Reggae Music and the Rasta Movement: Paths and Trends

 

 

To the four points of the compass

If one were to randomly flip through the reggae section of a music store and scan the album inserts in the same way one would carelessly leaf through a book’s table of contents, certain words, images, sensations, and ideas would accumulate and scramble for attention:

Bob Marley; dub; ghetto; Jah; Jimmy Cliff wearing a green cap; yellow; red; get up, stand up; natty dread; Ethiopia; Jamaica; Mother Africa; apartheid; ganja and drug squads; Peter Tosh; Burning Spear; Aswad; LKJ; dub poetry…

In the wake of reggae bubbles a world rich in images, symbols, connotations, myths, and messages as well as misunderstandings.  A muddled socio-cultural universe where ganja smoke forms a nebula in which the long-haired silhouette of Rastas gives the appearance of Ethiopian warriors, fascinating musicians wiggling rhythmically, Afro-Caribbean vibrancy glutted with sounds of soul, R&B, impassioned songs mixing hymnal grace and the virulence of political pamphlets.

Made in Jamaica

All this was Made in Jamaica, an island of which we know little.  A sunny island à la Belafonte as well as a reservoir of emigrants towards Great Britain and the United States.  For the well-informed, it was a country marked by sudden fits of violent politico-religious convulsions arbitrated by two leaders who reproduced an Anglo-Saxon bipolarity: Manley (the progressive), and Bastamente (the conservative).  For the less well-informed, it was just a Caribbean island with rum, cyclones, coconuts, and calypso.

 

Along came reggae with its interesting cultural baggage and all that was attached to it.  Reggae seduced listeners with its rhythmic flexibility, accessibility, and the indefinable richness of its subject matter; a music that could change with the wind.  It reflected the tensions and tendencies of Jamaica’s pop music.  In all its different forms, one can find a reggae that was remodelled and manipulated by the show-biz circuit, diffused by production companies looking for commercial success.

To achieve this; they played on a certain exoticism often disguised by a certain cultural pretext, tainted by a confused radical ideology.  The cultural context was drained or diluted by a “folkloric halo” foreign to the Jamaican reality and resulting in a fragmented, destabilized, decaffeinated music.  Aren’t the curly manes of countless reggae amateurs and numerous Rastas reminiscent of the provocative hairstyles of the first hippies?  Marijuana, ganja, as with any ‘grass’, leads to paths far from the burdensomeness and reputed alienation of day to day life.  Like Woodstock, Jamaica is an island; like Kathmandu, it is far enough away that, under the effects of distance, the message becomes watered down into a utopia.

On the other side of the coin, one picks up on a symbolic clothing style and a more confrontational style code that was gradually forgotten about with the explosion of the “Black and Proud” idea of the Black Power movement.  One also discovered a new musical space in the types of black music in the New World, sufficiently complex so that the most diverse motivations found themselves in it:  search for an ethical, religious, or political message, the simple pleasure of the musical amateur, the curiosity of socio-musicologists and academics.  We know little about the reggae from Kingston’s ghettos, interpreted by disk jockeys on trucks equipped with loud speakers, veritable discotheques on wheels: sound systems.  There, on the base of instrumental reggae, dub, DJs comment, invigorate and bear witness.  This type of reggae developed an oral dimension that, at times, evokes the creations of West African griots, even though the West African environment is extremely different from that of Jamaica’s periurban slums.  A musical phenomenon intimately linked to the Caribbean isle, reggae found another home for expansion and creation, England, a country with a high concentration of migrants from its former colonies.

Made in England

The reggae beats brought over by the Jamaican immigrants encountered Great Britain’s urban landscape, the greyness of its factory towns.  Steel Pulse emerged from Handsworth, Birmingham’s industrial neighbourhood.  Beginning at the end of 1940s, labour from the Antillean territories of the British Empire flocked to England.  Plundered by the war, the British economy needed workers to revive it.  Jamaicans constituted the majority of this workforce.

From 1955 to 1962, out of 301,000 Anglophone Caribbean migrants, approximately 180,000 originated from Jamaica, an island with limited economic opportunities:

insufficient salaries, working conditions barely better than the post-slavery period, high unemployment, rural exodus ending up in the slums.

The British graft developed in the sub-proletariat of the West Indian nationals, among the Trinidadian calypso and Latino salsa.  In the 1970s, the dazzling ascension of Bob Marley, the “Negus of Reggae”, gave a decisive impetus to groups of the second generation, such as Aswad (black in Arabic).  This music, adopted by the punks, would infiltrate the white clubs, interest antiracist and antifascist movements, and draw greater attention from producers.  The ‘English’ branch also had Jamaican roots, but this time the roots were ‘Made in England’.

From Paris to Abidjan

From England to the U.S., reggae spread to countries under Western influence with differing results and unexpected metamorphoses.  In France, it oscillated between the theatrical decadence of Serge Gainsbourg and the intelligent, powerful adaptations of Bernard Lavilliers.  In both cases, the music recovered its rhythmic mould.  Gainsbourg used it as a way to flow together a mixture of provocation and moderated nihilism.  Lavilliers enriched the acclaim received from his successful ‘tropical’ salsa, samba, and bossa nova rhythms.  In Martinique, the 6th continent created a “DOM-TOM reggae” which took into account the particular problems of the Antillean socio-cultural universe.

In francophone Africa, Touré Kunda made several fruitful incursions thanks to a successful combination of hearty brass, West African percussion (sabar, tama), Casamance folklore (djambadong), and smooth choral compositions.  However, the Ivorian Alpha Blondy was the most successful in navigating the most perilous musical process: adopting while adapting.  This generated an afro-reggae, as much on the orchestration level as well as the themes dealing with social issues, the glory of Jah, police brutality (Brigadier Sabari), and traditional wisdom.  Outside Jamaica, reggae was, above all, the object altered interpretations while favouring the rhythmic aspect.   The most widely broadcast artists (Marley, J. Cliff, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and Linton Kwesi Johnson) don’t represent the multiplicity of composers, the diversity of schools, or the richness of the production.  The original culture which irrigates and feeds the genre is not perceived in all its complexity.  At the end of the road travelled along with Rastafarianism, certain ambiguities were born.  We must go back through Jamaica’s history to retrace the route the components of these two interesting, yet different, cultural phenomenon that are reggae and Rastafarianism, took.

From Xamayca to Jamaica

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Spanish intrusion disrupted the life of the societies living in the circumcaraibe region.  With Christopher Columbus’ arrival in Xamayca (Island of wood and water), the island would experience a shock that would greatly affect the Amerindian civilizations.  On one side, a communal, pre-capitalist way of life based on an organic relation with Nature, who would only be solicited for essential needs; on the other side, a mercantilist and highly militaristic economic system which drew the maximum profit possible from the newly ‘discovered’ lands.  Thirty or so years sufficed to perfect this genocide and ethnocide with the use of multiple destructive elements of which slavery, massacres, and infectious diseases dominated.  In a merciless “commentary”, the Spanish Dominican monk, Bartolomy de las Casas, left an overwhelming account of the reign of terror in a work significantly titled A Very Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indies.

Behind one violent act hides another.  Starting in 1509, Black Africans, just as “pagan” as the Indians, came to replace them on the plantations.  The Spanish did not accord any special attention to this territorial possession, preferring that of the rich Hispaniola (St. Domingo) and their continental adventures.  In 1665, the English attacked Jamaica in the context of a geopolitical clash in order to counter Spain’s territorial expansion in the Caribbean.  Officially, however, it was a question of “expanding the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom”.  In the ports, Her Majesty’s slave ships unloaded the captives snatched from the West African coast: Ghana, Sierra Leone, Benin, and Senegal.  The ethnic groups were often grouped together under the term Kromantin (Akan, Ashanti, and Fanti).  Among this group, one finds a large number of slave rebels (the Marrons) who, from 1673 to 1795, led a fierce fight against the English.

That glorious epic would come to an unfortunate end with the treaty of 1738-1739 which guaranteed free territory to the Marrons with one condition imposed by the cunning English diplomacy.  In exchange for their freedom, the Marrons were obligated to return or kill any fugitive slaves…  As the Jamaican historian Corey Robinson explains, “It was the triumph of a literate, sophisticated and cynical society, motivated by efficiency  and profit, over a dynamic yet simple, illiterate community whose methods were limited to war and physical survival.”  The free rebel communities, transformed into micro-societal reservations on the margins of history.

Black Ore

As for that history, it is that of the 18th century Caribbean societies.

The slavery system resided in the sugar-produced prosperity between the colonial residences and the miserable slave cabins.  The church of the planters and government officials clittle about the fate of the slaves.  The religious structure, however, served as a motor for a strong mobilization near the end of the century.  In 1784, the black American George Liele founded the Baptist church in Jamaica.  He would later call it the “Ethiopian Baptist Church”.  Like the slaves, the ministers of the church were black.  They defended their brethren involved in social conflicts.  The religion, driven by emotional fervour, integrated African elements.

Three characteristics recur in the country’s socio-religious history: commitment to social clauses; religious faith; Africanization of rites (and subjects).  The latter were occasionally drawn from the Old Testament where one finds many parallels with the slave’s situation: an enslaved people, deportation, captivity and a Promised Land.  The abolition of slavery (1834-1838) was accompanied by a four year “apprenticeship” during which the ex-slave discovered a new form of instability: starvation wages.  On the plantation, he had (pitiful) lodgings, was fed, received clothing and could finish his day in peace.  However, overexploitation (16 hour work days, 6 days a week) considerably reduced life expectancy.

Road of Empty Cabins

With abolition, the agrarian and proslavery society transformed.  The masters recovered the land ceded to slaves (for food supply purposes), withdrew all protection, and imposed starvation wages.  England, on its side, withdrew the preferential tariffs accorded to Jamaican sugar for profitability reasons.  Slaves, taking advantage of the freedom of movement, abandoned the plantations to try their luck in town or worked on lands ceded by missionaries who bought certain large estates.

Social and Religious Movements

From the mid-19th century, an important migration movement towards the cities began which would become more pronounced over time.  The urban space, while less constraining than that of the plantation, was just as merciless.  The few jobs available left little few opportunities for new-comers.  The misery, hunger, violence, the shantytown marked the boundaries of this new space.  It was in 1865 that the famous Morant Bay revolt broke out at the head of which were two Baptist ministers: a mulatto, George William Gordon, and Paul Gordon, a black man.  The revolt was the expression of the mass of black and poor populations’ aspirations for more justice.  As Sebastian Clarke emphasized, “The masses experienced, in the Baptist and Methodist churches, of a level of identification with ritual and faith that seemed unattainable in white churches.”  The same decade witnessed an increase of free black churches and a strong social and religious movement known as the Great Revival or Revivalism, which associated religious redemption, demands for freedom, and socio-economic improvements.  On the cultural and ethical level, Revivalism took its cues from traditional African religion, Pukimina (or Kumina, or Pocomania), but it also synergistically integrated liturgical elements of Pukimina such as ritual trances, dancing around a central pole, and the use of drums.  Thus, the great awakening had two dimensions, politico-religious and afro-Christian.

After Morant Bay, Great Britain reasserted its control over the island by marginalizing the planter class.  The first thirty years of the 20th century saw the rise of a militant black nationalism, both populist and religious at the same time as the rapid development of a vigorous trade unionism.  Three names symbolize this period: Marcus Garvey, William Alexander Bustatmente, and Norman Manley.  Despite a contradictory and jerky path, Garvey remains an inescapable figure of Jamaica’s cultural and political history.  He is one of the precursors of the Negritude movement.  This descendent of Maroons reintegrated Ethiopianism into Jamaican religious and political thought developed the ‘return to Africa’ idea and the importance/value of Black people’s cultural contributions in society where colonial inferiorization had wrought havoc.  Born of a petit bourgeoisie family who took over from the British administrators, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamente founded the two parties that arbitrated the country’s political life.  The People’s National Party, founded in 1938 by Norman Manley and later led by his son Michael Manley, held power from 1955 to 1962, then from 1972 to 1980.  Son image de marque en trois “isme” donnerait nationalisme, socialisme, populisme.  The Jamaican Labour Party created in 1943, won its first election in 1944.  This party was in power at the moment of independence and, starting in November 1980, came under the direction of Edward Seaga.  Its political orientation became more conservative and its electoral springboard was constructed on union activities.  Despite the contradictions and errors, this party was the most impregnated by the two important cultural currents that surround reggae and Rastafarianism.  After all, M. Manley campaigned with a white stick that Haile Selassie offered to him, a stick that symbolized Joshua guiding his people to the Promised Land.

The Rastafarian Movement in Jamaica: Rasta Fari

The Rastafarian movement’s birth began in 1930 but it is entrenched in the Jamaican tradition of the Black church’s commitment to social justice which was particularly scorned during the colonial period.  White planters, with the complicity of white clergymen, refused the evangelization of slaves.  The spirit of social reform drove George Liele, founder of the Ethiopian Baptist Church (1784).  It re-emerged with vigour and effectiveness in the revivalist movement of 1860 before manifesting itself with an extraordinary scope and determination in Rastafarianism.  The term evokes Ethiopia, elevated to Promised Land and an African Paradise in Rasta beliefs.  In Arabic as well as Amharic (official language of Ethiopia), ras means head or leader, tafari is the equivalent of creator.  Ras Tafari is the name of an Ethiopian prince, the Prince Makonnen, regent of Princess Zauditu, daughter of the great Emperor Menelik who defeated/crushed the Italians at the Battle of Adocia in 1896, thus sparing his country from colonial subjugation.  In 1941, the Italian army suffered a new defeat, confirming Ethiopia’s role as an unviolated land in an Africa soiled by colonization.  The architect of this victory was none other than Ras Tafari Mokennen who had, in the interim, become Haile Selaisse (meaning Power or Glory of the Holy Trinity), since his coronation in 1930.  Along with this title others with biblical consonance and glorious connotations were added as well: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and God’s Elected One.

Marcus Garvey Predicted It

Jamaica of the 1930s experienced much agitation with the increasing migration to the city in a complex context aptly described by Denis Constant in an excellent work entitled, Aux sources du reggae.  In addition to the unbridled growth of the rural population who swamped the best lands, the planters and employers began recruiting Indian and Chinese workers in the interest of avoiding the pressure of demands from Black workers.  Many emigrants returned from the U.S. which had been affected by the 1924 crisis.  On the agricultural level, the banana, which represented 57% of the country’s exports, suffered from a diseased that weakened its production and aggravated unemployment rates.  The country was also ravaged by a cyclone in 1930.  Many religious sects deployed increased activity based on a rereading of the Bible.  Marcus Garvey already had a past filled with Negro improvement initiatives (Betterment of the Negro Condition).  He possessed a sound knowledge of African history and the conviction that Ethiopia would serve as a cultural and religious support to the working class eroded by a declining colonial order in which the racial aspect corresponded with a precise status which, while reassuring for the Whites, alienated the Blacks.

He may have predicted the advent of Haile Selassie. “Look towards Africa, when one day a Black king will be crowned, then the day of deliverance is near.”  For Sebastian Clarke, in Roots of Reggae, Marcus Garvey “used a combination of political objectives and religious expressions to leave a mark on soul s, not only the Jamaican masses but on the entirety of blacks as well.  Given their illiteracy and lack of general knowledge, a consequence of deliberate English colonial politics, these people didn’t understand history in a coherent fashion but they could grasp the sense of religious prophecy.  Thus, the masses prepared themselves for the advent of a Black redempteur, the Black king of which Garvey spoke. ”

God is Black

Following Marcus Garvey’s prediction, confirmed by the enthronement of Haile Sellasie, numerous preachers spread the idea of the Negus’ divinity and saw in him the central figure of African redemption.  Does Chapter Five of Revelations not reassure those who suffer by announcing the liberating arrival of the lion of Judah?  What’s more, the lion of Judah is one of the titles of the new Ethiopian emperor.  The adepts of these new beliefs took the name Rastafaris, Rastafarians, or Rastamen, shortened today to Rasta.  From a Rastafarian reading of the Bible, the Old Testament in particular, emerges a certain number of points which function as dogmas: Haile Selassie is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, he is also called Jah (derived from Yah, Yahweh, Jehovah).

The second Rastafarian dogma on which all the confreres agree is that of a return to Africa or repatriation to the Promised Land.  As Stephen Davis and Peter Simon affirm in Pure-blooded Reggae, “the Rastas consider themselves as the lost tribe of Israel, sold as slaves in the Babylon of the Caribbean, and when finally the children of Israel fly away to Zion, the throne of Babylon-colonial Jamaica and all White civilization-will crumble in a hail storm of blood and suffering”.  Babylon, explains Denis Constant, “is the personification of all the affronts suffered by Blacks.  Babylon is slavery, colonialism, exploitation, misery, impurity, immortality, vice…”  However, other than these two dogmas (the divinity of Haile Selassie and repatriation), there is no common credo which unites the different Rastafarian brotherhood.   The movement is profoundly contentious towards established social, religious, and political structures.  Therefore, an established Rasta clergy does not exist, but rather a multiplicity of associations, chapels, and sects.   This idea emerges from the scholarly work of Youmin Ho-Sing-Ming in The Jamaican Rasta Movement: “There exists a certain number of Rastafarian communities that group together several members, each one having at its head a leader.  These communities fix their own goals more or less defined, emphasizing the religious aspect, either on the sociocultural or else on the political level”.

The First Leaders

Beginning in 1930, the recognition of Haile Sellasie’s divinity inspired numerous rereadings of the Bible and caused the appearance of numerous sects.  In the feverish agitation that characterised the period from 1930 to 1945, two of the important Rastafarian leaders ventured into mobilizing initiatives linked with swindling or which led to violence.  Leonard was the head of a movement that stretched from the eastern zone of Kingston to Port Morant.   Howell spent time in prison for selling 5000 photos of Hailie Sellasie in the guise of passports for Ethiopia.  At his release, he launched the first Rasta community removed from the rest of the world, the Pinnacle community.  It was destroyed by the police in 1954.  J. Nathaniel Hibbert created the Ethiopian Coptic church.  With the ex-sailor, Archibald Dunkley, they could evoke a trinity of founders but their movements were distinct and independent confirming the characteristic which would only continue to grow: anarchy (in the deeper sense of the word).  Around 1959 Claudius Henry, a distant successor of Howell, founded a reformed church and he also sold passports for Ethiopia.  His son formed a movement with the police.  That incident intensified the police and the Jamaica bourgeoisie’s hostility towards the Rastas, judged subversive and disquieting.

Evolution of the Rasta Movement

Haile Selassie’s visit in April 1966 marked a decisive step.  “First of all,” remarks Youmin Ho-Sing-Ming, “the credibility of Rastafarian beliefs intensified in the eyes of the poor social classes, and expanded little by little to the middle classes of Jamaican society.  In the following years, more and more young people adhered to the movement and it is also from this moment that the first female Rastas appeared”.  In the 1970s, Rastafarianism moved towards a more pronounced politicization.  According to the commonly accepted version, during his stay in Jamaica, Haile Selassie asked the Rastas to not consider emigrating before liberating their own country.  This inaugurated a new theme: liberation before repatriation.  The first apparition of the Rasta movement in the political space appear when the Rastafarian Ras Sam Brown, leader of the small Black Man’s Party, declared that the movement must target the overthrow of white supremacy and the end of the economic exploitation of Black people.  Michael Manley, leader of the PNP based his 1972 campaign on the abundant utilization of Rastafarian images.  This political aspect, as important as it was, is only one facet of the Rastafarianism that experienced a large diffusion in different sectors of Jamaican society and the expansion abroad through a rich cultural symbolism and its spiritual dimension.

Cultural Symbols and Spiritual Content

Many of the ethical elements of the Rastafarians, their comportment and their code of conduct were elaborated during the Pinnacle retreat.  The word obviously evokes a pinnacle, made of a religious edifice, or more precisely that of the Temple of Jerusalem.  The retreat itself was a movement of retreat from a world judged t

oo spoiled by corruption, exploitation and capitalo-babylonian alienation, a sort of spiritual escape.  After the police dismantled the community in 1954, many members found themselves living in slums with other marginalized communities.  They brought with them a rich cultural baggage which interlinked with the Rasta ethic and became reggae.  Reggae lent a religious content, a type of conduct and a storehouse of themes.  On the other hand, it provided a prodigious mode of expansion and diffusion to Rastafarianism.  These travelling companions would maintain this convergence to the English step.  It is only the exportation far from its Jamaican base that impoverished the interior profoundness of these two phenomena.

Dreadlocks and Ganja

These two images had already entered into the modern iconography of Rastafarianism conveyed by reggae.  Long hair worn in plaits (locks, natty) has a symbolically complex base.  They represent, in a physical manifestation, marginalization in regards to the “good hair” of functionaries and the Establishment.  The word ‘dread’, which was thrown at the Rastas was taken up by them, reworked, reused in a validating sense.  If for some, these curly locks resemble a nest of mythological serpents, such as the Greek gorgons, for the Rastas they reflect a connotation of force, that of the Masai, Somali, or Ethiopian warriors.  The locks can evoke spiritual ascension towards a superior goal, like that of the hermit who refuses all superficial worldly elegance.  The Sierra Maestra barbudos took a vow, so it’s said, not to cut their hair or shave before the successful overthrow of Batista, the Cuban dictator.  Hair is often seen as a source of vital energy.  In the Bible, the valiant Sampson loses his strength when Delilah cuts his hair.  Far from its original meaning, the image of the long-haired Rasta has suffered numerous contaminations, two of which are terribly “folklorizing”.

The first emerges from a hippiefied, unisex non-violent aesthetic while the second ties in to a darker, more ‘shocking’ aesthetic.  In either case, the aesthetic is rarely the externalization of a religious comportment conforming to the original context.  Ganja is the Indian name for marijuana in Jamaica.  The Rastas’ usage of it has multiple significations.  It serves as a narcotic, disinfectant, and culinary condiment.  Until 1913, its consummation was considered illegal under Jamaican law.  The origins of its appearance are controversial.  For some, it dates from pre-Colombian period with the Arawaks; others affirm that it was introduced by Indian immigrants starting in 1845.  Works on reggae and Rastaranism validate the Rastafarians Biblical justification of its usage.  In the book of Genesis 1:29, God says, “ »Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.”

Ganja also has religious uses.  As with many hallucinogenic plants, it enables a retreat outside of oneself for a purified encounter with a superior being.  The Haschichin sect (Smokers of Hashish, or herb) in 12th century Iran sought visions of Allah’s paradise through the ecstasy provoked by hashish.  The word ecstasy means outside of self, after all.  Ganja’s image, like that of locks, suffered a considerable deviation.  The Rasta’s spliff became associated with joints smoke by drug addicts suffering withdrawal.  The spiritual dimension is covered by a hedonistic veil, convenient for the nihilistic idleness of those who limit themselves to simple escapism.  From Rimbaud to Boris Vian, tradition has turned hallucinogenics into a fruitful source of inspiration caused by the disturbance of the senses.  The original image once again suffers a misappropriation covered by ‘cultural’ alibis.  The police’s persecutions and the activities of the Jamaican Connection traffickers brought on a strange displacement of letters, from leader to dealer.

I and Me

If ganga and long braids are imprinted with certain imagery, there has been much less popularization of another important aspect of Rastafarianism: language.  There is a language or a Rasta form of speech which reflects, following the example of other symbolic codes, a true spiritual revolution.  Take, for example, the word I.  I possesses a remarkable scope, firstly because it is associated with the sign I of Haile Selassie I.  Haile Selassie; being deified, this I (first) “fait partie” of the divine essence.  The believer, in order to identify himself with God joins together the I (signifying I) and the I of Haile Selassie I (the first).  In this way, one obtains the Rasta pronoun /and/ which represents henceforth the first person singular.  ‘Me’ is rejected as well. As a complementary pronoun, it can be object but not as an active subject.  This subversive promotion doesn’t limit itself to the personal pronoun; it explains many words which carry a powerful symbolic charge in the Rastafarian universe: equality becomes I-quality, protection into I-tection, and Ethiopia into I-thiopia.  Vegetation, in particular vegetables, benefit from this enriching prefix because the Rastas are vegetarians.  Calaloo changes to I-laloo and cabbage to I-bage.  The two belong to the category of pure and natural food called I-tal.

The Rastafarian Ethic

Since the blacks of Jamaica likened themselves to the true historical Jews deported to a shameful Babylon, the Rastafarian ethic developed a particular rejection of blemish, of impurity.  Alcohol and tobacco are dismissed as demoralizing products provoking the insidious destruction of Man.  A woman’s menstrual cycle is considered impure.  The indisposed woman is not allowed to sleep alongside her husband.  In regards to the woman and conjugal life, monogamous marriage seems like a Western institution, different from African polygamy.  Parallel to the permanent battle against Babylon which requires a combative attitude, it is the love for one’s fellow man, a desire for peace which must rule all relations.  Sebastian Clarke reminds us that “the Rastas feel a profound aversion to war, and will tell you that Jah has his own methods to deal with wicked ones or regulate the problem of overpopulation.  A famine can eliminate thousands of people, as well as a flood or an earthquake.  War is therefore useless.  For similar reasons, the Rastas are opposed to all forms of contraception.”  As for Nature, she is considered with respect and love because Ras Tafari is present in all natural manifestations.  It is Nature that provides the majority of healthy foods in harmony with Ras’ temperance.  “Rasta asceticism enables the poor to pass with dignity the head of mechanical detritus of the 20th century without shame or envy.  And especially, even though the Rastas are considered as pariahs who have rejected the material world, for the past twenty years their sect is the predominant cultural force among Jamaican youth.”

Rasta Music

Along with afro-Christian specificity of their religion, their ethico-moral code which makes them militant pacifists, an affirmation of identity and spiritual revolution, the Rastafarians add a musical element.  Their music results from different currents borrowed from afro-Jamaican traditions.  One can find the influence of afro-Christian songs born from the Revivalist movement (1860).  It wasn’t a matter of taking as is the songs of a White church identified with the slave-owning planter class.  They recovered the contribution originating from ritual music such as that of the Kumina (or Pukumina) which is the Jamaican version of the African religions of the New World: Haitian Voodoo, Brazilian Candomblé, and Cuban Santeria.  The most important contribution remains that of the drums of the Burru, a small community which safeguarded a distinctly African music, a music that was close to disappearing.  In 1950, the Rastafarians would integrate the Burru rhythms and make it the base of their religious music.  A religious music which took the name of Niyabingi, the name of military order founded by Haile Selassie and which began appearing in the Jamaican press in 1935.  The term Gounation is also used.  The dominant instruments are three burru drums, with the same function as that found in the religious percussion trios of Voodoo, Santeria, and Candomblé.  One of the drums plays the role of the bass, the other, the repeater, marks the rhythm, while the third, the fundeh, plays in syncopation.  Nyabingi music inserted itself into the Rastafarian cultural ensemble where the recuperation and valuation of African cultural traits play an essential role.

Reggae and Rastafarianism: Convergences and Differences

Similar cultural tributaries fed reggae and Rastafarianism with a different distribution.  Traditional music has a part, although it plays a smaller part in reggae where electric bass replaced afro-Jamaican drums.  A search for identity and an intensely anti-establishment spirit drove these two ‘grassroots’ movements to quote Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz.  This ‘grassroots’ culture experienced an ascension that took it from the marginal strata of society to acceptance on the national level.  Reggae and Rastafarianism intersected on the same social field, that of shanty towns where landless villagers, descendants of slaves, ended up at.  The same story was repeated in the majority of countries of the New World where Blacks made up a large percentage of the population.  In Brazil, samba and Macumba (Candomblé) were celebrated nationally, the same for son and Santeria in Cuba.  Haitian Voodoo which had inspired the slave revolt of 1791 earned the double prestige in history as a cultural resistance as well as an affirmation of values.  Rastafarianism preceded reggae by 30-odd years.

Rastafarianism constitutes an religious movement independent of the musical …  One can be a reggae without appreciating reggae and one can appreciate reggae without being a follower of Rastafarianism.  Starting in the 60s, Rastafarianism brought a stock of themes, images, symbols and a spiritual dimension to reggae.  Songs exalting the glory of Jah, the Ethiopianism that flourishes through several symbolic such as lions, the colours green, yellow, red, terms like “Ras”…  These themes are numerous: militant pacifism, the fight against Babylon (War Ina Babilone by Max Romeo, for example), return to Africa (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh in African, Mama Africa), and the rehabilitation of history (Bunny Wailer).  These singers often found their inspiration in the Bible.  One of Jimmy Cliff’s successes, Rivers of Babylon, is an adaptation of Psalms 137.  Peter Tosh adapted Psalms 23 for his song Jah Guide.  The ganja for which Peter Tosh demanded legalization; the locks as well as the cap all come from Rasta symbolism.

Near the end of the 60s, reggae asserted itself as the joyful mix of Caribbean (Mento, Calypso) and North American (Soul, Rhythm and Blues) musical influences on a Jamaican base.  As a music that started in the ghettos, it is the sonic mirror of these ghettos with their bad boys (the rude boys) and its denunciation of social injustice.  In short, it was real “rebel music”.  Denis Constant, in Aux sources de reggae, divides the lyrics into ‘culturalists’, those more inspired by Rastafarianism; and the ‘propogandists’, those who were more preoccupied with socio-political message.  In reggae’s recent evolution, we must also draw attention to dub poetry, a form of reggae where oral expression and the repetitive aspect is developed and more carefully worked on.  Dub poetry arose with a real vigour in England where it already has its celebrities such as LKJ (Linton Kwesi Johnson), Oku Onuora, and Mutabaruka.  Reggae, like Rastafarianism, is bubbling with vitality and creativity.  Much more than a trend, it is the result of a slow maturation of various socio-historic and cultural components rooted in Jamaica’s Afro-Caribbean culture.

By Raphael Luca

 

Table of Contents

To the Four Points of the Compass

Made in Jamaica

Made in England

From Paris to Abidjan

From Xamayca to Jamaica

Black Gold (Mineral)

The Road of Empty Huts

Social and Religious Movements: The Evangelism of the Revolt

The Rastafarian Movement Jamaican-style: Rastafari

Marcus Garvey Predicted It

God is Black

The First Leaders

Evolution of the Rasta Movement

Cultural Symbols and Spiritual Content

Dreadlocks and Ganja

I and Me

Rastafarian Ethics

Rasta Music

Reggae and Rastafarianism: Convergences and Differences

Bibliography

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