SURINAME: Akoeba - Happy Boys
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Calypso-style beats and African rhythms define the unique music of these very Happy Boys
On a surface level, Akoeba by the Happy Boys is simply an infectiously fun, upbeat, uplifting album that could make even someone like me, who has two left feet, tap their toes and want to dance. That could very well be the best way to enjoy the Happy Boys and their fast-paced, Caribbean-inflected music. It could also be the way that the Happy Boys themselves would want you to enjoy the music, as it certainly seems to be the intention of the band. To understand the context of the Happy Boys one must dig a little into both the history of the band and into the history of Suriname itself, even though the album does not seem to be about history or politics in anyway, though if we have any Surinamese readers, get in touch to let me know what they’re singing about. The country is the only officially Dutch speaking country in South America (and indeed, outside of Europe), and its legacy of colonialism has led it to becoming one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with a plethora of cultural, linguistic and religious groupings, spanning from indigenous tribes to Europeans to Indians and Africans. It is from this cultural confluence that the Happy Boys were formed, and their musical genre, kaseko.
“..the music of the Happy Boys sounds Caribbean at points, African at others, European occasionally, and pop-jazzy throughout, which to me, reflects the diverse nature of the country of Suriname itself.”
The genre comes from Afro-Surinamese people, the descendants of those who were forcibly brought over to the country to work on sugar plantations as slaves. This has become a familiar story. Many of the genres of music we have covered on the blog at one point or other, whether it be Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective’s unique folk music, Majid Bekkas’s gnawa blues, or Cesária Évora’s sublime renditions of Cape Verdean morna music, have been the by-product of slavery and/or colonialism. This might be more apparent in the blues or morna, as both lend themselves to more moody and melancholy music, but the music of Akoeba is anything but moody or melancholy. It’s a relentlessly felicitous and gleeful style of music (at least as portrayed on this album), yet also rhythmically complex, and features the famous call-and-response form that is prominent in sub-Saharan African music. Kaseko music, and by extension the music of the Happy Boys sounds Caribbean at points, African at others, European occasionally, and pop-jazzy throughout, which to me, reflects the diverse nature of the country of Suriname itself. It just goes to show that the history of a place will always have an impact on the music, but perhaps not always in the way one might expect.
The Happy Boys themselves were formed by Lieve Hugo, known as the King of Kaseko, who is widely recognised as a pioneer of the genre. Born in Suriname, he left to make his name in the Netherlands, where he started off as a solo artist, and recorded two popular albums, before forming the Happy Boys. However, the success was not to last, and he was not to live to see the Happy Boys release their first album, Akoeba. Hugo died of a heart attack at the age of 40 in 1975. Released in 1977, Akoeba became a popular album in Suriname, and the Happy Boys became a popular live act for a time. Hugo’s legacy continued in the form of his cousin Edgar Burgos, at one point a Happy Boys member, who then went on to form Trafassi, a band that scored hits in the Netherlands and Suriname. Though I knew none of this before listening to the album, it has provided a sombre context to the recording of the album, yet also one that has some positive outcome as well. Kaseko became established as a genre, and Hugo is recognised as its progenitor, with his legacy continued by his relatives and his former band mates.
The album itself is simply a collection of wonderful, delightful tunes which make you want to dance, but it’s varied enough to keep your attention. It is all in the same style, but done differently enough each song for it to be worth your time. A song like Dji Den leans towards funk somewhat, while Veanti and the title track are more in a calypso-like vein. Now Akaba For Troe is a ballad, yet once again in that inimitable kaseko style, with fresh, vital horns and contagiously rhythmic drumming stopping it from becoming somnolent. Overall, its energetic sound keeps the sound of the piece coherent and hugely re-listenable, especially as party music or background music. Sure, it might not be the most innovative album of all time, but it does what it sets out to do, perfectly, and I had a ball listening to it. And sometimes, that’s all you need.