Cultural identity, reggae, and Rastafarianism

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By Mark Landells

Reggae is Jamaica’s greatest cultural export. It is one of the things that links this small country to the rest of the world. Bob Marley rose up from this culture and became an international phenomenon. 

Jamaican music has come a long way over the past 30 years. Some of the people who helped in its development include the legendary Count Ossie, Bob Marley and Jimmey Cliff, among many others.

Jamaican music can trace its roots all the way back to Africa. When African slaves came to the island over 400 years ago, they brought their culture with them, including music. They have preserved some of the musical forms. Two things that presently exist could be labelled as part of that African tradition:

  • Revival, which is a spiritual dance.
  • Rastas and their music.

In these two art forms, the drum remains the main instrument. Jamaican music developed from what was known as mento; blue beat, ska, rock steady and now reggae.

The drum plays an important role in such things as Kumina, which is an ancestral dance ritual/ To Africans, the drum talks for them. In Jamaica, people tend to use the term ‘the rhythm talks.’ You will hear sayings such as ‘di riddim sweet.’ This means that the music has captured the listener’s attention, causing him or her to respond to the music.

Many people criticized the late Bob Marley, saying he was talking and not singing. However, Bob Marley’s hits have proven for themselves that they carry a message, and that was the way he intended for his music to be written. 

MENTO: THE BEGINNING

Mento music was a song or dance form where people conveyed gossip, news and comments back and forth. This was the first stage in the development of music in Jamaica. The musical instruments used were drums, bamboo fifes and fiddles.

Mento music died out over a period, but it was replaced by a new wave of music. Different experiments were made with the rhythm of the music, but Jamaicans did not respond to anything foreign-flavored. They wanted something that no one could take away from them. During the period that Mento died, a music form called Ska replaced it. The music was characterized by furious dance styles and movements. During this era, the Jamaican festival song competition was set up to give local singers a chance to show off their talent in an annual music festival. Music had to have some connection to the lives of Jamaican people. 

Rastafarianism sprung up in the mid 50’s in Jamaica. The faith was based on Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. They maintain that he is their messiah. Rastas, as rastafarians are called, love the drums, because it provides them with something that is purely African. 

Reggae involved a great deal of emotional and spiritual forms. It has become a religious music, because of the message contained within. Reggae dancing and music adopted militant African chants. Dancing and drumming. If you have ever seen a Bob Marley performance, the prancing he does on stage is part of Reggae.

Rastafarians have contributed a great deal to the international development and understanding of Reggae music. The music has also influenced other art forms such as dance. The world renowned National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica choreographs at least one piece every season using Reggae music. Also, more and more performers in European and Asian countries have adopted their own style of Reggae music.

Bob Marley was one of the key artists who contributed to the widespread development of Reggae music abroad. Jimmy Cliff, Judy Mowat, Rita Marley (Bob’s mother) and Marcia Griffiths are just a few of the many Jamaican artists who helped the music to receive worldwide exposure. 

All of these reggae stars belong to the Rastafarian faith. In their music they have spoken of loving people, hatting oppression, and maintaining strong links to their African roots. They voice their love for their country, Jamaica. They also sing about oneness with people of the world. This is what their cultural identity is all about, a universal identity among all human beings.

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