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  1. World
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17 October 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

Word, sound and power

How reggae evolved into its present day form, and what its contribution has been.

By Tony Randon

Reggae producers and promoters are at pains to point out that reggae music is the expression of the Kingston ghettoes, and not Rasta music as many mistakenly believe.

Initial reggae singers, including the young Wailers, wore slick suits and had well groomed hair, as was the fashion of the day (rude boys). Rasta men were seen as such an embarrassment to society, that no night club owner or producer would allow them anywhere near their establishment.

In the very beginning, the majority of Jamaican society viewed the Rastaman as deluded but harmless, which is why he was tolerated. This changed dramatically in 1962, after negative press coverage associated the Rasta movement with subversive revolutionary activities.

The Jamaican government sanctioned the public humiliation and imprisonment of all Rastas. Then Prime Minister Alexander Bustermante stated that “if the prison couldn’t hold them they should be sent to Dove cot” (the cemetery).

Anyone who had a beard or wore dreadlocks was persecuted, by both the authorities and the public. The matted hair had derived in the late fifties, and is thought to have been influenced by pictures of members of the Kenyan Mau Mau movement. Other theories suggest the locks originated from Indian Sadus or Ethiopian Bahatawe.

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When I was growing up, I heard stories of Rastas being chased, forcibly held down and having their locks cut off. Many left their towns and villages, and took to the hills for refuge.

This persecution would later fuel much of the lyrics of reggae’s socially conscious singers.

In 1960, a young producer called Harry Mudie, recorded a Rasta drumming group named Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. The recordings became revolutionary, as the groundbreaking sound was achieved by mixing Ossie’s Burru style rhythms, with horns from the session group Skatalites.

Drumming remains an integral part of the way Rasta expresses its African identity. Even before Rasta, two distinctive drumming traditions were prevalent on the island.

Kumina, the earliest drumming tradition, was practiced on Pinnacle hill. It owed its origins to the first generation African slaves who were brought to the colony- the Yoruba speaking people of West Africa.

Slave owners thought it was good to allow the slaves to have their music and dance, particularly at Christmas. The reasoning behind this was that it kept them happy and stopped them from thinking of escape.

The second and more popular style was Burru Drumming. Like Kumina, it owed its origins to west African slaves who had held on to their traditions and language. During slavery, Burru drummers had been allowed to beat their drums in the field.

For the slaves, the drums were a means of communication, not entertainment, as the slave owner thought. Burru musicians openly mocked their masters without them realizing the lyrics were directed at them.

Both drumming styles had one thing in common. Drumming was seen as a means of purging and exorcising bad spirits, and cleansing the soul.

Burru musicians also resided in the Kingston ghettos, and came into close contact with the Kumina influenced Rastas from Pinnacle. Count Ossie was a pupil of the Burru style. He and his brethren from Warika hill were the creative and spiritual inspiration behind the music.

Like Drummond, Rodriguez and Brooks, Lloyd Knibbs and Lloyd Brevitte had spent time in Warika hill listening and learning from the sessions of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. The majority of the Skatalite band were educated at the famous Alpha Boy’s School orphanage. It was renowned for producing brilliant musicians.

Coxson Dodd, a legendary Jamaican producer, had assembled the Skatalites as a studio band to back a number of singers. The time spent with the men from Warika hill, gave Knibbs and Brevitte the basis to create the rhythms, which became the foundation of the music.

But Rasta did not have any significant impact, until ten years later, in the form of a young Kingston rastaman, named Robert Nesta Marley.

Bob Marley’s mentor was a Rasta elder named Mortimer Planno. Ras Planno had led a delegation of concerned Rastas to the government, to complain about the fate of followers of the faith.

It was suggested that an independent report be written on the Rasta community. The misunderstandings surrounding Rastas were finally cleared up, and the report concluded that they too should have their rights respected.

Mortimer Planno, along with other members of the Back to Africa movement, was later sent to visit several African countries on behalf of the Jamaican government, to investigate the possibility of repatriation.

In Ethiopia, Ras Planno met His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. He later described this as meeting God.

Haile Selassie had abolished slavery and servitude in Ethiopia. He facilitated development by building Ethiopia’s first railway and airline. Most importantly, he built schools and encouraged education for the masses.

His reasoning was: “It is the duty of the educated few to fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the unfortunate many.”

Rastas are aware that his body was never found. The leader of the military coup, Mengistu, now in exile, denies that he ordered to have him killed.

Selassie told Planno’s group about a 500 acre piece of arable land in the Shoa province of southern Ethiopia, and welcomed the Rasta people to repatriate and settle there, with full support from his government.

When Ras Planno brought this news back to Jamaica, there was great celebration amongst the Rastas. At last, the dream of returning to Zion was becoming reality. This land, known as Shashamane, has become the Mecca for Rastas visiting Ethiopia today. From 22 families in 1948, the region now has a population of over 100,000.

Ras Planno was revered by Bob Marley. He, more than any other person, was responsible for the spiritual consciousness and social commentary of Marley’s lyrics. It is said he even wrote some of Marley’s songs, notably “Selassie is the Chapel” and “Rastaman chant”.

It is rumoured that he was the one who suggested Marley include parts of His Majesty’s speech to the League of Nations in 1935, in the 1970’s production of the hit tune War : “Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significant than the color of his eye, there will be war”.

Ras Planno played an important role in the career of the Wailers. His influence gave credibility to Marley’s work, and helped him spread the word of Rastafari, which changed the lives of millions around the world.

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