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Reviewing the roots of rasta rhythms

Rastafarians dance to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie 1, July 23, 2002, in Kingston, Jamaica. (AP/Collin Reid)

I discovered reggae music in 1976 thanks to my 8th grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Gilliam. He turned me on to Bob Marley’s album Rastaman Vibration; it remains my favorite Marley album mostly because of its slower roots-reggae groove and horn-driven sound, but also because of the lyrics. This seems to be Marley in full-fledged Rastafari mode.

Back then I didn’t even know what Rastafari was except that they smoked lots of pot, er, I mean ganja.

It wasn’t until a few years later, while in high school, that I came across cover story in the Reader about Chicago’s Rastafari scene. I learned about Leonard Percival Howell, a Jamaican who’s considered the father of the movement. By the end of the lengthy piece, this then 16-year-old was ready to join the "movement of Jah people." I tracked down the address of the main Chicago Rasta and wrote what I remember being a heartfelt letter — or as heartfelt as a 16-year-old wannabe hippie/Rasta can get — asking him to show me the way of Rastafari. I left the envelope with the letter inside on our family piano and it disappeared. Now I’ve never confronted my parents about the mystery but I’m almost positive my mom saw and read the letter and mortified, ripped it up, burned it and buried the ashes in the backyard.

Needless to say I moved on, but held on to my love of Bob Marley and the other roots-reggae I was discovering, without really looking at its history — until recently. With Jamaica celebrating 50 years of independence from Great Britain, it seems appropriate to take a look at a music that was born out of deep seated opposition to colonialism.

We need to start with Nyahbinghi, which is the most integral form of Rastafarian music and includes chanting, drumming, dancing — and smoking ganja.

The name Nyahbinghi comes from a movement in East Africa that dates to the 1850s, which opposed Euro-Imperialism. It was centered on a Ugandan woman who was accused of promoting witchcraft.

Drumming was and is the major element in Nyahbinghi and that drumming was used in what is considered the first ska record. Oswald Williams, aka Count Ossie, was a Rasta, who lived in the hills of Jamaica. He was a master Nyahbinghi drummer who had his own drum-centric group. Jamaican musician and record producer Prince Buster was looking for something new to add to ska-the country’s most popular music in the early 1960s — something that had never been part of the sound before. So he brought the Count down from the hills, adding Nyahbinghi drumming to a song called "Oh Carolina." Prince Buster’s idea proved a hit with listeners and one can argue with that, the road to reggae was being paved.

Reggae not only incorporated Nyahbingi but leaned heavily on American music, such as R&B and New Orleans sounds, and mixed in Rastafari themes of protest, going back to Zion (Ethiopia), Marcus Garvey's philosophies and a mix of Judeo-Christian beliefs.

These days though, reggae based on Rastafari is just one branch of the reggae tree. Or maybe it's the trunk that holds all the other branches — from lover’s rock to reggaeton.

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