Published in: zweikommasieben Magazin #17
Parrish Smith - Processing The Past
Stefan Chin-Kon-Sung, better known under his alias Parrish Smith, conducts musical archaeology. Even though he is based in Amsterdam, his roots branch out in many directions: India, China, Suriname and the Caribbean. A mélange of influences that he reflects in his productions. He modulates structures with an almost physical presence. “Body music” that refuses to only look at the dancefloor. His newest project Genesis Black just came out on the Dutch label Knekelhuis. It is based on archive material of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum and confronts the listener with the Netherlands’ colonial history. Sophisticated fare that is defined by an intensity which can also be found in his Industrial project Volition Immanent, a collaboration with Knekelhuis’ founder Mark Van De Maat. But underneath the gravity, the Caribbean tenderly shines through.
Mathis Neuhaus: To start out, I would like to talk about your new project Genesis Black that just came out on Knekelhuis.
Stefan Chin-Kon-Sung: The project is tied to my personal upbringing and my second collaboration with a cultural institution. The first collaboration I did was together with Foam Museum. They had an exhibition of works by Ai Weiwei that was called “#SafePassage”. For that one, I composed a sound tour that, in combination with his photos, told a holistic story. Genesis Black was developed together with the Tropenmuseum, Re:Vive, Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld and Geluid (The Netherlands Institute for Sounds and Vision), because they heard about the project I did for FOAM and consequently approached me for this project. My parents are Indian and Chinese and their parents moved to Suriname for work. So, I have a migration background that is not immediately connected to slavery, but my parent’s grandparents came to Suriname at a time, when slavery was happening. Because of my upbringing, I am personally affiliated with the history of colonialism and it was really interesting to get to know my roots and my history better, because it is also a very important part in the history of the Netherlands.
MN: How did you approach this task and the research that came with it?
SC: I researched about the history of slavery in Suriname first. Especially, by reading a lot that was written by Anton de Kom. My research was coined and guided by his writings a lot. He was an influential writer of that period. His parents were still born into being slaves in the 1830s.
MN: Did you know about his writings before you started researching for the project?
SC: I was familiar with it, but only read it in depth during the research process. My father told me I have to read it, because Anton de Kom was a really important voice in regards to slavery in Suriname. There are a lot of books about that time, but not too many of them tell the story from an insider point of view, so to speak, and what was happening with the people that suffered the most under it. Anton de Kom’s writings are very personal. It is pretty gripping and emotional to read how the people were treated. Many of the other books tell a political or economic story, but they are not telling you what was happening with the slaves, so his writings are an important additional vantage point. I tried to translate this personal approach into music by adding field recordings like spoken word elements to my productions. Most of the times, I began with the music and developed it more and more by further adding different layers to it.
MN: The whole process was apparently very intimate?
SC: It definitely was. Also, to get to know Suriname a little bit more. My grandparents came there to work and I was not really aware of what that meant. What the living situation was like, for example. My grandparents had a store in Suriname, but there were also, obviously, a lot of indigenous people that were not as well off as my grandparents and only could afford one meal a day – if any.
MN: Did you go back to Suriname in the process of making Genesis Black?
SC: No. I was here in the Netherlands and worked with the institutions’ archives. The project began with the Tropenmuseum inviting us - Ash Koosha and Clap!Clap! were also part of it - to the Research Center for Material Culture in Leiden. Then we had some guided tours through the Tropenmuseum here in Amsterdam, where they have a section, amongst others, that exclusively deals with slavery in Suriname. From that point on, we looked for our own unique ways into the project, by reading books, researching on the Internet, asking our families and as I already mentioned, using the incredibly big archive. It was a special experience to be able to dig through all that material that dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. There is so much relevant information to find and its importance really cannot be overestimated. If those people would not have written down or recorded what was happening, we would have no clue about this crucial part of history that is such an essential part of the Dutch identity. There were recordings of wakes, burials, people singing and chanting – very special and touching material.
MN: How did you then decide what to use from it?
SC: Firstly, I did not work with drum samples. I was more attracted by the chimes and other material that focuses on the human element and tried to manipulate it into something new that is still connected to its origins. With the chimes, I stretched them out, added background noise and modulated them in a way that gave it a more ambient complexion. I was looking for an industrial and heavy feeling, too. That is what I tend to work with. I also searched for background noises from the forest or people talking with each other. It feels like using those elements, the listener is in Suriname in spirit. It feels more personal to me to use these elements that are inherently human.
MN: With this work, it is pretty obvious, but you are doing a lot of different things in your artistic practice, in how far do you think about a trans- or intercultural impact of your work?
SC: You mean in regards to appropriation?
MN: In your case, probably not appropriation, but more the importance of including different vantage points and making their origins known.
SC: The story about slavery is pretty well known. It was important for me to put the focus on smaller and more personal stories that are connected to it. The Suriname-Indians for example, and the European elite coming into the country murdering them and forcing them to flee. It was an important thing for me to make a track about this. There is also a piece about the living conditions, like how much food was available, trivial things. The topic of appropriation is a difficult one. Because, in the end, it is still music. And music is for everybody. You can do whatever you want with it. It is definitely a question of respecting the material’s origins though and it has to do with awareness, too. If you talk about house music, as an illustration, I think you have to know where it is coming from.
MN: Would you consider yourself a political musician or your music as political?
SC: No. I do not try to be political. If there are lyrics involved, music certainly gets a political layer quickly, but I try not to be political on purpose.
MN: You have a lot of different artistic outlets. Do you prioritize between the different projects, or is it all part of the same game?
SC: It is all part of the same game. I do not have a different game face for every project. It is important for me to be able to be myself with someone else. Otherwise, I would not do it. It would cut out the emotional and personal aspect of producing music. And I think the listener would not fall for that. But then again, by working on a project like Volition Immanent together with Mark Van De Maat, the founder of Knekelhuis, it gets elevated to something different that I could not do alone. And he for example, adds something to the music that may be closer to touching political ground. He brings certain subjects to the table that are coined by current political and also personal questions that a lot of people are dealing with. It is an almost psychological approach. As Parrish Smith, the attitude is obviously more intimate and subjective. But the outlets are united by a comparable intensity and organic idea of producing music.
MN: What is simple fun to you? Because - correct my if I am wrong - but the music you are doing and the scene you are associated with has a certain seriousness to it?
SC: Maybe too much. And simple fun would immediately lead to Reggaeton for me. When I grew up, because my parents are from Suriname, we were listening to a lot of Carribean music. They also listened to Salsa and my sister listened to Dancehall and Reggaeton, too. Also, there was Iron Maiden, Janet Jackson. It was all there in peaceful coexistence. When you grow up in the Netherlands, Dancehall and Reggaeton are always close. There is no real possibility of escaping it.
MN: The topic of musical diversity is something you often hear when talking about Amsterdam or the Netherlands in general: its proximity to the water, the many harbors and different cultures that are present. Certainly, that is also the case because of its colonial history.
SC: That is all definitely true. Also, the country is pretty centered. It is small, all these different cultures are bleeding into each other and fertilize each other. And Reggaeton is one part of this which is pretty important, not only for me, but for a lot of people.
MN: And it really gets a lot of recognition on a broader scale lately.
SC: It is almost like pop music these days. Everybody likes Reggaeton, even the nerds. Maybe I am already secretly doing it, too. I am working on some things, which are different to what I am doing now. I am working with a guitarist from Paris on slower music that could be described as having a slight pop edge to it, when you look at the construction and arrangements of the tracks.
MN: One bullet point I wrote down in preparation of this conversation is that your work seems deconstructionist, with everything that you are doing.
SC: It happens unconsciously, but there may be some truth to it. I get asked a lot if I am a drummer, but I only started producing and making music five years ago. Before that, I did nothing with music. But I think if you listen to the rhythms I use, it is possible to hear the Caribbean, besides all the more obvious references to electronic music. It may only be shimmering through, but underneath all those other layers, it can be found.
MN: I think it was Éduoard Glissant who talked about this process, in regards to the Caribbean, as “Créolisation”: a lot of different elements thrown into the mix to create something new.
SC: Yes. But there is still an invisible border somehow that is not really overthrown yet. Here for example, you have the techno people and the R&B scene, but they are not connected or intertwined at all. There is a certain attitude that comes with a certain scene and I think that this is not necessary anymore. It is almost like some music has a stigma to it still, and I think that is an antiquated mindset. It should be possible to have an open conversation about any kind of music.