Rai: When Art is (no longer) a Movement

by Agung Waskito

This music was born in the middle of the Algerian people’s deterioration due to French colonialism (1841- 1962), which was followed by the rising & falling process in reaching equality of rights and the development of their seeds of national identity. In this era the Algerian people lived within struggle and oppression. Acute poverty, high unemployment and underemployment because of poverty was considered a curse (koukra), the people were removed from their roots, especially the youth who are neglected and without a future.

From Oran, a port city in Western North Algeria and the gateway for sailships of many nations in the Northern Africa Region and the Medditeranian, it is here where Rai first developed. This multiracial meeting over time took role in the development of Rai music in the contemporary Algerian people’s search for identity.

The seeds of Rai were born around the 1920-1930s from various Bedouin musical traditions (qasbah and darbuka/guellal) as well as Arabic (melody, and verses telling of love and life). There are two kinds of repertoires played by pioneering Rai musicians which are Sheikat with their worldly and profane themes; and Meddahat, whose verses are praises towards the Grandness of God, prophets, and local holy men. In many texts eventually Rai’s lyrics appear to continue playing in these two areas.

It is unknown when and by whom the word Rai was used as a name for this music. In socio-cultural life Rai means advice, opinion, words of wisdom given for the purpose of searching for a ‘way’, or to overcome a life problem. Someone would search for rai from a Cheikh (or Syech, master; which is also a designation given for experts in music) because he is considered knowledgeable and full of life experiences. In its use as a musical term it is used in similar fashion. Rai is a reaction in the form of a search for an answer or a way out from the powerlessness of the poor and an expression of concern towards the fate of the youth and the Algerian nation. The Rai musicians mostly come from among the poor who started to play music at a young age as an activity to take their mind off the pressure of problems by igniting their enthusiasm for finding a way out towards a better life. Because of that they know of the suffering experienced as described in the lyrics of Rai music, between poverty, hopelessness, heroism, carnal desires, drugs and alcohol, all the way to critiques of injustice.

As the beginning of their people’s interaction within the dynamics and fluctuations of modern urban life intensifies, slowly Rai begins absorbing elements of Western music (French; piano, violin, orchestration) and continues moving to ‘modernize’ itself (the entrance of the instruments guitar, bass, electric keyboard, drum set, combo format) in keeping up with world developments. Not only adopting physical aspects, Rai music also absorbed many things including genres (rock, jazz, reggae), musical styles (Andalusian, Egypt, Europe) and were somehow able to adapt their contexts into various new aspects and properties without losing their unique local identity attributes (repetitive music patterns, etc.). This was an effort by Rai musicians to consistently place themselves close to the emotions and hardships of their audience, their fellow poor.

But on the other hand, they trigger the anxiety and anger of those from their government, as well as from militant Islamic groups, because these groups consider the behavior of Rai musicians to be immoral, and to have a negative influence on the populace. Hittiste, a term for those youth of Algeria without futures who are dependent on their families even after they had reached adult age, had grown epidemic; but this was not handled any attention from the government nor the Islamists, who neither consider it a serious problem. Because the youth with their social behaviors (addiction, delinquency, prostitution) was considered by both groups as trouble makers (who must be punished), and not as victims of their nations mistakes in history (who must be guided and rehabilitated).

The theme of poverty and its social excesses and the life of youth described in newer Rai music began appearing during the era after their independence. Before that only very few songs would describe struggle, among them from Cheikh Hamada who protested the death sentence given to his son, and Cheika Rimitti who inflamed the nationalism spirit of the Algerian nation’s independence movement.

The push and pull between secularization (government) and religiosization (militant Islam) cause confusion among the Algerian people (particularly among youth) who were in the process of searching for their identity as a modern nation. When in fact secular life (wether realized or not) was born precisely because of how daily life is mired in acute poverty, so much so that social bonds, moral, etc. became irrelevant in daily life. In 1988 an anti-government riot erupted caused by political and economic problems which took victim of so many civilians. In this tragedy, Rai musicians indirectly became the target of government because one of Khaled’s songs “El Harba Wayn?” (meaning To Flee, But Where? in English) became the dissidents’ anthem. From that moment on they received many threats. Rai musicians exiled to France, keeping in mind that between the late ‘70s to the ‘80s the government had banned Rai music. In 1985 the ban on Rai music was uplifted because Khaled’s international career skyrocketed, and it was considered that he could become the spearhead of Algerian cultural diplomacy. The government continued to control the development of Rai music by enacting conditions, that only polite (‘clean’) Rai music was allowed, while the ‘true’ Rai music (which was considered ‘dirty’) kept developing outside of Algeria (particularly in France).

Conflict and political tension in Algeria continued being uncertain due to the conflict between government and the militant Islamists, in addition to the Berber ethnic group who wanted cultural recognition as a part of Algeria. Within this uncertainty of conflict there happened many kidnappings, torture, and murder towards artists and intellectuals among them towards Cheb Hasni (1994), Matoub Lounes (1998), etc.. But on the next time period Rai music in Algeria became an entertainment commodity, a tourism ‘object’ of Algeria. The big Rai musicians (who in general resided in France) continued their career while continuing efforts to ‘pressure’ the government into giving attention to the problem of youths and the poverty of Algerian people.

Time continued passing, never too late, but unfortunately it was only after the end of the first decade of this 2nd millennium did the government and the Islamic militant groups realized the core of their nation’s problem, which is the abandonment of the youth and their people in the pursuit of ideology and power. The debate regarding secular or religious in their governmental system no longer became a main issue. The religious could not ignore how pervasive secular life was among the people. Because the secular life that had by then spread wide was rooted in the acute poverty reaching back to colonial times, and had continued for several generations and cracked the social fabric of Algerian society.

Rock, Reggae, Rai, to name these examples of music among many, are one manifestation of human movement towards their socio-cultural life context. This gives a description, understanding, and inspiration for us of how people struggled to bring to life the function and role of music as a self-reliant supportive system in their social life. Creative potential was deployed to get people to turn their head and realize their foundational life problems that are often left uncomprehended or are avoided.

But in this increasingly ‘globalized’ world, with technology increasingly ‘easing’ human life and the complexities of their problem, what music will be born, as a response to (the problems of) their social life?

Stomu Yamash’ta, The Man from the East

For two decades, particularly in the 60s and 70s, the name Stomu Yamash’ta was the talk of the town in the world of serious music. His approach to and passion for music, skill, sensitivity, creativity and musicality were well noted by many giants in the music world. He had worked with countless artists coming from all kind of musical genres. Great composers such as Hans Werner Henze, the late Toru Takemitsu, Heuwell Tircuit, and Sir Peter Maxwell Davis had composed pieces especially for him. Tircuit even stated that up to this day no one can perform his two compositions (Odoru Katachi and Fool’s Dance) like Stomu Yamash’ta did. In another Tircuit’s composition, Concerto for Solo Percussion, Stomu Yamash’ta awed the audience by his expressive, theatrical and virtuoso performance in which he played 47 different percussion instruments. Guitarists Leo Brouwer is also among other musical giants who had worked with Stomu Yamash’ta.

In addition to Classical, Contemporary and Avant Garde music, Stomu Yamash’ta was also very much involved in jazz and rock scene but in a more experimental manner. With Klaus Schulze, Steve Winwood, Al Di Meola, and Michael Shrieve he formed the legendary group called GO, while with Morris Pert he established Come to the Edge. He also led one of a kind theatrical music group the Red Buddha Theater in which the now famous Joji Hirota was a member. As for films, Yamash’ta had taken part in John Williams’ composition for the film Images, and composed a score for Paul Mazursky’s film the Tempest. He also arranged a compilation of his music from East Wind and Come to the Edge for the Man Who Fell to Earth. As a dance enthusiast, Stomu Yamash’ta managed to spare his time to compose ballet music for Shukumei, a production of the Royal Ballet.

Born to be a musical prodigy in Kyoto on March 15, 1947, Stomu Yamash’ta was brought up in a musical surrounding since his father was a music teacher and a conductor at the Kyoto Asahi Philharmonic. Started learning piano as his first instrument at the age of 5, Yamash’ta then at the age of 9 already capable of deciding that percussion was his future instrument. At the age of 14, he already made special guest appearances for both Osaka Philharmonic and Kyoto Asahi Philharmonic. In the same year, Stomu Yamash’ta performed the film score of the Tale of Zatoichi, a film by Akira Ifukube. Still in the same year, he was hand-picked by Akira Kurosawa to perform the music illustration for one of Kurosawa’s greatest films Yojimbo. By the age of 16, Stomu Yamash’ta made his solo debut as a percussionist for the Osaka Philharmonic performing “Percussion Concerto” by Darius Milhaud.

A year later, in 1964, Stomu Yamash’ta relocated to New York City to study music at the Juilliard on full scholarship. In the Big Apple, Stomu Yamash’ta was exposed to all of the 60s happenings, and of course the blossoming world of Jazz that he has embraced since then. Soon after his first semester at the Juilliard, Stomu Yamash’ta joined a music summer camp at the Interlochen Arts Academy (IAA) in Interlochen, Michigan. He felt right at home the minute he arrived there. He applied to IAA and in an instant got accepted on scholarship; from here, his extraordinary musical journey began.

With all the recognitions he received and promising possibilities lied ahead of him, Stomu Yamash’ta, to anyone’s surprise, called it the night. He returned to his hometown Kyoto, Japan, and submerged to a much deeper level of musical soil, away from all the noises above. In the past thirty years he has developed percussion instruments made of stone called Sanukit, and focused his work on Zen ritual music.

Listen to the World: You were on top of the world, but all of a sudden you just “stopped” and “disappeared”, what happened?

Stomu Yamash’ta: Well, it happened just like that actually. I felt that I couldn’t breathe anymore. I think I had enough of all the things that I have been through, the good and the bad. I felt that on GO’s last tour in the US; when we completed the tour, I just took off to my house in London, stayed there alone for just a few days, and left for Kyoto. I didn’t just leave London; I actually left my career and the life that went with it. But don’t get me wrong, I never regret any of the things that happened to my life then, in fact I was grateful, and still am. It just isn’t the life I feel comfortable anymore. 

What did the people around you think of your action?

Surprised and I think mostly in a more disapproving way. I completely understand their reactions. I know everyone meant well, so I appreciate their disapproval.

What happened then in Kyoto?

I met my parents of course, spoke to my father, and then I went to a temple to see a monk whom my family has known for years. At the time I wanted to become a priest, and I felt so certain about that. The monk said that everyone can become a priest, but only particular people can become artists because they need to have certain gifts like talent, creativity and so on. In his own way, he was actually telling me to “get out” of this thought of wanting to be a Zen monk.

So what did you do? 

I tried to think over about what he said while in the meantime I still felt the need to get close to the “temple”. I felt tranquility or peacefulness within myself when in a temple. I then went to Daitokuji where my father meditated regularly; well, I grew up in and around this temple by the way. From then on, I began meditating there regularly too, together with all the young monks. It was the beginning of my “reconnection” with Zen Buddhism.

Have you always had Zen Buddhism in you? Even during the time of fame and fortune when you were in Europe and US?

Yes of course, even though I might not have practiced the ritual as much. Like I said, I grew up very much in and around the Daitokuji temple; it was my daily playground as a young kid. So I have been very much attached not only to the physicality of the temple, but also to the spirituality of it. My decision to quit what I had been doing then was probably a spiritual call.

Let’s go back to the years when you were in the US and Europe. First you studied at the Juilliard, and then in less than a year you transferred to Interlochen Arts Academy. This was a bold move wasn’t it? Juilliard is a college level institution while Interlochen is a college preparatory level. So you practically went to a “lower” level of education. Why?

Well, you have been to Interlochen yourself a few times, so you must know what kind of environment it provides. I took a summer music camp there, and as soon as I arrived I immediately felt at home. As far as the educational contents are concerned, I don’t think what they teach is any lower than any conservatories; the given materials I thought were the same as most, if not higher, at least at the time.

From IAA you then moved on to Berklee College of Music in Boston. What drove you to Jazz?

I was introduced to the real world of Jazz in New York City. Unlike today, Jazz was a ritual back then, at least in the US. Yeah I learned Jazz at school, but I learned it even more outside of school. Getting to know how the jazz musicians, particularly our brothers the African-American, live their lives, how they perceive things, really gave me quite an insight as well as inspiration.

You lived both the Classical and Jazz worlds, how do you differentiate them?

Classical music is an “employment” while Jazz is “unemployment”, at least then.

Ha ha ha that’s new, and a good one too!

I don’t mean it as one is better or easier than the other; they are just two worlds apart. Most Classical musicians tend to play for orchestras. If they meet the requirements then they will be hired by the orchestras; it means the musicians are actually employed by the orchestras with fixed salary and rules. In Jazz, no one employs you; you just have to find your own way to develop your music and at the same time support your life. 

Who do you think can be considered as giants in Classical music?

Oh there are so many, and each had his or her own particular contribution to the music. However, of course there are names that more stand out than others, and also for particular reasons. Bach I think is among those names, but I would really like to mention about Tchaikovsky. I love ballet, and he had done beautiful ballet music. I think he is one of the most underrated composers while his passion and vision to me are extraordinary. What is more amazing is that he could have actually done even much more than what he already did beautifully. The problem I think had a lot to do with the readiness stage of the audience at the time. I don’t think the audience was ready for what Tchaikovsky really was, and that limited his expansion.

What do you mean by the audience was not ready?

Audience is one of the determinant factors in shaping and/or raising the artistry of arts and artists. In the case of Classical music in the West for instance, since the Renaissance took place the society had grown intellectually due to the blossoming social and natural sciences. Through this developing knowledge, the society gained their aesthetical horizon, and this actually made them critical towards any thoughts and creations including the arts. They were demanding in the sense that they challenged the artists to do “better” every time.

Artists, in my opinion, need to have this kind of environment so that they can explore to their fullest extent, while the audience in return receive the very bests of the artists. In this matter, I think such a demand from the audience in general keeps shrinking over the time.

Are you saying that today’s audience is not demanding?

Oh yes they are, but certainly not in the same area or issue.

How about giants in Jazz?

Oh again there are so many great artists; Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis (I like Miles, he got style), just to name a few, and Coltrane of course.

What’s so special about Coltrane?

From the spiritual point of view, particularly in relation with meditation, Coltrane was able to reach the same destination from the opposite end. Meditation in common knowledge is much associated with tranquility, nature, peacefulness and so on, but Coltrane did not depart from these points, and yet he arrived at the same place. Honestly, I feel “lucky” when I listen to his music because I imagine all the pain that he had lived and how much “worse” than what I have been through.

Let’s talk about Heuwell Tircuit’s composition. The words have it that you are still the best interpreter of his works. So what was the story?

Am I? Hmm, I don’t know about that. At the time, I heard that so many people had attempted to play his work, but to him none met his expectation. So he wrote the piece but never actually heard the right outcome. One day, I felt so certain that I played it well. I actually called him and explained what I felt. He agreed to see me play, so we arranged a meeting. He was living in San Francisco at the time I think. My best guess on why he agreed to see me was because he had been hoping for quite a while that someone could eventually interpret his work.

Did your presentation meet his and your expectation?

Fortunately yes, and we were both very happy for that.

You first studied Classical music in Kyoto, Japan, and then continued your education in the US, and made a great career in Europe. Up to the present, Europe is still considered as the home or Centrum of Classical music. In Classical music scene, it’s not easy to be recognized in Europe, even for the Americans whose culture derived from there. In your case, you made it in both continents, and yet you are neither American nor European. How did that happen?

I have no idea, but since you mentioned it maybe because I am neither. Thinking about it, my orientation has always been my home and that is the East. A piece I did for the Red Buddha Theater was entitled the Man from the East. I also formed a group called East Wind. You see, I always looked to the east.

Stomu Yamashta's Red Buddha Theatre: "The Man from the East"
Stomu Yamashta’s Red Buddha Theatre: “The Man from the East” (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

Did you ever plan any of the success that you achieved?    

Never did. I just did what I loved to do without thinking about whether people would like it or not. I never thought about building a career, being famous or getting rich.

But what you did really stirred the musical world, and in particular it brought the role of percussion to a different level. It gave the people a much wider perception on the role percussion in music, and how they can be played. Time magazine even noted you as “the Man who changed the percussion image”. So what you did was daring and monumental.

Maybe, but I didn’t plan any of it. In fact, what I did during that period, in many ways was plain stupid. I didn’t think about my future at all, and it could have gone the other way, you know.

Well, if you think that was stupid, then stupid is a good thing! Let’s stay stupid, what do you say?

Ha ha ha… if you say so.

Who would you like to thank in your life? 

Well, everyone who has been in my life of course; I’m really grateful to everyone who has given me anything from advise, critique, ideas, friendship, everything. In music, however, I must first thank all the musicians who were unknown, never had even the slightest taste of fame and fortune, and still committed to music until they died; they had proven what they were made of. These honorable musicians are actually the core individuals who keep music alive so that people can continue to enjoy it.

What a wise statement Stomu, and I hope these words would encourage musicians who are struggling within the ideals.

That would be nice.

How do you think a musician can reach a level of mastery?

Well, there are different levels, stages or area of mastery. In my opinion, the first area is mastering the techniques, regardless of what music you are into. It would be best if you could master the techniques as early as possible. In Classical music anyone should be “finish” with the techniques by the age of 18 if they want to be a world class musician. Once you are done with it, then the next stage is to explore your self-expressions and find your musical signature. From there, you then explore the “expressions” of the instrument(s) you play.

At this point, expressing yourself, who you are or what you think is less important than what the instrument(s) have to say. Your signature would appear on how you understand the instrument(s). The last area is to explore the expressions of nature, meaning that we catch, translate and respond to what the nature is saying. Nature in this case is connected to the spiritual belief within us. The expression of your music is the expression of nature with your self-expression melted in it because you are a part of nature.

Not everyone wants to go through all of these stages, and not everyone can, even if they wanted to. This is not something that you can force yourself into. Some stop at mastering the techniques, some walk further, and others go all the way. Like I said, musicians can reach mastery in one of these areas. I don’t mean these areas as levels in a hierarchy; it’s just that when your music is about the expressions of instrument(s) or nature, your music then has a greater chance to be timeless.

Speaking of nature, how did you get involved in developing the stone instruments Sanukit?

Not long after I returned to Kyoto, I met the late Mr. Maeda (Hitoshi Maeda, Ed.), God Bless his soul, who was so keen in developing a totally new instrument. He found this peculiar volcanic rock in the mountainous region of Sanukit in Shikoku Island. He was wandering if the stones can be transformed into musical instruments. I was just amazed the first time I was introduced to the stones. When I stroke the stone for the first time, to know what it sounds like, I didn’t hear a sound; I heard it called for me instead. So it was spiritual right from the beginning.

So these stone instruments were actually named after the territory where it was found?


Stomu Yamash’ta – Stone Mountain (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

You are quite familiar with variety of percussion instruments; how these stones differ from percussion instruments that you know?

Well, first of all, these stones have been in this world for millions of years. They contain unbelievable amount of “information” since they have “witnessed” as well as experienced how the earth has evolved in such a long span of time. Compare to the stones, my existence and knowledge are just dust particles. Secondly, these stones are living beings to me.

What makes you say that?

They react to how I play them; they tell me if I don’t do right. I remember how I got really ill in the early period of my encounter with these stones. Medically speaking, there was nothing wrong with me; doctors couldn’t find anything, but I felt so ill. I was in such condition for one and a half years, and during this period I didn’t touch any instrument at all. I felt like dying really, and just when I felt I was at rock bottom, all of a sudden, and out of nowhere, I had this urge to hear the sound of stone just one more time. So there I was, playing the Sanukit and thinking it as for one last time. Amazingly, instead of getting sicker I began to feel better, and my consciousness elevated.

From that moment on, I began to feel how the “relationship” between me and them built up. I began to understand how I should interact with them. Believe it or not, my health recovered as my understanding about the Sanukit got better.

That’s amazing!

Yes it is. On many occasions they summoned me to play in the parts that originally I was not supposed to or the reverse. Well, you know when we did festivals here like the Millennium Event, Sacred Rhythm and On Zen; we often had collaborations in which the music had been rehearsed in more or less fixed “form”, and yet at the live performance I filled in the part that I was not supposed to or the other way around. Those were actually driven by the stones.

How much have you developed these stones, and what other possibilities that can be explored?

Oh wow, that’s difficult to answer. I don’t know if there is a limit in exploring these stones. I think our limited knowledge is the one that would limit the possibilities. I have worked with the stones for three decades now, and what I have learned so far is probably not even half percent of what they actually offer. If I could just understand 1% of what they are before I die, that would be abundant, and I would be the happiest person in the world. That’s why I believe that these stones are the ultimate musical instruments.

What have you found out so far?

A few things; the frequency of the sound is different from any other conventional instruments. The highest frequency of conventional instrument is 4,800 Hertz, while Sanukit reaches 10,000 Hertz. The direction of the sound is also different; it is spherical. The angle of the cutting on the stone determines the direction of the sound. As for the overtone, Sanukit produces 3 times higher than the highest Western instrument can produce, and with duration over 2 minutes. Another thing is the “number of key”; Sanukit now has 100 keys while piano has 88. So it is one octave higher.

All these, and there is still a lot more to come?  

Of course, and like I said, these findings are just a tiny fraction of what Sanukit can actually offer. I’m still so far away from the ideal, but at least I have learned more about the “DNA” of sound from these stones. Although I still have a lot more to go on, what I already gained is already plentiful to me.

In the past thirty years your music has evolved with Zen Buddhism at the center. In fact, you have composed new “music” for ritual ceremonies at the Daitokuji Temple, and in the past five years your music has been embraced by the Temple and presented at the annual On Zen Ceremony there. Ritual “music” has not developed much in most traditions since they are considered sacred and “untouchable”. What made you take such direction?

Since my return to Kyoto, my view on life has evolved. My understanding and appreciation toward the essentials in our life has grown. I said thank you at least twice a day; first in my morning prayer, and then at night just before I go to sleep. I truly feel grateful for everything that happens or is given to me everyday. We never know when we will die; we could die in our sleep. I just need to say thanks for the moment, minute, and day that I have before I die. This is to me one of the essentials that I mentioned, and Zen Buddhism is all about the essence of life.

You were, and to most people still are not known as an “activist” who belongs to any organization; but over the past ten years you have chaired the advisory board of Sacred Bridge Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that focuses its work on cultural cultivation. Why?

First of all is just fate. Secondly, we just have the same nature that covers vision, concerns and mission. My initial involvement was at the Sacred Rhythm Festival at the turning of millennium in Bali. At the time I just entered a new period in my life, and I felt that the new me simply matched what the organization was trying to accomplish. I’m very glad that I’ve been a part of it.

Well Stomu, thank you very much for granting this interview, and also for the time you gave, but most of all we would like to thank you for your great contribution to music and humanity. It’s been a privilege indeed for us.

Thank you for your kind words, and I can assure you that the grateful feeling is mutual.


Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival

by Agung Waskito
Translated by Ferdi Zebua

The Caribbean roots

The Notting Hill Carnival is a Caribbean carnival held in England, taking place during the August Bank Holiday, with the largest visitor number in the world among the many similar carnivals spread throughout several cities in America and Europe. This carnival with its Caribbean cultural motive is held each year with differing themes each times. Three other similar festivals with similarly enthusiastic large crowds are the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival (at Trinidad-Tobago in the Caribbeans), the Rio Carnival (at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and the Mardi Gras (in Louisiana, USA), their visitors ranging from 500 thousand to 1,5 million people. This largest carnival in Europe is 50 years old, relatively young compared to her ‘older sisters’ who in general are as old as the formal abolition of slavery, more than 150 years old.

Due to its strong attraction towards visitors, during the last few decades Caribbean Carnivals have become a sort of trend setter for street events in the world. This tendency is connected with how many nations have taken advantage of tourism developments as one of their revenue sources, by presenting their countries’ attractions to the ‘world’.

Among the hundreds of Caribbean carnivals spread throughout America and Europe, some of them are built upon the basis of their local communities. Each participant is involved voluntariy, they have strong local attributes and they have a strong social atmosphere with a spirit stemming from the community. There are also carnivals created by organizations (or sponsors) which emphasize aspects of entertainment, products and more slanted towards commercial aspects and prominently displaying their fashion aspects, for example. The event organizers would try to make the carnival event as festive as possible, with profits going to the organizing body.

The birth and development of Caribbean festivals spread throughout various cities in the Americas and Europe are not with out cause. Their life flows within the path of human history with their cultural and humanitarian problems. Curiosity, the urge to own, and knowledge often drags towards power that shackles humanity. But antagonism is always born in the world, action creates reaction. That which is blocked from flowing would overflow, nothing can stop them in their seeking their way through, like water seeking the bay where they meet the ocean where all currents meet. The place where each element complements without annihilating any other, and enriching uniqueness and variety. Thus the fate of humans carried by the currents of eras meeting up in this small world-the carnival, where all are equal and differences gather into strength to celebrate life.

The Great Migration

The Caribbeans have settled in the UK since the 17th century. But, mass migration really began in 1948, when more than 300 Caribbeans (Jamaicans) were transported to England. The government enacted a policy of accepting migration from commonwealth nations due to a scarcity of unskilled labour needed to reconstruct infrastructural conditions. Because the economy suffered the Great Depression post World War 2, bringing in immigrants was one way to lower the cost of development, by paying cheap wages.

This governmental decision to bring in migrants was not welcomed by parliament members, but only on 1962 (when migrant numbers in England reached 98,000 people) was this policy to bring in migrants was finally repelled.

The Black (and other ‘colored’) people were attracted to coming to England, because they hoped to reach a better life, though they come carrying past memories of bitternes and pain. Moreso they feel that the Caribbean people had helped England during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Fueled with this enthusiasm and good will, they migrated with the hope that the government of the United Kingdom would return the favor of the Caribbean people’s contribution (favors including since times of slavery and colonization).

But once again their fates was once again dragged down by circumstances. Because their arrival in this country, which (they say) is the “Mother Country” of the colonies, the arrival of these newcomers was not welcome and they were not treated well. The memories of slavery it turns out are perceived differently by the two sides.

The presence of fascist attitudes among some English citizens with narrow points of view are part of the reality in living among the English people. But the forming of this friction caused by the arrival of migrants was also something never realized (or considered important) by the Government. The Establishment which include the Government are the parties whose roles (both as individuals and institutionally) have created conditions which hampers the Blacks (and Colored) from living safely and decently in England. Therefore in their new place, they are treated discriminatively in how they receive housing, education, social and health services, wages, and other primary living needs.

And in their social lives too they experience similar things in various public facilities, police action towards black youth, etc. This all happened merely because of differences in skin color, and other factors (like xenophobias). The segregation of skin color in public facilities prove that attitudes of tolerance towards differences and variety was apparently not part of English people’s lives. As a nation, they were ready to exploit, but were incapable of sharing. ‘Keep Britain White’, a statement of propaganda by sir Oswald Mosley to various establishment members and racist groups (such as the Teddy Boy gangs) underlined the attitudes of some of the English. Which is the serious problem of interracial relation,s which continue to this day. From time to time, injustices and terrible treatment towards blacks (and colors) increasingly became threatening, becoming a burden in life and killing hope. And, triggering more active behaviors of harassment and violence (even murder).

In the summer of 1958 the situation in Black (Afro-Caribbean) settlements in Notting Hill (London, Birmingham, and Nottingham) became tense and heated. Violence by the Teddy Boys group in their nigger hunting intensified. Caribbean stores and workplaces were attacked. In the following days the situation worsened, causing distress and fear among the blacks, especially women and children. Dangers threaten to happen at any time in their daily work and community activities. Travelling alone was dangerous, especially at night. Even the Notting Hill neighborhood was no longer safe for its residents.

The riots of that year was strongly believed by many people to be triggered by several attack incidents (between August 24 and 29), where several Black persons and couples were injured by assault. This violent behavior intensified when a crowd of around 400 white people crowded and attacked the Caribbean settlement at Notting Hill. This attack was responded to by local inhabitants, and would only come under control by the police in September 5, 1958. The brutality of these racists brought back memories of English behavior and exploitation in slavery from the past.

In Notting Hill, after the riots, tension intensified in the lives of the Blacks. This was strengthened by police and media statements which surpress the racist motivations behind the riots and the various incidents which followed after. Such as the murder of Kelso Cochran in May 17th, 1959 (which to this day remain unsolved). The rioting several months before and the development of the situation in Notting Hill brought a realization of the fragility of their lives. Because the Blacks could not rely on anyone else within the sensitive and fragile situation in Britain, except on themselves (as individuals and as a community). But the attacks by the Teddy Boys also made them realize, that as a community they can anticipate the upcoming attacks. But what is chilling is how to overcome the bigger life problems of today, and the future? Noone could answer. 

The birth of Caribbean Carnival @ Notting Hill

A few months after the racial riots, on January 1959, in the community of the West Indie Gazette newspaper and humanitarian activists, Claudia Jones with several of her friends discussed the problems of the black community. The discussion reached the topic of carnivals. This idea came from a silly suggestion by one of them. Almost all of them wouldn’t believe that a carnival would be able to change the condition of Blacks in Britain. Luckily Jones understood the essence and character of carnivals in relation to the role and the political-cultural power of the Trinidad Carnival in the Caribbeans. Which is, the ability to anticipate oppression by taking back their identity and personal balance within a condition of antagonistic dualism (master-slave relation). She was sure the alienated people could be united to take back their lives. And to become a strong community, such as the experience of the Caribbean people during the times after they were freed from slavery (1833-1962).

Through the carnival that she knew, Jones understood the meaning of celebrating life as the purification and rehabilitation of the soul of individuals, the people and the environment. The Carnival was viewed as an attempt to break out and overcome life’s problems within a spirit of high enthusiasm. Because within the creation process she formed an effective leadership, various creative work processes, and gave birth to positive and sustained working activities. In addition to bringing back to life confidence, perseverance, and various regenerative mechanisms related to the carnival and community. The atmosphere during carnival preparations also spurred community members to take lead as well as to work cooperatively in giving their best to the wider community and environment (which then lead to multicultarism in Britain). In other words she was able to create new and strong work opportunities, education, and social networks to mobilize the activities of their people which in the end reconnected the circle of life of a community in Notting Hill, and the Afro-Caribbean identity.

Memories and experiences of life in the Carribiean, and the first experience of becoming involved in Carnival within the fragile situation in Britain gave a large hope to the Black community. As if like when someone realizes a seed she had planted is growing naturally. Because the ritual ‘creation’ of this small world in the form of an expressive arena, has a role in pushing forward the overflowing of all passions and problems bottled up within daily life. They were convinced this purification brought benefits towards the reparation of the circle of life. Because this activity was willed by, is owned by and is for the purpose of welfare for all members of their society. As a ‘world’ that they had created in real life, the carnival would become the platform from which they overcome problems and gue towards the life goals of the Blacks. For her role in this carnival, Jones was then named as the “Mother of Notting Hill Carnival.”

Their first carnival was held indoor within the St. Pancras town hall. Jones’ statement, expressed with the theme, “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom,” needed to be proven at that time; do the arts really have the ability to give birth to seeds of freedom and justice for the Black? Does the Carnival have the power to restore life from chaos to order?

The carnival then took place each of the following years until 1964, ending because of Claudia Jones’ death. The Carnival as a political and cultural movement also underwent a stagnation. Up to this year, the Carnival which was called a Mardi Gras had become recognized within the Anglo-Caribbean events calendar. A year later (1965) by chance the carnival activity was continued by Rhaune Laslett at Notting Hill, she was a community activist who was unknown before and had no prior knowledge of Claudia Jones. She had a mission to embrace various ethnic groups which encompassed Ukranian, Spanich, Protugues, irish including Afro-Caribbean. An it was at this stage that the Carnival was first held on the streets in the form of a multicultural English carnival procession. In this first Notting Hill Festival, Laslett invited a Steelpan music group gathering 1000 spectaters and 2 police officers. When the Steelpan played, almost all Caribbeans and White poured onto the streets to enjoy the popular music and dance. For the Black this was the first time they were able to express themselves on the streets of Notting Hill while enjoying music, togetherness and take rememberance of the Carnivals at their birthplace.

But a year later (1966) a new threat appeared, threatening to disband the carnival. At that time a new Black community leadership took over the festival. In 1967, the carnival turned into a ture Caribbean Carnival due to the involvement of people from Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua and Trinidad, who live on the area around Landbroke Grove. This change in the next development displayes even more that the carnival is a source of Caribbean identity, especially the identity of the Black people within the sensitive situation in England. One element which became a trait of the carnival in Carribea is that, everyone is welcome to participate, which also became the motto of Notting Hill Carnival, “Every spectator is a participant – Carnival is for all who dare to participate”.

The contents of Notting Hill Festival

The performance materials of Caribbean carnivals are sourced from the volunteer participation from locals who have their own expertise in their respective fields which consist of: Mas or Masquerade, Steel Pan, Calypso, Soca and Sound System. In general each of these art forms have elements of satire or bedgrudging insults, comedy or humor, irony, seriousness, and also sexuality.

Calypso is considered the mother of Soca, it rises from the rhythmic tradition of Kaiso (from West Africa). It was born in a situation where slaves were absolutely prevented from communicating with one another. The Calypsonians played this music with texts/lyrics which subversively and in an inobvious way criticizes their masters and communicates with their fellow slaves. At the beginning they used simple tools to express their hearts with this music which continues developing and was used in a Canboulay (carnival) in locations safely away from their masters’ observation. The first Calypso music ever recorded in 1912 is an instrumental number from the band Lovey’s Orchestra, and following was the Calypso music with vocals by Duke of Iron who worked together with jules Sims in 1914.

Steelpan was also born because of a ban on using traditional drums, because the Europeans realized their slaves could use their drum playing as a communications tool. Because of that the slaves created the Tamboo Bamboo (a drum made of bamboo), which are a group of bamboo of different lengths which could create certain notes when the bamboos are hit to the ground. This instrument was usually played by youth in the slums of Port of Spain, and played in the Black people’s carnivals.

But then during World War II the Carnival was banned. They tried to replace tamboo bamboo with biscuit tin cans, various used tools and metals including oil drums, with the hope of carrying out a carnival. And unexpectedly, these new oil drum instruments could create nusical notes and would even develop to have quite a wide range of low to high notes. And when they had finally succeded in making all the heights and tuning consistent, they began making an orchestra group for this steelpan, or also often called steel band.

Soca was born during the time when Calypso began to fade in the 40s. It was created by Lord Shorty who at first experimented with Calypso rhythms in combination with Indian rhythmic instruments. This experiment produced an expressive musical combination which he called Solka, which meant ‘soul of calypso.’ And on the following periods this term then transformed into Soca. This music is also played with the band wearing masquerade costumes, which is also called Carnival Mas Band.

Masquerade (or Mas) means mask or disguise, which also includes costumes worn in Caribbean carnival tradition; it is a drama which portrays memories from the slavery era with various characters connected to the traits of evil or clowning, history, culture, life and death. These Mas groups are also accompanied with their band, who also functions to explain the themes presented by Mas.

In addition to all the materials above, usually there are also additional materials which originate from visitors who wish to participate to become carnival participants.

Each of those primary materials have history which connects to the times of slavery and colonization. The main materials have history with strong connections to the resistance of slaves towards their masters.

Until 1974 gradually organizations supporting the carnival began to form, such as the steelband group (now consisting of 20 separate groups), the costume bands and the masquerade bands (which now number 80). Followed by the use of sound systems to attract the attention of youths, who at the time were particular towards Reggae (with Reggae’s sound system). The sound systems also played other music such as Calypso, Hip Hop, Soca, etc. in line with the character of their lyrics and music, social messages hold an important role since the beginning of the Caribbean Festival as a platform to remind the roots of life and to strengthen the cohesion among black Afro-Caribbean. Especially when the youth increacingly became involved with the social troubles and are prone to conflicts with police. 

The carnival, black youth and the end of racialism

In the year 1975 the Notting Hill Carnival became the primary festival (under leadership of Leslie Palmer), and was more popular compared to other programs by Black Londoners for Radio London (by Alex Pascal, who in 1980 lead this festival)

Attempts to ban the carnival again grew and attracted police attention, who increased their vigilance due to the increase in number of black youth attending (which was associated with criminality and violence). Though racial discrimination did not have its legal justification anymore in public spaces after the enactment of the Race Relations Act (’65 and ’68), this problem continue on in the social life of the British people. In the following periods black youth increasingly became police target, and so conflict between the two groups became more frequent. And because of this the carnival committee began to incorporate themselves into an organization (lead by Selwyn Baptiste), who was then known as the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) whose mission is to promote and maintain the carnival.

At the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976, which was attended by over 150,000 people, a riot occurred between the police and the black youth. The Carnival of that year was remembered as an incident full of violence and danger. On several occasions the Home Secretacy made threats to ban the Carnival. And for the time being it appeared the Carnival would be stopped.

But as time passes Prince Charles, among several other influential public figures, gave their support to the Notting Hill Carnival. This action was followed during several yearly moments afterward during other rioths at St Pauls (1980 & 1982), Brixton (1981 & 1985), Toxteth (1981 & 1982), Notting Hill Gate (1982), Handsworth, and Birmingham (2005) for much the same reasons. When tracked back, conflicts within interracial relations tended to dramatically increase (continuously until 2008). But efforts to stop the festival by Government and Police forces (with various argumentations) was successfully deflected by the community and festival sympathizers.

These public incidents of course could not solve all problems of the Black communities in short order, and Black youth have become their own fenomenon for the future of their people, because they increasingly become involved in clashes with police, narcotics, and criminality.

But when seen as a 50 year journey, the struggle of the actors in overcoming the problem of interracial relations, and the presence of their millions of supporters, have proven Claudia Jones’ statement from half a century ago. That through their arts the black could emancipate themselves from fear and inferiority by turning conflict into potential. The Notting Hill Carnival had formed into a carnival which not only belonged to Afro-Caribbeans or Britons but also belonged to the world. Because the Afro-Caribbean people have their roots of identity firmly planted as a community through this festival. And the festival had become like an open home where all can come by.

Their growth now is no longer barricaded by racialism, because millions of supporters who always enjoy this yearly event is a representation of people against injustice and oppression. And now Notting Hill Carnival is preparing itself to welcome the Olympics and Paralympics of 2012, which will attract tourists and will begin a new chapter in Britain’s multiculturalism journey. And of course, the attention of these tourists are due to the socio-cultural rootedness which form the basis of the Notting Hill Festival, not because it was ‘designed’ as a commodity to fulfill a ‘market demand’.

(from various sources)

Merapi Eruption Notes

by Kiking Syarif

[Yogyakarta, LTTW] Mount Merapi, whose intensity as of late appears to have begun subsiding, is in reality an active volcano in need of vigilant observation. So long as no technology exists to stop the supply of magma and gas from within Merapi’s womb, it is certain that Mount Merapi’s risk perception – as well as risk perception towards other natural disasters in Indonesia – continue to be quite important.

And really Merapi has erupted quite explosively several times before, each time causing extraordinary fatalities. In 1930 for example, the Merapi eruption of that time caused lava flow, pyroclastic flows (heated clouds of gas & rock sediments), and banjir lahar mud flows which destroyed 13 villages and caused 1,400 deaths. According to the BPNP (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency), recapitulated data of victims and refugees due to the Merapi eruption starting from October 29, 2010 is as follows:

Data per November 23, 2010

Data per December 1, 2010

  • Fatalities               : 322 persons
    Burns                      : 194 persons
    Non Burns            : 128 persons
  • Hospitalization  : 454 persons
  • Refugee                 : 136.585 persons
  • Fatalities              : 347 persons
    Burns                     : 196 persons
    Non Burns           : 151 persons
  • Hospitalization : 258 persons
  • Refugee                : 58.389 persons

Official data of material loss due to this Merapi eruption, to the time this article is published, has still yet to be obtainable. Calculating the material loss due to the Merapi eruption is not an easy task because the variables in each sector is of course unique. Estimated material loss in farming sectors at 4 districts: Sleman, Magelang, Klaten, and Boyolali, is predicted to reach over Rp 1 trillion, or over USD 112 billion at current exchange rates. The Farming authority of Sleman district calculates it at around Rp 232 billion (±USD 25,77 million). The largest loss was experienced by salak pondoh fruit farmers at total cost around Rp 200 billion (±USD 22 million) over 1,400 hectares of land, then rice fields at Rp 1.7 billion (USD 189.000) over 170 hectares of land, decorative plants at Rp 1 billion (±USD 112.000), horticulture and vegetables losses reaching Rp 30 billion (±USD 3.3 million) at over 700 hectares of land.

And this is not counting the material losses at several other important sectors, which also halted due to the Merapi eruption, in particular the tourism and arts & crafts industries. According to information from a renowned news agency, estimated material loss due to the Merapi eruption is predicted to reach Rp 5 trillion, or about USD 556 million (Tempo Interaktif, Yogyakarta, Thursday edition, November 18, 2010)

Another important note must also be made, regarding eruption mitigation at Merapi, that there is a need for adjustment and improvement in disaster responsiveness at the local and national levels. Many parties criticize the BPNP that they had been at less than full alert and had been ineffective in coordinating disaster response efforts. A lesson which should be learned from this Merapi eruption phenomenon is how we perceive a natural disaster event. All the possibilities in how a disaster would play out, and the severity of what could possibly happen, as well as how to anticipate it, and how to respond to overcome it. Knowledge of all symptoms of natural disaster, and the behavioral vigilance that needs to be had when disaster strikes, these must be a point of attention for all of us, especially for communities living in disaster-prone areas.

According to Antonius WK of The Indonesian Institute, disaster risk perception truly is a complex thing. A person’s perception would diverge from one person to another, even towards the same subject – including towards the same particular risk of disaster. For one person, a certain condition could be considered dangerous, yet for another person, the same condition is not considered dangerous yet. Psychological factors, such as traditional knowledge and beliefs, self-confidence in overcoming disaster, and inaccurate perceptions of possible events, could cause risk perception to become fatal.

Another thing which also makes an interesting note is the presence and involvement of volunteers in eruption recovery activities at Merapi. The volunteers, whom mostly consist of young individuals from various Indonesian cities, are quite adept and alert in carrying out disaster recovery activities – each according to their own expertise. Their presence at disaster locations are of personal initiative and funding. When the big eruption happened at around 1:30am, November 5, 2010, several fellow volunteers fell victim and for some of them, we could not recover their remains.

“… not only to bear up under every necessity, but to love it. Live dangerously, erect your cities beside Vesuvius. Send out your ships to unexplored seas. Live in a state of war”.

Merapi Eruption

Merapi Eruption