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.
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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.