maandag 2 januari 2017

The Amsterdam reggae scene (2016/17)

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT CONTEXT

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

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

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

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

REGGAE CLUBS/PLACES

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

FRONTLINE

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

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

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

ZEN.

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

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

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

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

OTHER PLACES?

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGGAE DEE-JAYS/SELECTAH’S

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

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

REGGAE PEOPLE

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

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

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

SPECIAL CONNECTION?

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

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

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

REGGAE ARTISTS AND PERFORMERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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