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.

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