zondag 2 april 2017

Subtle or subdued? : percussion in Bob Marley songs

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

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

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

PERCUSSION IN REGGAE

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

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

BOB MARLEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

PERCUSSION

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

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

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

PERCUSSION FUNCTIONS

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

ALVIN “SEECO” PATTERSON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INSTRUMENT CHOICES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRODUCTION CHOICES

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vrijdag 3 maart 2017

Marijuana

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

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

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

LEGAL?

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

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

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

PERSONAL

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

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

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

STEREOTYPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGGAE

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

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

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

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

DUB

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

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

SCRATCH

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

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

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

RASTAFARI

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

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

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

SINSEMILLA

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

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

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

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

BACK TO AMSTERDAM

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

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

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

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

SOCIAL CLUB

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

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

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

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

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

donderdag 2 februari 2017

Crucial background : Nambo, Ronnie, and Gaby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACKING

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

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

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

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

NAMBO ROBINSON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RONNIE DAVIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

GALLIMORE SUTHERLAND

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

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

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

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

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

PHILOSOPHICALLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRADITION

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

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

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

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

maandag 2 januari 2017

The Amsterdam reggae scene (2016/17)

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT CONTEXT

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

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

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

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

REGGAE CLUBS/PLACES

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

FRONTLINE

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

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

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

ZEN.

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

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

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

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

OTHER PLACES?

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGGAE DEE-JAYS/SELECTAH’S

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

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

REGGAE PEOPLE

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

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

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

SPECIAL CONNECTION?

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

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

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

REGGAE ARTISTS AND PERFORMERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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