Hip-hop is the most listened to music genre in the world according to Spotify, one of the top music streaming apps in the world. Spotify created a ‘musical map of the world’ and analysis of the data collected revealed that Hip-hop is most listened to, regardless of geography or language. Hip-hop, along with Reggae and Dancehall music genres trace their origins in Uganda. I know it sounds outrageous and arbitrary but this is a story that goes way back to pre-colonial times.
The Nile river, whose source is in Uganda, was an important part of history and many ancient civilizations sought to find the source of the Nile in vain. It is said that Alexander the Great asked about the source of the Nile, and a proverb was formed; dreamers of the impossible were often told “It would be easier to find the source of the Nile.” If Alexander, a man who became king at the age of 20 years and in a period of 10 years had conquered Medes, Persia, Babylon, Asia and Egypt (present day Eastern Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Northern India) could not reach the source of the Nile, it would be hard for anyone else to reach it. The barrier was the impassable Sudd wetlands in South Sudan. In 61AD Roman soldiers sent by Emperor Nero proceeded up the White Nile but could not get beyond the Sudd Wetlands, and this marked the end of Roman penetration into Equatorial Africa. Later on the Arabs, in their conquest of North Africa from 632 AD to 709 AD, could not get beyond the barrier either and thus named the place Sudd Wetlands. Sudd is an Arabic word meaning “barrier” or “obstruction”. It would be a bit erroneous to state that it was only the Sudd wetlands that prevented further conquest into Africa. The major area of contention among the Europeans and Arabs at that time was North Africa. The source of the Nile, which piqued their interest into equatorial Africa, proved unreachable and they possibly found it more convenient to not venture more.
The land below the Sudd wetlands and much of East and Central Africa came to be known as Ethiopia. The term Ethiopia was not exclusive to the modern day country Ethiopia. According to Greek writers, Ethiopia was an empire that covered the present-day countries of South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, DR Congo, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, Central African Republic, etc. The word Ethiopia is derived from the Greek word ‘Athiops’ which means “charred” or “burnt”. It was a reference to our dark complexion. Much of North Africa had been compromised by the Arabs, and by the Byzantine, Roman, Cathage, Greek, Persian and Assyrian empires before that. The people of Northern Africa had become predominantly of lighter complexion. Therefore we came to be known as the Athiops i.e. the people with dark complexion. Another name for the Ethiopian empire was ‘Kush’ or ‘Cush’. This is not to say that we were the only black people in Africa, there were blacks in West Africa (Ghana empire, Mali empire), Southern Africa and some blacks in North Africa.
In Hebrew history, particularly in the books of the Bible, Ethiopia is mentioned a couple of times. Moses, who was born and educated in Egypt, is said to have married an Ethiopian woman in the book of Numbers (chapter 12, verse 1, in 1200 BC). Ethiopia’s king Taharqa, who also ruled Egypt (690 – 664 BC) is mentioned in Isaiah (chapter 37, verse 9-11, in 687 BC) as having in-part saved Jerusalem from Assyrian destruction, when the king of Assyria got a message that the king of Ethiopia was attacking his kingdom. What is more widely known however, is the story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon of Israel (1st Kings chapter 10). The Queen of Sheba is largely believed to have been Queen Makeda of Ethiopia and she is referred to in the New Testament as the queen of the South (Mathew chapter 12, verse 42, and Luke chapter 11, verse 31). The story goes that on her way back home from Israel she bore a son to King Solomon and she named him Menilek (meaning ‘son of the wise man’).
Over 2500 years later in 1270AD, an era of emperors arose in Ethiopia who claimed descent from King Solomon. It was called the Solomonic dynasty. The link to King Solomon provided a strong foundation of unity for the emperors, citing God’s promise to King David father to King Solomon in the book of 2nd Samuel (chapter 7, verse 16) “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; and your throne will be established forever.” Jesus himself was a descendant of David and therefore the Davidic promise came to have both political and religious interpretations.
The Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia began in 1270 with emperor Yekuno Amlak and officially ended in 1769 with emperor Iyaos, but the Ethiopian rulers continued to trace their connection to it, right up to the 20th century emperor Haile Selassie. Ethiopia, as a country, having fought off the Italians twice and not been colonized, became the champion of Pan-Africanism and advocated for the independence of the African countries that were still colonized.
Pan-Africanism existed beyond continental borders and gained substantial support among the African diaspora in the Caribbean and the United States. A Jamaican political leader named Marcus Garvey became a proponent of Pan-Africanism. Garvey was unique in spreading a message of positive black racial identity to inspire a global mass movement and economic empowerment for Africa known as Garveyism. Garveyism would eventually inspire other movements most notable of which were the ‘Nation of Islam’ and the ‘Rastafari movement’. The Nation of Islam movement had influential people like Malcolm X and Mohammad Ali. The Rastafari movement, on the other hand, is what this narrative of history has been leading to, and is the connection of this history to music.
Rastafari is a religious movement and a way of life based on Ethiopian history and culture. It derives from the history of not just the present-day country Ethiopia but also the pre-colonial Ethiopian empire that included many of the modern-day countries of East and Central Africa. It developed in Jamaica in the 1930s after the coronation of Haile Selassie 1 as emperor of Ethiopia. The name Rastafari comes from Haile Selassie’s first name (Tafari Makonnen) and ‘Ras’ was the title given to a leader/chief/emperor in the Ethiopian language Amharic. Leonard Howell, a Jamaican religious leader and a follower of Marcus Garvey, believed and asserted that the crowning of Haile Selassie marked the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy (citing the Solomonic link). While Garvey only saw Haile Selassie as a potential big player in the Pan Africanist movement, the Rastafari added a religious dimension to Pan Africanism and adopted some elements of Ethiopian culture.
One of the key concepts of the Rastafari movement is the Nyabingyi rhythm. The Nyabingyi rhythm is a form of communal meditative practice that involves traditional drumming and chants. It was named after Nyabingyi, a Ugandan/Rwandan goddess whom the Nyabingyi Resistance (1910-1930) is also named after. According to Wikipedia;
“One account states that in 1700 AD two tribes inhabited the Uganda/Rwanda area: the Shambo and the Bgeishekatwa. Queen Katami who is said to have owned a sacred drum of phenomenal power, ruled the Bgeishekatwa tribe. In event of the war between the two tribes, queen Katami died. After her death, she was given immortal status and and the name Nyabingyi. Her spirit continued to be praised and to possess her followers for the next two centuries.”
However, the Shambo and Bgeishekatwa are, in the present day, not tribes but clans in the Ankole kingdom and they are called the Bashambo and the Abeishekatwa. When Muhumusa, the lady at the helm of the Nyabingyi Resistance against colonialists was captured and detained in Kampala, a photograph of her circulated in the press throughout the British empire just about the same time Black nationalist leaders were emerging in North America and the Caribbean, among whom were the Rastafari. The Rastafari incorporated Nyabingyi drumming and chants in their way of life.
Nyabingyi drumming consists of a heartbeat rhythm, played in 4/4 time on three types of drums; bass, funde and keteh. The bass drum strikes loudly on the first beat, and a soft dampened stroke on the third (of fourth) beat. The funde drum maintains the dominant heartbeat rhythm with steady, regular dampened strokes on “1&” … “3&”. The funde player has the least improvisation role. The keteh drum, also known as the repeater, is the smallest and highest pitched drum. The drummer tends to play “2 e & a” and “4 e & a” with an improvised syncopation rather than a backbeat feel.
Nyabingyi rhythm is the foundation and basis for Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae music genres which originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. Reggae was born in Trenchtown, the main ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica among poor blacks who listened to radio stations from USA. Jamaican musicians, most of them Rastas, soon blended the Nyabingyi beats and chanting with the genres they were listening to on radio like Jazz, Mento, Rhythm and Blues, and Calypso. The result was the high tempo Ska, which was a precursor for slower paced Rocksteady. Reggae originated from Rocksteady and it is faster than Rocksteady but slower than Ska. All three genres, and especially Reggae can be recognized from the counterpoint between the bass and drum downbeat, and the offbeat rhythm section. This heavy backbeated rhythm directly developed from the Nyabingyi rhythm. Towards the end of this writing, I will elaborate on how a small island of the Caribbean, Jamaica, came to influence world music so greatly and why it was the Nyabingyi rhythm that made this possible.
The key players in the making of the Reggae sound were the four bands ‘The Skalites’, ‘Toots and the Maytals’, ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’, and ‘The Upsetters’. Reggae music came to be associated with the Rastafari and it spread to many countries of the world, often fusing with other genres. It mostly gained popularity and mainstream acceptance thanks to Bob Marley’s music and cultural influence.
Reggae music has been at the forefront in the development of music since it came into being. One of the music genres that is directly influenced from Reggae is Dancehall music. Dancehall music originated from Jamaica in the late 1970s and it evolved from one of the subgenres of Reggae called Roots Reggae. It started when Style Scott decided to start playing chords instead of rockers. It was less political and less religious. Two of the biggest stars of the early dancehall era were Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse. In the mid-1980s, when digital instrumentation became common, a new subgenre of digital dancehall characterized by faster rhythms was formed and it was called Ragga. Ragga is a subgenre of Dancehall and Reggae music. Chaka Demus and Pliers were the first Dancehall mega-hits around the world. Dancehall genre became popular again in the late 1990s and early 2000s with artistes like Beenie Man, Sean Paul, and Elephant Man. Soon the genre fell off the charts in USA and Europe but it has resurfaced and the current trend is fusing Hiphop with Dancehall music. Justin Bieber’s song Sorry, Jason Derulo’s new song with Niki Minaj, and French Montana’s song whose video was shot in Uganda are some examples of the new trend towards dancehall music.
Another genre that grew out of Reggae is Dub music. Dub music started in Jamaica in the 1960s. It consists mostly of instrumental remixes of existing recordings. This is achieved by manipulating and restructuring recordings, usually removing the vocals and emphasizing the drum and bass parts. Other effects added include extensive echo, panoramic delay, reverb, and vocal or instrumental snippets. The pioneers of Dub music considered the mixing console as an instrument, reshaping tracks to come up with something new. This technique was then introduced into New York by immigrants from Jamaica and laid the foundation for Hip-hop music.
Hip-hop culture was started in the late 1970s in the Bronx, New York City. The founding fathers of the culture are Afrikan Bambatta, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc. DJ Kool Herc being a native of Jamaica, always credits Jamaican roots for his early techniques and development of the culture. Originally, DJs in Jamaica would get on the microphone just to promote albums and hype up tracks. Sound system operator Ruddy Redwood goes to Treasure Isles studio to cut dubplates and the sound engineer Byron Smith forgets to include the vocal track on one. Redwood takes this accidental instrumental to the dance. The crowd loses it. One account has him playing it over and over for more than 30 minutes straight. This was the birth of Hip-hop and MCs would toast/rap over the beat. It was also the birth of phrases like ‘rewind’, ‘wheel it up’, ‘pull up’ etc. Dancehall artist Daddy U Roy was one of the first artists to toast phrases that fit in with the words of the song, in addition to his ‘call-and-response’ style. This is how Rapping started in the USA and was incorporated into Western culture.
Rapping is a major component of, and sometimes the term is used interchangeably with, Hip-Hop music. Stylistically, rapping contains elements of prose, poetry, speech, and singing. It is different from spoken-word poetry in that it is performed to a beat/rhythm. While the origins of poetry can be traced to Europe, Rapping originated from Africa. It is attributed to the historians/story tellers/singers of West Africa known as the Griots. The griots delivered stories over drums and sparse instrumentation. In the African oral tradition, this was an enviable talent and the rapper had to have knowledge of local history, as well as current events and chance incidents. He/she had to rhyme, be witty, and know many local songs without error. Rapping was also done in other parts of Africa and in Uganda it is called ‘Okwevuga’ in Western Uganda and ‘Ebitontome’ in Buganda. In 2010, Ugandan president H.E Yoweri Museveni told people at a rally that rap music was not new, and that many cultures in Western Uganda had traditional rap for centuries. He then recited two pieces, ‘atema akati’ (I cut a stick) and ‘mp’enkoni’ (give me the stick). Music producer Steve Jean mixed the recitals and the hit song ‘You want another rap’ was made.
Rapping made it’s debut in USA as early as the 1920s in Blues music. Blues mixed with African slaves’ music at that time to create the Rhythm and Blues genre. However, rapping became most popular in dancehall music with musicians like Shaba Ranks, Chaka Demus and Plies etc. It later became more popular in Hip-hop music.
So how did Jamaica, a small Caribbean island, influence world music and culture, and what was Nyabingyi rhythm’s role in this.
The island of Jamaica was colonized by the Taino tribes prior to the arrival of Colombus in 1494. The early inhabitants named the land Xaymaca meaning ‘land of wood and water’. The Taino contributed to the English language words like barbecue, canoe, tobacco, potato, etc. When the Spanish came, they enslaved the Taino tribes and the conflict, coupled with foreign diseases led to the near-extinction of the Taino. With the Spanish came hundreds of enslaved Africans to the island. The English invaded Jamaica in 1655 and defeated the Spanish and the island coast became a base for pirates and privateers. In the 18th century, sugarcane production became Jamaica’s main economic activity. Sugarcane production was labor intensive and the English brought in hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans. By 1800 blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of twenty to one. As a result, there were revolts against the white colonialists. The slaves were allowed to sing and dance for motivational purposes but they were not allowed to play the drum because a drum was usually used to send coded messages. Therefore the drum became a paramount symbol of freedom. Slavery was later abolished in 1834, but Jamaica did not get independence until 1962. During the intermediate time to independence there were tensions between the blacks and whites leading to the rise of black activist Marcus Garvey. The Pan-African endeavors of Marcus Garvey were echoed all through Africa with many African countries also seeking independence. Ethiopia was the only uncolonised African country so it became a source of inspiration, and Haille Selassie was revered in Jamaica and Africa at large. The Jamaicans identified with Africa and sought to have a culture that goes back to their roots.
When the story and pictures of Muhumusa were circulated by British media throughout the British empire, she became a hero to Jamaicans. They incorporated the Nyabingyi drums and chants into their culture. They also included parties which start in the evening to the late hours of the night. These parties are called Grounations and are very similar in form to what is referred to as Okutarama in Western Uganda. Okutarama are parties held in the evening after milking the cows and people sit around a fire and tell stories, rap (okwevuga), dance, pray etc and it goes on till late in the night. The drum is dominant in both Grounations and Okutarama. Grounations became part of the social activities in Jamaica.
There were many music genres but very few of them remain relevant today. This is partly because they did not create a culture around the genre. Hip-hop music is very popular because of the hip hop culture that includes dancing, rhyming, rapping, beat boxing, deejaying, MCing, graffiti painting, hip hop fashion, etc. Initially, at grounations, the music played was Nyabingyi drums and chants. It evolved into reggae and dancehall music. Because people were now used to this frequent entertainment, it led to the rise of sound systems. The sound system concept first became popular in the 1950s in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables and huge speakers and set up street parties. In the beginning the DJs mostly played American RnB but as time progressed local music like reggae and dancehall took over. These street parties were exported to Europe and USA by immigrants from Jamaica. Thus the role of Uganda in influencing world music as we know it today.
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