It was a remarkable conclusion that pianist and arranger Nico van der Linden had to draw when he had finished putting together the three-part book box. It’s Quiet in Amsterdam. All Sheet Music and Lyrics by Ramses Shaffy. “Now that this book is finished,” he wrote in his afterword, “I realize that I don’t really know or understand anything about Ramses Shaffy as a musician, at all. When I first met him, I regularly asked him all kinds of things about how he worked, but afterwards I can’t remember any sensible answers to those questions. Ramses was a musician who was not a musician at the same time. He did everything, if I had to believe it, from scratch.”
The musical oeuvre of the illustrious poet-singer Ramses Shaffy (1933-2009) comprises a total of 211 songs, of which songs such as ‘We will continue’, ‘Leat me’, ‘Sammy, ‘t Is silent in Amsterdam’ and cry pray etc.’ have become part of the classic Dutch light song repertoire. Many song lyrics have been published in book form over the years. But sheet music hardly existed. Shaffy himself never wrote down any of his music, because he simply didn’t have that skill. He played everything by heart. And when he had to show something to musicians who were going to accompany him, he played the songs that were on the program on cassette tapes. Many dozen of these have been preserved.
Nico van der Linden was Shaffy’s regular piano accompanist for over twenty years, third after Polo de Haas and Louis van Dijk. Out of admiration, he slowly started transcribing everything he could get his hands on – in the form of records, tapes and concert recordings. Meticulously, note by note, he put down the sheet music, including the different versions of some songs that Shaffy appeared to have recorded. After years of hard work, a first book with piano parts and guitar chords of 58 songs was published in 2005 (Ramses Shaffy Songbook) and a second part followed in 2014.
Then it was time for the complete work. Van der Linden worked on it until he died last fall, after a long illness, at the age of 71. A week and a half before his death, he was still able to sign the contract with the publisher. The new, integral bundle was already well in production by then. “I want it to be completely the original Shaffy piano music,” he had said years earlier, in an interview on the site Shaffy.nl. “Not some silly expense for a four-year-old to play with too. That’s usually how it goes with sheet music, then you only have that melody left. With Ramses it is more than just that melody.”
I’ll just randomly drop my hands on the keys and we’ll see how I’m going to get out of this surprise musically
What else it was is hard to describe. “Ramses made lyrics with ferocious images and set them to ferocious chords,” says composer-arranger Bob Zimmerman. “He didn’t know what he was doing and yet he did it. You didn’t have to ask him to name a chord. Even a term like cadence meant nothing to him. People like me constantly wondered how those songs of his came about. How did he do that? No idea. He had a kind of eccentricity that was always on the bullseye.’
Zimmerman recalls how he was once commissioned to arrange Shaffy’s acclaimed hymn “Sing, Fight, Cry Pray” for piano and orchestra for a TV appearance. “The first thing you do as an arranger is to ask in which key we are going to play it. But Ramses never had an answer for that. He was the freest bird imaginable. I worked on that assignment for a long time, but it proved impossible to combine the orchestra with his piano playing. In the end we solved it by doing the verses with piano and only the choruses with the orchestra. It was typical for Ramses that he would say: I just start and then the orchestra will have to see where they come in.”
“I was very fortunate to have been able to accompany Ramses a few times,” adds pianist Cor Bakker. “He was already slightly misted by drink and fun cigarettes and at one point he lost his way. I was thinking about the piano: where is it going? But eventually we found each other again. That was great.”
Nico van der Linden says in his afterword that he was able to closely watch Shaffy during a joint series of concerts. But he also did not receive a well-founded answer to the questions he asked. “I just randomly drop my hands on the keys,” Shaffy once said. “And then we’ll see how I will save myself musically from this surprise.” He worked purely on intuition, he invariably told his supervisor. “He never revealed anything meaningful or detailed about his musical training,” Van der Linden wrote. “He supposedly did not work with any theoretical knowledge or guidance.”
When it comes to Shaffy’s musical background – or the lack of it – the Russian composer Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is often mentioned. In the Leiden family of doctors where he lived from the age of six – as the adopted child of an Egyptian father and a Polish-Russian mother – there was a grand piano on which his foster father regularly played Rachmaninov. And young Shaffy liked to imitate him. So much so that in his boyhood he took piano lessons for some time, until he got tired of it. Lack of discipline. At the age of fourteen he even became ‘nut blind’, he later said – a corruption that probably originated from his rich imagination, but can be called significant. “I always thought there was a lot of Rachmaninov in his songs,” said Nico van der Linden in the interview on Shaffy.nl.
Also, speaking of Shaffy, the term ‘slavic’ is frequently referred to. Although Bob Zimmerman says he knows too little about Slavic music to put that stamp on it, he recognizes in Shaffy “a certain combination of melancholy and wildness” that evokes such associations. “Yes, with all those lashings,” Cor Bakker agrees. “If he didn’t know anymore, he started to reverberate.”
“It’s not rhythmic music, it’s all very classical”, Nico van der Linden stated. “It’s not legal either. Light music is always eight bars or twelve bars, it’s very symmetrical music. Ramses’ music isn’t symmetrical at all, but you don’t notice that.”
Cor Bakker agrees: “His music continues to excite. He was unpredictable, he never followed the rules, the traditions. Take a song like ‘Sammy’ – it’s first in threes and then in fours. Yet it is so well put together.” Much better than the version that was on the hit single at the time, says Bob Zimmerman: “That record recording is a travesty. Ramses himself played it loose and jazzy and much more beautiful. At the plate he was forced into a straitjacket. I’d rather hear those songs uncombed than neatly raked. He had to have the freedom.”
Noting down all the songs that Shaffy left behind, gradually grew into a life’s work for Van der Linden. “Thousands of hours of work went into it”, confirms his widow, singer Ine Kuhr: “Nico was not someone who idolized Ramses – Ramses already had more than enough of those kinds of people. But he did think that Ramses wrote unique work. And that it would be a shame never to play that again, because only then would Ramses really be dead. Compare it with Jacques Brel; some people say that Brel was the only one who could sing Brel, but that’s sheer madness. That is precisely why Nico decided to record that entire oeuvre – so that people who want to play Ramses Shaffy also play him well.”
Cor Bakker: „Shaffy’s songs are gems. It’s Dutch classical music, you have to respect that. And thanks to this painstaking work we now have the primal versions, just like classical music has its primal versions. If you start playing it from memory, from memory, you get further and further away from the original. And you shouldn’t want that.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 7, 2022