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 rareandstrangeinstruments.com 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.

vrijdag 3 november 2017

Fats Domino as milestone toward Ska

Recently, the 24th of October of 2017, Fats Domino passed away. Always sad – how nice if we all could live forever – , but at least this was no relatively untimely passing – as all too common among musicians -, since Fats Domino was at the blessed age of 89 when he died. The New Orleans Rhythm & Blues artist was in and by itself an interesting musician, selling almost as much as Elvis Presley, they say. He was unique and influential as musician and artist in several ways.

Moreover, he was also relevant for this – my – blog on which I pay relatively much attention to Reggae music, as one of my main interests. Yet, the relevance is also there regarding other themes I discussed on my blog.

It is largely pointless to repeat here what everyone can study for oneself about Fats Domino – or read in the Wikipedia article on Domino. A general introduction is still useful, though.


In light of his relevance for the development of Jamaican music, beginning with Ska around 1959, it is good to know Fats Domino’s musical “position”, so to speak, within the genre known as Rhythm & Blues in the US. This term – often shortened to R&B – is not without ambiguity, more recently also being used for what seem variants of Soul- and Funk-influenced Pop songs.

This is more recent, though. Originally Rhythm & Blues developed in the 1940s among African Americans in US cities, combining largely elements of Jazz and Blues. Louis Jordan was an influential, early figure in its development, and before him people like Cab Calloway, T-Bone Walker, and Count Basie.


In the course of the 1940s and later, as other music genres, this R&B developed further, with regional differences. There were for instance differences in the classic Mississippi Blues, and particular variants of New Orleans blues. The latter, New Orleans Blues and Rhythm & Blues, showed more Afro-Caribbean influences, including from Afro-Cuban genres like Son and Contradanza. This relates to Louisiana’s past as French and Spanish colony.

Cuban patterns like the tresillo, based on sub-Saharan African polyrhythmic 3-2 “clave” patterns, were absorbed into this New Orleans variant of R&B. Also Cuban musical instruments became used at times after 1949 in New Orleans and the wider US, such as the maracas shakers, and the hand drums the bongos, and conga’s.

Professor Longhair was an influential New Orleans R&B singer and pianist, who was influenced by Afro-Cuban music. This in turn later influenced – some say – to musical change toward the genre Funk.

Anyway, several distinct Afro-Caribbean connections helped give the New Orleans R&B, its distinct touch, including a “back beat” feel. It is in this particular R&B tradition that the popular New Orleans artist Fats Domino stood.

So New Orleans – commonly known as the birthplace of what we know as “Jazz” –has been influential in more than one sense on US music and beyond, especially Black music. Also, “whitened” Rock & Roll was influenced by New Orleans R&B, many assert.


It is also this New Orleans tradition that reached Jamaica, often more than other US or Blues genres, through US radio stations in the US South, Louisiana being simply geographically closer to Jamaica. Fats Domino songs became known and popular in Jamaica, along with the R&B or “jump blues” of other US artists like Louis Jordan, by the 1950s.

It is said that this R&B variant influenced the development of Jamaican own music, as musicians in Jamaica started to make their own music, under several influences. The back-beat shuffle of some Fats Domino songs - and related New Orleans Rhythm & Blues - influenced the feel of Ska, albeit along with other influences. Drum-wise, for instance, local Afro-Jamaican drumming influences (with both Akan and Congo origins) influenced Ska too from early on, as did the preceding, more rural Jamaican folk genre Mento (which was not unlike Calypso).

Interestingly, Afro-Cuban influence came to Jamaica too – partly at least – via Louisiana, while Cuba is located closer to Jamaica than Louisiana. It must be the language barrier.

Ska and Reggae historians tend to mention especially the song of Fats Domino called ‘Be My Guest’ as influencing early Ska strongly. This song was a big hit in the 1950s at the Jamaican sound systems, as were some other Domino songs. Listening to this song, Be My Guest, which accentuates the offbeat, one easily notices the influence.

There is thus a quite direct link between Fats Domino and Ska, and following Jamaican genres like Rocksteady and Reggae, all maintaining this offbeat characteristic.

However, Jamaican Ska legend Prince Buster maintains that another R&B song from 1950 was even more influential on Ska, and was likewise popular at sound systems: Willis Jackson’s ‘Later For The Gator’. Jamaican sound system and studio owner Clement “Coxsone” Dodd had this record as a kind of “rare speciality”. Here also a possible influence on Ska as you hear it, but it took some years for Ska to develop.


Just as interesting, however, is in my opinion the cultural and musical history behind this. I alluded to this already a bit: the Afro-Cuban influence on New Orleans R&B, that in turn influenced Jamaican music. This relates to degrees of African musical retention in Black music genres in the West.

As a percussionist, having studied Afro-Cuban patterns (and soon also other Afro-Caribbean and African patterns), this has a practical interest for me as player. Yet, I also find it an intriguing theme at a purely theoretical level, from a strictly cultural/historical perspective..

There is some kind of intriguing and ironic contradiction here. On the one hand, the popularity of New Orleans R&B, at least for a period, at Jamaican dances/sound systems in the 1940s and 1950s – especially in urban parts of Jamaica – shows how musical influences are international. It influenced to a degree the developed own genres in Jamaica since the later 1959; Ska to start with.


On the other hand, it is certainly not correct to see this Jamaican Ska as an “offshoot” of this type of R&B. there is much more to it. In fact, it is more appropriate to conclude that New Orleans R&B by people like Fats Domino were just one of the influences absorbed into Ska, resulting in a new musicial idiom (Ska). This idiom included however local Jamaican influences too: from Mento (a more rural Jamaican folk genre, not unlike Calypso), or Afro-Jamaican drumming traditions, including those from African “spirit religions” such as Burru and Kumina.

Rastafari drumming called “Nyabinghi”, in turn absorbing Burru and Kumina influences, influenced Ska too in some sense, noticeable in the early Ska song Oh Carolina, for which Rastafari drummers (Count Ossie a.o.) were employed. Their drums combine here with a R&B-like “boogie shuffle”.

In addition, New Orleans Rhythm & Blues itself, as has been said already, was the result of various influences. Afro-Cuban ones, but also Haitian ones: Louisiana was a period a French colony, and also a period a Spanish colony (up to 1800). These French and Spanish influences set it culturally apart from the other Southern states in the US, and enabled connections with other French colonies like St Domingue (known as Haiti after independence in 1804), and Cuba. Afro-Haitian music genres, probably influenced the New Orleans sound too.

The slave regime under the Catholic French and Spanish had some differences with the slave regime of Anglo-Protestant colonies. Africans were – under conditions – allowed to play their traditional music, at certain occasions, mostly on Sundays and specific places of the city New Orleans, the famous Congo Square, notably. More of the traditional African music –like in Cuba – could be maintained this way, giving the New Orleans variant its stronger polyrhythmic characteristic.


Author – and musician - Ned Sublette, furthermore, argues that increased Afro-Cuban influences on New Orleans music, such as on the mentioned Professor Longhair, a bit also on Fats Domino, helped “re-Africanize”in a broader sense US Black music. Afro-Caribbean (Cuban, Haitian) influences were there in New Orleans before this already, though..

Blues that developed elsewhere in the US South and the Mississippi delta, seems to have this polyrhythmic and offbeat focus less, but have more a “swing” influence. Africa is also there, however. The same Ned Sublette also pointed at the differences between influences from different parts of Africa between US Black music on the one hand, and the Caribbean and Brazil/Latin America on the other.

Especially in US Black music the influence of the “Griot” tradition from the Guinea and Senegambia regions in Africa is more evident. Relatively more slaves brought to the US came from that region (especially also around the Mississippi), bringing Griot traditions, based a bit more on “string instruments” than on drums. This string-instrument focus was partly an Islamic/Arabic influence, sharing this ironically with the “guitar culture” in the former colonial power Spain; where what we know as the “Spanish guitar” indeed arose.

These string instruments in the Guinea, Southern Mali, Northern Ivory Coast, and Senegambia regions –however - were given a distinct African interpretation, including own instruments as the Kora, as well as distinct “swinging” playing styles, markedly different from string instruments being played in Arab or even North African cultures. It is a Black African interpretation, so to speak, that also travelled to the US with the slaves, feeding into Blues. That whole idea of “swing” (“around” the beat), is thus also af African (Mande) origin.

Enslaved Africans brought to other parts of the Americas brought other Black African traditions, less influenced by Arabs or Islamic cultures, more based on percussion and drumming. This included more complex polyrhythmic structures, cross-rhythms, and call-and-response. These aspects were also present in the Griot/Guinea region music in Africa, but more limitedly.

A general polyrhythm and drum focus of Africans from what Ned Sublette calls “forest Africa” (closer to the Equator), from people like the Yoruba, Igbo, Congo and Angolan people, Coromantee/Akan (Ghana), Ewe-speaking peoples (Benin), and others, thus came to the Americas, with the slave trade. While this slavery certainly caused a cultural destruction and alienation, it was not a full one, as it survived even strict legislation in certain colonies, and making use of the few channels in colonies with less strictly prohibitive legislation, such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies. Both “Griot” African as “Forest” African music could survive slavery in the Americas.


There exist several different books and documentaries on the historical development of Reggae and other Jamaican music. All more or less confirm the role of R&B’s popularity in the 1950s in Jamaica, especially in urban, Kingston sound system and dancehalls, in helping to shape Jamaica’s own Ska music. Different works – though – accentuate somewhat different aspects of this process, mainly remaining within the realm of veracity.


Some sources claim that even one specific song set Ska in motion, the already mentioned ‘Be My Guest’ by Fats Domino, or the one by Willis Jackson.

Others have a broader view, pointing out that Jamaican sound system owners played some popular Fats Domino tunes, but also searched “rarer” R&B, after Domino became perhaps a bit too mainstream. These were often, though not always, also of the New Orleans R&B variant, or – as also referred to it – the “shuffle boogie” R&B. Jazz, bebop and swing, or other blues or R&B reached Jamaica too.

This is related as such by Dave Thompson in his work ‘Reggae & Caribbean music’ (Backbeat Books, 2002). In that same book, however, influential Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin pointed at this shuffle boogie R&B, or “shuffle rhythm” (characteristic of New Orleans R&B, such as by Fats Domino) as “point of departure”, after which Jamaican musicians like himself first playing this, then went their own direction. They for instance placed a stronger emphasis on the second beat, resulting in what can be deemed “proto-Ska”.

Thompson in this work, on the other hand, also mentions the influence of Laurel Aitken in Ska’s development, someone who also played Mento music, and was influenced by latin styles, bringing these probably into the mix creating Ska too. He also mentions other people and influences.


Others, such as Lloyd Bradley in the book ‘Reggae: the story of Jamaican music’ (BBC, 2002) – accompanying a BBC TV series - even argue that while there is a link between R&B and Ska, the overall influence of Jazz musicians on Ska’s development is actually larger. The main studio band in the early Ska stages, the Skatalites, were indeed experienced as jazz music performers by the time Ska arose around 1959. The space for horn solo’s in several Jamaican Ska records, - with Skatalites members as musicians - can be attributed in part to this.

Jazz is known as originally as coming largely from New Orleans, so there is another link.

Also, by the way, - not everyone knows this - the standard idea of a modern “drum kit”, now so common in Western popular music, originated they say in the New Orleans music scene. The combination of different types of drums with cymbals, notably. Earlier, Caribbean genres like Mento (Jamaica), Son and Rumba (Cuba), Merengue (Dominican Republic) were quite percussive, but the “drum” or “beat” part was mostly covered by hand drums, often combined with shakers or scrapers. With Ska the standard drum kit as we know it now in pop music began to be used more in Jamaica, but that happened in other genres too, showing another international influence of New Orleans globally (along with Jazz since around 1900).

The drum kit spread with Jazz, can be said somewhat simplified. At first Jazz was in Jamaica mostly popular with more wealthy people, where some drum kits might have been used earlier, whereas ghetto residents often preferred the rawer R&B. Musicians like the Skatalites, though, played in different circles and for different groups. The first two musicians to own an electric bass were also active in Ska, Byron Lee, and Lloyd Spence, the latter being also a jazz musician before that.

Bradley writes that Ska partly derived from R&B boogie, changing the emphasis from the upbeat (as in R&B) to the “downbeat”, giving it a distinct Jamaican touch. He points out, however, that this was done by mainly local Jamaican jazz musicians, that came to form the Skatalites, driving Ska forward. He stresses that besides “sound systems” there was also a vivid “live music” scene in Jamaica and Kingston, albeit in part class-related. This was simply because instruments and learning to play them cost money. However, the famous nun-run, Catholic Alpha Boys School in Kingston gave music lessons to its pupils (including Skatalites’member) since the 1940s, and was thus an alternative avenue for children from poor families to learn to play musical instruments.

Jazz (with some Blues influences) brought some ‘swing” (as musical term) aspects to Jamaican music, indirectly a Griot influence that can be partly traced back also to Mande-speaking parts of Africa, despite the “whitened” image swing jazz or Dixieland music got over time.

I myself was advised when I learned to play the bongos and conga’s that Afro-Cuban patterns could be used on Reggae too (I figured that out a bit already), but that an element of “swing” should be added to fit the Reggae rhythms, especially with the Left hand. It was supposed to be less tight on the beat as in Salsa or other Cuban music: Afro-Cuban music tends to be relatively more polyrhythmic (clave-based), but tighter on the beat than, say, Blues, Jazz, Soul, or Reggae. I tried the “tighter” Cuban patterns on Reggae too, and it “kind of” seemed to fit too, though perhaps not fully. So the advise I got seemed appropriate.

Alongside these R&B and Jazz (and other) influences there were many other influences on Ska, and following genres Rocksteady, and Reggae. The rural Mento genre should not be forgotten. Most of these, like Mento, are also from the local Afro-Jamaican tradition, as well as from the Rastafari cultural influence (signifying a focus on Africa). The Rastafari movement also originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, not long after the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia in November 1930.

Further there were other Caribbean (Latin, Cuban) or African influences. Rastafari drumming, known as “Nyahbingi”, combined local Afro-Jamaican influences of ancestral African, Akan and Congo, origins, while also Yoruba drumming, such as by the well-known Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, is said to have influenced some early Nyahbinghi drummers. Rastafari influenced Reggae music culturally, lyrically, and also musically, such as through this drumming. The “heart beat” drumming characteristic of Nyahbingi, even gave Reggae rhythms their own feel, especially Roots Reggae since the 1970s, while also the “answering”, freer, repeater patterns of Nyahbinghi recurred (and still recurs) on Reggae records and rhythms.

This all combined, in a varied and interesting African Diaspora connection with the said influence from Black American music, and in this New Orleans R&B was a large proportion.


That is what makes Reggae, the genre that originated in Jamaica first around 1968, having Ska and Rocksteady as precursors, interesting also from a cultural and philosophical perspective. The combination of influences from it, from different cultural zones within the African diaspora, and ultimately Africa itself. The “swing” tradition – stemming mainly from “Griot” cultures in the Guinea and Mande-speaking part of Africa (around the Sahel) - entered Jamaica via Jazz and Blues from Black US music; “clave-based” polyrhythmic structures and Congo-influences from Central and “Forest” Africa entered via Afro-Cuban music, as well as from local Kumina, Burru, and Nyahbinghi traditions, but also via New Orleans R&B; and African storytelling music left legacies in Mento and Calypso also influencing Reggae, having partly also roots in what is now Ghana.

Reggae represents thus, in a musical and cultural form, an African unification, in that sense well along the lines of Marcus Garvey, a thinker influential on Rastafari, who aimed at uniting Africans at home and abroad. Another important person for Rastafari, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, was also very active with a Pan-African “uniting Africa” focus, also in a political sense within the African continent, starting the international Organization of African Unity.


Rather than a divertion from Fats Domino, the above tekst of mine, can better be seen – I argue – as a “contextualization”. How the recently departed Fats Domino stood within the R&B tradition in the US, I sketched more or less, becoming – many say – also influential in what would be called “Rock & Roll”, and an influence on Elvis Presley.

Rock & Roll, as a “Whiter” more Country-influenced derivation of R&B, never became very popular in Jamaica, unlike earlier, 1950s R&B. Partly because of that, probably, Jamaicans were stimulated to make their own music, instead of following what came from the US. Fats Domino was in that sense one of the “last milestones” in tracing the influence of Black American music on the development of Ska.

In later decades, other US Black music would to degrees influence Rocksteady and Reggae (Soul, the Impressions, James Brown a.o.).

Yet, in the development of Jamaica’s first own urban, popular music genre, Ska, that would feed later into Rocksteady and Reggae, in this crucial, pioneering phase of Jamaican popular music, Fats Domino was one of the crucial influences, along with the wider shuffle, New Orleans R&B tradition he represented.

maandag 2 oktober 2017

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): DJ Ewa


How people got to be reggae music lovers or fans has always fascinated me. Maybe partly because reggae still is off/outside the mainstream, also in the Netherlands. It is not found that easily, let’s just say. It requires (to a degree) an extraordinary life path: that is, different from copying the masses, or simply following what’s commonly on television or the radio.

Reggae has of course since decades gone international and widened its fan base, but I have known individually quite different reggae fans within the Netherlands. Black and white (and Asian, or mixed etc.). Males and females. Old and young. Some with little education, some highly educated. Of different class backgrounds. Some combine liking reggae quite equally with other genres (e.g.: some with African, funk, soul, some with hip-hop, some even with non-black music genres), while others on the other hand adhere almost “strictly” to reggae music, and do not get into much else. Some like roots reggae more than dancehall or vice versa. There are even reggae fans – believe it or not - who do not smoke the “ganja herb”.

Furthermore, some have an interest or sympathy for the related subject of Rastafari, some do not, or even despise it. The latter, despise, I find somewhat odd since Rastafari is not the same as reggae, but is nonetheless connected to it.

These differences (and similarities) between and among reggae fans/lovers intrigue me, also in relation to personal backgrounds. That’s the reason why I would like to interview specific individuals who love reggae.

Before this I have interviewed 5 persons – reggae lovers I know, “breddas” (meaning “brothers”, or "friends" in Jamaican parlance) of mine – here in the Netherlands.

I started the series on this blog with a post of June 2012, when I interviewed Abenet. In April of 2013 I interviewed Bill. After this I interviewed Manjah Fyah, in May 2014. For my blog post of August 2015, I interviewed, somewhat more extensively, (DJ) Rowstone (Rowald). In August 2016, then, I interviewed Vega Selecta.


This time, already October of 2017, I interview another “bredda” of mine, that I know from the Amsterdam reggae scene. It is DJ Ewa (Iwan Huyck).

I have known him in fact for years, having been to many events where he was DJ/Selecta or organizer, including Café the Zen (Amsterdam East), but also other places, such as Club Caprice (later King’s Club) or elsewhere in Amsterdam. I knew his connection to the erstwhile Easy Times coffeeshop: a famous reggae-minded place – with almost a legendary status among reggae fans. It had regular reggae DJ’s, was often quite busy, located at the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. It stopped as such, though, around 2004.

It was a bit before my time, but many people I know (including an older brother and friends), mentioned it to me. DJ Ewa became a regular DJ there, I soon heard.

Ewa is therefore a kind of a "veteran" Reggae DJ in Amsterdam, being also somewhat older than other DJ’s, as well as than the other people I interviewed before for my blog.

Ewa (Iwan) was born and grew up in Suriname, and later migrated to the Netherlands.

Underneath, our conversation based on some main questions (in bold letters). His answers (translated from Dutch, here and there slightly reformulated) are the texts in italic. Additional questions or comments by me are furthermore in between what he says, and are not in italic (M: is me, Michel).

Since when (what age) do you listen to Reggae music?

Since I was around 12 years old, I think. At that time I lived a while with my sister (in Suriname), and my brother-in-law had a record player with a set of records. Not all I liked so much, but some music I liked: notably some Rock and Soul that my father used to play before too. Yet I also encountered at my sister’s something by Peter Tosh. That I loved, and it became a strong inspiration for me.

I also heard Bob Marley before a bit, but Peter Tosh caught my attention much more at first. From that I got to other reggae: Bob Marley among them.

What appealed to you in reggae music (or Tosh)?

What attracted me to Tosh were his voice, as well as his lyrics. He had really “deeper” lyrics. Already since young I was a kind of a “deep” thinker about things, and that touched me, connected me to Tosh’s music as well. I analyzed his lyrics and found personal things. Peter Tosh was my biggest inspirer.

This influence extended to my affinity for sunglasses: I was influenced in wearing them by Peter Tosh, often wearing specific sunglasses too. You notice that in photos of me..

M: After that came other Reggae?

Yes. After Tosh, I found Bob Marley also interesting, and a while after that I also began to listen to and love Ijahman Levi.

Ijahman (Levi), I found, had someting peculiar, and unique to me. Something I hadn’t heard yet in other music: it is a “sigh” that you hear in almost all of his songs.

M: He has a beautiful voice, of course.

Yes. And he sighs even while he sings, consciously. I had not heard that yet of any other artist. It’s in most of Ijahman’s songs. It’s almost like he sings “Blues”, I think.

M: Ijahman Levi certainly made some classic, enduring songs..

For sure..

M: Some critics claim that Peter Tosh had made some albums of “lesser” quality as well. But that is a matter of taste, of course..

That is indeed just a matter of taste. He preferred going his own way, instead of being directed by Chris Blackwell and commercial goals. I understood and respected that. While another producer before him, Lee Scratch Perry, sold Wailers records without legal artist credits. These ended up being pirated in Britain and elesewhere in Europe without any financial compensation for the Wailers. The Wailers (with Tosh) did not like this.

M: Perry once said about this that he just did that to get them a first entry in the market, as a way to promote the then unknown Wailers “out there”..

Yes, but only he (Perry) made money out of this then. Also because of such experiences, Tosh decided to go his own way.

What other music genres did you listen to then?

Alongside to Reggae, I also listened to other music, notably Rock. I liked Creedance Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty I liked. Good music I found in the work of Deep Purple, ACDC.

I served in the army (in Suriname) – at around my 20th year - and during that time I, besides to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, also mainly listened to this kind of Rock, like ACDC, or also the Alan Parson’s Project, who were pioneers in “electronic music”.. They had good songs like Eyes In The Sky..

To be honest, at home I mostly tend to listen to this Rock music, more for work I make mixes focussing on Reggae. That’s more work to me than anything else.

M: Those Rock bands have slower songs too

Yes, even Deep Purple has nice “slower” songs. One of my favourites was also Eric Burdon (working with the band War), who also showed a Blues influence. I liked that too. The lengthy song Tobacco Road I liked: telling a whole story, starting Rock-like, slowing down to Blues. It tells an intriguing story about someone having a bad life amidst poverty and addiction, who gets a dream as way to change it, but has to make an “offer” (his life)..

M: I know that song..

In Suriname buses, usually music is played out loud, and I used to listen to this song during an approximately 18-minute bus trip in Suriname, but the song was not yet finished when my trip ended, haha.

Further, I like Talking Heads too. I sometimes look up their old video’s on YouTube..

David Byrne is crazy.. in a fun, good way..

M: And Surinamese music: kaseko or bigi poku?

I never felt too much affinity for that. It’s not really my thing. Although, when I used to go to the Surinamese interior – I am not really a city person - , also when I served in the army, I visited Amerindian and Maroon villages, and experieneced their folk music in the pure, traditional form. That I really enjoyed: pure and authentic. Amerindian music, and the Aleke music in Maroon villages: in their orginal cultural context and real life: that I appreciated: really experiencing it, instead of just listening to it.

Fantan Mojah also made a Aleke song, by the way..

M: Funk and other things?

I also encountered Funk, Disco, and Soul, popular at that time in Paramaribo. I knew a then well-known DJ in Suriname, DJ Lord, and his son. His son took over when his father died and organized parties, I then started to play/spin and mix records for the first time as a DJ, taking over from him at times, when he e.g. wanted to dance with women.. I played/mixed mainly what was most popular then: soul, funk, disco.. My earliest DJ efforts..

At that time I also used to dance in a dance group, dancing disco, and later even modern ballet. Modern ballet had some unusual moves for us, and we could not take it seriously and only laughed, haha. That dancing stopped for me when I really started to play/deejay.

I was then about 16 years of age, when I had these first DJ experiences..

Those were my first DJ steps, but around my 20th year, I had to serve in the army for a few years (late 1970s), just prior to to the (1981) coup. I had a good time, but could not do much with music.. I listened to it , though, in-between and during expeditions: mainly Rock, but also Peter and Bob..

Later, when I came to the Netherlands, my interest in Reggae as such increased.

Do you have any preferences in the broad Reggae genre. Does e.g. Digital Dancehall appeal to you as much as Roots Reggae, for instance?

Generally within Reggae my taste is also quite broad. However, I think the classic Roots Reggae, the old school,: is still the best.. I also like the recent Roots Revival, New Roots by Chronixx, Kababa Pyramid and others. I think that is a good generation. For a period you had not much in that Roots area, most artists did Dancehall, with few exceptions. Now I like that there is a group of good New Roots artists..

I like the fact that within Reggae there is much variation: much to choose from.

M: How does this translate to your selection as Reggae DJ/selecta?

I think I am one of the few DJ’s/selecta’s who plays different kinds of Reggae. Many of them tend to play just one subgenre: Dancehall, Dub, Roots.. I vary.. This also depends on where or for who I play/spin.. I often adapt to the audience, despite my personal taste even.

In the South of the Netherlands I tend to play more Roots. In Amsterdam and the Randstad (the urban, densely populated part of the Netherlands between Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam) more mixed, also Dancehall.

I have organized for a time Roots parties with regular live acts even, such as in de Heilige Zeug (Warmoesstraat) in Amsterdam. Few of the people that I know came.. Other Roots parties I played at had few Roots Reggae-minded people in the audience, and more young people. I then switched to Dancehall. Roots Reggae fans then started to think I do not play Roots.. It made me hard to “categorize” as DJ/selecta for many..

In the same vein, they would never invite me for those Dub Reggae minded DJ events, while I have many Dub cd’s and records, even preparing them for my relative, vocalist/singer MC Priti Pangi (Journy). Yet, they do not know that Dub side of my collection..

How did you develop as DJ/Selecta after those first steps as DJ around your 16th year?

I grew into it . After those first steps around my 16th. When my sister or nieces had birthdays or parties, I sometimes played as DJ. Then mainly vinyl singles..

Not always the guest liked what I played: many expected Surinamese music, and I never played that. Of Surinamese music I only liked Papa Touwtje. There are also nice reggae developments recently, though, in Suriname..

M: That Kaseko is a tradition worth conserving, I think. I see sometimes instruments used, you do not see often: a wooden log for instance..

Yes, certainly. However: live it is often much better than when I hear it on the radio. There are certainly good musicians in Suriname..

You came up with the term Easy Time Crew, that you respresent. This refers to the former reggae-minded café / coffeeshop Easy Times. This was located at the Prinsengracht (not far from the Leidseplein). A bit before my time, but I heard a lot about it. What was so special about it?

Well, it was a real reggae place: open all week, and every day of the week they played reggae. Friday’s and Saturday’s they created a dancefloor with regular dee-jay’s (selecta’s). DJ Aya used to play there a lot, followed later by me.. Since the late 1990s, I played there regularly, up to around 2004, when Easy Times stopped as Reggae-focussed place. I therefore later came up with the term Easy Time Crew, referring to that past there, as DJ at Easy Times in Amsterdam.

It was a very popular and often busy café/coffeeshop for a period among Reggae fans in Amsterdam, even making nearby places switch to Reggae after Easy Times closed for the night: to attract the Reggae fans that visited Easy Times. Reggae artists even visited and performed at Easy Times: Junior Kelly and Glen Washington to name some.

It was influential in that sense. A bit comparable to Café the Zen (Amsterdam East) today: a reggae hotspot. Café the Zen, you might say, took that central role over a bit (also concerning some of the same people), in the Amsterdam reggae scene.. I am now mostly active in/for Café the Zen, alongside quite regular gigs elsewhere In Amsterdam or outside.

You play mainly from CD, as DJ. That is: instead of mp3 or vinyl. That is quite exceptional. How did you come to that choice?

Well, exceptional.. there are a few DJ’s playing CD’s, not just me. I prefer CD's – and more specifically WAV(e) files over MP3’s. The sound quality of CD (wav) songs is so much better. MP3 Pro improved the quality of mp3’s, yet remains still behind WAV’s though, quality-wise. I have a good player (Pioneer) and can mix/work well wit hit.

The best sound is of course vinyl. That’s what I opine too. Yet over time, as DJ/selecta travelling, CD’s became more practical for me: more easily transportable than vinyl albums and singles, and I started to take more and more CD’s instead. I stopped there for quality reasons: I could have switched to MP3s to be able to bring much more tunes to choose from. Yet, as I said: the quality is less. Plus: I like to maintain an overview of tunes. Not too much of them at once.

M: I notice that too.. I used to focus on Wav and CD's for years too, and later heard and made MP3s of my own songs, noticing immediately the lesser quality from Wav to Mp3. While others said it was barely noticeable.. I still noticed it to differing degrees, when listening songs..

Yes. Me too. An added reason is the respect for the artist. Some download/convert YouTube songs to MP3, but you can buy them too legally, via ITunes or otherwise.

M: “The album idea” I miss at times. People tend to think in songs in mp3, while maybe artists have a story they want to tell with a whole album, or it is interestingly representative for a specific period of their career. I heard some say for instance that Luciano’s album ‘The Messenger’ (1996) is great as a whole, while many only get to know a few songs of it. “Cherry picking” songs here and there, this way.

Yes, while an entire CD album is often also cheaper than buying the songs separately.

So, I keep on playing CD with Wav files. I never play MP3s, safe when there is some technical problem playing CDs: for that I take MP3’s on memory stick: just in case.

Do you combine your being DJ/Selecta with other creative activities?

Well, also arranging artists performing: I organized the performance of Verse Ital in Café the Zen, as well as, like I said, also other artists performing under the Easy Time Crew banner in other places too, together with others.

Besides this, and of course my activities as DJ / Selecta, I also am active in visual design, I make flyers, reggae-minded graphic design. This is to be found as Internet site under the name I & I Productions (https://www.facebook.com/easytimeproductions/), also to be found on Facebook. This design is connected to other Easy Time Crew activities. Further, I have a radio show on which I play reggae music, twice a month (Wednesday’s) at the online radio station http://www.royalzionhighness.com .

Further some other things, too.

Does the Rastafari message in much of Reggae appeal to you? How does this relate to your own background, or beliefs?

Well, Rastafari is very broad, with many branches. I am not someone who likes to be in a group. If I would define myself, I would call myself first and foremost a “rebel”. I like the message in Reggae often, but I like to go my own way. As a rebel.

M: That fits with your love for Peter Tosh: who was also known as a rebel..

Yes, haha.

M: Were you brought up religiously?

Yes. My family was and is very religious, very (Catholic) Christian. They raised me that way, and as a youth I followed a Bible study, obtaining even degrees to eventually preach. Yet, I stopped with it, because I asked too much question for them: like I said before, I was always very much “thinking” and researching. Questions such as: If God as Creator created everything, who created God? Questions like that. I remained curious.

Therefore, in seeking answers for myself, as well as to rebel somehow against my Catholic upbringing, I even joined other Christian groups – temporary- such as the Jehova’s Witnesses or Mormons.

M: Those religions: Catholicism, but also Protestantism, want you to be docile, to not think (for) yourself. You like to think for yourself, you told..

Yes. Since I was a child, I was even known within my family for having "foreseeing" visions.

I simply do not like too much “deification” of people, I guess. I respect people like Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie. I see them not as “religious” figures, though. Marcus Garvey I consider as freedom fighter.

Moreover: I see “religion” as the origins of many wars in this world, a negative influence: the crusades and such..

People believe so much in things, that they stop thinking rationally. While I opine that you should keep on thinking yourself.

I can understand, on the other hand, that spirituality or belief can bring relief, or peace, to people’s minds, in cases..

M: Me too,. I can imagine people find comfort in spirituality, especially when “stuck” in life, somehow..

Yes. Further, the Bible - that I used to study - is very arbitararily made up historically, I have learned. Certain humans just chose certain texts over others. The Bible has been made too holy and unquestionable. Mary also wrote a book, I heard: it did not become known..

I do not see any religious leader for me in the world, preferring thinking for myself. Words of Selassie and Garvey have wisdom, I recognize that, but also words by people like Martin Luther King and Mandela. I see these all more as “prophets”.

Despite all this, I kind of admire Rastas/Rastafari-adherents. I find them in a sense heroic: it is not easy to be Rasta in this society; you will not have it easy.

M: That’s true: you set yourself aside/apart consciously. While “Babylon” is everywhere powerfully spread in society: at work, the music scene, you name it.

Yes. Therefore I have admiration for that life choice as Rasta. I also have good friends active in Rastafari branches, including an order called the Egyptian Order, focussing on Egypt historically, its African roots. Black pharaoh’s, Nubians, themes like that. I found that interesting, I must admit.. I began to understand its appeal. I learn things from that too

Are there any “new” artists, or “discoveries” in Reggae you would like to mention?

Well, Lenn Hammond is an interesting, good artist (related to Beres, indeed) who deserves – I think – a bigger audience in the Netherlands. He is not well-known and popular here, unlike in Britain. I also like an artist like Demo Delgado. I furthermore regularly get sent CDs by several artists: often some interesting things between it, such as the mentioned Demo Delgado..

Any more things you would like to mention?

I miss a sense of unity among Reggae DJ’s and organizers in Amsterdam. Before in Café Caprice (Amsterdam) where I played, or with later Cafe the Zen (Amsterdam) events, or elsewhere. I often organized events with other DJ’s, often younger than me, to promote them. In later reports they almost only highlighted themselves, not the others involved, neither giving me as DJ Ewa some credit. Helping to promote each other would be better, instead of each one seeking their own space, at the cost of others..

M: Like cowboys in a cowboy town, haha

Yes. I think that is not necessary.. I am a bit of a “loner” as a DJ and organizer, not very active in surrounding myself with a supportive “group”, maybe that’s my problem. Still, we could support each other more in the Amsterdam reggae scene, I think. Working together more.


I found this to be a very interesting and insightful interview. It is not even that exaggerated to consider DJ Ewa as a true "veteran" in the Amsterdam reggae scene.

He is older than many other present Reggae DJ’s in the Netherlands, and than the other ones I interviewed. Logically, he therefore “lived” more and has more to say.

Interesting to learn about his time still in Suriname, how he served in the army, and his connections to Suriname. Of the people I interviewed up to now, he is the first Surinamer as such. Kind of odd, seeing the strong proportional representation of Surinamese people among reggae fans (and in the general reggae scene) in Amsterdam, being also a relatively large demographic in the Amsterdam area.

Readers may have noticed, though, that DJ Ewa has a strong own individual personality too, considering himself someone who loves to think for himself, as well as as a ”rebel”. He also admits being kind of a “lone operator” within the Reggae DJ-scene.


That makes his story more interesting and idiosyncatic, I think. His affinity for Rock-like music, aside from his Reggae DJ work, may come as a surprise, and is perhaps not very common among Reggae fans, though neither that extraordinary. Several reggae fans I know like other music too, or switched temporarily to someting quite different. I myself am interested in music in the broad sense, study it all, and then choose what inspires me most. I often prefer Reggae, that is true, but listen to (or even play as percussionist on) various other genres too (Blues, Rock, Jazz). At one jam session, at the Waterhole in my hometown Amsterdam, I played percussion (improvizing) on a Creedance Clearwater Revival song I did not really know, or only vaguely, named Fortunate Son. I found that interesting to do. Ewa said he also liked the Creedance Clearwater Revival.

Besides, the other people I interviewed before liked other genres too, albeit to differing degrees.


Ewa’s “veteran” status indeed proved here that he had more to say and tell, including his time in Suriname, but also regarding the Easy Times coffeeshop as vivid reggae place at the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.

I heard so many people talk mostly positively about it, including people close to me, that I really began to think I must have missed something great. I began to repent not having visited it before 2004, since I was a reggae fan already in the late 1980s, and could go out more in the 1990s (although I lived not in Amsterdam then, but not far): when I went to Amsterdam I only went to reggae concerts then at the Paradiso or Melkweg venues. I also heard there were occasionally criminals in the Easy Times coffeeshop, as elsewhere in Amsterdam, or some tensions, but not often, and the vibes were according to most mostly positive. DJ Ewa is connected to that legendary history of Easy Times, hence also his moniker Easy Time Crew.


What sets DJ Ewa a bit apart as DJ is his focus on playing CD songs (Wave files), in a DJ/Selecta scene increasingly dominated by mp3 catalogues or, alternatively, vinyl aficionados.

Interesting, because I had such a CD period too, and deplore – like Ewa – the lesser quality of mp3 when compared to Wave.


I heard DJ Ewa many times playing at clubs or elsewhere, and I tended to like his selection (always some relatively unknown songs in between more known ones, that I liked), and also noted the variation, he himself says he has as DJ or Selecta. One time at his session the focus was on New Roots, another time more Digital Dancehall than he usually plays.

That flexibility is good in itself, as is adapting to the audience, though you can go too far with it in my opinion. I myself am DJ/selecta with vinyl at times, as well. In selecting I of course think about what the audience might like, but often also think that some songs in my collection are so good that they simply need to be played.

DJ Ewa says, however, that he plays some of those songs he deems great too, and is thus not always just "crowd pleasing" as DJ/selecta.

So, I noted some similarities between me and Ewa in our Reggae tastes, while some of the Rock/Blues he mentioned I knew and liked too (Eric Burdon/War I had on cassette, I liked the Talking Heads).

There were also similarities, more or less, in us both being free-thinking loners, and rebellious.


Regarding spirituality there were also some similarities but also differences. My parents were also Catholic, but not as strict Catholic as Ewa says his family was, and brought him up. My own (Spanish) mother was kind of critical and joking about the Catholic Church overall. She critiqued the Church’s sinister role during the right-wing Franco dictatorship that ended up making her younger days hard (and poor). At the same time, she taught me prayers (in Spanish) her mother taught to her, about Jesus, - perhaps for some structure in life/parenting - and my parents took me to church events/services regularly, though not too often. I also went to Catholic schools and Bible studies, that were relatively free and open in this modern, democratic time.

Ewa had, by contrast, a stricter religious (Catholic) upbringing. All the more admirable that he, already as a child, kept “researching” and thinking for himself, also about Christianity and religion, as a true rebel. Just like his also rebellious inspiration Peter Tosh, being also critical about Christianity’s role.

Regarding Rastafari, Ewa takes on a rational approach, eschewing deification and group thinking also within sections of the Rastafari movement. He appreciates, however, that the Rastafari movement is broad, and respects Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey. He also admires Rastas for their heroic life choices in a (White, Western) society that, let’s face it, not always combines well with main Rasta values of e.g. equality, Africanness, and naturality.


The cliché is that when you get older, you get wiser. I personally think that not all people that get old get as a whole wiser – some do, some don’t –, but due to mere life experience you by definition have learned more, and inevitably obtain some more wisdom, as you get older. I certainly have noted this wisdom in the nice conversation with Ewa, who is older than the other reggae lovers I interviewed before for this blog, but also older than me. It was insightful and interesting for me.