The visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica in 1966 proved to be a major turning point for Rastafarianism, although the Emperor never officially recognised the faith's belief in his divinity, and as the sixties progressed the cult began to move outside of rural Jamaica and the Kingston slums. In the following decade it achieved worldwide notoriety through the success of Bob Marley & the Wailers who, in their music and press conferences, would patiently proclaim and explain their faith to an international audience. It was invariably misconstrued as little more than a 'fashion' replete with exotic hairstyles and the hedonistic consumption of marijuana but this was to miss the point entirely. Rasta was a religion about salvation, identity, and a pride that never reviled other races but channelled four hundred years of resentment and frustration into a creed that preached and practised universal peace and love.
In the absence of a formal hierarchical church with structured services, the faithful would meet at 'grounations' where marijuana would be imbibed from the chalice and as the cult grew the drums, based around an older Jamaican musical form known as burra or buru, would sound as chants, songs and adapted hymns were offered up in praise of the Almighty. In Kingston the buru drums had previously been used for secular dances on holidays but they also performed a more specialised function: the custom of welcoming discharged prisoners back into the community when dances would be held on their return.
"Only those who knew the purpose of such a dance would normally join in. Throughout this period no drums were used at Ras Tafari meetings, although Ras Tafari members would often attend these burra dances… The old burra dance by which discharged prisoners were reintegrated with their slum communities was taken over into the Ras Tafari movement by Locksmen. The burra drums became known as akete drums and the old burra dance was replaced by the Nyahbinghi dance… As more people, including old Revival Shepherds, left pocomania for Rastafari emphasis on drumming increased."
Three different types of drums, known collectively as kette (or akete or ikete) drums, were used in Buru music:
The large bass drum, with its deep resounding beat, usually between two and three feet in diameter that would sometimes be played by striking with a padded stick was used to keep time and maintain the pace.
The funde tuned flat with a slack membrane for syncopation.
The smaller repeater, higher pitched with a taut goatskin membrane, used to lay the rhythm with the repeater drum improvising over the top.
The main three drums would be augmented by a selection of different percussion instruments and home made instruments such as bottle horns or saxophones would also be incorporated. Many of Jamaica's greatest musicians could be found praising God and developing their musical skills at these fundamentalist gatherings. Most unusually in the history of Jamaican music no amplification was used. At this time Nyahbinghi music, in its purest form, would only ever be performed and heard at grounations in Rastafarian camps such as the Dungle and Wareika Hill, and the relentless drumbeat and constant chanting became inextricably linked with serious devotees of the Rastafarian faith. The drumbeat was seen as the heartbeat of the nation and became pivotal in its importance to the Rastafarian religion.
The foremost exponent of Rasta drumming, his bass drum adorned with Psalm 133 'Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity', was Count Ossie. Born Oswald Williams in the parish of St. Thomas in March 1926 he became involved in the Rastafarian faith as a young man and learnt hand drumming and vocal chanting techniques in the Afro-Jamaican kumina and buru traditions under the influence of a master buru drummer known simply as Brother Job. He first learnt to play the funde and then graduated to the repeater on which he soon became a virtuoso. The relationship between Brother Job and Count Ossie led directly to the creation of what is now understood as Rasta drumming: an explicit expression of the African heritage of Jamaica.
In the early fifties Count Ossie had set up his own Rastafarian camp in the Rennock Lodge Community in East Kingston and this soon became a base for many of Jamaica's finest Jazz and Ska musicians. Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond, 'Big Bra' Gaynair, Tommy McCook, Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore, Ernest Ranglin and Rico Rodriguez all played with Count Ossie's Band. The band began to preach the gospel of Rasta through the power of their music at dance sessions throughout Jamaica, including stints at Coney Island Amusement Park, which brought their message to the attention of a wider public. Count Ossie and his band would usually turn up late in the proceedings, take the stage, and slowly transform what had been a secular dance into grounations that would often last until the dawn. Many did not necessarily share their Rasta vision but the dispossessed could easily identify with the concept of 'beating down Babylon' and Jamaican music became inextricably linked with the fight against all forms of oppression.
In an attempt to establish his own Sound System and record label, Prince Buster had been searching for a new and totally unique sound to incorporate into his Ska recordings. He was interested in Count Ossie's drums but had been told that Count Ossie would never perform on a commercial record:
"Count, I want you to record just the way you and the group play all the while…"
Buster was not a man to take no for an answer and he eventually managed to persuade Count Ossie to come to the recording studio where, in 1960, he provided the backing for the Folkes Brothers' 'Oh Carolina', as the 'Count Ossie Afro-Combo', which proved to be a major hit.
"The result was arguably the single most important record in Jamaican musical history."
A number of records, characterised by Count Ossie's distinctive percussion soon followed, including 'Chubby' (also known as 'Cassavubu') again for Prince Buster, 'Another Moses' and 'Rock A Man's Soul' with The Mellow Cats and 'Lumumbo' with Bunny and Skitter for Clement 'Coxson' Dodd at Studio One and 'Babylon Gone' by Winston & Roy with 'Count Ossie on the African Drums' for Spanish Town producer Harry A. Mudie's Moodisc label. Throughout the sixties and the early seventies many different producers would call upon the talents of Count Ossie's drums and other exponents of the Nyahbinghi school, such as Bongo Herman and Eric 'Bingy Bunny' Lamont, to add a more authentic flavour to their recordings.
Their music was finally given the freedom to develop outside of the three-minute restrictions of a seven-inch single with the overground explosion of roots music in the seventies. The acceptance of the Rastafarian religion, its philosophy and its music had grown steadily and this greater tolerance gave Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari the freedom to record the classical albums 'Grounation' in 1973 and 'Tales From Mozambique' in 1975. This proved to be the only time that the Nyahbinghi ensembles were able to record without having to concern themselves with commercial considerations and they used this opportunity to fully expound their musical and religious standpoint at length. Pervaded with the all the fervour and devotion associated with grounations these long playing sets established Rasta Reggae as a serious artistic and spiritual force and moved the music and ideology previously associated with Rasta meetings closer to the Reggae mainstream.
Demonstrating an unbroken link with the country's cultural ancestry based on African traditions the music of Count Ossie was instrumental in the development of Jamaican music. Count Ossie died tragically in 1976 at the National Stadium in Kingston in a freak accident during a cricket match when a storm caused the crowd to panic but his music and the message of Rastafari will live forever.
"Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.
Praise the Lord with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.
Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
For the word of the Lord is right; and all his works are done in truth."