Musician Randal Corsen reflects on his artistic identity

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Putting a finger on what defines Europeans is challenging, especially in the knowledge that cultural exchange between Europeans doesn’t stop at the EU’s borders. Curaçao, a former Dutch colony and a current Kingdom island, embodies the idea that being “European” is possible beyond the continent. Traveling to its outermost “limits”, we gather a perspective that sheds light on what it means to be European. It is due to this reason that we decided to interview Randal Corsen (45), who personifies what it’s like to possess both a European and non-European identity. 

Randal grew up in Curaçao and moved to the Netherlands when he was 18 years old, where he studied at a Dutch conservatoire and later worked as a music teacher. After traveling through Europe with his Caribbean Jazz band, he eventually decided to return to his Curaçaoan roots 23 years later. “I guess I just have the luxury of having two homes – when I live in one place, I miss the other.

Randal Corsen ©Dick Drayer

Why did you move to the Netherlands?

This is what most Curaçaoans do when they finish high school. In Curaçao we have a university, but there are no opportunities to study music. Besides, we have the Dutch nationality, so going to the Netherlands is often the most logical step. It was not necessarily a choice, but an idea we tend to grow up with.

How are the Dutch different from the Curaçaoans?

Due to our smaller communities in Curaçao, we know that our opinion about someone will eventually be heard by the person it concerns. This makes us want to be in control of what gets out there. The Dutch, on the other hand, are more free and open-minded; they don’t worry too much about what other people think of them. This freedom has its downsides: freedom of expression is important, but sometimes it’s better to say nothing.

What made growing up on an island different from a typical Dutch-European childhood?

At Curaçao I felt less connected to the rest of the world. I saw images of other places on TV, but back then you couldn’t explore everything on the internet like you can do now. In Europe it’s also much easier to leave a village or town, whereas for me it was much more difficult to leave my community.

Has this changed in the 23 years you spent abroad due to all the technological developments (e.g. internet)?

Yes, everyone now also forms stronger opinions because of social media. If they want to react to something, they just throw their opinion out there. Now people don’t necessarily have to face the person they’re talking about in real life anymore: this makes people a lot more confronting.

Did you feel connected to Europe during your childhood?

Our culture and arts, and then especially our music, are quite disconnected from Europe. American and Latin American cultures predominantly influence Curaçaoan culture. We do, however, incorporate European influences – such as Chopin’s romanticism – into our music. We make it something of our own and thereby make the music move on.

After having lived most of his adult life in a European country, Randal moved back to Curaçao four years ago. In the beginning the transition was difficult for him: things were much better organised in Europe and he had to get used to the fact that people might also not show up for appointments. After some time, however, he started to embrace the Antillean way of life more and more.

Do you believe in a European identity?

European cultures have influences from many European places. When I started to work together with European musicians, it almost came naturally to play music with each other. People travel and live in other parts of Europe; there has to be something that unites them. As a conservatoire teacher I had many European students in my class. I felt and noticed that Europeans had a connection when they played together – this connection wasn’t present among non-European student. I thought it was great to see Europeans students perform together, because in music you see the benefit of this connection right away.

Are you inspired by certain European types of music?

I experienced new things when I was studying in the Netherlands. I studied at the Jazz department of the conservatoire in Tilburg. There they played Free Jazz: music without rules. In the beginning I only heard noise, but now I’ve developed a romantic way of looking at this freedom.

Randal’s daughters were born in the Netherlands, but now live with Randal in Curaçao. When asked the question if he believes it’s important for his children to live in Europe at some point, he says that he wouldn’t actively encourage them to go: “But if they go, then I would prefer them to move to the Netherlands. Even though it’s far away from Curaçao, it wouldn’t really feel like a foreign country – they would still feel at home.

During the interview, Randal stressed several times that the strength of Europe lies in the exchange of its cultural diversity. Like with music, he says, you can sense a connection between Europeans that originates from all the times they have met each other. Randal was born in Curacao, moved to the Netherlands and embraced the European way of life.

At some point he saw a European salsa band perform in Germany. “Even though they played Caribbean music, they still played it in a European way“. A European identity, as much as a ‘Dutch’ or ‘Curaçaoan’ identity, is still exclusive to those who don’t belong to its geographical borders. But there’s hope: maybe Randal was one of the first witnesses of a cultural exchange that has the potential to be truly unlimited: one where a European band plays salsa in a “European way”.

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