Thursday, December 8, 2011

To Create Without Owning

One of my favorite texts of all time is the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic believed to have been written in the 6th century BC by a monk named Lao Tzu, or Laozi.  A short, poetic text of 81 verses, it was not only the basis for Taoist philosophy, but it was also influential in other Chinese philosophical and religious traditions.  Even when Jesuit missionaries translated the Gospel of John into Chinese, they borrowed the word Tao as the best possible translation for Logos in chapter 1, verse 1.  Thus, "In the beginning was the Logos" (translated into English as Word, referring to the Son, the second person of the Trinity who incarnated as Jesus Christ), became "In the beginning was the Tao."  Typically translated as "Way" (also a self-description of Jesus Christ and the word used for the faith of his followers before "Christianity" was coined), the Tao is said to be the essential, unnameable, guiding principle of the universe.  To my mystical sensibilities, Lao Tzu's meditations on the Tao present a most humble and humbling perspective on the internal processes of the cosmos.

The Lao Tzu "Old Man Rock" near Quanzhou, Fujian Province, China

From time to time, I read a few verses of the Tao Te Ching for spiritual inspiration, rarely thinking of how its content might apply to any of my academic interests.  Recently, however, I came across a line that applies perfectly to some of the Rastafari whom I interviewed in Jamaica last year for my thesis.  It is the first line in this closing stanza of Verse 51:

To create without owning
To give without expecting
To fill without claiming
This is the profound action of Tao
The highest expression of Te

This comes from Jonathan Star's 2001 translation, one of many English versions.  Others offer the first line of this excerpt as "Giving life (or having) without possessing," "Creating without claiming," or "Produces but does not possess." I have chosen "To create without owning" specifically because both of these words expressed as such, creating and owning, were central to my ethnographic inquiry among Rastafarians of African descent in Jamaica.  My initial question and overall research topic was, "How do black Rastas feel about whites playing reggae, a musical expression that grew out of a black liberation struggle?"  I was curious about how members of an ethnic group perceive a sort of collective or cultural ownership of music.  What I found was that, not only is there a diversity of views on whether or not Rastas own the music, or what exactly such an ownership might entail; there was also an intriguing variety of terms used to describe the authorship or invention of the Rastaman's music.  For my thesis title, I used a phrase offered to me in one of my interviews: "We Black build the music" - that is, reggae (and its spiritual ancestor, Nyahbinghi music) is a construction of the African people.  Others suggested that reggae "was born out of" the black struggle in Jamaica, or that binghi drumming was "discovered by" or "given to" the Africans, presumably by Jah (God).  While some of my interviewees spoke of Rasta music in terms of a continuous evolution that culminated in Nyahbinghi as it is known today (albeit performed differently between subgroups), others stressed that Nyahbinghi is the "original" music, much like the African is the original human.

Without going into great detail about the discussions I shared with the Rastafari about black supremacy, I need to preface the following quote from Bongo Shephan Fraser (Nyahbinghi priest who guided me throughout my stay in Jamaica) with an explanation of a common view among Rasta that, because God is a black man, black people may closely identify with him.  The original humans were black, and they are the founders of civilization.  Because the African is made in the image of Jah, the divine creative potential may be ascribed to black people.  According to Bongo Shephan, black people created the entire world (and in this claim, he includes reminders of the contributions of black slaves who built the white masters' cities), so there is no question for him that Nyahbinghi and reggae music were created (or authored, or invented) by the black people.  In Shephan's view, this naturally implies a sort of ownership distinct from exclusivity:

As I say again, the music belong to us.  We are the creators of the music.  Seeing that music transcends all boundaries, though it’s my creation, any other nation have privilege to use this music for his upkeeping or his upliftment, because it’s a music of the heart.  So if it touch your heart, you’re gonna have to go and respond to it.  So by no reason could I use that against the I, regardless that this music was been created by I.  There are many things created by other nations and people that maybe I enjoy, many other people enjoy it also.  And you can’t use, because it was been created by a man to make a hammer to break the stone, you restrict the other man over there from using a hammer to broke the stone.  I don’t see that wise.  I see that every nation, kindred, and tongue have privilege unto the tree of life, and music is life.  Everyone have to enjoy himself playin’ music, because there is nothing sweeter to a man or a woman.

Bongo Shephan Fraser in his "office"

Bongo Roy, another Nyahbinghi Ancient (elder) responded differently to the question of ownership.  "Rasta can't own the music. It is for the world!"  In some cases, there may be a significant difference in meaning between "owning music" and "music belonging to," yet it was clear in some cases that cultural production necessitates cultural ownership, though not necessarily exclusivity.  One woman seemed rather conflicted on the issue, saying at one point that "Music belong to anyone. Music is universal," and a few moments later, "Definitely it belongs to the black people, culturally, yes."  But, while everyone I interviewed, regardless of their views on ownership, made no claim of exclusive privileges to Rasta music, some suggested varying degrees of entitlement to profits from international reggae music sales, especially in the form of racial reparations and "strengths" (charitable donations) to impoverished Rastas in Jamaica.  Only one of the twenty people in this study said that the Rastafari "demand reparation," and even in this case, it is difficult to infer from his statement that he would demand royalties from music sales based on his movement's authorship and ownership of reggae.

My thesis raised some interesting questions about cultural/intellectual property rights, something I hope to explore further in the future.  I am not pursuing this topic because of a conviction, one way or another, about the exclusivity of cultural production, the entitlements of purported "originators," or the authenticity of "outsiders" who imitate or reproduce indigenous art forms.  I do wish to open up an honest inquiry into these ideas (ownership, authorship, exclusivity, and authenticity) that gives equal consideration to emic perspectives on perceived cultural products, especially those that seem to contribute to social cohesion and a sense of ethnic identity.

But let's go back to the Tao thing.  The passage I quoted above (Verse 51) proclaims that the "profound action" of the Tao (the essence, internal nature, or guiding principle of the cosmos) is to create, produce, invent, or give without any expectation of receiving something in return.  This is also the "highest expression" of Te (virtue, honor, or morality), for one to act in accordance with the Tao by performing unrequited acts of giving, filling, and creating.  While avoiding syncretism, this unselfish action of the Tao reminds me very much of the way in which we Christians often speak of God, especially in this time of year, the Advent or Nativity season - i.e. Christmas.  One critique of Christianity (or religion in general) that I hear frequently is, "Why does God need us to worship him so badly?"  This would make God the opposite of the selfless Tao; however, I think this characterization of religious adoration is both simplistic and unfair.  While certain Biblical language and Western theological statements tend to characterize God in terms of his "jealousy" and insistence upon being the sole recipient of worship, it may be helpful to think of these as figures of speech that should not be interpreted as God's narcissistic need for love and devotion, but as something else entirely - I'll leave it for the Bible scholars and theologians to debate this while I close my thoughts with a little bit of Christmas spirit.

We talk about Christmas, or "the holidays," as the season of giving.  Christian tradition talks about the Nativity of Jesus Christ as a divine gift, a kenosis or self-emptying, and while there may be some Christians who say that God became incarnate to claim what he created for his own, what is ultimately idealized on the approaching holy day is, first and foremost, a selfless act of unrequited love.  With this in mind, we all celebrate the joy of giving at Christmas.  But can we truly give without claiming the act of giving, either in an expectation of gratitude or a reliance on the self-gratification that comes from making another person happy?  Maybe not, but what I wish for all of us this Christmas is that we may experience a spark of the desire to strive for that "highest expression of virtue," the power to create without possessing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It Belongs in a Museum?

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending the closing ceremony for the Discovering Rastafari! exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  My friend Jake Homiak, anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, curated this exhibit which opened four years ago, bringing his three decades of experience in Rasta culture into an impressive, comprehensive display of the movement's history and philosophies.  I didn't know about this exhibit until spring of 2010, when one of my professors happened to read about it.  She knew I was beginning my thesis proposal for a topic related to Rastafari, so she forwarded me some information, and I emailed Dr. Homiak (at that point in time, a complete stranger) for some advice about fieldwork in Jamaica.  Within an hour, he called me on the phone, and we spoke for about 45 minutes.  Without his help, I would never have pulled off the thesis I finished in April of this year.  So I was delighted to see him for this special occasion, and also to see Bongo Shephan Fraser, a Nyahbinghi priest who guided and took good care of me throughout my two weeks in Jamaica.

Dr. Homiak (left) holds a copy of my thesis which I gave him
at Saturday's event.  I'm holding an edition of Rootz magazine
in which a brief history of the exhibit is chronicled.
Upon entering the rotunda for this special event at NMNH, we were all greeted by Nyahbinghi chanting and drumming that echoed throughout the room.  The song being chanted was "Over Land and Sea," a Rasta repatriation hymn that took on a special meaning for me during my stay in Jamaica.  That's another story.

That's Bongo Shephan on the far left, wearing white, playing the green, gold, and red fundeh drum.
He's wearing an Ethiopian shirt that I bought him at a Rasta shop on South Street in Philadelphia.

After the opening chants, several people took to the stage to express their gratitude to all who made the exhibit a reality.  Among the speakers were Dr. Homiak, Prince Ermias Selassie (grandson of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia), and representatives from the major mansions (sects) of the Rastafari movement.  My girlfriend and I enjoyed some delicious Jamaican food and drink while listening to a local reggae band, Proverbs, and then took a quick tour of the exhibit.

The entrance to the exhibit pays homage to the gates of Rasta yards, rich with scriptural professions, symbolism, and iconography.  Note the Ethiopian Coptic-style cherubim in either top corner, the Stars of David (bottom), and the title, Discovering Rastafari!, written in a font that imitates Ge'ez (Ethiopic) script.

Given a relatively small amount of space, Homiak and his colleagues did an incredible job of packing a great deal of information into this exhibit.  It gave a brief history of Emperor Haile Selassie, whom Rastas worship as Jah (God), showcasing images and memorabilia from his 44-year reign in Ethiopia, including a sword that he presented to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in gratitude for his service against the Axis powers in World War II.  The exhibit also provided some background about the Pan-Africanism that preceded the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, especially the influence of Marcus Garvey.  Important documents from the early years were on display, such as The Holy Piby, The Promised Key, and the June 1931 issue of National Geographic.  Homiak explained to me that this issue of NG, which includes several color photographs and 60+ pages on the 1930 coronation of Selassie, was carried around by some of the first Rastas in Kingston, who would use the articles and pictures to show others how Selassie had fulfilled the events prophesied in the book of Revelation.  There were also several items in the exhibit - robes, drums, Boboshanti brooms, iconography, roots beverages, staffs - that gave visitors a glimpse into a rather diverse faith and culture that has spread all over the world and taken on many forms of expression.  A looped video complemented the items on display, exhibiting the indispensable sounds of Rastafari: the music and the Iyaric language, or Dread Talk.

A key aspect of the Discovering Rastafari! mission was to show the world that Rastafari is not strictly Bob Marley and marijuana.  While they did a great job of providing a comprehensive view of the movement, and some may have chosen to exclude reggae altogether, there was a small space dedicated to reggae music and its crucial role in spreading the message of Rastafari around the world.  Images such as the one below showed how reggae in 1970s Jamaica, while certainly appealing to people of all faiths and backgrounds, revolved around the person of Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie the first.

The Rastafari still commemorate the anniversary of Selassie's visit to Jamaica
in April of 1966, known as Groundation Day.  Those who witnessed
his arrival describe the events of that day as a supernatural occasion.

Several years of planning went into making Discovering Rastafari! a reality; but from what I have heard, the exhibit was not without its opponents.  I am not well informed of their arguments against it, so I am in no position to criticize their views.  I can only attempt to sympathize, both with those who were not happy about the exhibit, and with those who exulted in the Smithsonian's recognition of their culture and history.  I can understand, in some sense, that a very rich tradition with a unique worldview cannot be adequately contained within four walls in a small room; so I can see why some might deem it blasphemous to attempt to represent Rastafari in this way.  I can also understand the suspicions many Rastas may have about any institution, especially one within the heart of Babylon, presumably created to serve the ideologies and isms of the western world; so I can see why someone might accuse the creators of this exhibit of trying to misrepresent Rastafari.  There may have been other objections, equally valid - not because of their accuracy, but because most of the 81-year history of the movement has consisted of a struggle between the Rastafari and oppressive entities who have mischaracterized the Rastaman and his lifestyle.

I have an easier time sympathizing (and rejoicing) with those who saw this exhibit as an opportunity to share the beauty of Rasta livity (a term for the faith, lifestyle, culture) with an uninformed world, especially in an academic setting.  A few scholars, Homiak standing out among them, have earned the trust of several well-known figures in Jamaica's Rasta communities, demonstrating a supportive objectivity that enables a sense of pride and validation for those Rastafari who welcome such academic analysis.  Having written a thesis about certain aspects of Rastafari, in which I did my best to demonstrate a deep respect for their livity, I was moved by the excitement in the rotunda and the exhibit on Saturday night.  The Rasta bredren and sistren present that night were glowing with gratitude for what took place in that museum for the last four years.

We all look for some type of validation for our lifestyle choices, our beliefs, our identities.  When we hear about a museum, a documentary, a book, or some kind of spectacle that puts our precious traditions in the spotlight, we might be quick to react with suspicion or cynicism.  We might experience a mixed bag of feelings about who's representing us.  We might look at our own cultural treasures as things that can't be contained on paper or in pictures, but can only be lived and experienced.  And in some sense, people don't belong in a museum (to borrow a phrase from Indiana Jones), because our complexities and contradictions could never possibly be contained in a building.  But I think we are drawn to galleries and exhibits, movies and magazines, because we need to be challenged to see something, familiar or not, from a different angle.  And when you're being represented by a compassionate and skilled artist, photographer, or curator, you can rest assured that people will come away with a wealth of reasons to respect you.

(all photos courtesy of Jomary Sánchez-Montañez)

Monday, November 14, 2011

First Impressions (thesis excerpt)

(Exactly one year ago yesterday, I made my first visit to a Nyahbinghi, also known as a Groundation, a Sabbath service for the Rastafari of the Nyahbinghi Order.  These are some reflections I wrote at the end of the day, along with some thoughts I had later on in light of further research.  Included in the third chapter of my thesis, "Methods and Approaches," this story sheds some light on how I undertook reasoning with the Jamaican Rastafari, given the little up-close experience I had previously gathered with this culture.)

My first day on the island of Jamaica was full of unexpected adventure and conversation. I woke up early on Saturday to pick up my guide, Bongo Shephan Fraser, and we drove out into the countryside for the Sabbath service at a relatively new Nyahbinghi camp. Along the way, Shephan explained to me that this Nyahbinghi congregation has only been regularly observing the Sabbath for about three years, though there has been initiative among the Ancient Council (administrative board of elders) for several years to encourage the Rastafari to gather every Saturday for worship, reasoning, and readings from the Bible and the speeches of Haile Selassie. His Majesty was a strict observer of the Sabbath, Shephan explained, so the Rastafari people must follow his example by abstaining from work whenever possible, drumming, chanting, meditating, and studying holy texts throughout the day. Many members of this particular congregation typically fast for most of the day, according to Shephan; however, I was relieved to hear that we would walk down the road for some lunch when the bredren took a break from worship in the tabernacle.

Upon arriving at the Nyahbinghi center, a friendly Dreadlocks Rasta opened the gate for us and greeted us with what sounded like a formal salutation, reciprocated by Shephan (I was still having a great deal of trouble understanding the native accent and patois at this point). Red, gold, and green flags, matching the gate and the clothing of several nearby people, were flapping in the breeze as we drove up the hill to the tabernacle. We parked next to a building with the faces of Selassie and Empress Mennen painted on the front, and within moments of entering this cool, unlit structure, I was sold a tam, but told not to wear it inside of the tabernacle. Only a few people were nearby, as no drumming had begun yet; but those who witnessed my arrival immediately began shouting out names to me, mistaking me for their other light-skinned friends. When they realized I was a new face, they enthusiastically welcomed me to their camp, very interested to know why their priest had brought me along. One man approached me with a coconut in one hand and a machete in the other, asking me if I was thirsty. As I had never drunk straight from a coconut before, I made a mess all over my shirt, which earned me a few friendly laughs. Still, it was a refreshing and welcoming start to my first of two Sabbath visits.

Three priests were among the first people I met that day. We only spoke briefly before the service began, but our conversation seemed promising. When I mentioned that I was a reggae musician, they asked me if I liked Bob Marley. As it turned out, these priests “taught Bob Marley everything him knew about Rastafari,” and were close with the legendary Mortimer Planno, whose gravesite I had the privilege of visiting, thanks to these elders. I tried to summarize my research topic for these priests, Rastafari who have been active in the movement long enough to remember the days of frequent police brutality and persecution of the Dreadlocks. Their initial, firm response was one that I would hear in every one of my interviews: Rastafari accepts all, regardless of color or creed. Feeling the need to explain a bit further, I cited some examples of lyrics and moments in history where certain Rastafarians expressed a distrust or resentment of the white man. Rather than assume that this is racism responding to racism, I said, I came to seek a better understanding of these attitudes, especially as they are manifested in ideas about music. Seeing that I had done a bit of research on the movement, not just on reggae, these priests expressed their excitement for helping me to learn more.

A few bredren had been drumming in the tabernacle for several minutes when Shephan said it was time for him to tend to his responsibilities. While he walked toward the drums and began chanting, one of the elders motioned for me to come and sit with him. Bongo Roy was well into his eighties, locks in a net and tucked into his pants, his cane occasionally tapping the floor along with the heartbeat of the fundeh drums. I joined him on the bench and followed his lead throughout the service, standing and sitting at the appropriate moments. As several bredren entered the tabernacle, an open, round structure with benches along the perimeter and a decorated altar in the center, many of them greeted me with a smile and a handshake, or sometimes a slight bow with the right hand over the heart. After some time, the chanting stopped, a creed or prayer of some sort was recited, a few announcements were made, and then Shephan introduced me and asked that I say a few words about the purpose of my visit. I kept it brief and simple, preferring to be more of a passive observer for my first experience of Rasta worship. I even left my camera in its case that day, in order to absorb this occasion with my complete attention.

The bass drum is one of three drums in the kete system of Nyahbinghi drumming.
Like this one, they are often decorated with images of Haile Selassie and Empress Menen.

A few things were no surprise to me: the drums, the chanting, the sacramental herb, the laid-back atmosphere where worshipers could come and go rather freely, and the fact that, out of the approximately thirty people present, only two were female, and only two were children. Most of what I saw and heard during the service, however, was pleasantly surprising. The Psalms were read with reverence, although there was a brief stir when one of the bredren raised a question over which psalm was supposed to be read that day. And while it is no secret that “queens” have a traditionally quieter role in the movement, two of these psalms were read by a woman, and two were read by the child next to her. These same two also participated in a discussion on a selected speech of His Majesty, consulting a dictionary whenever there was a question over the meaning of a word. The priest read Selassie’s speech line by line, stopping after each sentence to ask for thoughts, and this repeatedly led to lively debate, bredren standing up from their benches to approach someone they disagreed with, or to address all encircling them. Two of the priests present, several years senior to the priest then reading the speech, said something like, “Read the whole speech first, then go back and discuss line by line.” This suggested to me that there may be some traditions that the older generation holds more strictly to, that there is not so much universal agreement on; more importantly, however, it shows the high regard that the Rastafari hold for the speeches of Haile Selassie, the words of Jah Himself.

The topic of this particular speech was a great one for me, as a student of anthropology, to hear upon my first full exposure to Rastafari reasoning. Most Rastas I had met in the past have objected to the term “religion,” stating that “way of life,” “movement,” or “culture” are preferable words. So I felt the need to tread lightly in my academic shoes, careful not to use words that might be accurate in Western categories, but might also demonstrate a lack of respect for my hosts. But this speech was one in which Selassie expresses the importance of religion for all of mankind, and the teaching priest that day was well aware that this term would possibly confound some of the bredren in the tabernacle. He asked for the child to consult the dictionary and to read aloud the definition of “religion.” After this was discussed, he asked the congregation if they thought that the Rastafari faith fit this definition. One man replied, “Yes, but if you ask most Rastafari, they would say this is not religion.” The priest countered that it is not the place of any Rasta to speculate on the opinions of another (this was an important sound for me to hear that day, as my research deals with speculation on the opinions of others concerning the opinions of others). Voices rose in volume and intensity for a few moments, one man walking around the tabernacle and gesticulating while arguing his point in an accent too thick for me to decipher. But before long, the bredren came to agree that, while many Rastafari throughout the movement’s history have openly rejected the term “religion,” it is a worthy label if His Majesty uses it, and the definition is not objectionable.

The Nyahbinghi tabernacle is a circular structure with open windows and doorways,
representing the welcome extended by the Rastafari to the world.  As a
popular hymn goes, "The door is open wide.  Rastafari bids you come.
There is nothing you will have to pay.  Just be wise and step inside,
and do not be like some who would let their chances pass away."

After some more chanting and prayer, the congregation took a brief lunch break. Shephan and I took a short walk and bought some corn porridge and kallaloo, talking all the while about what the scriptures say about religion. Unlike the legalistic, institutionalized religions that Rastas reject for many reasons, true religion consists of showing genuine love and concern for others, we agreed. Echoing my thoughts on the Epistle of James, Chapter 1, verse 27, Shephan told me that the Rastafari frequently repeat the following words in their creed and in their everyday conversation: “Let the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the aged protected, and the infants cared for.” These words assured me that I was among kindred spirits, for sure; but they also set the stage for the unexpected turn of events we found upon our return to the tabernacle.

With typical Jamaican hospitality, a member of the congregation greeted me with a vegetable sandwich, and although I was already full, I could not refuse it. But while I ate it, another man approached me with a request. One of the bredren had been bitten by a scorpion the day before, and at this point he was in need of immediate medical attention. Very few who were present owned a car, and those who did either had to stay to fulfill their duties at the tabernacle, or perhaps preferred not to drive on the Sabbath. I explained to them that I had less than a day’s experience on the left side of the road, but I would be more than glad to take the man to the hospital. When I saw this man shaking and sweating, and I heard that the nearest hospital was at least a half hour away, I hesitated no further, and I lost any sense of disappointment I may have briefly had over the fact that I would miss the rest of the Sabbath worship. I tried to keep up with conversation in the car with Shephan and another man who sat in the back with the suffering bredren. But while it may have been an interesting reasoning about my purpose on the island, or the subject matter of the morning readings, I could focus on very little besides the winding roads and the heavy breathing and moaning of the man behind me.

The man and his friend went into the emergency room while Shephan and I remained in the car, listened to his album of Nyahbinghi chants, and reasoned on a variety of subjects for about two hours. When the second man finally came back out, he told us that it had been a very close call, but the poisoned man would be okay. He would have to stay overnight, hooked up to an IV; but he would be able to return back to the camp sometime the following day. We all breathed a sigh of relief and returned back to the Nyahbinghi center shortly after sunset. A few people were still near the tabernacle, or possibly approached us when my car was spotted, to check on the status of their friend. They thanked me for helping their friend, and one of them showed a great deal of interest in being an interviewee whenever I had the chance to return. He told me he was a reggae musician, and that if I had enough time, I should come to his place to hear some of his recordings. I had to wrap up the conversation because Shephan was anxious to go home, and so was I. But overall, I felt that it had been a great start to my journey into Rastafari.

As the bredren smiled and waved goodbye to us, Shephan said a very encouraging word-sound to me. He told me that the bredren were all very grateful for what I had done for one of their own that day. “You performed a good deed on the Sabbath,” he repeated several times on the ride home. No doubt he had in mind the words of Christ in response to those who wished to criticize him for healing a man on the Sabbath day: 

What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11-13 NKJV).

Before the start of a binghi, a divine service also known as a grounation, the scriptures and
the sacramental herb are placed upon the altar in the Nyahbinghi tabernacle and
blessed with prayers.  The hexagonal altar is adorned with images of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I,
H.R.H. Empress Mennen, “GOOD OVER EVIL” (left), and statements from the Bible
and from Selassie stressing the importance of observing the Sabbath (center).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Coronation Day - Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

Today marks the 81st anniversary of the coronation of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.  Previous to his succession to this throne, he had been known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, "Ras" being his title, usually translated as "prince."  Hence comes the name of the Rastafari movement which started in Jamaica immediately following this coronation, which was thought to have been prophesied by Marcus Garvey as the "coming of a black king," and the fulfillment of some events predicted in the Book of Revelation.  Living under the oppressive rule of Great Britain, many black Jamaicans listened hopefully to leaders like Garvey, embracing their African identity and hoping for repatriation.  So, when Selassie was crowned, some of these Jamaicans began to teach that not only was this a sign of progress for Africa, but it was also the return of Christ to save his people, the true Israelites, the black race.

Selassie's coronation was attended by representatives from 72 nations, an unprecedented number symbolic of the industrial progress that Ras Tafari had promised to bring to an impoverished Africa.  Time magazine reported on the event, and in the following June's issue of National Geographic, 67 pages were devoted to the country and its new Emperor, including several color photographs.  While giving me a private tour of the Discovering Rastafari! exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, curator and friend Jake Homiak showed me a copy of this National Geographic issue and told me that some of the first Rastas would walk around the streets of Kingston, evangelizing, carrying a Bible in one hand and the National Geographic in the other, showing people how the coronation fulfilled a series of events in Revelation.  While, for the Ethiopians, the rituals performed in this coronation were virtually identical to those of previous emperors, the circumstances surrounding this occasion, in the view of some Africans in diaspora, allowed for a certain eschatological interpretation.  Thus the Rastafari faith was born among black Jamaicans who awaited their Savior.

Here is a brief slideshow of photos from the coronation in Addis Ababa, November 2, 1930, accompanied by Nyahbinghi chanting.

When I went to Jamaica last year, I had the privilege of attending a conference at the University of the West Indies, sponsored by the Rastafari Youth Initiative Council, celebrating the 80th anniversary of Selassie's coronation.  Members of many different Rasta mansions (sects) were in attendance, and it was my first up-close-and-personal exposure to the diversity within the movement.  Below is a clip of the binghi drumming and chanting at the end of the night.  I thought this selection was appropriate for Coronation Day, as the congregation is singing, "All nations have to bow, and crown H.I.M. King of Kings."

Enjoy - or as the Rastafari would say, "Fulljoy!"  For all of my friends out there who follow Rasta, may you have a blessed Coronation Day!

Social Media and Identity Theory

I'm slowly but surely getting familiar with Google+, and I see a lot of potential for networking with fellow musicians and academics, as well as connecting with old friends who never could get into Facebook.  The newest rival of Facebook hasn't quite caught on yet, and Zuckerberg loyalists love to point out that, despite the initial surge, many users have all but abandoned their Google+ accounts.  In my opinion, to see this coming required no prophetic potential at all: we are creatures of habit, and it takes a lot for us to let go of what we're comfortable with and try something different.  I only recently joined Twitter, and although I always intend to Tweet every band or blog update, I sometimes do so solely on Facebook, forgetting that I have other outlets to utilize.  New habits don't form easily, but the good ones are worth the effort.

So why do I think Google+ may be worth the effort?  My first impression of the site is still one of the main reasons I like it: the "Circles" feature is a clever and helpful way of visualizing our social relationships, and therefore more accurately reflects how identity is formed or conceptualized in real life.  Instead of an initial "acceptance" of someone into our social sphere, followed by grouping him/her under "Friends," "Acquaintances," "Work," "Family," etc., we take note of someone's first impression on us (either a public profile or a post shared by someone already in our circles), and we put them in one or more circles based on that interaction - not necessarily the categorization they would have us make for them.  Then, what we share with each circle varies depending on several factors: the function of the group, how much respect we're given within it, the appropriateness of the content we're sharing, and so on.  We also meet certain individuals in one context and think, "That person would fit in well with my other group of friends," so we introduce them, and new connections are formed.  For example, my blog posts are all shared with my "Anthro" circle by default; but if I'm blogging about reggae, I'll also choose to share the link with my "Rasta," "Music," and "Reggae" circles.  There's only so much I can share with "Friends" or "Family," so I share certain information with those to whom it seems most relevant.

This approach, viewing our social relationships in terms of common interests or goals, is consistent with social identity theory, and I have already seen how my own sense of "who I am" manifests differently from setting to setting.  Theorizing "group" in terms of self-conception, social psychologist Michael A. Hogg writes, "A group exists psychologically if three or more people construe and evaluate themselves in terms of shared attributes that distinguish themselves collectively from other people."*  The "Circles" feature of Google+ plays right into this phenomenon of identity formation in group contexts, and Facebook made a great move by following suit and improving their grouping options and offering a new "Subscribe" option for people you want to "follow" but not "friend request."  In other words, they took what worked from Google+, Twitter, and their own features, and they improved their site.  This is how competition works - just one more reason why we shouldn't be afraid to try new things.

But this doesn't mean that Facebook or other social networking sites will adapt by imitating what all the newcomers do.  In fact, conforming to popular theories in social psychology seems a bit uncharacteristic of Zuckerberg, whose outdated views on identity earned him some harsh criticism last year when he said, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."  Not only did this come as a slap in the face to those who are concerned about online privacy; it also rung false in the ears of anyone who knows anything about identity politics or contemporary psychology.  We act in our own best interests when we filter our output appropriately for a given audience.  There is certainly something fun and self-indulgent about publishing information on your own wall, especially with the new Timeline on Facebook, in a format that you can call "my space" to occupy as you wish.  But the inherent individualism in this approach is perhaps the antithesis of "social," and Facebook would be wise to continue balancing its Zuckerbergian epistemology with innovations that mimic the ways in which identity forms in traditional communities.

I've noticed many people on Google+ seem to object to Facebook mainly because they feel that they are being treated more like consumers, whereas in their new circles, they are in more intuitive human relationships.  Depending on how prevalent this perception becomes, Google+ might not be a great venue for marketing and advertising.  And maybe that's just fine.  I can see myself using Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ in three different ways, all useful.  And since Google+ is still young, we can only imagine at this point what will result from integration with Google Apps.  The new integration with Blogger is just one example of how Google+ might prove to be very useful to all kinds of online entities - even businesses.

So I have some questions for you:

What is your favorite social networking site, and why?  If you're using Google+, what are some of the features you're using?  What are some of the advantages over Facebook, Twitter, and other sites you're familiar with?  What have you learned about your own identity/ies through your use of these sites?

*Hogg, Michael A. (2006). Social identity theory. In Peter J. Burke (ed.), Contemporary social psychological theories (pp. 111-136). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sounds from Afar: The Honorable Priest Kassa

When I first arrived at Bobo Hill in Bull Bay, Jamaica, one of the oldest communities within the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC), my friends and I were greeted by one Priest Kassa.  We were received into a small room where we were asked to remove our shoes, belts, hats, and contents of our pockets, and to tuck in our shirts.  This act symbolized a cleansing from worldly attachments, necessary for the subsequent act of turning to the east in prayer.  After his prayer, I explained to the priest my reason for visiting: I was researching views of the Rastafari on participation of whites in reggae music.

Kassa immediately cut me off.  "First ting: Rastafari is not reggae," he said.  So I explained that I understood the difference, but that I am curious about what sort of cultural ownership is perceived among members of the movement from which reggae emerged, and I would especially like to hear the thoughts of those who do not hold reggae in a very high regard.  When he could tell that I was not just some young reggae fan, but someone with a legitimate academic curiosity, he lightened up and notified two other priests who would also be interviewed.  Then he led us to another room where he and a Priest Navandy shared a wealth of information and perspective about reggae and Nyahbinghi music.

You can hear some of their thoughts in my documentary, Our Songs of Patience.  One of my favorite parts is Kassa's explanation of the kete system (Nyahbinghi's 3-drum ensemble) in both environmental and biological terms:

"The bass drum, which we know, is the breath, your breath.  And that is the thunder, that what you hear roll in the heavens.  The fundeh, that is the beat of your heart.  And that is the earthquake.  The kete now represent the lightnin’ – the repeater.  Like how you see the lightnin’ flash, that is your meditation.  So these three drums, when they play at one time, they connect to your spiritual and temporal."

The priest is also a musician who primarily records Nyahbinghi music.  Some of his music, like the video below, is more like mainstream reggae, following the examples of his Bobo bredren, Capleton and Sizzla.   Though it is not the divine music of the Rastafari, proper for Sabbatical worship, it is still "churchical" in terms of its lyrical content.

I've taken a serious liking to Kassa's songs of the Nyahbinghi variety, which you can hear on his MySpace page.  Until I can convince him to post more, enjoy those four.  The one that gets stuck in my head a lot is "King David."  One of these days, I hope to hear his explanation of the line, "King David is our God and King."  Is David considered by the Boboshanti to be one of several incarnations of Jah (God)?  This could make sense in light of the fact that, for the EABIC, the Holy Trinity is Haile Selassie I (King), Marcus Garvey (Prophet), and Emmanuel Charles Edwards (Priest), together representing the three divine vocations of man.  It would seem that this teaching implies that Jah has taken human form several times throughout history.

Priest Kassa, if you're reading this, would you mind weighing in on this matter?

Until then, enjoy the honorable priest's music.  Jah bless.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mullet versus Beards

When I published yesterday's post about facial hair, I was completely unaware of the recent news about a conflict within Ohio's Amish community.  Sam Mullet, leader of a compound that has broken away from the mainstream Amish in the area, doesn't like the fact that some people call his group a "cult."  Although he has made a few enemies recently, he and his followers have come up with a sinister method of instilling fear in those who dishonor Mullet: cutting off their beards.  Amish men consider their beards not only an important sign of their manhood, but also a sacred duty based in the Biblical mandate not to trim the beard (see references to Leviticus 19 and 21 in my previous post).  So cutting off the trademark Amish chinstrap - with electric shears, no less - is a vicious and emasculating thing to do to your fellow Amish, much like the Ammonites did to King David's servants (again, see yesterday's post, reference to 2 Samuel).  It's interesting to think about how something like facial hair has played a strong cultural role throughout history; but when I hear stories like this one, not far from home, I'm reminded of how interesting cultural studies can be in the present day.

Though the Amish are known for their pacifism,
their look might rank among the scariest this Halloween.

I don't mean to make light of what's going on in Ohio.  I have a lot of respect for the Amish lifestyle, and I despise violence, no matter who it happens to.  But I just have to say something about the fact that the man at the center of this controversy is named Mullet.  I heard this story on the radio while driving to work last night, and I actually laughed out loud.  The "mullet," for those who don't know, is a hairstyle that has come and gone over the years, and it's one of those fashion phenomena that have never made much sense to me (although I sorta had one in 7th grade, for a few weeks).  Don't worry, I'm not going to go into the history of the mullet now, but I do have to share one interesting couple of facts I just came across. Last year, the mullet was one of a few styles on a list of forbidden hairstyles in Iran, an attempt to remove "decadent Western cuts" from society.  Aside from the puzzling choice of what's acceptable, including hair gel and the previously-forbidden goatee, what I find most amusing about this mullet ban in Iran is that the earliest historical recording of the mullet (that I've found, anyway) is a 6th-century Byzantine historian's reference to this style being typical among a nomadic Iranian tribe called the Massagettae, later known as the Huns.  So the Iranian government, in an attempt to reject evil Western influence, has officially banned the famous style that may have first appeared right there in Iran.  Irany?

Rumors are spreading that Bono will
bring back his '80s look in an effort
to restore fashion rights in Iran.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Hair of My Chinny Chin Chin

As I come to terms with the possibility of taking a job in food service - something I swore I'd never go back to - I have to consider the possibility of shaving my beloved beard.  I understand the appeal of a smooth, clean-shaven face, but the pros of a beard far outweigh the cons, in my opinion.  Shaving takes a few precious minutes out of my day.  It makes me look like I'm 12.  It leaves me nothing on my face to play with, except for my nostrils.  Shaving makes me feel like less of a man.

Luckily, I have a girlfriend who likes my beard.  But there are many employers out there, not just in the restaurant business, who have a deep-seeded prejudice against facial hair.  It's rare that you see a news anchor or influential celebrity with more than a mustache, if anything, and good luck getting elected to public office if you don't shave every morning - our last president with facial hair was Taft (1909-1913)!  God forbid anyone working for the airlines grow a beard.  I can't help but notice that, whenever my beard is getting bushy, I'm "randomly selected" for searches at the airport.

I often wonder why our culture has such an aversion to this most obvious feature of sexual dimorphism.  It's not like shaving is anything new - flint razors dating back to 30,000 B.C. show that obsessions with appearance are prehistoric - but the reasons for bearding and non-bearding have changed a lot over the millennia.  So I took a quick look at the history of how societies have dealt with facial hair.

This blogger, Falcon, gives a great rundown of the history of shaving.  Make sure you read both installments if you have the time.  You don't?  Okay, I'll summarize.  Around 100,000 B.C., it is thought that people used seashells to pluck out hair.  By 30,000 B.C., we had flint razors, probably only good for a few uses.  The Bronze Age brought copper razors, and iron was first used around 1,000 B.C.  The ancient Egyptians believed that shaving was an important part of being civilized humans.  The Sumerians around the same time were using some sort of tweezers for plucking facial hair.  Then Alexander the Great comes along and requires his soldiers to shave in order to prevent beard-related deaths on the battlefield.  Ancient Romans often gathered at local barbershops, taking their chances with tetanus from the iron blades, and Julius Caesar had his beard plucked with tweezers while his soldiers used pumice.  Jump to the Middle Ages, and you have the post-schism Roman Catholic Church requiring shaven faces to distinguish themselves from Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews - and this difference is still widely evident today among clergy and monastics.  By the 1600s, a smooth face was required of a distinguished gentleman, and this led to the invention of safety razors in the 1700s... and eventually the Gillette company came along and we got to where we are today: an entire industry of razors, creams, and gels to serve our obsession with smooth skin.

Forget the Filioque - we need to come to some kind
of agreement on this beard thing.

Of course, this was just a brief overview of shaving in the Western world, and it did not take into account the evolution of mustaches, goatees, and other creative facial hair styles.  A more significant omission, in my opinion, is the history of the beard in the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament.  Briefly searching, I found several references to shaving or cutting the beard, the first of which is in Leviticus 19, where shaving off all body hair is part of a ceremonial cleansing from a skin disease (leprosy, perhaps?).  Leviticus 19 forbids "cutting off the edges of the beard," one of a peculiar set of regulations that ranges from growing monocultures (something we now know to be a bad farming practice) to not wearing clothing made from two types of fabric.  The "no cutting the edges" rule is repeated in Leviticus 21, this time in a command to priests not to do so, nor to cut their bodies.  The context here makes me wonder if shaving may have been a part of a ritual for priests in other cultures.  At the very least, we know that the Egyptians had an obsession with shaving; so maybe the Israelites' rules against shaving were part of a broader rejection of their former masters' culture.  And then there's the Nazirite vow, detailed in Numbers chapter 6, which forbids any hair cutting whatsoever, along with grapes and funerals.  This passage of scripture is one basis of the dreadlocks and Ital diet of Rastafari.  The most famous Nazirite was Samson, who lost his superhuman strength after his girlfriend Delilah had someone cut his hair while he was asleep. 

"Samson and Delilah" by Anthony Van Dyck (1616-1621)
depicts the cutting of the great Nazirite's hair as he lay in
the lap of his albino girlfriend, Delilah.

Moving on from the Torah to the prophets of Israel, we see instances in the books of Ezra, Isaiah, and Jeremiah where shaving of the beard is a part of grieving or atonement.  In the book of Ezekiel, covering of the mustache and beard - not shaving - seems to be a popular mourning custom.  And then there is the funny story about King David sending some of his servants to the Ammonites to offer condolences for the loss of their king.  When the Ammonites suspected that the Israelites were spying and plotting to take over, they "took David's servants, shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, at their buttocks, and sent them away. When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, 'Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return'" (2 Samuel 10:4-5).

While I was preparing for my thesis research in Jamaica, my friend Jake Homiak, who has studied among the Rastafari for over 30 years, advised that I stop trimming my beard, as a less groomed look would earn me a warmer welcome among the Rastas.  Indeed, a beard is as valuable as dreadlocks for many men within the movement, and even some of the women I met allowed the hair on their chin to grow.  This comes in part from the Rasta emphasis on non-interference with nature, but it is also ascribed to the Nazirite vow, as I mentioned above.  Though I have no textual evidence to back this up, I believe that, to a great extent, the rejection of hair cutting, straightening, shaving, and other Western fashions was part of a conscious rejection of the colonizers' customs, a symbolic return to Africa, at least for many of the Rastafari.  The beard also took on political implications in Jamaica, as the "beardsmen," as some of the early Rastas called themselves, were identified with the famously bearded Marxist, Fidel Castro.

I was happy to have an academic excuse to grow out my beard, and I look forward to having my facial hair be acceptable among my fellow scholars throughout my career.  But as we have seen, not every vocation is so accepting of facial hair.  Unless you can acquire an exemption for religious reasons or extreme skin sensitivity, many employers will make you shave at least some of your face.  While some women find beards attractive, perhaps the fact that some men shave just for their ladies is a sign of progress, women's feelings actually being taken into consideration.  And although sports sensations like Brian Wilson might not make beards a long-term hit, at least we can hope that the "playoff beard" tradition lasts long into future generations.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Another Dawn of Something

Last week, I read a post on an NPR blog discussing the unearthing of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, and this immediately appealed to my growing interest in the evolution of religion.  Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologist who has led this excavation for the last 17 years, is not alone in his speculation that this site may be the world's oldest temple, and therefore that a sense of the sacred in human consciousness and behavior gave rise to civilization.  This is a significant shift from what many anthropologists have traditionally assumed, that environmental pressures gave rise to agriculture, which in turn gave rise to civilization as we know it.  But, as an article in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic points out, there is still no consensus, and there is always the possibility that several different "paths to civilization" were taken alongside of agricultural and religious means.

More recently, archaeologist Ted Banning has suggested that the structures at the dig site might be domestic space rather than sacred space, although he acknowledges the likelihood that some rituals did take place there.  Like many of those who posted comments on NPR's coverage of this story, Banning takes issue with the assumption that the presence of decorative art in a building indicates its use for religious purposes.  One of his reasons for objection is that, among ancient peoples, there was no sharp distinction between sacred and profane; in other words, we should not be so quick to impose our Western perception of a religious/secular dichotomy onto prehistoric cultures.

This important find is sure to spark debate for years to come, but I just want to share two quick thoughts about the two positions I've summarized above.

1. First of all, terms like "dawn" or "origin" don't sit too well with me.  To be fair, I'm sure that writers like Charles Mann (National Geographic) might very well be using the phrase, "The Dawn of Religion," loosely.  But I think that it would be more helpful for the layman's understanding of cultural evolution if we stuck with terms like "emergence," or "significant advancement in the continuous development of," if you're not into the whole brevity thing.  This is an important point that my thesis supervisor, Paul D. Greene, drove home with me last year.  Instead of thinking about music as "having originated with" or "being invented by" a particular culture, I learned to look at Nyahbinghi and reggae as genres that emerged from Jamaican religious and popular music, respectively.  Like music, religious practices are always changing to reflect environmental pressures, social orders, and scientific discoveries.

2. In addition to the point Banning makes about the false dichotomy between sacred and secular, I'm fascinated by the idea that religious art and ritual appear to have been integral pieces of domestic life.  I'm not too familiar with any theories related to my speculation here, but it seems to me that, if religiosity did indeed predate early human agriculture-based settlements, and if expressions of worship and mysticism first took hold in smaller domestic settings, then the eventual organization of religion transferred family dynamics into religious hierarchies.  In other words, I wonder if priesthood was a natural outgrowth of a male-dominated family model in the fertile crescent, or if we can even hope to find archaeological evidence to suggest or discredit this possibility.

Regardless, these 11,000-year-old structures show us that we have much yet to learn about our own species.  And we can only hope that this means more jobs for anthropologists in the years to come.

Monday, October 3, 2011

One Two Three Four - Part Two

As I wrote in my previous post, I will be counting Nyahbinghi rhythms based on the one-two of the fundeh.  The fundeh provides the constant pulse while the bass drum is played only on the downbeat, or the "one," and the repeater (aka the kete, slightly higher pitched than the fundeh) is improvised upon.  In the two videos I posted on Friday, you can hear the distinct "one-two" being played on the fundeh, and how the tempo in each performance affects the approach to the repeater.  What they both have in common is that the stressed beats are the 1 and 2, unlike a great deal of popular music, especially rock and hip hop, where the accents are on the 2 and 4.  Even if we are to count the rhythm as "one-and-rest..." at a faster tempo, we're still hearing the beats on the 1 and 3, not the 2 and 4 of mainstream music.

The Rasta priests I spoke with in Jamaica emphasized the importance of the one-two beat as a foundation for everything played and sung along with it.  So I found it a bit surprising when I gave another listen to Grounation by The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, which is (I think) the earliest recording of Nyahbinghi music, and I heard what I'm about to show you.  Most of the songs on the album, even the faster ones, contain the one-two exactly as I've shown you, typical of the binghi I heard in Jamaica and on every binghi recording I have ever heard.  But this excerpt from the two tracks called "Groundation" exhibit the opposite: fundeh hits on 3 and 4, not 1 and 2.  These tracks are very similar to a grounation, or binghi, a worship service for Nyahbinghi Rastas.  However, for the majority of the recording, the fundeh is played on the 3 and 4 (or "2-and").  So what?  Maybe this is just something that some Rastafari do on certain occasions, right?  Maybe.  But in the following clip (accompanied by a fun little slideshow I put together), I believe that what we're hearing is representative of a struggle between downbeat and upbeat, 1-2 and 3-4, in the earlier years of Nyahbinghi music.  At 1:34-1:35 in the video, notice how one of the singers seems to bring the others into the one-two rhythm when he comes in with the line, "So be wise and step inside...."  Then, around 2:40, voices begin to fade in with "Wipe My Weeping Eyes," reverting back to the way they were counting before 1:34.  The fundeh is constant, but the way the singers begin their phrasing in these instances suggest that there are different ways of interpreting the fundeh beat: either 1-2 or 3-4.  Listen closely:

When I first heard this, having been taught by several Rastas that binghi is counted with the fundeh on the one-two, I suspected that maybe the musicians in Count Ossie's circle had been influenced by popular American music - R&B and rock, specifically, where the accents are on the 2 and 4 - and that the brief change was perhaps an effort by one or more musicians to bring the whole group back to the original one-two.  Given that the majority of this album features the one-two rhythm performed in the way I'm familiar with, this seemed like a reasonable guess on my part.

Then I came across an important text by ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel.  Caribbean Currents documents several musical traditions of the region, including a chapter on Jamaican music that I should have read years before.

Click for more info on this book
Ethnomusicologists have written about the contributions of Kumina and Buru, two African-derived drumming traditions in Jamaica, to the invention of Rasta music by Count Ossie and his contemporaries.  So when I came across Manuel's notation of Kumina (or maybe it was Buru) drumming in this book, with accents on the 3 and 4, not the one-two, I began to consider the possibility that the emphasis on the one-two was a later innovation of the Nyahbinghi.  But I have since heard Kumina examples such as the videos below, where it seems that the fundeh is playing the one-two, and it is the much louder, higher-pitched drum that emphasizes the 3 and improvises, basing its phrasing on the one-two of the fundeh.  So, if it is a Buru influence that we hear in "Groundation," then I suggest the possibility that Kumina and Buru may have been temporarily conflicting influences in the development of Nyahbinghi music.  Listen for the one-two (at a much faster tempo) in the following Kumina clips:

It could be that the change from 3-4 to 1-2 in the "Groundation" excerpt reveals a tension between Kumina and Buru, or some other pre-Rasta drum tradition.  It could be that the Rasta musicians in Count Ossie's group would occasionally get mixed up, which could be rather easy to do when the higher-pitched percussion on the upbeat (3-4) are often significantly more audible than the fundeh on the one-two.  Or it could be that the influence of popular Western music, with its stresses on the "2-and" and "4-and" of 4/4 time (paralleling the 3-4 of 4/8 time, one way of counting Nyahbinghi), conflicted with the one-two, which eventually won out to become the universal rhythmic stress in Rasta music.

As both a conclusion to this post and a preview of a forthcoming post in which I will explore the influences of Nyahbinghi on reggae music, I refer to a recent article by Kenneth Bilby*, in which he discusses the contributions of several early binghi drummers on what evolved into reggae.  Bongo Herman, for example, is quoted as saying that reggae's skank (its trademark percussive rhythm guitar), always played on the off-beat (which can be regarded as a "three-four" in the current discussion), comes "straight from the funde" (9).  Again, there seems to be a diversity of understanding as to what the one-two is, where the stresses belong, and at what tempo the binghi rhythm should be played.  Reggae demonstrates the various possibilities of interpretation or translation of these rhythms onto different instrumentation.  The evolution of Nyahbinghi, however, perhaps because of its role in religious worship, may exhibit a sort of purism in that the majority (if not entirety) of binghi music today is based on the fundeh's one-two.  As my documentary shows, this "heartbeat" is of utmost importance to many Rastafari; however, there are still clear differences in tempo and kete rhythms that I will explore later.

*Bilby, Kenneth. "Distant Drums: The Unsung Contribution of African-Jamaican Percussion to Popular Music at Home and Abroad." Caribbean Quarterly. University of the West Indies Caribbean Quarterly. 2010.

Friday, September 30, 2011

One Two Three Four

I've been doing some more research on one of the topics I addressed in my thesis: the "one-two" rhythm of Nyahbinghi drumming, the sacred music of Rastafari.  Many Rastas I met in Jamaica described this rhythm as a "heartbeat;" one added that it represents "thunder;" and another called it "a divine trod."  Regardless of what it symbolizes, this "one-two" rhythm is played by the fundeh, or congo drum, and it is the incessant pulse that identifies Rasta music.  In many ways, the Nyahbinghi rhythm also influenced the emergence of reggae.  So this one-two is a beat that many Rastafari value as a sacred tradition, connecting them to Africa in a spiritual and nationalistic union.

Yet, as Rastafari evolved in several isolated communes or camps, first around Kingston, then throughout Jamaica, the musical traditions of each group developed into a unique variation on the one-two.  The Boboshanti, for example, play the fundeh (and clap along) on what we Western musicians would typically count as "One-Two-(Rest-Rest)."  See this video from Bobo Hill in Bull Bay, JA:

The Boboshanti (their official name is Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress) is regarded as the strictest of the mansions (sects) of Rastafari.  The EABIC and the Nyahbinghi Order (full name Theocratic Priesthood and Livity Order of Nyabinghi) are considered the most "orthodox" of Rasta mansions, although the movement is one that has historically shied away from dogma and hierarchical leadership.  Still, among these groups is a desire to preserve the purity of their Nyahbinghi music, and during my 2010 stay in Jamaica, I was made aware of the criticisms of both Bobo and Nyahbinghi Rastas about each other's style of playing the one-two rhythm.  Compare the EABIC video above to the clip below, typical of drumming within the Nyahbinghi Order:

Notice how the one-two is played faster, and how the repeater drum (also called the kete, a higher pitched drum that plays along with the one-two but also improvises) is played slightly differently than in the Boboshanti video.  There are also more obvious differences in these videos: dancing vs. clapping, style of dress, wrapped locks.  But the perhaps less noticeable differences in rhythm and tempo were pointed out to me by both Bobo and Nyahbinghi Rastas.  One Bobo priest, for example, said that the Nyahbinghi Order tends to play the rhythm too fast, and that they include a third beat as well (he may be referring to the "and-one-two" displayed in some Nyahbinghi recordings).  A Nyahbinghi priest, on the other hand, told me that the Bobo do not play the bass drum correctly, and that they have a "poco" influence (a reference to Pukumina or Pocomania music, a pre-Rasta religious tradition in Jamaica).  These comments sparked my interest in the relationship between rhythm and collective identity, something I hope to research and blog about over the next several years.

A musician reading this might say, "Wait a minute! The rhythm in that second video, the Nyahbinghi Order style of drumming, is actually 'one-and-rest... three-and-rest....'"  Sure, you could count it that way.  But what's important here is not how Western music theory tends to count or represent music in numbers and on paper.  What I'm concerned with is how music is perceived from within a particular group, and in this case, the Rastafari value a rhythm that they count as "one-two."  So in future posts about Nyahbinghi music, I will count quarter notes based on the hits of the fundeh as "one-two" (two quarter notes).

This weekend, I'll be following up with an analysis of an interesting incident that occurs on the Grounation album by Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, a group founded by Count Ossie, who is credited with synthesizing elements of various African musical traditions to bring Nyahbinghi music to the Rastafari.  Grounation is a must-listen for anyone interested in Rastafari or the origins of reggae music.  So, before reading my next post, you may want to check out this album, along with the 32-minute documentary I made for my thesis.  The video will familiarize you with the 3-drum system of Nyahbinghi music, also known as the kete system.  Check it out on the "Video" tab above, or on the Penn State Brandywine Honors blog.