“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” ~ Plato.
When you grow up in the church, you grow up singing. Nothing like a ‘good sing’ to exercise your lungs, make you feel a part of something bigger than yourself. I can only imagine what fun it must be to plan a service around a theme, finding the right chapters and verses for the readings, aligning the hymn choices around the message, or the time of the year. I am not a church goer any more, I tend to worship in nature, or while staring at an everchanging sunset, but I can still feel the thrill when hearing a Welsh Male voice choir, and imagine my father’s tenor ringing in the background.
When it came to music, my parents’ choices were eclectic, to say the least. In the first years in Jamaica, when we had no TV, the evening entertainment (apart from the noisy nightlife that provides the score to any Jamaican story) would be provided by a selection of music. Everything from Harry Belafonte to a Broadway musical; from Scheherezade to Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine. And yes, a Welsh male voice choir or two.
In the early 60’s, soon after Jamaica’s independence, the music on the radio was predominantly foreign. You rarely heard the indigenous Jamaican sound on the radio. It was not proper, it came from the lower classes, it was not representative of how Jamaica wanted to present itself. And yet it was ever present, on juke boxes and sound systems and private parties. When local music made it to the radio, it is said that the words had to be made palatable, which might explain why the Melodians sang a nursery rhyme: ‘I had a little nut tree, and nothing would it bear for me…’ When Toots and the Maytals came out with ’54-46 was my number’, a song that told the story of Toots arrest for drug possession, it was outrageous! At school we would have ‘socials’, after school ‘boogies’ where we would dance to the rhythmic sounds of the Heptones, the Wailers, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, but if the DeeJay started to play ’54-46’ the supervising teacher would shut down the event and we would go home wondering what was so bad about a song?
The rise of conscious music coincided with a popular rise in Rastafarianism and the religious practices that went along with it. Bob Marley became the face (and hair) of a movement which had been underground for years. Prior to that, Rastas were feared, scorned, shunned, and in at least one atrocious and savage affair, a group was murdered. When the Emperor of Ethiopia, HIM Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, throngs of Rastafarians swarmed the airport to get a glimpse of him. Descended from the line of David, he was seen as the representative of the divine. Marcus Garvey had prophesied of a Black King from Africa shortly before the ascension of Selassie, and that cemented his place in the Rastafarian religion.
But it was the musicians who helped to bring the language, the look and the practice into the mainstream. Bob Marley would rise to fame worldwide, and bring reggae music to a global audience. Quite apart from the catchy lyrics, the dance-provoking reggae one-drop music, his words captured the frustration and yearning of people of color world-wide. His song ‘Zimbabwe’ became the anthem of the African nation breaking free from the colonial name and history, to claim their right to self-determination, ‘Every man got a right to decide his own destiny’ Bob Marley sang, and they invited him to come to be a part of the Independence Celebrations. Marley also put Selassie’s speech to the United Nations to song, declaring that ‘until basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all’ there would be war.
This week I heard for the first time about a reggae star named Teddy Afro. In Ethiopia currently there is a humanitarian crisis, civilians are being slaughtered. On a day when hundreds of funerals were taking place, the Prime Minister was planting trees and made no mention of the death of his citizens. Apparently speaking out openly against such behavior is not permitted. But the Ethiopian singer Teddy Afro released a song critical of the action of the Prime Minister (without actually naming him). Years earlier he had released ‘Jah Yasteseryal’, a song about the forgiveness of God, but also critical of the regime, which resulted in him being jailed, and the song was banned from the airwaves.
It appears that even though according to Bob, when music hits you, you feel no pain, it is powerful enough to threaten regimes and motivate the masses. The folk music of the 20th century was not just a way to honor traditional music, it also was used as a voice for the oppressed. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, Black and White musicians helped to unite those fighting for freedom. Woodie Guthrie declared this land to be your land, and mine, singing of the beauty of the land while claiming it for everyone. Bob Dylan warned that the times were changing. And Nina Simone damned Mississippi for its savagery towards people of color.
It seems that we are at a time in the world where we need healing, and I am hoping that the musicians of the world can once more give voice to the voiceless and bring about change. We need more vocal prophets, those who can sing the universal language while making us ‘get up and stand up’ and dance! Can I get an Amen? There seems to be so much wrong in our global village, that the old ways won’t work any more. Who will lead this generation in a song of rebellion, of revolution, of evolution?
This Friday morning I hope you can walk with a lilt in your step as you think of your favorite song. I hope music surrounds you and makes your burden a little lighter. Tonight I am going to the Musical ‘Three Little Birds’ and hope to be transported back to the dancing days of my youth. Have a wonderful weekend, Family!
And as ever, in the immortal words of Bob Marley: ‘One Love!