Who knew the power of the boogeyman better than the Rastas? Despised pariahs, the “blackheart man” your mother warned you would steal and eat you if you were naughty, Rastas knew the score on being a scapegoat. They were “the stone that the builder refused.”
That must be why, as I read in S. Baker’s notes for the Soul Jazz comp Rastafari: The Dreads Enter Babylon 1955-83, which largely focuses on the contributions of Count Ossie and nyabinghi drumming to Jamaican music, the Rastas took the name “nyabinghi” straight from the racist tall tales of Italian fascists:
Propagandists of the Italian government, in the middle of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, invented a story that a secret society of black warriors known as the Nya-Binghi (meaning ‘Death to the oppressors of the black races’) had been formed under the leadership of Haile Selassie I of Abyssinia (also known as Ethiopia). A threat to civilised society, the group had (potentially) 190 million members throughout the world. The Ku Klux Klan in the United States was the first to become aware of the power of the Nya-Binghi. Apparently Klan members in numerous American cities had recently been smitten with a strange and mysterious lethal disease. With publicity like this who wouldn’t want to join the Nya-Binghis!
Count Ossie (né Oswald Williams), who is widely credited as a, if not the, inventor of nyabinghi drumming, founded a Rastafarian community near east Kingston’s Wareika Hill during the 50s. He and his band only recorded sporadically over the following decade, Baker writes, because their “community-based” music was essentially devotional and not made for material reward.
In 1973, Count Ossie and his group joined forces with the Mystics, a jazz-influenced band led by saxophonist Cedric Im Brooks, and the resulting combo was known as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. After several years playing cover tunes in clubs, Brooks had left Jamaica in ‘68 to study music in Philadelphia, where, it’s said, Sun Ra and the Arkestra made a strong impression on him. (I haven’t yet found a source on their relationship that isn’t exasperatingly vague; Baker writes only that, while in Philadelphia, Brooks “established an association with Sun Ra’s artistic Arkestra commune.”)
Back in Jamaica, Brooks played on a number of Studio One sessions and formed the Mystics with trumpeter David Madden. Their debut with Count Ossie and group as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari was the triple LP Grounation, recently rereleased by the Dub Store label. If a reasoning session with jazz horns sounds like a novelty item, far from it—in fact, The Rough Guide to Reggae says this is the nyabinghi album to get:
Though serious musicologists had made occasional field recordings of nyahbingi sessions, the first album to give the music the studio time it deserved, while remaining as true to its original forms as possible, was the triple LP set Grounation, from Count Ossie & the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. The MRR was an aggregation of accomplished musicians which brought together both Count Ossie’s African-style hand drummers and the horns and bass of tenor-sax man Cedric Brooks’s Mystics band. This historic set has never been superseded, but the establishment of Rastafari as the dominant reggae ideology in the mid-1970s, plus the emergence of an audience for reggae albums that were more than collections of singles, created a climate in which more sets of nyahbingi-based music could be produced.
Hear ‘Grounation’ by Count Ossie & the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, after the jump…