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.