Ramses Shaffy

In Holland there’s a standing expression: “He/she is SO Un-Dutch!”.  What you, as a non-Dutch person, need to understand is that this line is the greatest compliment one Dutchman can give to another. It’s a badge of honor that goes above being knighted by Her Majesty the Queen.

It was the first thing always said about singer/ songwriter Ramses Shaffy, who had his heyday in the 60-ties, and it popped up again in his obituaries in today’s papers.

Here was a man in a perennial state of spontaneity, devoid of any sense of inhibition. Joy towering sky-high neighbored deepest melancholia, a beatnik who touched hippie-dom, a drinker first and a smoker second full of life and grace. Rather than ‘expressing himself”, Ramses was the embodiment of a continous lifelong singular and everchanging expression. Us stuffy and stratified Dutchies loved him for it.

As a kid I played one of his records multiple times, called Ramses II.  I still love that album.  It’s one of those superbly mismatched pairings – a straight-laced studio bigband from the days of radio trying to make sense of weirdly constructed tunes, with off-the cuff, direct lyrics.  The results  are great. Think of a sound that’s a cross of Smile-era Brian Wilson and Lawrence Welk in double-time.  Imagine a short song about a young mouse who goes to in the attic to play after asking permission from his mum.  He engages a bat and goes running back to Mummy.  Final line:  “Mother, you know what I saw? A scary one with black hair! Peep. Peep.”  Imagine this sung with the vigor of the Red Army Choir and the joy of a 6-year old.

Trained as an actor, Ramses made his name as a night club singer – one who could impersonate the sun in the most grandiose way, and get away with it. To hear him belt “I tear the RRROCKS with my beams” is to believe it. He used everyday language and makes it sound warm,  romantic, poetic, ebullient. Often his lyrics that start at the beginning of the story and, well,  end at the end. The musical structure follows suit- No choruses or refrains, hardly intro’s, coda’s, preachy repititions or anything like that.  he has a very original and very effective way of constructing tunes that I haven’t met anywhere in the realm of mainstream entertainment, in or out of Holland. His Sing, fight, cry, pray, laugh, work and admire is a song with a chorus (the title) but again done in an original way;  the chorus is the title line repeated multiple times over a building chordprogression that leads to the conclusion not without us . The song concludes with a repeated not without us over downward spiraling never-ending chord cadence

I ran into him once in an Amsterdam bar in the early nineties.  Swaying from side to side, with his minders trying to drag him home, he  grabbed my balls by way of friendly gesture and whispered some fatherly advice in my ear.  You might say, a man irresistibly at ease with  himself, fearless and non-frightening in equal doses.

Over here in the States singer/pianist Blossom Dearie, who herself died earlier this year, had discovered him in her European years.  A few year ago I bought a 2nd hand lp of hers (Winchester in Apple Blossom Time),  which to my surprise featured a beautiful rendition of one of Ramses’ better known tunes,  “Sammy”.  You can listen to this somewhat scratchy-sounding version. She sings and plays wonderfully. Sammy