Amber over ‘Where is my nature?’
The story of Richard Marquez
I’m Richard Marquez. I’m a music and voice teacher, drummer and actor. I’ve been living in Amsterdam since 2016. I live in Amsterdam-West with my wife and six-year-old daughter. It’s been a challenge to start over in a new country, especially as an artist. And now with the pandemic, it’s even harder.
We came from Los Angeles on a tourist visa, but at the end of those three months we realized that this could work so we applied to stay on through the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty, which allows Americans to get residence based on entrepreneurship. We started a business, Vibration Arts, allowing us to work as freelancers.
In any country, it’s a struggle to be an artist. But in LA it was a lot easier, partly because I had lived there my whole life and had worked professionally as an actor and musician since the age of 15. Also, it’s a big city known for its acting and music industries with plenty of work and opportunities. It was predictable that it would take time to get on my feet here, starting fresh with no contacts or history. When the pandemic hit, I was just getting into a rhythm. Then I had to change gears.
My lessons flipped to online. I’ve been able to teach music from home via Skype and Zoom. I teach drum set, percussion and music composition in various genres, including the Afro-Cuban tradition and American classical technique. I wouldn’t mind continuing teaching this way because it enables me to work remotely and opens up teaching possibilities beyond Amsterdam. It’s funny because just this morning an old client of mine from LA emailed me about resuming lessons. That’s possible now and it’s pushing me to think beyond these borders.
But my live gigs and recordings have stopped almost completely during this time. When Operatie Periscoop came up with the idea of including musical performances as a part of their kayak tours throughout the canals of Erasmus Park, I was happy to be invited as one of the artists. It really was a beautiful idea, to be able to play and with social distancing. People in kayaks were able to pull up and watch the various musicians perform. I sang and played the Afro-Cuban bata drums. It was in the summertime, five months into the lockdown.
Before that, back in May, I was a part of another interesting social distancing event: the balcony serenades in Bos en Lommer. We were in large interior gardens performing to residents who watched from their balconies. It was so nice to perform in that setting. I was singing and drumming with another drummer and dancer. It was a spontaneous act. People didn’t know in advance that we were showing up. They came out on their balconies and listened. Some kids were out playing and watched from the garden but from a distance. It was very calming and relaxing. The vibrations I sent out did their job.
I was playing an Afro-Cuban song for Babalu Aye. He is a healer and protector in the Yoruba orisha tradition. In the tradition, among other things, he is seen as the giver and taker of infectious diseases. He has the power to give them to you, but also to protect you from them. It seemed like the perfect occasion, at a time when the whole world is facing the threat of this virus, to be able to invoke this energy to heal. If we were going to put out musical vibrations to the community, then why not Babalu Aye? It seemed like a perfect fit to call upon him in these times.
You know, the musical and spiritual are deeply connected. Especially when you think about the power of vibration. For example, when you throw a pebble into the water, the ripple keeps going, even beyond what the eye can see. The same happens with the vibration of a performance like ours. It spreads.
You should know though, we also got a couple of eggs thrown at us. Maybe they were from children or people who were scared. We brought positive energy to heal with our open hearts, but that doesn’t mean it is going to be perceived that way. That person chose, for whatever reason, to throw back negativity. For a lot of people, I’m sure it was a delightful afternoon that brought them entertainment. For others, maybe the drums take them somewhere they’re not ready to go to, especially because it’s in the telling of a story that comes from an African tradition, being told through this performance here in a white-dominated country.
The Afro-Cuban pantheon of orishas originated from West Africa. Traditionally, in any story-telling performance of Babalu Aye, he always comes to the scene infected, either with smallpox or leprosy. The dancer who portrays him begins the performance sick and crippled, using a cane for support. Through music and song and the blessings he receives from other orishas, he is healed to the point that he drops his cane and dances dynamically as the higher, divine force that he is.
Due to my Cuban heritage and love of the Afro-Cuban bata drum, it makes sense that this is the tradition that resonates with me. I love sharing it with others, but I’m also inspired to learn more about similar traditions of the peoples of Suriname and other former Dutch colonies. I think it’s relevant for all peoples of the Netherlands to learn from the rich traditions of these cultures. They can help people to unite and heal.
But in order to heal, people need to first face the truth about the past, specifically slavery and colonialism. Then people need to address the present-day legacy of these practices that are currently alive and well in the form of racism, inequality and lack of opportunity. If you can’t acknowledge these issues and openly discuss them, then healing can’t take place.
I’m of Cuban and Arab descent, right? Six feet tall, male. For me, being racially profiled is a part of life. And I know other people have it much worse because we all know the darker you are the more racism you face. So, it’s something I talk about, not just because of my own experience but out of my concern for others who have it worse. I obviously know more about American slavery than I do about Dutch slavery. But I’ve found in my time here that many people are unwilling to talk about it, especially white Dutch people who consider themselves to be progressive. When I’ve asked them about Dutch slavery and colonialism, they get really defensive and tight. It’s as if the word “slavery” scares them and they do everything to deny its existence. When people are so tight and repressed, the truth can’t come out, and it silences those people who have already suffered for too long and have to watch their children deal with the same legacy.
As long as we don’t talk about it, there can be no healing process. So there is a choice that has to be made. For example, do you want to continue on with a racist tradition like Zwarte Piet, which uses blackface to degrade and hurt people of color? Or do you want to alter this aspect of the tradition that celebrates slavery and instead make changes that will allow all Dutch people to feel included and respected?
If people choose to reject racism, then there’s no need to be defensive and angry because they can be a part of the positive change, which is the least they can do, by the way, and it’s the best thing for the healing of their own souls. Eating the cuisine of former Dutch colonies isn’t enough. Getting to know the people and their struggles and even learning from them is what is missing. There is so much richness and wisdom to learn from these cultures and embrace and integrate into larger Dutch culture.
When I think about the future, it comes down to taking responsibility for the past and not fearing the truth. It’s not always easy to be vulnerable, but we have to be. The best people in the world are not crippled by their fears; they move beyond their fears towards the truth.
Me, myself, I just try to be a vehicle for the music. Grounding myself, doing meditation, playing drums and doing voice and movement work to keep me balanced. When I do all that, I’m ready for action. If I don’t, I close down. I need to be connected to my body and mind. These are hard times. There are lots of challenges now and still to come.
We can take this opportunity though. The pandemic has slowed things down. We can face a lot that we don’t normally give time to look at. For me, it’s all about healing. It is Babalu Aye. It’s sickness, slavery, human suffering. It’s everything. Do we want to hate and be in conflict or do we want to heal and come together? This is the time really to push things over. It’s a tipping point. Tip it over.
door Operatie Periscoop
CORONAGETUIGENISSEN is a multimedia series of portrait stories of five residents of Amsterdam-West. They were interviewed by writer Warda El-Kaddouri and photographed by Vincent van Kleef. Five other residents of Amsterdam-West read these testimonies while filmmaker Vanessa van Gasselt captured them on screen. Afterwards, the readers reflected on the stories from their perspective. It is symbolic for the strong solidarity that lives among the residents of Amsterdam West.
Coronagetuigenissen is curated by Margreet van der Vlies from Operation Periscoop on behalf of Stadsdeel Amsterdam-West.
Amber over ‘Where is my nature?’
Amsterdam na Corona