when the symbolic and factual are properly regarded in their own worth : Rastas who do not visit funerals (of e.g. a biological brother or aunt, or even of a loved and respected elder Rastafari) don’t refuse to do so necessarily because they do not care about those deceased: they do not like death..

RECORDINGS AND SOUND QUALITY

Back to the CD. Its academic context might be – for some music listeners – something to get used to. It appeals to rationality, historical analysis, thinking, and not just to – as many prefer – just “feeling” the music. The weak and distorted sound quality - due to its relative antiquity and probably the used equipment - does not help either. The somewhat soft and distorted sound and vocals, including background murmur and noise, are far apart from the clarity, and modern, noiseless recording of popular music nowadays recorded in studios (or current Jamaican music).

Still, overcoming this I really got intrigued by these recordings. A certain rational mind-set helped me in this case – or as some say, using the “logical, rational” left brain half (I actually think you have to use both - the emotional and rational brain halves - in most of life’s activities…but that is another issue..).

Furthermore, sometimes helped by my imagination, when the sound quality is not so good, I still notice and even feel the “groove” on most songs on this album, which tend to have a strong drum- and percussion-focus (as some would expect). Simply turning up the volume also helped me to get “inna di riddim” better. Besides a drum and percussion lover, I am also a "call-and-response" singing lover, another African retention recurring throughout these songs/recordings. Also other interesting types of harmony singing can be heard. This gives in some way an interesting musical history lesson. Often I really found it engaging and danceable as well.

RASTAFARI AND NYAHBINGHI

Historically certainly interesting is also that the album liner notes claim that the album includes the oldest known Rastafari song (lyrically) ever recorded. ‘We Are Going Home’, by the Ras Tafari Youth Group (and no..it can at present not be found on YouTube). The sound quality – again – is not very clear, and the sound somewhat distorted, but you get an idea.

The liner notes also said something which I considered very informative: the relation to Congo rhythms, via Kumina, that would help shape the Nyahbinghi rhythms among the Rastafari. These first-recorded Rasta chants, however, were accompanied by music/rhythms influenced by Baptist church ceremonies, though the lyrics (and of course the Rastafari movement) criticized this colonially shaped Christianity for being racist.

Nyahbinghi (as said Congo/Kumina-based) can be found as well on this compilation - including the “heart beat” rhythm base -, played by Rastafari-adherent Count Ossie. Interestingly, Blum points in the notes at specific African origins in Ntoré rhythms from the Kivu region (Eastern Congo) – especially maintained in the eastern parish of Jamaica of St Thomas - that influenced Nyahbinghi music.

MUSICAL ROOTS

What also was educational to me was that the notes explained how at Baptist church ceremonies musically, in chanting, while keeping the beat with the feet, the off-beat was accentuated with a hand clap: the same off-beat that would later define ska (and rocksteady and reggae). It shows how far back in folk music own, distinct Jamaican rhythms go, and that the skanking “afterbeat” that would set Jamaican genres apart from e.g. US Rhythm & Blues since about 1960, indeed has a long tradition in local Jamaican folk music. Both in the Afro-Christian Baptist music, but also in the “heart beat” of Nyabinghi drumming: after the two “heart” beats an off-beat followed on the third beat: some see this as a precursor to the emphasis on the third count of a 4/4 bar in ska, rocksteady, and reggae.

Relatedly, the characteristically “shuffling strum” of the guitar (or banjo) in mento – sounding as “kerchanga”, “kerchanga” - also is considered as a precursor of the skanking guitar and organ licks in later reggae.

MENTO AGAIN

A few mento songs close off this 'Jamaica Folk Trance Possession..' compilation album of field recordings. Mento had not really that rhythmic “off-beat”/"afterbeat" focus as ska and some older folk forms had. Yet with its other musical characteristics it also influenced what would become ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Several musical artists, for instance Laurel Aitken, were active both in mento and later in ska and following genres. There is a continuity there.

Also, several Jamaican artists of the ska, rocksteady and reggae era, especially those that grew up in rural areas (where mento was more present), made initially such (much more acoustic) mento songs (like Leonard Dillon of the Ethiopians) or at least let some of their songs strongly be influenced by mento, e.g. Peter Tosh. This is also said in the recently (2013) appeared biography of Peter Tosh, written by John Masouri (‘The life of Peter Tosh : steppin’ razor’), although Masouri also makes occasionally the mistake of calling mento influences on Peter Tosh songs “calypso”.

Also, what is known within Roots Reggae as the “country style”, of groups like the Maytones, and to degrees also the Gladiators, the Itals, and Culture (all groups with partly rural connections) – and occasional songs of other groups – show influences of mento. Several folk mento songs/lyrics are redone by later reggae artists.

Mento partly influenced ska and following (sub)genres (rocksteady, reggae, up to dancehall). Other local Jamaican influences shaping these genres came from other, older musical traditions mentioned (Pukkumina, Kumina, Nyahbinghi, Revival Zion etc.), of which specific African origins can be traced, more specifically in origins (Congo for instance) than some may think.

All this makes these historical recordings valuable.

The only thing that seemed to be missing - or absent: “missing” implies that the album aimed to be comprehensive, which it did not state as such -, is music of the Maroon communities in Jamaica, the formerly escaped slaves. These Maroons' relative isolation and freedom enabled the maintenance of relatively more African cultural (and musical) traits. Apart from this, I have read that Maroon musical aspects also had an influence on Jamaican popular music development, although not in too many sources. In another field – that of food – there is a Maroon influence on wider Jamaican culture and society: the Jerk Chicken and other Jerk dishes. This despite the fact that the Maroons still partly maintain a self-chosen isolation/separation within Jamaica. But like I said: that - food - is another field. There are, in any case, some interesting videos with Jamaican Maroon music on YouTube..

Possibly there is another CD/compilation album on Jamaican Maroon music..