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.

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