Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Word, Sound, Power, and I

[The Rastafari] have a slogan that says, "WORD, SOUND and POWER," a trinity. To them the word is both sound and power. It is sound not only because its effect is aural but also because it is capable of quality, capable of being "sweet," of thrilling the hearer. It is power because it can inspire responses such as fear or anger or submission. The articulateness, tonal variation, pitch, and formalisms are the Rastafari version of the sweetness of the sermons in lower-class churches, and to describe this level of expression they use the word "to chant" (Barry Chevannes, in Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, 1994, p. 227, italics mine).
The quality of sound, rather than the qualities (measurable and transcribable aspects), may be understood in terms of perception, how the vibrations of a particular act are heard or felt by minds and bodies rather than recording instruments. In a phenomenological ethnography of linguistic and musical expression, while there is certainly room for transcription and technical description, it is within this particular notion of quality that we can frame an experience of expressivity in order to inform an analysis of cultural life. Word-sound power (alternatively written as "word-sound-power" or "word, power, and sound," in addition to Chevannes' usage above) is a Rastafarian concept that signifies the shared experience of sound quality, the agency and spiritual potential of a speaker, and the collective resistance against linguistic forms imposed by colonial rule. When a Rastaman "sounds" (speaks, chants, or beats a drum), quite often he is cognizant of the layers of meaning beyond the indexical definitions of his words or the theoretical components of his musical performance. His tone, rhythm, and timbre are all significant, along with the wordplay involved in "I-an-I consciousness," the creative linguistic practice of Rastafari.

Manipulation of words is among the well-known aspects of Rastafarian cultural life, as it has been used extensively in reggae music, in which the oppressor (up-presser) is known as the "Downpresser Man," understanding becomes overstanding, and the objective "me" is frequently replaced with an "I" that retains the individual's self-determination. Central to this way of speaking is the InI (I-and-I) concept, the idea that all people share the same Iniversal (universal) I, which asserts equality while making a statement about the sort of objectification that, for example, the early Rastafari movement resisted in colonial Jamaica. Yasus Afari, a Rastafarian dub poet and scholar, writes, "Consistent with the RASTAFARIAN philosophy of one love, self, family, inity (unity), oneness and humanity, the I and I language reflects the RASTAFARIAN concept of one-in-all and all-in-one; the one-for-all and the all-for-one"(Overstanding Rastafari, 2007, p. 114, emphasis in original). In some cases, this re-creation of words is aimed at replacing syllables with word-sounds that reflect Rasta ideas: for example, me-ditation becomes I-ditation, u-nique becomes I-nique. In other cases, however, the beginning of a word is replaced with the letter I for no other reason than to reiterate the centrality of the I within the Rasta worldview.

Afari keenly observes that the spoken word is a means by which "thoughts, minds and persons can be transported" to the world that is being expressed through the sound (115). As he demonstrates within his own writing and performance, the word-sounds of Rastafarian discourse "re-mould, re-shape, and re-direct the perception of both the Jamaican and the English language and... revolutionize and re-calibrate the mentality and psyche" (125). InI language strives to create or restore a harmony between the various components and meanings of spoken words, which Rastafarians assert has been lost or suppressed by the Babylon system (a term generally used for institutionalized oppression, especially colonial rule, but which may also refer to any sort of evil in societies and individuals). More than merely symbolic expressions of an imagined ideal, Rasta speech acts are intended as transformative energies, sounds that constitute a new reality. As performative communication, "Dread Talk" may certainly be described as a means of constructing a desired social order; however, Rastafarian perspectives seem to attribute a more tangible creative power to the performance of sound, the vibrations of which have a measurable effect on the cosmos (see my previous entry on Vibration as Dialogue). I will be exploring this aspect of word-sound power in my forthcoming fieldwork, as I consider this creative process of communication with the Iniverse as an extension of the socially transformative power of performative speech. Placing the material world within the scope of linguistic communication, we can see how the environment and all living things might fall within "RASTAFARI's responsibility to free the people with the positive vibes, language, music and the creative energy of the Rastafarian Livity" (127).

In another useful definition of "Word-Sound-Power," R.A. Ptahsen-Shabazz draws a connection between this Rastafarian principle and the Dogon concept of Nommo, which I will explore in a forthcoming post. Noting the importance of "the accurate and proper use of the spoken word in defining, describing, and communicating reality," the author writes, "the Rastafari overstand that language in significant ways creates and governs external reality and should be used to bring spiritual clarity, positivity and further overstanding/innerstanding to that external reality" (Black to the Roots, 2008, p. 216, italics in original). Much in the same way that God/Jah spoke the world into existence (consider the repetition of "Let there be" in Genesis 1, along with the "Word" of John 1), a human agent "creates and governs" reality through word-sounds. Cosmology aside, even in a strictly social sense, the Rastafarian articulates a new order in which individuals are no longer placed into a hierarchy of "I and Thou," but rather given equal consideration and identical agency. The "InI vibration" is one that resonates among the "members of a new race" for which Haile Selassie I appealed to the United Nations in 1963. As this word-sound, "I and I," becomes more commonplace among Rastafarians and people around the world, perhaps it can ring in (either literally or on a conceptual level) an era in which common ideas about "you" and "others" no longer hold the human intellect captive to selfishness and discrimination.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vibration as Dialogue

I have been corresponding with Andrew Mark at York University, Canada, about a panel for the Ecomusicologies conference in Asheville, NC, in October. After reading my suggestion about "vibration as being in the environment," he brought up the notion of "vibration as dialogue," which helped me frame the following reflections on my fieldwork in Jamaica.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit Priest Dermot Fagan at his community, the H.I.M. Haile Selassie I School of Vision, Bible Study, Prophecies, and Sabbatical Worship, in the Blue Mountains of St. Andrew, Jamaica. Fagan pastors a unique farming community, teaching the Rastafari faith with an emphasis on repatriation to Africa, along with some unique interpretations of the book of Revelation with regard to current events. While the focus of our interview was the appropriation of reggae music by non-black, non-Rasta musicians, some of the first thoughts he shared with me pertain to Nyahbinghi drumming. In contrast to reggae, which despite its roots in the Rastafari movement is often considered a non-sacred form (it is even shunned by some Rasta groups), Nyahbinghi drumming and chanting is considered "original" music, a pure form of worship. Every Rastafarian I interviewed in Jamaica made this clear distinction, cautioning me not to equate reggae with their faith and culture.

Priest Fagan described the "one-two order," another term for the Nyahbinghi sound, as a means by which Jah expresses himself mystically, the two-beat pulse symbolizing the cross of Christ, or "judgment to the horizon, and righteousness to the [plumb]." This sound is "emanated and joined by the musical attachment, which mean the singing. 'Cause it not only the drum now reflect the one-two sound, but the songs that are sung in the operation of the churchical expression of the Nyahbinghi Order is so dynamic, meaning every song is sung with relevance, to reflect then ourselves as a people, traditionally and culturally." He continued by singing a song, "Over Land and Sea," expressing a common longing for repatriation, underlining his latter point about the lyrical content being a theological and cultural representation. This being a more obvious aspect of Rastafarian music, I want to return to his other point, the "emanation" and the "mystical" expression that comes through the pulse of the fundeh drum. When he made these statements, I was reminded of the "positive vibrations" I have often heard Rastas speak and sing about. Is this some kind of divine energy? Are there unique powers within the vibrations of Rasta music?

"So we now that are the children of the slaves, while we are dancing now, all of the constant sound, one-two, one-two, it kinda ignite the fire that was dormant... in our inner soul, that been suppressed, that been held down. It ignite the soul now, back to something that was lost: our purpose of being." Attributing this igniting power to the Nyahbinghi heartbeat, Fagan did not condemn or dismiss the other musical traditions that evolved in Jamaica before Nyahbinghi was "discovered," as he put it; rather, he saw reggae, ska, Pocomania, and other Jamaican forms of music as expressions of black people "seeking same way to reflect themselves to the land that they were taken from." What makes Nyahbinghi music unique, according to Fagan and other Rastafarians, is that it existed from the beginning of human history, the original music. "So, when we look at the one-two now, the human body that is espoused then, or is invoked then, or is enticed to participate with the... dancin'... something leap. The movements, the gesticulation, and you see him make the move. Why? Because the sound is binding the body, or is forcing the body into that gesticulating way, indifferent to the other type of sounds you have got around." Whereas he described popular forms of music as profane, vulgar, and lacking in "Christ-ness," the sacred sound of Nyahbinghi drumming "is unique because it binds the body, permanently and purposefully, onto the one-two reflection." Hence the need for a disciplined performance of the music; for example, the player of the kete or repeater drum, while being the only one who improvises among the Nyahbinghi ensemble, "will have to come right back to that one-two... him cannot go fast permanently, because that would have led him off into a mania, a poco spirit" (referring to the Pocomania drumming tradition).

Before we proceeded to talk about the significance of reggae and Nyahbinghi's African heritage, Fagan concluded his thoughts regarding the power of the drums with an idea that connects my research to the field of ecomusicology by constructing a relationship between drum sounds and environmental phenomena. "Can you imagine, if this is the cross of Christ, reflecting through the one-two order, emanating that power into the atmosphere... everything around it is bound that is negative. After seven or eight days, with that persistent constancy, judgment come in the earth. Sometimes it is tsunami, sometimes it is whirlwind, uncontrollable ferocity of winds, earthquake that shook, tidal wave that rise." I met several other Rastafarians in Jamaica who expressed the same confidence in the Nyahbinghi sound: when they gather for a sabbatical service or a week-long binghi, the vibrations from the drumming and chanting have a very tangible effect on the world. As Bongo Shephan explained it, "So those three beats from the three different instruments, combined in one, carry a force of connecting with the universe, or connecting with people.... Spiritually, you is livin' clean and doing the things that is upright and right, you can send message through those drums, and it have effect upon people and nations. Like we say, 'Lightnin!' and lightning flash. We say, 'Thunder!' and thunder quake. We say, 'Earthquake!' and the earth shake. Because all these instruments, with word, sound, and power, unfold the fullness of the power of the Almighty, the Creator of the universe."*

Although it is not uncommon to hear participants in a binghi shouting these words, "Lightning," and so on, it should be noted that Shephan is talking about the drums sounds. Like the fundeh drum's pronunciation of "Do Good" with the one-two beat, all of the drums similarly articulate a two-syllable word that symbolizes and invokes an environmental force. Boboshanti Priest Kassa explained the three Nyahbinghi drums - the bass, fundeh, and kete - as the thunder, earthquake, and lightning, respectively. In addition to these "temporal" connections between the drum sounds and the material universe, Kassa attributed a spiritual and bodily (which are nearly inseparable in Rasta philosophy) relevance to each drum, as well: the bass drum is the breath, the fundeh is the heartbeat, and the kete is meditation. “So these three drums, when they play at one time, they connect to your spiritual and temporal.” Kassa and his fellow priest, Navandy Thompson, went on to explain that this “authentically divine music” brings righteousness and salvation around the earth, and that one of the major problems with reggae music (many Boboshanti Rastas shun reggae music because of its musical deviation as well as the sexual content in some lyrics) is that it does not keep the one-two beat at the forefront. However, several Boboshanti I spoke with expressed that reggae has been a valuable “medium of the message,” even if the music can also be used for negative, deviant purposes. Kassa explained, “Word without works is vain; word and works is life” – that is, the message might be present, but the rhythms are essential for the life-giving powers of Nyahbinghi.


Of course, not all Rastafarians would avoid speaking about reggae music as a sacred activity. One of the teachers at Priest Fagan’s school related, “I can’t even explain it, because in reggae music, when it’s authentic reggae music, ya get a whole lot of things from it. You can feel the vibes, you can feel, you can just see the things, the words that are coming, you can actually see, you can visualize, you can relate to it.” Her experience with reggae music seems to be one that recognizes “vibes” as an indicator of authenticity (which may be a marker of spiritual and/or cultural integrity), in which sight, words, feeling, and relatedness are all received from the music as much as any sound (notice that she did not mention hearing, listening, or sound). Ras Ayenton, an elder binghi man who described Nyahbinghi drumming as a “riddim of life that coincides with creation, that makes the rain fall, that ignites with life when sounds travel out,” also praised reggae music as “a riddim that makes you think,” which has the power to transcend boundaries. In what seemed like a word of advice to me as a reggae musician, he said, “Now when you take up your guitar, you take up your guitar strong, man. You shake off, you shell off those discriminator garments. You are one with life now, you are one with nature, you are one with the Most High.”

While we can clearly see different levels of appreciation for reggae and Nyahbinghi music within the Rastafari movement, a common thread that I will explore further is this notion of vibration, especially word-sound and drum-sound, as a means of connection, communication, creativity, and transformation. These comments about the ability to feel the vibes and “actually see” the message in the music, the binding force of the one-two rhythm on the body, and the relationship between chanting and nature, seem to reveal a way of perceiving vibrations, not just with the ears, but with all of the senses, with all material and spiritual being. In this regard, music and language, in all of their rhythmic, tonal, and timbral qualities, present possibilities for co-presence, for one I to resonate and co-inhabit the space and time of another I, without inhibiting the vibrational agency of another. And certainly this is not limited to relationships between human beings; by striking a drum or uttering a word with any intention, we emanate our being into all sorts of beings, living and non-living, in dialogue with all. As I gather more ideas about vibration and word-sound from within the Rastafarian cultural perspective, I will consider the implications for all performative practice, artistic and otherwise, including the very ethnography I am setting out to conduct. That is, I will be doing more than asking questions; I will be exchanging word-sound power with another I, hoping that I can do justice to the experience when I transcribe it and synthesize it with the various theories and memories I will bring into my final analysis.