Reggae 101: NYABINGHI
It is fairly rare that a religious ritual has an overarching effect on an entire genre of music. In roots reggae’s case, however, one religious ritual has made all the difference in how the music is composed and sung. The ritual, you ask? Nyabinghi.
What is Nyabinghi?
While listening to reggae music, or if you are exposed to Rastafarian culture, you may have heard the term Nyabinghi (pronounced (“Ni-uh-bin-gee”) thrown around once or twice. The word typically has two meanings. On one hand, Nyabinghi is used to refer to a sect of Rastafarianism that usually is the most orthodox organization within the religion. On the other hand, Nyabinghi also refers to the island-wide religious gatherings of Rasta men and women at which the participants “praise Jah” and “chant down Babylon,” or chant down things that are sacrilegious.
Nyabinghi usually takes place in the hills or in a very rural section devoid of any “Western influences,” such as electricity and McDonald’s (although, Rastas don’t eat McDonald’s due to the lack of ital choices on the menu). At these gatherings, participants perform rhythmic chants to the sound of blaringly loud drums. Nyabinghi drumming is performed on three main drums, the bass (the lowest drum), the funde (a middle-pitched drum), and the akete (the highest-pitched drum). The bass strikes the first and third beats, the funde plays a one-two beat, and the akete plays syncopated, improvised rhythms, generally with multiple drummers playing "conversationally" between them.
Nyabinghi gatherings can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. These sessions are normally cut off from the general public, unless the general public wishes to adhere to the gathering’s strict requirements.
Nyabinghi’s influence on roots reggae.
Roots reggae was established considerably by Rastafarians. This is made overwhelmingly obvious by the myriad references to Rasta, Haile Selassie, Prince Emanuel, and so forth, throughout early roots reggae songs. In essence, the connection between the Rasta’s most sacred ritual and their minted genre of reggae is an appropriate one. Stimulated by Rastafarians’ meditative substance—marijuana—Rastas chant spiritual lyrics and sayings to the beat of drums in Nyabinghi. Similarly, much to the delight of roots reggae fans, the same spirituality that is riddled throughout Nyabinghi chants are transferred directly to roots reggae songs recorded for distributions. The themes consistently include: remaining spiritual and conscious, addressing socioeconomic ills, and giving thanks to the creator.
Nyabinghi is often criticized for being a sort of omnium gatherum of weed-smoking, dread-locked rebels. However, Nyabinghi is no different from a Christian church retreat or sweat lodges conducted in the Southwest region of the U.S.A. In fact, most religions have a retreat or pilgrimage of some sort that brings them spiritually closer to their object of praise.
In sum, if you appreciate the positive chanting-style of roots reggae, you can attribute almost exclusively to the Rastafarian’s practice of Nyabinghi.