Musical memory of the Leeward Islands

Series Cultural Heritage

Up the stairs through the door with the sign ‘ofisina/kantoren’. There, on the first floor of the Public Library at Scharloo, hidden from the public at large, is a unique collection of cassettes and CDs. “Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of all Antillean music that was recorded mechanically”, Mr. S. “Ruut” Rubens estimates. “Very little is lacking.” And precisely for that reason, the collection is so valuable. Four hundred 78 rpm records, 650 singles, 650 LPs, 640 original cassettes and 1300 CDs form the hard core of the Antillean collection.
It is the lifework of Ruut Rubens. He started as volunteer in 1983 to build up a collection of classical music and later for Antillean music. For more than twenty-five years he plunged into collecting and categorizing the works of Antillean musicians. “Good or bad, it does not matter; anything qualifies”, says Rubens. “For every choice is subjective. It must be as complete as possible. That is my objective.”
The former bookseller can be found in the library since his retirement. Every morning from half past eight until half past eleven. On his desk is the typewriter with which he typed names of orchestras and soloists and titles of songs on thousands of cards. With an iron discipline. “Well, I am a perfectionist. I have undertaken this. If I start doing something, I want to complete it, and complete it well.” When he began, there was nothing; a blanc page. “Well, what could you do? Search, beg and buy. That is the way it was done.”
Not only in setting up, working out and updating the card-index boxes was many a drop of sweat shed. Listening to and recording original records and cassettes also required a lot of time. “Scratches and taps, that was part of the game. But sometimes there was a flaw in those 78 rpm records.” In the meantime, the whole collection has been placed on four thousand CDs. Also the series ‘Disconan Bieu’ by Tim de Wolf. And also the tape recordings of ‘Zikinzá’, with folk tales and songs that were recorded by Father Brenneker. Rubens keeps pace with his time. He copies records to cassettes and later on cassettes to CDs.
“Children’s work”, he considers it now. “You copy a CD at double speed. Monitoring is out of the question. Much less amusing. I also think that that music on CDs misses something. The atmosphere, sounds in the background. In a concert hall it is not dead silent either. The recordings on CDs are technically perfect, but cold”.
Never has much publicity been given to the music collection. Enthusiasts nevertheless know how to find Rubens. They first appeal to connoisseurs of music, like Elis Juliana and Rudy Plaate. “Just go to Rubens, they will say. Sometimes, these people have been everywhere. And then I can often still help them. That gives an enormous satisfaction.” Thus, Ruut Rubens’ collection became the musical memory of the Leeward Islands. Quietly, at the backstage of the library. Always in the background, never in the spotlight.
But now he is 91 years of age. It is time to hand over the baton. But to whom? Who is still prepared to take care of the musical heritage of the Netherlands Antilles with so much love and dedication? Someone who continues edifying on what he leaves behind. “No, I am not optimistic. It has nothing to do with money, but with interest.”
Ruut Rubens’ great wish is for the music collection that he has built up to become known among the public. But the library is in the middle of a process of automation. The music CDs will first have to be entered in the new system. It visibly hurts him that there is so little attention for the unique music collection. “It is a mortal sin that so little use is made of it.”


Dozens of card-index boxes show the way in the enormous collection of Antillean music which the Public Library manages. The name of a song, of the orchestra, of the composer or even of the subject is sufficient to trace a record, cassette or CD. Ruut Rubens seldom disappoints a client. A song about the love for a friend’s marriage, the whole collection of works of a singer who will be 70 years of age or a survey of the bands that have performed a certain song. Rubens goes searching and finds. The Antillean music is categorized according to feature (marriage, mother’s day, community singing, choral songs, etc.) composer, composition and file number of the cassette, record and CD. Thus, the card with the composition ‘Mi no por wanta mas’ mentions that the number has been performed by four different bands: Gibi Doran, GIO, Robert Thiel and Doble R. Via the number 4053 behind Robert Thiel, we find in the numeric card-index box ‘Rober Thiel y Orkesta’, light music, Aruba and the cassettes, records and CDs which the band has put on the market.


Rudy Plaate: ‘Priceless collection’

“Priceless”, says composer and singer Rudy Plaate about the Antillean music collection of the Public Library in Curaçao. “You can find anything there. If I need something, I go to the library. Also for my own songs. What Rubens has done is really inestimably valuable. He has often helped me. Always friendly, always prepared to help. “Come tomorrow”, he would then say. And then you get much more than the information you asked for. I often send people to him. And whether they come from Africa, from America or from Europe, they are always tremendously satisfied. Oh, I will definitely miss him, if he should stop. It will be difficult to find someone who, as a volunteer, is willing to work with so much love on our music collection. Ruut Rubens is a tremendous person. He deserves a statue.”


Oswin Behilia: “Bon yu’i Kòrsou”

A good child of Curaçao. That is what Mr. Rubens is to Oswin “Chin” Behilia. “Mr. Rubens was not born in Curaçao. He does not speak Papiamento. But by means of his acts, he clearly shows that he takes the welfare of the island and its inhabitants to heart. And then, to me you are just as much a ‘bon yu’i Kòrsou’. Ruut Rubens has dedicated almost his entire life here in Curaçao to collecting information and listening to and recording Curaçao music groups, singers and composers. That is tremendous. At the age of ninety he is still active. If he is not working in his garden, he is busy in the Public Library. Mr. Rubens is always ready to help. He is an example for me, for the older folks and for our youth.”

Photo: ‘Ruut’ Rubens in front of the cabinets of the unique music collection of the Public Library.

Text: Eva Breukink. Pictures: Prince Victor, Tim de Wolf