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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I heard something awesome on NPR while driving today. I didn't have the radio on for long, and I can't remember which program it was on WHYY, but the conversation had something to do with education. One of the guests, arguing that children learn better through demonstrations and oral communication, said something like, "The overwhelming majority of human beings who ever lived have never read a single word." It sounded strange at first, as I had never thought about it in those terms before. But then I thought about it: the earliest Homo sapiens we're aware of lived at least 200,000 - maybe 400,000 - years ago; the first written language (or proto-writing) we know of is from about 7,000 years ago.

The guest on the radio show was making a point about how the human brain has evolved and what that means for how our species has historically (and prehistorically) absorbed information and learned new skills. This topic has some interesting implications for education, specifically. But I want to throw a few thoughts out there about the role that writing and reading have played throughout the existence of humankind.

(I realize there are probably plenty of studies out there that address my curiosities better than I'm about to. Oh well. Let me think out loud for a minute.)

It seems that written language was the catalyst for civilization as we know it. Without suggesting any causal relationship, it is important to note that both agriculture and the earliest forms of proto-writing appeared within 2 or 3 thousand years of each other, possibly closer. Writing facilitated trade, technology, government - it helped to speed up all of the other innovations of our species. As Dr. John Searle, UC Berkeley professor of Philosophy of Mind and Language, writes

So, the bottom line of this is that the big step between us and animals is in the language. But the big step between civilization and more primitive forms of human society is written language. Once you have written language, you have the capacity not just for creating a civilization, but getting these accretions, where the elements of civilization then build on earlier elements of civilization, and those build on yet earlier elements of civilization, until you get where we are today.

Think about that for a minute. Our species spent somewhere between 150,000 and 190,000+ years just talking (maybe just grunting and clicking for a big chunk of that time), hunting, gathering, talking, hunting, and gathering... and then all of a sudden we've got writing, farming, more complex forms of government and religion, better tools, institutionalized education, stringed instruments, explosives, advanced weaponry, electricity. We've got people up in space now. Especially after reading Searle's quote above, I can't help but think that written language played perhaps the most important role in the acceleration of cultural evolution and technological advancement. Think about Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century: before the printing press, how many people were literate? Monks writing on scrolls made up the majority of written materials (I think), until J-Gut comes along and makes it possible to print things faster. Education gets a boost, religion starts to get democratized, news spreads in a more consistent fashion, and - get this - people eventually start reading for fun! Can you believe that?

Since I've mentioned religion, and since that's the current "Weekly What?" topic, I want to close with a connection between spirituality and the written word. As I mentioned in our discussion yesterday, I've been wondering lately how much influence music had on the evolution of a spiritual consciousness in humankind. Neuroscience has shown that music activates several different areas of the brain, and I suggested that the activity or communication between these cerebral regions may have been one of Homo sapiens' earliest religious experiences. But what about reading? It certainly engages the brain on several different levels: vision, language, storytelling or reasoning, the tactile sensations associated with holding a book or turning a page. So it makes sense that written language triggered a dramatic change in consciousness, or in how we interpret and represent the world around us.

I perceive a sort of mystique about reading in our society. People like to "curl up with a good book," take a bestseller to the beach for the day, make a routine out of reading with the family. Libraries used to be highly valued places in many areas around the world, but of course that has changed with the internet - the most purchased items online are books. I suspect that many religions have "holy books," not because they needed to compile and preserve their oral traditions and sages' teachings, but because there was a sense among peoples of the past that books contain or convey some kind of esoteric wisdom. Even if people could read, they didn't have access to books like we do today, so the few scriptures that were preserved by religious leaders may have, in a sense, provided those leaders with a great deal of influence over others. Imagine only having seen a handful of symbols throughout your life, all written on walls or sacred sites. They grab your attention in a way that nothing else does, because they represent sounds and ideas, and they make sense only as your brain makes several connections. Now imagine that an important person in your community has a book with thousands of pages of these symbols, preserving ideas to be told word-for-word, unlike the oral traditions you may be more familiar with. Keep imagining.

So what's my point? My point is that written language has played such an important role in cultural evolution, and it all culminates right here, in this blog, benthropology. Stay tuned as the climax of human language unfolds before your eyes...