Steppin' into History - Ronald Snijders
“Ronald Snijders, legendary Surinamese flutist is ..”. That’s how I wanted to start this article initially. After watching 3 documentaries & multiple interviews on the internet and spending 2hrs interviewing him in his home in Delft last week, I have to add a couple of things to that opening statement:
Ronald Snijders, legendary Surinamese flutist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, ethnomusicologist, and all-round amazing human being turns 70 years old today! 🎂
In the last 50 years, he released on average an album a year and personally composed over 5000 songs. At Steppin’ Into Tomorrow, we like, no, love Ronald’s music. He’s even partly responsible for how I got to know Maurice (one of the founders of this beautiful platform). I got a bit jealous when I saw this picture of Lucas Benjamin (founder #2, pictured left) & Maurice meeting Ronald after his concert last year but now I've had the pleasure of meeting him too.
You can see Maurice holding his third 1981 album 'Black Straight Music' which includes the jazz-funk gem 'Tori', a personal favorite & a great track to kick this article off with:
Lucas wanted to have a feature of Ronald on the website, so more people could get to know his music, and I quickly volunteered to write it. I properly discovered Ronald & his music over a year ago when I saw the ‘Easy Man’ documentary, which was made to accompany the 2016 album 'The Nelson & Djosa Sessions'. Initially, this article was going to be structured around another documentary about him from 1974. After finding out Ronald's 70th birthday was coming up, we flipped the plan, decided to contact him for an interview and want to wish him a really Happy Birthday from everyone at Steppin' Into Tomorrow with this article as our gift to him!
On a cold spring day, I take a 45-minute train from Amsterdam to Delft. Together with Lucas & photographer Tijmen de Nooy, we're going to interview one of our favorite artists. We arrive fashionably early for our 12 pm appointment & Ronald opens the door. We are welcomed at a safe distance and wearing our face masks, we enter his home. The first surprise of the day is his beautiful colorful interior. His living room is full of instruments, a wall filled with his records, CDs, and butterflies everywhere!
Under our masks, we're already smiling from ear to ear. Our welcome includes a nice ginger tea & some flute music (naturally) and we step into a 2-hour chat about his life & music.
This article contains most of what we talked about in these 2 hours and I'll be adding some extra information from other sources like the documentaries, in the hopes of showing you a full picture of Ronald & his music. We start with his early life in Suriname & his move to the Netherlands. We talked about his experience with the technological evolution over the years, his inspirations & finally dive deep into his music & collaborations.
Early life in Suriname & Moving to the Netherlands
We hope this article (and with it, Ronald's music) reaches people that might not be so familiar with the history of the Netherlands & Suriname, so I'll include a little bit of context:
For those that don't know, Suriname is a country in South America and an ex-Dutch colony with a history of slavery and a melting pot of cultures. Hindustani, Javanese, Chinese & Creole people make up the fabric of society & culture in Suriname. On the 25th of November 1975, Suriname left the Kingdom of the Netherlands to become an independent state while still maintaining close ties to the Dutch.
Ronald starts the interview (ended up being a free-flowing chat) with what it means to be in your 30s (Lucas and I lurking around our early 30's). "It's an important time in your life. You won't believe it when you're there but for a lot of people it's the first time that you'll truly be yourself".
Ronald moved to the Netherlands in 1970 to study civil engineering and eventually find his own identity. He made 'Natural Sources', his first album, in his late twenties and reminisces about his mental age staying around 26-27.
One of the first life lessons we take away from our interview with Ronald is that you should not wait for the perfect moment to create something or share it with the world. "A big part of our popular culture (like pop stars but also athletes) are people around 30 so it's important to be yourself and share your work. Later you'll look back and appreciate it."
Ronald believes 'Natural Sources' is still one of his best works. It's a gateway to his younger self over 40 years later. He composed every track, recorded every instrument, even designed the cover himself "It's the first thing people see!" he expresses and released his album on the magical date 7-7-'77. He even picked up the records from the pressing plant and sold them to record shops himself. Full DIY-style before that was a thing.
How do you do that in the '70s, you may ask yourself? Ronald tells us it all started with a tiny recorder. He noticed that if he held down the delete button, he could add a second layer to his recording. On Natural Sources, he followed a similar process and used home recordings to which he added later in a professional studio. "The people there must've thought I was crazy, renting such a studio to record just the sound of a shaker! Only later when it all started to come together, they understood what I was trying to do."
"Even though you could theoretically add recordings infinitely, it's still a physical process so in practice the sound will deteriorate. Higher tones will fade, drums will feel less full."
Ronald was born on April 8, 1951, in Paramaribo, Suriname. He's part of a family of 9 children and the son of Eddy Snijders, a legend himself, as you can see in this short Youtube video:
Later in our chat, we learn that his father was an inspiration and gave him his first flute, first lessons, and a broad musical taste.
His second album, 'A Safe Return' got inspiration from hunters in West Africa. It's a translation of his roots, the feeling of 'a safe return from hunting'. The record's cover art includes a butterfly - which we discovered were all throughout his house. "Can you find the biggest one?" he asks. Our photographer Tijmen looks around and notices the arched kitchen walls kind of look like one. "Yes, that's right!".
Our interview is filled with laughs, anecdotes, and words of sheer wisdom. In the 1974 documentary, a recurring theme is the concept of his roots, mentioned above. "All black music is connected. It all started in Africa".
Ronald continues: "Music used to be functional, ceremonial and connected to moments, it might have not even been an invention but just a state of human being. Now music has become an instrument of freedom". He hopes the pandemic will give a new pulse to music. "All wars & crises have had a big impact on music. Slavery as well, it was a nasty period in history but jazz wouldn't have existed without it."
Before we continue, I want to do a little quiz: How many instruments does Ronald play on his 1980 album 'A Safe Return'?
"I wanted to hold the flute in a special way", he shows us a myriad of flute poses before holding it like on the album cover & pointing to his forehead. "That's the third eye where the blowhole is. I wanted to show that connection." Gilles Peterson certainly agrees as the record cover for 'A Safe Return' was featured in his book 'Freedom Rhythm & Sound Revolutionary Jazz Original Cover Art 1965–83'.
Ronald played all 25 instruments on the album himself (well done, if you guessed answer C), as we can see on Discogs:
I don't know a lot of people that have been making music for 50 years. In our interview with Ronald, we talked about great artists that passed away too soon - for various reasons one of them was of course drugs. There was none of that for Ronald, music was his high. He compares his flute to a motorcycle, both can get you to 250km/h. Ronald plays an intense but short piece on his flute. Going 250km/h with a flute, however, is perfectly safe. "You could also visit another country, like China!" He plays a Chinese melody. "How long does it take to get to China with that motorcycle you think?".
I then made a comparison with Prince and his lyrics in Purple Music: "Don't need no reefer, don't need cocaine, purple music does the same to my brain - I'm high". We talk about the uniqueness of musical arts and its effect on people & groups, how one chord can evoke a certain emotion.
As a musician, Ronald ruminates on the fast-paced, ever-changing technological evolution over the last 50 years."Generally, quite positive. It's very easy now on your Mac. Back in the days, you would've made a wrong cut and it could've ruined something. Now you have an undo button. But sometimes it can evolve too fast. I use Logic myself and after an update, I couldn't find a button that used to be on the main interface that I used a lot. It took me ages to find where they put it!".
"It also makes it easier to keep trying new things, which is important with art. As an artist, it's important to know what you do & understand why you do it. Now you can freely try as much as you want. I wouldn't want to trade the undo button for that mess with the tapes."
Fun Fact: Ronald composes about 3 pieces a day. His preferred tool? A blank A4 of sheet music. "It makes it easier in a way. It's my secret weapon, it should fit on 1 sheet. The idea that is, you can work it out later. With art, it's important to set boundaries. Complete freedom isn't the best. You're going to be going from nothing to nowhere."
He shows us his guitar, which he uses to create his compositions. This way he gets an idea of a full band playing the piece. With the flute, it's harder to hear the full spectrum.
For our Dutch-speaking audience, here's Ronald on limitations, creativity & Free Jazz:
Lucas asks Ronald why he never distributed his music online, as most of his expansive discography only came out on limited vinyl or CDs through his ow imprint Black Straight Music. Ronald calls this "a piece of self-criticism" and says he probably should've focused more of his time on online distribution. Aside from his first 2 albums that got reissued and the Nelson & Djosa sessions, you can't really listen to most of his music on the internet aside from a couple of random Youtube uploads.
Music, inspiration & collaboration
One of the first things I noticed when sitting down in Ronald's living room is his 'wall of music'. It includes all his albums, some of his cooperations, and even his 20 CD box set from 2013 with previously unreleased tracks and albums he made in the last 50 years. "It's hard to remember everything. It seems lost in some way."
Moving back and forth between the music wall and his composing seat, we explore his legacy. 'Kon Esi Baka' (1978) - known as his most popular song in Suriname, Philips has the rights to the song and he can't do anything with it, not even put it on a compilation. It has been an unfortunate but solid lesson that he decided to do everything himself from then on.
We ask him what some of his musical inspirations are: "Bach, Stravinsky, my dad who showed me all the instruments, the music I used to hear when I was young, Kaseko, Jazz, Brazilian music when I was 15, later Funk & Fusion, Michael Jackson records, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Milton Nascimento, ..." the list is endless.
"I also get a lot of inspiration from thrift shops. They prickle my creativity. I still have a lot of inspiration these days. There are 2 ways to innovate: Either you make something completely new, or you take things that already exist and make something new with them. I like the second one the most." He presents us with a vinyl record that fits snuggly on top of a wooden table he got in the thrift shop. "Look, now we have something new!", this incredible 70-year-old man is constantly innovating.
"In a relationship it's similar. You're taking 2 things that exist and make something new with it. Music is like architecture, you're building over time so repetition and persistence are important. But you also need variation!". His words of wisdom were exactly what we needed to hear that day in Delft, "It's funny how you look at people moving when you're listening to music. It's like the music is imposing a narrative on the people. You'll start imagining things. Music is a very sharp communication tool."
We ask him about collaborations he's proud of: "There's a couple - with Ntjam Rosie, Surinam Funk Band, North Sea Jazz with all those amazing artists. I did a concert in Lithuania that I want to release on video."
I mention that one of the first times I saw him play was in Rotterdam for Festival Magia in 2019 where he performed with Dennis Schoor who uses old-school test equipment to make electronic music. "When you're in the studio with Dennis, it's like you're on another planet. All those machines, crazy sounds. And as a person as well, he's a sweet guy"
Ronald playing together with Niti Ranjan Biswas at the same festival:
Now we can't finish this article without mentioning Arp Frique. Thanks to Niels, the band leader, we were able to connect with Ronald and have this delightful interview. Ronald has great respect for the Dutch artist "Niels is a great bandleader. He can get everyone to be themselves in the most fun way". In 2018, Ronald joined Arp Frique to play the flute on 'Welcome To The Colorful World Of Arp Frique'. Ronald composed and played the flute on the spacey synth track 'African Love' which has a beautifully psychedelic video clip:
When we asked Niels what Ronald means to him he responded with:
"Ronald is one of the most important people in my life: inspired by his music, we became besties a long time ago and he has become a mentor and a spiritual guide, plus we love to talk politics, women, philosophy, family, history, and stuff we could never tell you all about."
In 2016 The Nelson & Djosa Sessions was released with help from Niels and features from artists like Ed Motta, Azymuth, Orlando Julius, Dwight Trible & Bassekou Kouyate. I highly advise you to go check out the accompanying documentary 'Easy Man':
It's only in recent years that Ronald's music is slowly starting to get re-discovered by DJ's, producers and record collectors. Even though his music could be considered sample gold, there have only been a handful of releases out that contain Ronald's music, such as his 1981 tune 'Next Day' that got sampled by producer Mndsgn in 2017 for Ivan Ave's 'Warm Couture'. Compilations are also starting to include more of his work, like the brilliantly curated 2016 Surinam Funk Force by local recordshop/label Rush Hour and Kev Beadle's Private Collection Vol.3 in 2017 on UK label BBE Music. We believe it's only a matter of time before more people will explore his rich and diverse catalogue.
Ronald himself is definitely not slowing down after more than 50 years of music, 35+ albums and a few books. He is currently writing his auto-biography and is about to release a special anniversary album sooner than you think.
The man himself has been so gracious to share two songs with us that weren't previously released online to accompany this interview. The Headhunters-esque 'Be Funky' of the vinyl-only Black Straight Music album in '81 and the cheerful fusion explosion 'Bemre', that originally came out on the Meet The World CD in '98. Thank you, Ronald, you are too kind!
If you still have to start your journey into the Snijders' universe then we are happy to help a little with this playlist so you can listen to most of the music mentioned above and more. I included as much as I could find on Youtube, from his own work & compositions to collaborations I found through our interview (and some Discogs deep diving):
2 hours flew by and we sadly had to end our conversation. We discuss the C* word & Dutch politics after the recent election. He's hoping we can dance & enjoy listening to music with other people soon. As a group, we collectively wondered why there's no proper musical education for everyone in the Netherlands. We thank Ronald for his time and before we leave he snaps a cute group pic in front of his house before explaining the best way to walk back to the train station.
It's not every day you get to interview an artist like Ronald. Even less so when he turns out to be even more of an inspiration than you could imagine. Hopefully, more people will discover Ronald's music and can enjoy it in another 70 years from now. In the meantime please join us in wishing him a:
Happy Birthday, Ronald!
If you liked the article, please consider sharing it with a friend who needs to discover Ronald & his music.
Sources & references:
* Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Snijders
* Discogs page: https://www.discogs.com/artist/474189-Ronald-Snijders
* 'Easy Man' documentary (2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=necnYPDvY9Q
* 'De muziek van fluitist-componist Ronald Snijders ' documentary (1974): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idnAYtPj-BM