The roots album that never got made

The “World Music” record industry has a lot to do with what kinds of reggae music we get to hear and consume.

On Suriname's interior rivers. Image credit Ahron de Leeuw via Flickr CC.

The Saamaka Maroons of Suriname are descendants of people who had been enslaved in West and Central Africa and carried across the Atlantic before running away from plantation slavery at the turn of the eighteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth, about a third belonged to mainline Christian denominations. The rest didn’t, and a more or less easy peace had grown up between the two groups as Christians incorporated an ever-growing variety of older beliefs and practices into their daily lives.

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Rastafarianism made its first inroads into Saamaka society, pushback was fierce. “They were worse than Christians,” one non-Christian Saamaka man later recalled: Rastas brought with them a unitary new god from parts unknown, they didn’t keep their hair neat in braids and twists, they didn’t hunt game, and rather than raise crops to eat, they planted a mind-altering drug to smoke and sell. Rastas were chased out of village after village.

The Saamaka are adaptable, and the exiles were ultimately let back in, continuing their ways peacefully as the 1980s turned into the 1990s. Internationally, Rasta-associated reggae was exploding, and soon Saamaka with turntables, tape decks, and CD players were pumping out Lucky Dube, and sometimes Culture and Bob Marley. (Dube is more popular in Saamaka than Marley.) Saamaka musicians took note, turning to reggae not to re-establish their roots, but rather as a signpost along the way to growing out from the roots that were already nourishing them, to something that could be recognized abroad. To put it simply: reggae taught Saamaka musicians how to be less rootsy and more poppy.

Their musical roots had been alive for centuries. For the Saamaka, “Luangu” denotes a language spoken by some gods and also the music performed by and for them. “Wɛŋ Anumͻɲͻŋ” is a Luangu song often sung at New Years, with clear linguistic ties to an eighteenth-century Jamaican song the Englishman Hans Sloane called “Angola.” You won’t hear anything like “Angola” in Jamaica these days except from readers of Sloane, but “Wɛŋ Anumͻɲͻŋ” and songs like it are still being performed in Saamaka, harkening back to a commonality between Jamaica and Suriname on what was then the Kongo coast of Africa. Beside Luangu, there are Komanti, the distinctly non-Haitian-sounding Vodu, and more.

Not all Saamaka music can be clearly traced so far into the past and directly across the ocean. Seketi, a call-and-response genre featuring handclaps and vocal acrobatics, dates to the nineteenth century, after Saamaka largely stopped bringing in newcomers from the outside. Today, Saamaka say that seketi is at the heart of all good music. Kawina, played by a large band on a battery of drums, took off at the turn of the twentieth century as Maroons got involved in gold mining and balata bleeding, and is also played by other Surinamese Maroon groups. A Franco-Antillean dance perhaps called casser le corps, with guitars, keys, and horns being added over time to the drum rhythm, jumped from French Guiana to Suriname, living on longer here than elsewhere in the Caribbean as it took on the name kaseko. Blowsy, good-time kaseko is mainly popular with Creoles in the city, but before reggae came along, Saamaka carved out their own version that they tied into seketi and some of their ritual music. Artists still compose in all these genres today.

Just as reggae itself took off in Saamaka in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to its South African offshoot, so too did other Saamaka genres cross the Atlantic multiple times on their way in. From the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Igbo-inflected Abakuá and Kongo-inflected Yaku were among the influences that came together in the melting pot that made Cuban rumba. In the 1960s and 1970s, bands like OK Jazz played rumba in Kinshasa, while eventually Zairean musicians carved out their own guitar-focused genre from Congolese rumba’s instrumental breaks, calling it soukous. As soukous went global, the music spread to the French metropole. From there, it made its way to Guiana, where Saamaka picked it up, calling their version “Loketo” after a Congolese supergroup. For a different trajectory, non-Maroon Surinamese and Curaçaoan migrants in the Netherlands developed a subgenre of house music called bubbling, which, when it re-crossed toward the Saamaka about a decade ago, became an enduring if marginal format in which to make a big hit. All told, the Saamaka maintain a deep, active, constantly replenishing reservoir of Black Atlantic musical history.

It was in this context that I found myself sitting with Kenso by the river in the Saamaka village of Semoisi in 2017. Kenso is a ritual specialist, medium to a powerful Komanti god, and a musician, playing both seketi and, after trying out reggae as a teen, pop forms. He asked me to help get his music heard in America, and while he wasn’t the first musician to ask me that, he is uniquely difficult to turn down. A double album to be called Saamaka Poku: Twenty-First Century Maroon Music took shape. It would have forty artists’ forty tracks, both ritual and secular, all recorded this century. A listener could hear how some of the more abstruse songs reached back with sometimes very little change over decades and centuries, and also how the more melodic numbers borrowed from these traditional ones.

There were already some compilations of Maroon music available in the US. The anthropologists Richard and Sally Price released field recordings made in the 1960s of mostly non-ritual Saamaka songs sung and played on drums and thumb harps. Later, Kenneth Bilby released similar albums covering Jamaican Maroons and Suriname’s Aluku Maroons. While Bilby’s liner notes to the Aluku album talked about musicians crossing over to other genres, no such tracks were included, though his academic research has carefully reconstructed the ways in which Afro-Caribbean music has traveled back and forth across the ocean. Saamaka Poku would fit an unfilled niche, recording more recent developments, like amplified and electronic music, and also more of the intercultural transfer that so enriches Maroon musical performance. And more simply, Kenso and many of his musical peers featured on Saamaka Poku weren’t even born when these last collections came out in the United States. It was time to share something different.

But this is where the vinyl screen came into play. It isn’t just a matter of Caribbean music: straddling the abstruse and the finger-popping has long been a challenge in the American music industry, as acts like the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan were informed in the 1960s that they were straddling a fence, and they had better choose a side. Performers like Leon Bibb, influential when performing live, were unable to fit emerging market categorizations and fell to the wayside.

Which brings things back to the American market for other African and diaspora music. Since the above-mentioned Maroon music albums were released, streaming has hollowed out the industry. There has been a wave of consolidations, as established labels merge with or buy the catalogues of failing ones in loss-making deals which they look to offset by signing the Kingston Trios of today—highly accessible acts that sit on the right side of the vinyl screen. Farther down market, there is often less respect for artists’ rights: in negotiations, I was encouraged more than once to get performers to release their rights to me, simplifying the labels’ royalty management.

Sites like YouTube aren’t a solution for all artists. As Tsogo Kupa has written at AIAC about video streaming services, such platforms serve as taste flattening structures, as the art that moves “will likely be the style [or] form that’s the least offensive to global sensibilities.” YouTube, too, helps drive listeners to the right side of the vinyl screen. For us, an album remained the goal: even if many purchasers would buy just a few tracks à la carte from the label’s website, it was important that the story be told whole, including the difficult bits, for people willing to take the plunge.

With all the music industry challenges, initial A&R reaction to Saamaka Poku was surprising for how positive it was. Still, everyone wanted drastic changes. The rule was tell, don’t show: leave the true roots off the record, and gesture toward them in liner notes, or in at most one or two tracks. Maybe we could include only the upbeat guitar and synth songs: there are markets for that. Or we could include only the driving drum batteries: there’s a market for that. But an album that contains the diversity of Saamaka music in the way artists like Kenso perform it, and everyday people consume it? We were told nobody outside Suriname would listen to it.

Some of this may have to do with how the people I was talking to related to the pitch I, the only English-speaking person associated with the album, was making. While noting the value to musicologists and completist collectors, I also pitched it in terms of black pride. From Rihanna to Rhiannon Giddens, from Eddy Kenzo to Bisa Kdei, from Beyoncé and Beyoncé’s friends, audiences are demanding and getting ever-more-expansive sets of African and diaspora music. We knew that the album would never sell as many units, but thought that the same trend that powered those acts may influence these. There was certainly no substitute available elsewhere. Even people who had never been on a trip through Saamaka on New Years’ could recognize this as a Wakanda that was real. The white A&R men at folk and world music labels either yawned or said nothing really sells, not anymore. You shouldn’t try to expand your audience’s horizons—you should identify their expectations and live within them.

I am an NGO worker, and this was a side project for me, one that I couldn’t keep going forever. By January of 2020, I hadn’t been able to help Kenso and the other artists, and my efforts petered out. Saamaka Poku remains a playlist on my computer, ranging from “Wɛŋ Anumͻɲͻŋ” to a post-seketi trilingual Saamaka rap song over a click track, produced in the Netherlands. It is all triply backed up on my devices and in the cloud, forty tracks selected from the thousands recorded in the last twenty years. The international music scene goes on with genres like reggae and Haitian Rasin marking the outer bounds of mass-market rooted black music. In Saamaka, not a beat has been skipped.

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