By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
But it took a little Caribbean island to distill the essence of revolutionary sound. Like the American South, colonial Jamaica, infected by Columbus in 1494, was founded on slavery, its work force first drawn from the native Arawaks (who were quickly killed off by the Spanish) and then from hardier African abductees. These African slaves have given Jamaica its color — the population remains 90 percent black. They’ve also left their fingerprints on a culture that, though bearing the marks of British taskmasters (1655 successors to the Spanish) and of Indian and Chinese immigrants, is flavored with the attitudes, arts and languages of indomitable tribesmen from a continent 4,000 miles away.
Reggae, the mother of dub, is the blood of Jamaican culture. And it pumps through a beat made for trouble. Two hundred years ago and more, in the footsteps of an African tradition, recalcitrant Caribbean musicians adopted a practice called Burru, stomping out to the sugar-cane fields to roast Massah Backbustah with derogatory songs. The rhythms, heavy on the first beat (the “one drop”) of a syncopated 4/4 framework, had a slow, tugging, sustaining feel that could help a laborer endure the floggings and keep his pride; the authorities considered Burru players borderline criminals. Burru drums became the foundation of Nyahbingi music, a kind of gospel protest form that birthed ’60s roots reggae and remains vital in the hands of longtime thumpers such as Ras Michael, a Jamaican who now also lives in Los Angeles.
Such spiritual/practical covalences are what make the Jamaican struggle stick together — no surprise, since history pounds out the lesson that, as with politics and music, politics and religion go together like rum and Coke. Hebrews got monotheistic when Judah’s King Josiah consolidated his strength by banning idols and establishing a centralized state cult. Constantine rode a growing Romanized Christianity in his successful battle to become emperor, then steered the religion toward his own ends. A few words from Allah wrote Muhammad’s passport to embark on a military/metaphysical campaign that united scores of perennially feuding Arab tribes under the flag of Islam. Luther’s fervor to wrest the Bible from the pope and lay it on the people leaped straight from the individualistic and nationalistic Renaissance spirit.
In the same way, reggae, especially by way of Marley, buddied up with the putatively laughable new religion of the Rastas. Strange how people don’t mock other religions — we’re used to baby gods popping out of virgins, swan-gods who shag virgins, pop slut-goddesses who claim to be like virgins, but not gods like Ras Tafari with actual worldly dominions. In ’50s Jamaica, though, the bankers’ daughters weren’t laughing so loud. The lords were shaking and the serfs were smiling, because the Rasta way was precisely appropriate to a former slave colony.
As much a political movement as a theological one, Rastafari is an ideal expression of its guts-and-fire environment. You don’t often get a chance to take a squint at the birth and growth of a major religion, but French journalist Hélène Lee, in The First Rasta (recently published in English by Lawrence Hill Books), deserves a fat cigar for unearthing the roots of a faith whose popularity has outstripped even voodoo’s in the Caribbean and gathered millions of devotees worldwide. Link by link, she establishes the chain that connects the Jamaica–via–New York black-unity movements of Marcus Garvey and Athlyi Rogers with that of Leonard Howell, the creator of the Rastafari myth.
Charismatic preacher, healer and stud, Howell deserves credit for the ultimate stroke of genius — making the deity accessible. Where’s God? Up in the sky? Some mystic abstraction? A dead Hebrew carpenter? Nope, he’s right over there, a living king, Ras Tafari Makonnen, a.k.a. Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
Regardless of Selassie’s polite refusal to have divinity thrust upon him (he was a Christian), thousands of Jamaicans just complimented Jah on his modesty and braved increasing oppression to embrace a religion that suited their needs. They could now throw off their burdens and dedicate themselves to a philosophy of justice, unity, nonviolence, self-reliance and humility. There is no hell to scare you in Rastafari, and no pie-in-the-sky heaven to dupe you. As Marley sang it, “If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on Earth.” God was black, and he wanted you back with him in Africa.
Most anybody could get behind such a creed — except for that last little detail. Just as white American campus radicals in the ’60s were natural allies but only stepbrothers of the Black Panthers, Howell’s political religion has worldwide resonance but a big, nasty racial stumbling block.
And in dub, that’s one brick you won’t trip over. Dub has no vocals to speak of. No vocals means no words, and no words means no cant about His Majesty Selassie or Marcus Garvey, no back-to-Africa separatism. All that’s left is a revolutionary beat, an all-enveloping bass and a lot of change.
Early dubbists frequently poached backing tracks of tunes designed for vocals. Like nationalizing the bauxite plant — we’re gonna keep the structure, but run it our way and pocket the profits — the notion harmonized with the spirit of the times. In the ’60s, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs made new meanings by cutting up texts and tapes. And in the ’70s and ’80s, Jacques Derrida got a lot of hippie college profs excited with the notion that you could deconstruct and re-reference words intellectually, without regard for the author’s author-ity.
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