On the spiritual significance of the influential Rastafarian drumming style.
I found this article on the Red Bull’s music academy website and thought it fitting to share with you. I have included some of my personal meditations as a Nyabinghi man.
The African Heritage Foundation will be hosting a Nyabinghi groundation on the 1st March in remembrance of the “Battle Of Adowa”. It also host with the Nyabinghi Order a reggae house lime every third Saturday of the month called, ” The Red Light Congo Nights”. This article informs us on the history of the Nyabinghi Drum, which is also the foundation of Reggae music.
The Nyabinghi groundation is the gathering of young, right up to the elders. It is a church of speaking good, with no fooling around or slackness talk. There is meditation. It was about the study of the Bible, of the history and of the study of man’s existence. It was a solemn assembly.
Nyabinghi drumming takes its name from a form or “mansion” of Rastafari and created the rhythmic bedrock for ska, rocksteady and reggae, and therefore the myriad of music that followed. It’s a great example of how music with a devotional aspect can be enjoyable and meaningful even when divorced from an explicitly religious setting. The rhythms, pioneered and recorded on Wareika Hill by Count Ossie, and expanded on by artists like Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, have a comparable influence to gospel, which famously also moved from sacred to secular; they are a percussive counterpart to gospel’s voice-led divination’s.
The grounation gatherings are a form of church, but they are also a release valve. One of the things that is always understood among the people who gather for groundation sessions is that you leave all your bad baggage outside. When you come inside, this is a place where you celebrate life and all the good things about life. That has a very profound effect on the people who were present. This is where you come to recharge your spiritual battery.
Nyabinghi drum patterns, which provide much joy and comfort, were developed by Count Ossie Williams. “Count Ossie was originally from the Parish of St. Thomas, where he would have been exposed to the rhythms of the ancestral vibrations of Kumina, a Congo tradition with some Dahomean elements [Dahomey was the kingdom famed for its female soldiers in what is now Benin].
Kumina use’s a battery of two drums which were laid on the ground, straddled and played with hands and stopped by one foot, to ensure variation in pitch. Contact with Buru drummers from St. Catherine and Clarendon in Kingston facilitated adoption and adaptation of the Buru battery of drums leading to the current family: bass drum played with a padded stick, the fundeh, and the lead instrument, the repeater or pita.”
Nyabinghi’s distinctive sound wasn’t developed over centuries. It exists because of one musical genius – Count Ossie – and his group of top-flight drummers and musicians, their creativity forged in the pressure cooker of mid-century Jamaica’s painful colonial realities.
It was the same pressures, of course, that created Rastafari itself. The Abrahamic religious movement developed in Jamaica during the 1930s around Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement and his prophecy that people of colour would be liberated soon after a black king was crowned in Africa. Ethiopia’s late ruler Haile Selassie I was identified as God incarnate, or Jah, with colonial forces as the oppressive opposite: Babylon. Rastafari rejects Western materialism, promotes healthy eating and continues to grow.
The journey from sacred to secular had a distinctive pattern. “As the Rastafari movement grew, the drum was used to attract prospective membership with small gatherings in rural areas, roadside gatherings and street meetings in urban areas. The development of a philosophy and belief system happened at the same time the rhythms were being absorbed by the fledgling recording industry, and utilized in jam sessions with horn players and Jazzmen who lived in the same neighbourhood’s.
The drums are an integral part of the whole thing. It is the instrument that keeps the rhythm so that everyone could hear. The historical reason is that these were descendants of Africans who came here as slaves. One thing they had in common, regardless of coming from different places or different tribes, was the drumming. That was the thing that pulled everyone together.”
Nobody sees Count Ossie as entertainment. His music was for a purpose, a devotion.
Within all the drumming languages, there’s a common thread among the diaspora. “The mother drum gives out instructions and communicates with the other two. Another one is holding it down to keep things together, and the other one can improvise. We’re talking about heartbeat and a conversation that flows and can move and change, whether it speeds up or slows down.
The pulse is being brought down to create a space for the gathered voices to rise up before the bass drum reasserts the forward motion.
I (Simba) can see a clear connection between the music of Rastafari and the music I grew up with in Methodist, Trinidadian and Barbadian congregation’s. The connection is there instantly, because there are songs I grew up singing, adapted to [praise] Haile Selassie. I remember hearing my grandmother sing these songs and I grew up singing these songs, but in a completely different context.
The connection points between church choir and Nyabinghi musicians were absorbed and adapted by the latter. The established churches only provided fodder to feed the creative impulses of the Rastafarian communities from the 1930s. Hymns, canticles, psalms from these churches, as well as choruses of Revivalists and adapted excerpts from the Bible, were absorbed into the mix.
I love to play the repeater within a Nyabinghi gathering. For me it’s void of time, it’s almost as if someone stops time and it’s like, ‘OK, this moment is happening now and it doesn’t matter whether it’s one minute or ten minutes or ten seconds – here it is.’ It’s a good feeling. It’s euphoric. Ganja assist me travel with my drum into this timeless, euphoric state.
When I attended a Nyabingi groundation also known as an Ises(praises) for the first time, it took me to that space. The drums are repetitive for a reason. It’s not there to entertain you – it’s to put you in the right state for worship and reasoning. When you go to these gatherings, you feel refreshed, you feel different.
The constant repetition of small units of rhythm and dance often leads to autohypnosis, along with an experience of an altered state of consciousness or possession of the faithful by ancestral spirits or gods. The drummers are key: They must have an informed awareness of the communal progress of the group towards spiritual contact. Cuts and breaks in the patterns will repel or facilitate movement towards spiritual contact at appropriate times, and along with the administrators of the Nyabinghi and attendants, will ensure a return to reality.
This mixture of Christian elements and the African pantheon of gods and motifs makes for a complex slew of variation.”
And where is Nyabinghi now? Nyabinghi is alive and well, spreading across all strata of the society, including scholars and academicians, professionals across a wide cross-section, affecting music, fashion, art, diet and cuisine, use of natural materials and supporting an African sensibility.
Come an experience a Nyabinghi groundation.
Date: March 1st.
Venue: ” Liberty House”, African Heritage Foundation headquarters. Upper Two Mile Hill, St. Michael.
Time: 5pm – 10pm
Please bring fruit,, nuts or other forms of ital/vegetarian foods to share.
Simba for African Heritage Foundation.