By Dave Thompson
Nyahbingi lies at the foundation in of all modern Jamaican music. Purely acoustic, purely organic, it is, as Bunny Wailer famously put it, “the root of all rhythms. That’s where it begins.” It is the sound of Rastafarian ceremony, the grounation, the relentless percussion and the endless chant which both dreams back to the peoples’ African heritage, and looks forward to the day when they might return there. It is sacred music, best heard - as it is best performed - while musician and listener alike are shrouded in marijuana smoke, united in the hypnosis of the beat.
It is also fierce music. The word “nyahbingi” itself has been translated variously as “death to black and white oppressors,” “death to the whites” and “death to the Europeans,” a theme which dates back to 1935, when Italy justified her invasion of Ethiopia by painting Emperor Haile Selassie as the head of a secret racist African society pledged to overthrow white colonialism, the Nyahbingi Order.
It is likely that the Order itself was simply the product of a fertile Italian propaganda machine. No sooner were its name and aims published in the Jamaican press, however, than the Order sprang to life within Rastafarianism, with its goals apparently little changed from the Italian nightmare. When US President Reagan visited Jamaica in 1982, the interior of the island burned with nyahbingi as Rastafarians from all across Jamaica flocked to a week long grounation designed to ensnare the visitor in a death trap. (A recording of highlights of this ceremony was later released by Heartbeat Records as Churchical Chants Of The Nyahbingi.)
Nyahbingi developed slowly as a musical force - the term is, after all, often used interchangeably with grounation, to describe any Rastafarian service. As late as the 1940s, grounations were as likely to incorporate suitably reworded Revivalist hymns and paeans to Marcus Garvey as they were unfettered drumming.
Even this early, however, fierce religious and class conflicts developed between Rastafarianism and the more conventional Christian cults of Pukumina and Zion. Pukumina, in particular was a living religion, with a past, a future, and some very respectable relatives - despite the supernatural overtones of the Jamaican faith, American Baptist ceremonies are not that far removed from Pukumina services.
It had a culture, too, and a literary heritage; one of the finest poems in the Jamaican canon, PM Sherlock’s Pocomania (1949), describes a Pukumina ritual in terms and tones designed to entrance and defined by primeval fear: “Africa among the trees/Asia with her mysteries/Weaving white in flowing gown/Black Long Mountain looking down....”
Rastafarianism had none of these things. It was an outlaw cult (even among its sympathizers, few termed it as a religion) built upon the shifting sands of selective Biblical interpretation, historical isolation and iconographical infatuation. It was the sound of the slums, of the ceaseless hub-bub spilling out of the urban squatter camps at Back A Wall and the Dungle. Nobody, it was said in polite quarters, could ever write such a beautiful poem about the Rastaman. So the Rastaman wrote it himself. With the drums.
During the late 1940s, Leonard Percival Howell, one of the founding fathers of Rastafarianism, championed the adoption of “kumina” drumming as the liturgical music of the new faith, agreeing with the musicologists who stated that kumina was the last surviving vestige of the peoples’ west and central African heritage. It was an effective decision. Jamaican press reports of the first ever Rastafarian Universal Convention in March, 1958, made much menacing play of the “bearded brethren” dancing around a bonfire of old car tires, to the sound of the drums.
If nyahbingi is the sound of seething, defiant revolution, however, it is also, as aforementioned, the bedrock of commercial Jamaican music. It was a nyahbingi ensemble which Prince Buster sought when he went up into the Wareika hills shortly before he commenced a recording session in 1961 and, when he returned to Kingston with Count Ossie Williams (b 1928; d 10/18/76) and his four burro drummers, it was their drumming which elevated the Folkes Brothers’ “Oh Carolina” out of the realms of local R&B and mutated mento, and into a whole new sphere entirely.
Buster’s efforts, of course, were despised by the old guard. The first time he and Ossie arrived at the Jamaica Broadcasting Company studios to record, Buster later recalled, “(rival producer} Duke Reid was there and he see Ossie with his lickle drum in his hand and he laughed. They were jazz people at heart, and here I was, coming up with what they thought was simple music.”
In fact it was not. There are just three burra, or akete drums - the small, high-pitched repeater, the larger, flat, slack funde and the bass - but they weave around one another constantly. It was this dizzying snake dance which drove “Oh Carolina” to the top of the chart, not because listeners knew what they were hearing, but because those drums reminded them of what they were feeling and because, in so doing, they cracked the door on emotions which had been kept locked shut for generations.
Count Ossie was among the scheduled entertainers at the August, 1962, Independence celebrations, while he also cut several singles in his own right during the 1960s and early 1970s. But he was by no means the only practitioner on the scene. Skatalites Don Drummond and Johnny Moore also regularly attended grounations, there developing many of the musical techniques which they later employed on their own band’s manifold sessions.
Nyahbingi also influenced some of the most distinctive hits of the late 1960s. The Royals’ “Pick Up The Pieces,” Carlton & His Shoes’ “Happy Land,” the Abyssinians’ “Satta Amasa Ganna” and Burning Spear’s “Door Peep” all utilized minor chord melodies, slow rhythms and chants drawn directly from cultural traditions.
(Affirmation of the music’s eternal effectiveness, too, emerged in DJ Determine’s 1995 “Kette Drum,” a Bobby Digital production which swiftly spawned a host of versions, including Garnett Silk’s “Silk Chant,” Bounty Killer’s “Seek God” and Cocoa Tea/Shabba Ranks’ “Flag Flown High.”)
In more general terms, however, nyahbingi itself remained largely unknown (and certainly unheralded) until the early 1970s. Then, in 1973, Count Ossie led his grandiosely named Mystic Revelation of Rastafari through Grounation, historically recalled as the first triple album ever recorded and released in Jamaica. It did not sell especially well, but in a land where Rastafarianism itself was still regarded with more than a little suspicion and distrust, its very existence was a triumph.
Count Ossie recorded one further album, 1975’s Tales Of Mozambique, before his death, aged 56 (he also recorded a remarkable session with the band Culture, released 20 years later on their Trod On archive album). Already, however, other nyahbingi ensembles were emerging from the shadows, led by the long-running and vastly influential Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus, fronted by Ras Michael (born Michael George Henry.)
Again, the band was launched far from the hub of the Jamaican music industry, although - like Count Ossie’s ensemble – their very existence proved a magnet of sorts to the Kingston cognoscenti. During the early-mid 1960s, the Wailers were regular guests at the Sons’ meetings, while Ras Michael himself broke considerable ground when he was appointed host of Jamaican radio’s first ever program dedicated to Rastafarianism, the spiritually inclined The Lion Of Judah Time, in the wake of Haile Selassie’s 1966 state visit.
In 1967, the group cut their first single, also titled “The Lion Of Judah,” for release on their own Zion Disc label. Several further 45s followed, before they scored a proxy hit when U-Roy and Peter Tosh utilized their “Ethiopian National Anthem” for the intro to their “(Earth’s) Rightful Ruler” single. Further boundaries shattered when Radio Jamaica DJ Philip Jackson, one of the few other Rastafarians on the “inside” of 1970s establishment Jamaica, took to airing both Count Ossie and Ras Michael - and beyond - on his own, strictly secular, show.
Working now with some of Jamaica’s leading session musicians, RasMichael scored a hit of their own with “None A Jah Jah Children No Cry.” Success begat success; soon demand for the music was so great that a new band, the Daughters Of Negus, was launched alongside the Sons - future Black Uhuru vocalist Puma Jones was a member for a time, appearing on Ras Michael’s Movements album in 1978.
The group’s most notable feat, of course, was their ability to advance nyahbingi far beyond its own roots, and into the commercial arena. For all the respect he eventually earned, Count Ossie was best remembered in Jamaica for performing for Haile Selassie in 1966. His actual recordings passed utterly beneath the commercial radar. Ras Michael’s albums toyed with the best-seller lists.
Even the artwork was eye-catching - Rastafari designer Neville Garrick went on to become art director with the Wailers’ Tuff Gong empire. The hybrid worked, however. If the most understanding reviews of Count Ossie’s work were those which allied it to Nigerian band leader Fela Ransome Kuti’s similarly percussion and horn driven jams, Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus slipped effortlessly into mainstream reggae tastes.
Following swiftly in Ras Michael’s footsteps were the Light Of Saba, an aggregation which was similarly open to commercial influences, at the same time as remaining painstakingly true to their roots and beliefs - one of their finest tracks was a version of dub poet Mutabaruka’s “Outcry.”
Formed by horn player Cedric “Im” Brooks, the musical arranger at the Grounation sessions and a long-time veteran of Count Ossie’s earlier material (they recorded together as Im & Count Ossie), Light Of Saba formed in 1974, although their first album, that same year, From Mento To Reggae To Third World Music,was credited to the Divine Light.
As its title suggests, the record follows the full development of Jamaican music, but while it is fascinating from a musical point of view, the album was scarcely representative of the group’s full force. That became apparent with the release of 1976’s The Light Of Saba. Once again, the music allowed contemporary commercial sounds to merge, with covers of jazz-man Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” (retitled “Words Of Wisdom”) and Tommy McCook’s “Peanut Vendor.”
At the same time, however, the mood and movement of the album remained pure, which is as it should be. For what can never be overlooked is that it is nyahbingi’s very lack of commerciality that has allowed it to retain both its purpose and its perfection.
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