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Reggae music on Rastafarians

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The origins and significance of reggae music on Rastafarians

Regarded as the core of Rastafarian culture, reggae music is also the heart and soul of Jamaica. Rastafarianism emerged in the 20th century along with reggae music in the 1960’s. The latter has been a way of revealing Rastafarianism to individuals while Rastafarianism has contributed to the growth of the reggae genre, illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the two. One of the major promoters of both Rastafarianism and its music has been Bob Marley who, via globally famous tracks, has helped the two proliferate. I wish to look at the influence of reggae and rastafari beyond the West Indies because I feel that Reggae is unique, joyful and does something to people, different to other music. This is mostly due to the ideas behind it, and I want to show that it’s not just about marijuana and the usual stereotypes of Rastafarians but to show the beauty and significance of listening to Reggae and being a Rastafarian.

During the 1930’s Jamaica was an island where depression, discrimination and racism dominated, especially in the poorest areas. This is where Rastafarianism came in to help out the community. The Rasta’s claim that Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was the re incarnation of Jesus Christ and their religion worships a single God, known as Jah. Rastafarianism therefore originated in Jamaica around this time as a result of the strong oppression by Western nations. Its basic principles include the desire to defy Babylon (a common term used to define Western culture) as well as using non-violence as a method to achieve this. Furthermore their principles consist of a peaceful autonomous and independent society together with a symbiotic relationship with nature and their surrounding environment illustrated by the fact that often Rastafarians are vegetarians and prefer avoiding foodstuffs such as alcohol, meat, pork and shellfish instead basing their diets on alternative nutrients such as those in mango and coconut. Another extremely important aspect of the Rastafarian culture is dreadlocks; in fact these are a way to repudiate Babylon and its artificiality inspiring dread in its inhabitants. Furthermore Rastafarians believe that by shaking their dreadlocks a connection is created between God and themselves. Another method of completing this divine connection is by smoking ganja which also counteracts the daily oppression. The Rastafarian method of non-violence has therefore allowed the survival of Jamaica’s population along with other colonies of the West Indies providing survival against the influence of Babylon as well as pride in the African culture.

Originally serving as a method of restoring self awareness as well as their African roots reggae music today plays a major role in teaching the Rastafarian people about the ‘oppressive, deceptive and divisive’ nature of the system under which they live and, as written above, serves as the primary way to annihilate Babylon, with Nyabinghi music being the most integral form of it. Reggae developed from several other musical styles including ska, rocksteady, mento as well as American R&B. Furthermore, although the majority of radio stations were situated in Florida or Louisiana, some were powerful enough to transmit their music as far as Jamaica therefore influencing the development of this genre. Only in the 1960’s did Reggae become an officially distinct genre. Reggae is based on a musical approach characterized by accents on the off-beat which is identified as the skank. It also contains a heavy backbeated rhythm which means there is an emphasis on specific beats in a bar, an example of this in beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time. This backbeat differs greatly from the usual strong African-based sounds and is not found in typical European or Asian music. The music is also frequently very straightforward, and occasionally it will be constructed and based upon no more than one or two chords. These simple recurring chord structures therefore add to the hypnotic effects of reggae.

Reggae music consists of several instruments which include drums and other percussion, bass guitars and guitars, keyboards, horns and vocals. Furthermore the reggae drumbeats are usually selected from three major categories: One drop, Rockers and Steppers. In the first, the stress is fully on the third beat of the bar (typically on the snare, or joint with the bass drum). With Rockers beat, the stress is on the third beat as well as an accent on beat one (usually on bass drum) while in the last, the bass drum plays four solid beats to the bar, giving the beat an persistent force. There is also extensive variety of additional percussion instruments that are used in Reggae music. Bongos are often used in improvised patterns with African style rhythms but cowbells, shakers and claves also have fundamental roles in reggae music. Also, the bass guitar regularly plays a leading position in reggae and, united, the drum and bass are typically referred to as the “riddim” (Rhythm). The sound of bass in reggae is thick and heavy and the bass line is often an uncomplicated two-bar riff that is focused around its thickest and heaviest note. Another fundamental instrument in reggae music is the rhythm guitar which plays chords mainly on the second and fourth beats of a bar which, as written on the previous page, is a sequence of beat known as skank upon which reggae is largely based. Furthermore this instrument is played to produce a very short and scratchy chop sound which causes it to sound similar to a percussion instrument. From the late 1960s to the early eighties the piano was also a main feature in reggae music doubling the guitar’s skank rhythm, playing chords in a staccato style or occasional extra beats or riffs. From the 1980s onwards synthesizers were used to replace the piano, adopting organ-style sounds in order to achieve the choppy feel typical to this style of music. Another family of instruments utilized in reggae is the brass section, including saxophones, trumpets and trombones. These often play introductions or counter-melodies but, in more recent times, are being replaced, along with the piano part, by synthesizers. In comparison to the other instruments and rhythm of reggae, the vocals are a more of crucial aspect of the genre. In fact they are distinct from other genres as they directly deliver specific messages to the audience, the nature of which will be discussed in the following paragraph. Many reggae singers use embellishments of various kinds such as tremolos (volume oscillation) or vibrato (pitch oscillation).

Possibly the most fundamental part of Reggae is its lyrics, known for their tradition to cover various subjects including love, peace, religion, sexuality, relationships and socializing. Some of the messages sent to the audience via the lyrics are optimistic and upbeat, but they may also be of political significance as the singer attempts to increase the awareness of the audience to such matters. This is achieved by criticizing materialism or enlightening the listener with lyrics concerning controversial issues such as the Apartheid or human rights. Reggae song-writers mainly sing about one love and one world, unity and brotherhood of all mankind, the coming together regardless of diverse beliefs, and the hope of a new tomorrow. In addition Reggae lyrics are, as written in above pages, religion oriented, often discussing religious subject matter such as paying tribute to the Rastafari God, Jah. Other common lyrics are based on socio-political issues, for example the embrace of black nationalism, anti capitalism, criticism of political systems and Babylon which, as previously discussed, is the idiom used for the white political authority organization that has held back the black race for centuries. The lyrics in Reggae music remind the audience of the singer’s demand to gain freedom which in turn addresses the quest for freedom of all people who are oppressed globally.

Robert Nesta Marley or more likely known, Bob Marley was born in a little countryside town in Jamaica on 6th of February 1945. He was a vocalist, performer, songwriter, and a pioneer to many because of his way of introducing reggae music to the world, and he still remains to be one of the most adored musicians to this date. Bob was the child of a black adolescent mother and a much older, soon after not present white father. His earlier years in the countryside village were spent in the community of St. Ann. This is where Marley meets one of his child-hood friends, and future collaborator in music, called Neville “Bunny Wailer” O’Riley Livingston. They both attended the same school, and they mutually shared a love called music. Bob was encouraged to begin playing guitar thanks to Bunny. Neville’s father and Bob Marley’s mother afterward had an affair together which resulted in all of them living together for some time in Kingston; this is according to Christopher John Farley’s Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.

Marley in the late 1950’s lived in Trench Town; this is one of Kingston’s poorest neighborhoods. Even though the poverty influenced him a lot he still found motivation in the music that surrounded him. This is because there were a couple of successful musicians which were from Trench Town as well. Also as I mentioned before, many other sounds and music was broadcasted from America which many artists such as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, influenced Marley’s love for music. Bob and Bunny dedicated most of their time to music and under the supervision of Joe Higgs, a famous reggae musician in Jamaica, Marley tried to develop on his singing skills. Under the tutoring of Higgs Marley met another student, Peter McIntosh which later became Peter Tosh, who would play with Marley and Livingston later on, to be known as The Wailers.

Approximately in 1962 a local record producer, named Leslie Kong, liked Bob’s singing and produced a small number of singles for Marley, one of them being “Judge Not”. His small success as a solo artist, made Marley join and create a band with his two friends, Bunny and Tosh, to form the ‘Wailing Wailers’ in 1963. In January 1964 the first single that they all made called “Simmer Down” rose up to the top of Jamaican charts, at this point of the bands status 3 other members had joined the Wailing Wailers. These new band members included Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso, and Cherry Smith.

Even though the bands popularity was rising in Jamaica, they still had financial problems and this caused for 3 of the members to leave, these were Junior, Beverly and Cherry. The 3 original members went through a rough patch for a period of time and Marley moved to the United States where he married Rita Anderson on 1966. After some time Bob returned to his home, Jamaica and reunited with bunny and Tosh now form ‘The Wailers’. At this point in Marley’s life he started to develop and explore his spiritual side and his interest grew for the Rastafarian movement. At this point the Rastafarian movement had been in Jamaica over 30 years. In the late 1960’s some of the songs that the wailers produced where “Trench Town Rock”, “Soul Rebel”, and “Four Hundred Years”.

In the 1970’s the wailers added two new members, Aston “Family Man” Barret and his brother Carlton”Carlie” Barret. They later got a contract with Island Records which resulted in the recording their first full album, Catch a Fire, and tour Britain and the United States in 1973. Burnin, their next album was released that same year and this album featured songs like “I Shot the Sheriff”.

Their next album in 1975, Natty Dread, reflected some of the political problems that Jamaica was facing between the Peoples National Party and the Jamaica Labor Party. Some of the conflicts between these two parties can be seen in one of their songs “Rebels”, this song was inspired because of Marley’s own firsthand experience of these conflicts. One sad fact about this album was that two if the original members left to pursue their own solo careers, these were Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. The bands and reggaes popularity was increased abroad when the band toured extensively now called Bob Marley & the Wailers. They were joined by I-Threes which consisted of a group of 3 female vocalists, Marley’s wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt.

Marley was starting to be on his way to becoming an international music icon and was already a much admired star in Jamaica. He entered the U.S music charts in 1976 with the album ‘Rastaman Vibration’. His devotion to his faith and his interest in political change was reflected in one of his songs, “War”. The lyrics to this song where taken from a speech by Haile Selassie, the song discusses a new Africa, freedom, and racism.

In 1976 there was an attempt of assassination on Marley because of his popularity and support of the People’s National Party from the rivals. The night of December 3, 1976, a group of armed men broke into Marley’s and the Wailers rehearsal before a concert. Marley and his wife were lucky and were just injured from gun shots but Don Taylor was shot 5 times and had to have surgery in order to save him. Even though the attempt of assassination had occurred, Marley still played at the show that night. The following day the Marley’s escaped the country.

The next year, 1977, Bob moved to London where he began to work on ‘Exodus’. This song speaks about biblical stories of Moses and the Israelites leaving exile and comparing this to his own situation. This theme also links to another topic discussed in the song being returning to Africa, to the roots of Africans. This track was very popular in Britain and this song was followed with other successful songs like ‘Waiting in Vain’ and ‘Jammin’. The whole album was very popular and stayed in the British charts for more than a year and is considered one of the best albums ever made.

During 1977, Marley wanted treatment on a toe he had injured earlier that year, then discovering it to be cancerous cells on his toe. Bob required surgery for it to be removed in Miami, Florida.

Even thought Marley and the Wailers were making Exodus they all recorded what would be released on another album, Kaya, which came out the following year, 1978. The two main records in this album were ‘Is This Love’ and ‘Satisfy My Soul’, this record theme was love. Even after his last experience in Jamaica with an attempt of assassination he returned to Jamaica and in his One Love Peace Concert he made the two parties PNP and JLP leaders shake hands on stage, I think this shows the determination of Bob towards unity and love.

That same year Bob visited Africa for the first time in his life. He visited places like Kenya and Ethiopia and obviously Ethiopia being more significant to him because of the relations with Rastafarianism. His next album portrayed a lot the unity of Africa and the end of the oppression there. Survival, the album, was mostly inspired from his visit to Africa.

The next album which was release in 1980 was a huge success. Songs in this album like ‘Could you be loved’ and ‘Redemption Song’, the latter song spoke about Marley’s talents of how he combined poetical lyrics with social and political importance. One of the lines of the songs quotes ‘emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds’ this is a clear example of the play of words and how he directs the message directly at the audience.

The cancer that had been discovered earlier in his toe had unfortunately spread across all of Bobs body while they were in touring around Europe and the united states to promote their album.

During his tour in Europe Bob underwent treatment in Germany where we was able to fight the cancer for a couple months, but it then was shown that he did not have much to live. When this was known Bob Marley wanted to return to his homeland but unfortunately passed away before he could make it to Jamaica. He died on the 11 of May 1981 in Miami, Florida.

In part of his memorial service his wife, Rita Marley, and the Wailers played one last time for him. Figures of more than 30,000 people paid their respects to the Jamaican hero whish had received a Medal of Peace from the United States that earlier year.

Marley will always be remembered till the end of times as one of the first international singer to have come from the ‘Third World’. His music is still and will be popular and fortunately his inheritance is continued by his wife and children. Also many of his children have continued in the family business and have as well succeeded in the music industry.

His fight for the oppression and poverty still continues thanks to an organization created by the Marley family called the Bob Marley Foundation. This organization helps in education, health, food, and development of countries which need help.


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