maandag 2 april 2018

International parallels in (de)centralization: Spain, Ethiopia, and broader

Recently, this March of 2018, there were municipal elections in the Netherlands, as every 4 years. Also, since a time in the news – at least here in Europe – is the independence movement in Catalonia, now part of Spain, with regional president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, as main spokesperson. This single-sided declaration of independence – or referendum initiative - was apparently illegal constitutionally, and therefore Puigdemont became a wanted and eventually arrested man, by the central Spanish authorities.

Earlier, a bit less known, I gather, there was by the way a call for Scottish independence leading also to a referendum, resulting in a majority voting in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The municipal elections in the Netherlands, meanwhile, showed an increased participation and success of “local”, own political parties, operating apart from the larger national parties.

In Northern Italy, there was also a resurgence of calls for independence , at least by some groups, typically in wealthy regions like Veneto and Lombardia. Likewise, Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of Spain. This of course relates to the independence wish. It is difficult to become independent when you depend on central funds.


All these, partly unrelated topical issues, share at least that they raise questions about centralization versus decentralization of states. Some states have very centralized governments, others have chosen a more decentralized model, including relative political (decision) autonomy for regions, “nations within nations”, or on a smaller scale, municipalities, or sub-regions.

All this is, as the Rastas call it, part of “politricks”, and can be condemned, or at least mistrusted, as such. Also, local-level government, even with autonomy, tends to be run by the more privileged elites in regions or towns, continuing largely the inequality. Oppression of minority groups also remains part of that, as several political groups show, espousing more autonomy or independence, and having at the same time xenophobic agendas toward local foreigners. Examples? Vlaams Belang in Flandres, Belgium, The Lega Nord in Northern Italy. Also the Brexit movement has – more covert – anti-foreigner overtones.

It is therefore, in my opinion at least, somewhat hard to conclude whether a more or less centralized state – or organization for that matter - is good or bad. It is not that simple. Decentralization seems to suggest democratization, as it promises more say for the citizens over their direct environment, which can be seen as a human and civil right. That is: extending voting and political participation: not just for a distant central government, but also at the local level.


Spain’s situation is for European standards a bit problematic, because the current Catalonian issue was historically preceded by a movement for independence in the Basque country – elsewhere in Northern Spain - , now apparently satisfied with an increased degree of regional autonomy. Some other parts of Spain, such as Galicia, also knew such movements, with differing levels of support.

Spain became after the Franco dictatorship (ending in 1975), and perhaps because of that highly centralized Right-wing dictatorship up to 1975, since 1977, a federal state of sorts, divided in 17 “autonomous regions”, with differing degrees of autonomy. This depends on ethnic claims of belonging to a distinct historical nation. These claims are made by several groups within Spain: the Basques, the Catalans, and Galicians, all having own languages, cultural traditions, and partly own histories. Politicized these became “national identities”. These were however not histories “as independent from Spain” at some point conquered by the big power that is Spain, as some might wrongly assume..

In fact, from Spain’s early development as a state in the 8th c. AD, Basques, Galicians, and Catalans, formed constitutive parts of it, as these peoples joined forces against the Moorish/Islamic rulers that ruled in a large part of Iberia, between the 8th and 15th c.. They joined forces as Christian kingdoms (some aided from what is now France) to “reconquer” Spain and Portugal on the Islamic Moors, from the North. This took some centuries, but eventually, Christian kingdoms risen in the North of Spain, like Asturias and León (and Galicia), Castile, and Aragón and Catalonia, could conquer the rest of Spain. For that reason, the Galician language spread southward and became (with some changes) the still related Portuguese language. Likewise, the Catalan language spread to the Valencian region (where it developed into Valencian, linguistically strongly related to Catalan), and the Balearic islands. The language of the Castilians from around Cantabria, with also Basque influences, spread southward to central and southern parts of Spain.

Spanish writer José Camilo Cela even once said that “the Basques made Castile”, historically. There are quite some Basque loanwords in Castilian, some even commonly used (though not so much as there are Arabic/Moorish ones).

Somewhat ironic, maybe, how early kingdoms forming voluntarily a larger state, eventually resulted in regions wanting to become independent.


This is not that unique to Spain, or even Europe, however. It can be found on other continents as well. Ethiopia in Africa is a good example. Ethiopia was never really colonized by European powers, despite attempts, temporary conquest, or violations by Italy. Fascist Italy under Mussolini could conquer Ethiopia in the 1930s, but only for some years.

Ethiopia’s national borders are thus historically formed by local, indigenous rulers and kingdoms, following local warfare or competition, alliances and such, not unlike some European and Asian countries that never were colonized. Early Ethiopian emperors – when spreading their power geographically - soon came to rule over different surrounding, ethnic groups or “nations”, speaking different languages, with different cultures, and even religions. Several emperors were even of mixed ethnicity themselves. This joining of kingdoms, Christian ones too, is somewhat comparable to Spain’s history, also because it was partly opposed to upcoming and surrounding Islam.

Christianity has a long history in Ethiopia, even longer than in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Early Christian rulers of the Tigray and Amhara people thus “conquered” and combined – or via intermarriage - a Christian-led country together, that luckily escaped European colonialism. To maintain this country, power became centralized, with the predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Amhara people having relatively much influence within Ethiopia’s central government of, later, Addis Ababa. Also the Tigray people in Northern Ethiopia had historically quite some influence, to which early Emperors as Yohannes of Tigray descent attest.

Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, following thus on a long line of related monarchs. This followed after much conflict with competing groups or self-proclaimed heirs. After the necessary power play and warfare, Haile Selassie became, however, the legitimate heir to the throne of Ethiopia in 1930. Haile Selassie was partly of Amhara descent, but also partly of Oromo and Gurage descent, combining thus various ethnicities within him. This is not uncommon among the wider Ethiopian population, by the way. Emperors had to be Orthodox Christian, and also Selassie’s father, Ras Makonnen, was. Selassie’s father, an influential military leader in Ethiopia, was of Oromo descent. The Oromo are numerically the largest of the about 8 main ethnic groups within Ethiopia, and are in majority Muslim. These were however excluded from imperial rule, as Ethiopia defined itself as a Christian state, at least Christian-led.

This history explains the centralized rule, and reasons for it, in Ethiopia. Not just until the latest monarch, Haile Selassie, ruled, but also continuing after 1975, under Mengistu’s communist rule.


In the Dutch-language scholarly work ‘Afrika : van de Koude Oorlog naar de 21e eeuw’(‘Africa : from the Cold War to the 21th century ), published in 2002, and written by Roel van der Veen, the author pays some attention to decentralization by African governments. In this book on modern African history, Van Der Veen discusses of course the legacy of colonialism, and other aspects, resulting in weak or undemocratic, or even “failed” states and economies.

Van Der Veen defines this decentralization as intricately bound with democratization, allowing people to participate politically in their direct environment. Yet, he also points at possible negative outcomes in Africa, as more politicians at local levels also means more corruption or power abuse. He discusses Uganda as an example of decentralization to local government that went “relatively well”, starting under President Museveni since 1986. This was – according to him – not the case elsewhere in Africa. Problematic was also that in colonial times there was a type of “decentralization” in the form of indirect rule through local, traditional rulers, dictated by European colonial rule. This may have been decentral, but hardly “democratic”. Some postcolonial governments therefore sought other, democratizing ways for decentralization. According to Van Der Veen this was however seldom with much success, mostly due to corruption and inequality.

While the book by Roel van der Veen is moderate and quite neutral in tone, and with a healthy amount of nuance, its author allows himself a few “sweeping statements”, it seems. He states that, concluding: “the result of decentralization (in Africa) with regard to improving the living conditions of citizens were overall mediocre”. He also points out, on the other hand, that it helped increased democratization and participation, if only partly.

African countries were mostly divided according to the wishes of Europeans, separating ethno-linguistic groups over different states. This seems to increase both the difficulty and the need for decentralization, as part of effective and democratic rule.

The example of Spain and a few other European countries shows that it also occurs in states formed by the local people itself, “voluntarily”. The elites decided then mostly, of course, but they were local elites.

Ethiopia also was never really colonized, although influenced by European colonialism in its direct surroundings. It has now about 8 main ethno-linguistic groups, comprising a total of many more languages and quite differing ethnic groups. Especially after 1974, several separatist movements arose in different parts of Ethiopia, wishing secession for their ethnicity or nation, including Eritrea (eventually succeeding), but also in bordering Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, among the Oromo in Central and Southern Ethiopia, and among Somali people in the Ogaden dessert border area. Some of these are still active today.

All these felt “separate national identities” within states of course influence decentralization processes.


When talking about Africa as a whole and “central” or “decentral”, the history of Africa before colonialism and Arab and European slavery is also interesting.

In an earlier blog I mentioned how people from the Congo/Angola region was relatively strongly affected by slavery in the period between the 15th and 20th c., being relatively “easy pickings”. That’s why many enslaved Africans ending up in the West came from these regions (Congo, Angola), forcibly brought to North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. There are historic examples of opposition and heroic Angolan kings and queens resisting against the Portuguese and other Europeans, but eventually these Europeans got a stronghold.

One might be tempted to think that a strong centralized state or nation in Africa at that time, would better be able to ward off enslavement of their people by Europeans. After all, centralization supposes power.

Historically, this seems not to be really the case. As collaborators with European enslavers, some of such central states or kingdoms, with powerful rulers, even delivered slaves from other peoples – or even of their own ethnicity – to European traders. Precisely because of that power. The Ashanti kingdom, in present-day Ghana, was for instance powerful , but many slaves from there ended up in the West too.

In what is now Nigeria two main South-Nigerian ethnic groups, the Yoruba and Igbo, both were strongly affected by the slave trade, while the Yoruba and Igbo had at that time already quite different social and political structures: more central and urban in Yorubaland, more decentral and based on villages in Igboland. It seemed to not make much difference in their becoming victim, as both relatively many Yoruba- and Igbo-speaking slaves were brought forcibly to the West.

In the Americas, Yoruba ended up relatively much in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, whereas among the slave population of Barbados, and to a smaller degree Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands, Igbo were quite numerous.


In other continents as Europe and Asia, centralization has showed or still showed its ugly head. Historically one can go back to the Roman Empire, as super-centralized, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitious conquests and Paris-based empire, and certainly the Fascist dictatorships in Italy under Mussolini and the Nazi’s in Germany. Being totalitarian regimes, these limited internal autonomy, but as known also bothered the rest of the world with it.

The current Chinese government also aims at total control over far-away regions and its many citizens, with little space for self-rule or autonomy. The oppression in Tibet, formally a part of China, also shows this.


The dictatorship of Franco in Spain (1939-1975) was loosely based on the one earlier by Mussolini in Italy, with some general Fascist traits, but had some differences as well, modeled further on conservative Catholic ideals or simply “the old order” of old, united Spain. It was quite centralized in the capital Madrid. This made Madrid for some regions – perhaps against better knowledge – as the centre of Spain’s Fascistoid Franco rule. Ironically, however, Madrid was one of the last cities to be conquered by Franco’s Right in the preceding Civil War. A bit later than Catalonia too. Franco’s aim was “centralization” of Francoism, not “Madridization” of Spain, as some independentists erroneously present it. Franco himself was not from Madrid, but from Galicia. The Galician language, that he knew how to speak too, was outlawed in his native Galicia. Perhaps also ironic too, though some Spaniards thought that he was secretly less strict in suppressing Galician than other minority languages. One of the ironies of centralization., as well as privileges of being a dictator.

In Spain, therefore, decentralization, and regional autonomy-granting, accompanied the democratization process, necessary in Spain after the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. Longer, historical demands and promises for autonomy of groups like the Basques, Catalans, Galicians and others were fulfilled through not only granting certain regions within Spain autonomy, but by dividing the whole country in 17 autonomous regions, with differing degrees of political autonomy, rendering this way a federal state. Spain now can be considered a federal state.

There is some sense in it, I opine, and differs from Italy, where only certain regions have autonomy, the rest not. The nation-wide federal approach seemed more balanced, if also a potential source for conflict. I see its democratic value, also for culture, but can also imagine scenarios of unnecessary separation or tribalism, at the cost of solidarity.

The way this world is, the separatist conflicts in Spain related more to money than to culture or sensed identity. Not fully, though. Basque and Catalan separatist movements both championed cultural and linguistic differences, and some even, more dubious, genetic reasons. Dubious both morally (a “purer” or “more European” race?), as well as scientifically.

Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is the region within Spain with the highest degree of local autonomy in government. That’s where my objections lie, against the separatist call of some Catalans: they are already privileged. Thinking further: why are they more special than other “ethnic groups” within Spain. There is something like a Catalan identity and culture, with own interesting traits, most present in Catalonia proper, but much less already in Valencia or the Balearic Islands, despite linguistic ties. Interestingly, the Catalan language is strongly related to the Provençal languages in Southern France, where they only remain as dialects, showing also a historical focus and choice for centralization within France, up to the present.

There are, however, other cultures and languages within Spain. When I went to Galicia in NW Spain I noticed that the Galician language was dominantly present even in some bigger towns, heard as least as much as Castilian, often more. Galicia has furthermore an own Celtic-based culture, including bagpipes and harps, as does Asturias. Others, like the Andalusians (with e.g. a distinct, South-Spanish Flamenco culture and Moorish influences), the Aragónese, Murcians, or Canarians, sense but actually also have an own identity and culture.

I agree that regional languages should be used if the speakers of it wish so, also in political affairs, and be thus official, or co-official languages. This by itself good and democratic fact is however already the case for the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages. Beyond that, the “cultural identity” issue is more vague and biased, I find.

My main objection is however the lacking socioeconomic solidarity. Virtually every country has wealthier regions within it, helping thus out poorer, less-developed regions in the same state. Through, well, centralization or centralized rule. Lombardy, Piemonte, and Veneto are examples of wealthy, industrialized Italian regions, in which many find they subsidize the poorer Southern parts of Italy. Not always objecting to it, though. I spoke to several Northern Italians (including my own father) who understood or even appreciated that rich Northern Italy, with wealth levels comparable to countries like Switzerland and Germany, helped out poorer, rural parts of Italy (with wealth levels like Spain or Greece).

This lacking economic solidarity along with ethnic “special statuses”, makes the separatist movement and call of Catalonia less ”Left-wing” or democratic in the broad sense, than what Pavlov reactions to “wanting independence” (from former world power Spain!), might have us assume.


Somewhat concluding, I think “bigger picture” is a key term here. Focussing on ruling very local affairs, one might become too short-sighted, and forget the wider world around, dealing just with small, daily or petty issues. Issues that touches one personally or “one’s people” get mainly, almost self-involved attention. That has a place in each human life, of course, but must not impede something like (international/interregional) solidarity with humans farther away from the direct environment, that might be worse off. Or a wider consciousness.

In the Netherlands there were, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, municipal elections in March, 2018. In Dutch law, foreign nationals (especially of EU countries) are allowed to vote, but not for the national elections. Whatever the formulated or public “democracy-enhancing” rationale, it remains skewed in my opinion: foreigners need (read: should) not interfere with national, “bigger” affairs, but can with local affairs, that however stem from national choices. Directly or indirectly. Ultimately national policy directions determine the choice for building a car park in a nature area in some town or municipality.

That is a partial lack of democracy, covered up with “decentralization”, similar to what can be found in certain socialist and other dictatorships (so-called democratic workers’ groups, neighbourhood political committees etcetera).

When I was in Cuba in the period 2001-2006, I heard about, and even noticed the activities of, the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR), translateable as: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Most neighbourhoods I went had one, suggesting local involvement in politics, at the neighbourhood level.

Down the line, I noticed and learned that the “Defence” part of these neighbourhood CDRs consisted mostly of “political snitching”, and also often had corrupt (bribing, favouritism) aspects. One must think of reporting to powerful local forces (police or politicians) about a Cuban woman taking foreigners home, having intimate affairs with them, possibly related to prostitution, Cubans of both genders just befriending foreigners, or buying and selling products from the Black market, listening to foreign news or music etcetera etcetera. The CDR in the neighbourhood could report such people to authorities, thereby helping the Revolution at the neighbourhood level. Or so they say..

Centralization or decentralization: a complicated and contextual issue..

zaterdag 3 maart 2018

Clock Is Babylon?

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


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

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


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

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

Its significance is described in Wikipedia as such:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

A few nice examples from reggae lyrics:

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


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

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

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

donderdag 1 februari 2018

Conga (of Tumbadora?)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

En, even verderop:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

dinsdag 2 januari 2018

Glass percussion?

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

zaterdag 2 december 2017

As old as..

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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