It has been done so often, it has now become the norm. – That “It” is the art of condensing and truncating Jamaica’s musical history to a period that is post-colonial but pre-independence. And in doing this the narrative is restricted to the contemporary exponents of what we now call popular music, or whatever the derivatives of the Reggae genre.
It is not that the contemporary narrative surrounding the history and origins of Reggae and Jamaican music in general is wrong, far from it being wrong, but it’s also not right, in that the contemporary historians’ commentators and plaudits lie, by omission.
This Lie is not to deceive or mislead, it’s just that when the story gets repeated often enough. It takes on a life of its own and sooner rather than later, the new narrative becomes the fact du jour, told and retold by emissaries and or disciples who are themselves unaware of the true origins due to the abridged history that became the norm.
The problem with the new narrative of reggae being born in the innercity slums and or urban ghettos of Kingston, is nothing more than a romantic notion, where some sought to glamourize the music and the ghetto by pairing the two, whilst the real truth is, Reggae – The Heart Beat of the Jamaican People, came from the Plantations and Slavery.
It seems that all, if not most commentators agree that at its very Core, Reggae is about the beat – the Drum Beat. And even though musical styles and lyrical composition and delivery have changed with each generation and exponents, essentially, the Core – The Beat – Meaning the Drum, remains at its Centre.
And let us examine that by unpacking that idea a little more. That core which is usually identified gives the music its sensuality because, at its very heart, the primary construct of the music is its ability to inflame the passions by simulating the movements of love-making.
Look at the undulating hips; the swiveling of the torso and the gyration of the buttocks to balance the thrust and crunching of the pelvic area, whether you are observing a male or female dance to reggae, the essence of the dance is the same, it is about the promise of a sexual encounter that will be explosive.
Its All About The Drums
Now this promise predates the contemporary genre, going back to mento, and way back to the abeng and talking drums of the Maroons. The Kenteh and Gumbeh.
The Gumbeh and Keteh drums have been at the very core of the Jamaican experience since slavery, the drums were ‘brought’ over from West Africa; and along with the Abeng, were the earliest forms of high-tech communication. They were utilized to transmit messages of unity, hope, revolt, and reawakening over miles, between the enslaved and the runways, much to the chagrin and colonial discomfiture, of the oppressors. Consequently, Drums on the plantations were banned. But to ban the drums, was to breathe new life into them, and their popularity only increased, thereafter.
Now officially underground the drums were not only the primary source of communication, but they also took the pride of place at gatherings, and celebrations, as they captured and provided the energy and passion that fuelled the people of the Plantations and the Maroons In the Hills.
The rhythm of the Drums became the engine of the music that evolved from the early transplanted Jamaicans, over generations traveling through Kumina, Dinky-Minny, rested thru Ska, and resurfaced with a vengeance, in early reggae.
Now, it is important to acknowledge the importance of the drum, in early Reggae, as early Reggae was protest music, its exponents protesting Colonialism and its brutality; the evils of the Police as enforcers of the Oppressors; protesting the subjugation of fellow Africans back in Africa; and a call for universal freedom and unity.
As the drums played a significant role in rallying the oppressed on and off the Slave Plantations, they were now being used in the new songs of freedom being sung and or in performances of and by Marley, Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Cliff, Ras Michael, Dub poets Louise Bennett; Oko Onuro, Mutabaruka, and Cherry Natural. This led to the acceptance that this set of artists, and others, were not just Entertainers, but they were social activists advocating change in the status quo, that elevated one set of humans above another. It was their human rights advocacy, that brought about internal changes in the Jamaican social dynamics and later across the African continent.
After a period of introspection, this led to these traditional Artists being labeled “Conscious Artists” as theirs was a universal message, championing equality, brotherhood, and peace, whilst genres such as lovers rock and the even more militant Dancehall genre emerged.
Miss Lou, The First Dub Poet
Now many commentators and historians, misrepresent the role of the Late Louise Bennett, in the social revolution that led to the transformation of the post-colonial era. Relegated by many to the role of a folklorist and entertainer, The Honourable Louise Bennet, was one of the earliest social activists. In her own inimitable and sans confrontational style, she began the social engineering that led to the widespread practice and use of the emerging Jamaican Language, instead of parroting the language of the Oppressors. And here to, an overview of her works, will see the messaging of the Drums.
She was never called a Dub Poet, in her era, but Louise Bennett was our first recorded dub poet. Later Oko Onura was to emerge followed by the firebrand Mutabaruka, whose uncompromising blackness and language offended the establishment, as it was deemed provocative, if not revolutionary. All because he represented a positive Black Message, in an era and a society conditioned to accept all things white and foreign as superior to all things Black and or National.
Again, one can see the influence of the Drum, in the messaging, And “Every Time I Hear The Sound”, I am convinced the Nation does not know the debt of gratitude, it owes to Mutabaruka, for his role in empowering, those who were broken down and cast out by a system that devalued, undervalued, disrespected and abused them, at every opportunity.
Slaves Of The Rhythm
Like the Nation, Reggae is on an evolutionary path, a path that has taken it into the genre of Dancehall, a coarse hard-hitting militant genre, whose primary ambassadors, by their lyrical content, promote a primitive endorsement of misogyny, intolerance, homophobia, the sexual dark ages, and raw lewdness that is retrogressive in that it stereotypes; promotes violence against those who does not conform to their prescribed behavioural choices, with a Taliban like fervor.
Probably, the one saving grace of the Dancehall genre, save and except the fact that it boasts a number of exceptionally talented performers, is the fact that the Drum, remains at its core, providing the engine that drives the passion, fashion, language and self-identity, that is uniquely Black, that the genre, was the fastest growing one of all Reggae genres, until recently, when Afrobeat, which in itself is a sub-category of dancehall, began ruling the waves,
And so, Reggae Music, which had its foundation in the experiences of displaced Africans who ended up in Jamaica, has come full circle, where the Africans, have claimed it, and using it to dominate World Charts…
Always remember, however, we are slaves of the rhythm, slaving to the rhythm – That rhythm, being the rhythm of the Drums. So as we celebrate Emancipendence, let us be cognizant of the roads traveled, that brought us to this point in the Journey. and in so doing, truly honour our Ancestors, whose dream, we now live!