Members of the D.C. Nyabinghi community bring an old Rastafari tradition to the new Babylon.
Doum-doum. Doum-doum. Brother Irice, a Rastafari elder of the Nyabinghi order, settles near the altar and hugs a thin funde drum between his legs. The 62-year-old’s gray locks have joined to form one long, fat cobra that coils around his body. He is wearing a tan sweat shirt printed with a black pocket-sized image of Haile Selassie I. On this cold Saturday night, his cupped palms do the ministering. He patters out a heartbeat, the unifying force of life. It connects humans to nature and everything to Jah, the god of the Rastafari faith.
Booom thump-thump. Booom thump-thump. Next to Brother Irice, Ras Olu Seun, a Nigerian-born 20-something, stands behind the bass drum and cracks out some thunder. Clad in a dashiki and with a red-gold-and-green sash around his neck, he descends upon the largest Nyabinghi drum, the “pope-smasher,” with a mallet in his right hand. Most of his locks are in one chunky stalk sprouting straight up from the top of his head; the others hang playfully around the edges.
Rippy tip. Ah-rip-lick rippty tip. Ras Iah-T, a dark-skinned man in his 30s from Kenya with thin shoulder-length locks, has been carefully ducking the camera. When the picture-taking ends, he hunches over intently and fills the atmosphere with the tones of the kette drum. This is the lightning, said to be the direct message from Selassie, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. As Iah-T plays, his open fingers skitter across the surface of his instrument.
Once in harmony, the drums can be used to call on the natural elements to bring about fires, lightning flashes, and earthquakes.
Every Saturday evening without fail, about 25 Rasta brethren and sistren assemble at 3516 10th St. NW to turn the night into morning with their I-ses, entreaties for a world free from oppression and racism. This is the spirit of Nyabinghi; its power lies in the sounds of drumming and chanting.
The term “nyabinghi” means “death to all downpressors, black and white.” It is the name used for the first branch of the worldwide Rastafari faith, from which all others have grown. The gatherings attended by followers are also called nyabinghi, as well as the chanting, dancing, and drumming associated with the sect. “[Nyabinghi] is the most austere form of Rastafari practice,” says Jake Homiak, director of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution, “from the wearing of dreadlocks; the use of herb; wearing of red, gold, green; [to] eating ital [organic vegan food]. All the ways Rastas consecrate themselves to God.”
“The nyabinghi [gatherings] had a lot of power. You couldn’t go to one with any premeditated harm,” remembers Sister Farika Berhane, a 63-year-old Maroon descendant and former journalist, who says that she gravitated toward the music of the Rastas as a child growing up in Jamaica. “One time a police came to break one up, and as soon as he come he fall down.”
“If a man commit a nonspiritual act, then him get pay,” adds Brother Irice, who used to go around the gatheringsalso known as “grounations”as a young fisherman and coxswain in Kingston.
Nyabinghi found its way to Washington in the mid-’80s, when Rastafari elders who had migrated to the area from Jamaica formed the Rastafari Community of Washington, D.C., and the Adjacent Areas. The organization held nyabinghi at members’ houses and was overseen by Ras Abraham until he moved to Florida, in 1997, and many of the members left. Meanwhile, a group of younger Rastas pursued their own interest in Nyabinghi. Tired of having the Kaffa House, a reggae club on U Street NW, as the only place they could gather with other young Rastas, in 1996 Ras Seun and his friend Ras Star approached Ras Boanerges, a visiting elder from Jamaica, to help them start a Nyabinghi community. With the older man’s guidance, they got together with other young people and formed the Nyabinghi Youth Council. The council, chaired by Ras Mugabe and Ras Chin, met in followers’ apartments, basements, and the Roots Reggae Cafe in Takoma Park. Soon they invited Brother Jack and Ras Iricemembers of the Rastafari Community of Washington, D.C. and the Adjacent Areasto join them. In August 1998, the new group acquired the house on 10th Street under the name Iniversal Nyabinghi Order Inc., which Brother Irice says he came up with to express the globalization of the Nyabinghi movementand the idea that “Rasta can’t stay in the bush.”
Today, the house is run by young people and two elders, ranging in age from 20 to 65 and hailing mostly from Jamaica, other Caribbean islands, Africa, and the United States. Although their Nyabinghi drumming is primarily conducted at the Saturday-night gatheringsopen to anyone who abides by the house rulesmembers of the group sometimes perform for the general public at special events such as educational seminars and festivals honoring Bob Marley.
Brother Jack, a 65-year-old elder, is famed for playing Nyabinghi drums on a couple of Marley albums and touring and recording with reggae legends Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus. Although he didn’t know it until recently, he’s featured in films such as the 1977 documentary Roots Rock Reggae and Theodorus Bafaloukos’ 1978 classic Rockers. Seeing images of his younger self ripping up the kette drum, Brother Jack says, was a surprise that “make me fall down on me back and beg for a cup of coffee.”
Public performances and recordings show a more creative side of Nyabinghi drumming, which adheres to ritualized rhythms during the gatherings. Count Ossie & the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari introduced Nyabinghi drumming and chanting to a widespread audience with 1973’s Grounation album, and during the late ’80s, artists such as Ras Sam Brown and Ras Pidow expanded the sound on recordings for District reggae label RAS Records, adding nontraditional instruments, varying tempos, and replacing old songs with new, more complex compositions. Nonetheless, the music has been slow to reach those outside the faith, mainly because strict Nyabinghi codes discourage practitioners from any form of commercialization.
Additionally, Nyabinghi drumming has always been associated with social change. In Jamaica, the first island-wide grounation, led by Prince Edward Emmanuel in 1958, was a monthlong convention to rally islanders to emigrate to Ethiopia, the Rastafari spiritual homeland. “The fact that here was a group advocating for repatriation set the Jamaican government’s teeth on edge,” says Homiak.
In 1968, there was another monthlong nyabinghi in Kingston’s National Heroes Park to protest the government’s exile of Walter Rodney, a radical university lecturer and Black Power advocate. Today, there are several days annually celebrated with nyabinghi by Rastas worldwide, including the anniversary of Selassie’s birth, on July 23, 1892; his coronation as emperor, on Nov. 2, 1930; and his only visit to Jamaica, on April 21, 1966.
But Nyabinghi resistance was born long before Selassie. The original Nyabinghi was a legendary warrior queen from Uganda who fought against the foreign forces trying to overrun her land early in the colonial period. When she died, her spirit is said to have possessed others, such as Ugandan healer Muhumusa, who organized a woman-centered secret society to carry out armed resistance against the English and German colonialists in the mid-19th century. Muhumusa was detained by the British from 1913 until her death in 1945, but her womanly spirit still subtly infuses the Nyabinghi faith.
Sister Moona and Sister Sania sway close to each other to the left side of the room, a distance from the drums and a distance from the altar. Their heads are covered in headwraps. Their sleeves are long. Their colorful African-print dresses cover their ankles. Sister Itrina holds her young son, makes faces at him, and playfully throws him into the air. Maracas in hand, the women play the beat of the heart and sing. Sister Farika, who has decorated her headwrap with neon-orange vinyl, opens her arms and blesses the cardinal points of the compass with little shakes of her seed-filled gourd. Tonight, she’s calling herself a “troublemaker.”
The idea that women cannot go near the altar or lead chants doesn’t sit well with Sister Farika, who is talking cautiously to me, saying that her opinions may not be in line with everyone else’s. In Jamaica, she says, the women elders have a bit more freedom. But even on the island, women having their periods must not attend a nyabinghi. Tonight, the women are outnumbered by the men by about 4-to-1; but Rasta sistren, honoring the memory of Muhumusa, continue to cause trouble, and some of the faith’s gender codes are becoming more flexible.
For now, the young men in attendance, their heads uncovered, Selassie pendants and buttons decorating their clothes, seat themselves around several funde drums and pass the bass and kette drums, keeping the steady, slow rhythm. As someone leaves to get water or tea or to talk with other brethren upstairs, someone else eases into the open spot to keep the rhythm.
“Keep cool Babylon, you don’t know what you doing. Binghi man say keep cool Babylon, you don’t know what you saying.” Someone at the altar introduces a song. The chant rises slowly at first and then finds its footing in the gathered voices. The ends of lines are peppered by spontaneous utterances such as “Fire burn genetic cloning!” There are also chants that are sung completely using the sound “I.” “It’s the principle of ‘I and I,’ meaning that I is God who lives within you and me,” notes Homiak. “It’s one solemn togetherness and sung during the peak moments of Nyabinghi.”
This local Nyabinghi tabernacle strives to have all the elements of those in Jamaica, but in the center of Babylon, the capital of sin, it’s a little hard. “Due to the weather, we don’t have outdoor I-ses i-tinually,” says Ras Olu Seun. “But that’s just due to the environmental situation.”
Instead of a warm open-air encampment, the gathering takes place in a chilly basement. Instead of baths in the river, there are showers in the bathroom. Lentil soup cooked over a bonfire is replaced with tabouli. And forget about lighting the long-burning Binghi fire (a symbolic commemoration of when God appeared to Moses as a pillar of flame to lead the Israelites out of captivity) in the back yard.
“Do that here and the fire department will shut us down,” says Sister Farika. CP