Caribbean Tourism

Dreadlocks to Reggae: Jammin’ in Jamaica

Followers of the Rastafarian cult are easily recognizable by their long dreadlocks. They are non-violent, do not eat pork and believe in the divinity of the late Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari). Haile Selassie’s call for the end of the superiority of one race over another has been incorporated into a faith which holds that God, Jah, will lead the blacks out of oppression (Babylon) back to Ethiopia (Zion, the Promised Land).


The Rastas regard the ideologist, Marcus Garvey (born 1887, St Ann’s Bay), as a prophet of the return to Africa (he is now a Jamaican national hero). In the early part of the twentieth century, Garvey founded the idea of black nationalism, with Africa as the home for blacks, be they living on the continent or not.

The music most strongly associated with Rastafarianism is reggae. According to O R Dathorne, “it is evident that the sound and words of Jamaican reggae have altered the life of the English-speaking Caribbean. The extent of this alteration is still unknown, but this new sound has touched, more than any other single art medium, the consciousness of the people of this region” (Dark Ancestor, page 229, Louisiana State University Press, 1981). The sound is a mixture of African percussion and up-to-the-minute electronics; the lyrics a blend of praise of Jah, political comment and criticism and the mundane. The late Bob Marley, the late Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown and Jimmy Cliff are among the world-famous reggae artists, and many, many more can be heard on the island. Over the last few years, traditional reggae has been supplanted by Dance Hall, which has a much heavier beat, and instead of Marley’s rather thoughtful lyrics, it is all about guns and sex, Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton and so on. Closely related to reggae is dub poetry, a chanted verse form which combines the musical tradition, folk traditions and popular speech. Its first practitioner was Louise Bennett, in the 1970s, who has been followed by poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Michael Smith, Oku Onora and Mutabaruka. Many of these poets work in the UK, but their links with Jamaica are strong.

Two novels which give a fascinating insight into Rasta culture (and, in the latter, Revival and other social events) are Brother Man, by Roger Mais, and The Children of Sysiphus, by H Orlando Patterson. These writers have also published other books which are worth investigating, as are the works of Olive Senior (eg Summer Lightning), and the poets Mervyn Morris, the late Andrew Salkey and Dennis Scott (who is also involved in the theatre)


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