Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music

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2001 Hard cover Very Good. Sewn binding. Paper over boards. 302 p. Contains: Illustrations.

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Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, the Itals, the Ethiopians -- they all dropped dazzling proverbs into their best known reggae tunes.

"What come bad in the morning, can't come good in the evening."

"They love to give you a basket to carry water."

"The harder the battle be, ago sweeter the victory."

In Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music Swami Anand Prahlad looks at the contexts and origins of these proverbs, using them as a cultural sheet music for understanding the history of Jamaican culture, Rastafari religion, and the music that is that culture's worldwide voice.

Prahlad's fieldwork in Jamaica is extensive. For him, the study of Jamaican sayings and music is not only an academic endeavor. It is also a personal and poetic exploration. "I am writing not only as a folklorist but also as a member of the international reggae community, a group of people around the globe who look to this music for its joy, wisdom, and strength."

His unique, groundbreaking study argues that contemporary reggae artists are self-styled Rastafari priests for an international community of listeners and devotees. These "warrior/priests" serve as educators, healers, prophets, advisors, and social critics. Their proverbs become sources of strength and inspiration for members of the reggae community.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
An interesting read of what song lyrics say about Jamaican life, Rastafari religion, and reggae music history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781578063192
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
  • Publication date: 2/19/2001
  • Pages: 302
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.15 (d)

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Chapter One


* * *

Culture and Ideology;
A Contextual Frame

Do you remember the days of slavery?
Do you remember the days of slavery?
Do you remember?
Do you remember?

Burning Spear, "Slavery Days," Marcus Garvey

I'm the original man,
straight from creation,
the original man.

Andrew Tosh, "Original Man," Original Man

A contextual study of proverbs in reggae is challenging for a number ofreasons. The most obvious is that one has to rely primarily on textualfragments lifted from the musical and performative contexts in which theproverbs live. There is no completely satisfactory way to treat oralic discoursein the textual media of print. In my previous study of African Americanproverbs in context (1996), I extended the argument made by others (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett1981, Jordan 1982, Levy and Zumwalt 1990) that proverbs"mean" only in context; that there is no singularly "correct" interpretationfor any proverb but instead multiple meanings generated by different speakers/hearersin varying situations. In an attempt to account for this multiplicityof interpretations, I theorized four levels of meaning that operate simultaneouslywhen proverbs are used. Those levels are the grammatical, the social, thesituational, and the symbolic. In short, the grammatical meaning is the literaltranslation of the proverb. The social is the meaning generally understoodwithin a particular group. The situational meaning refers to how the proverbis usedrhetorically in any given instance. Finally, the symbolic meaning suggeststhe personal associative images and meanings that a speaker or listenerbrings to a given proverb speech act as a result of past experiences with theproverb.

    Looking at proverbs in reggae poses different kinds of problems from thoseI encountered in my study of African American proverbs. There are no person-to-personspeech acts, per se, but rather recordings—and in some caseslive performances—of songs in which proverbs are used. The proverb lives asa part of a performed sound event in which the actual speaker is not so significantas the persona being employed in the song. Thus the levels of proverbmeaning are more restricted in this study. I am concerned only occasionally,for instance, with the symbolic associations that proverbs might hold for particularspeakers or listeners. Nor am I very concerned with situational meanings,for in the case of recordings there is no specific interactional situationabout which to refer. The social level of meaning, however, becomes a majorfocus of my concern. Undoubtedly each listener will give the proverbs slightlydifferent nuances of interpretation, an assumption that is made by the songwriterswho are often deliberately vague to elicit multiple interpretations. Atthe same time, however, songwriters are also hopeful that an awareness oftheir ideological perspectives will inform the listeners' interpretations.

    A concentration on the social level of meaning necessitates a thorough explorationof the worldview of the group from which the speakers come—inthis case African Jamaican Rastafari. While I wish to avoid the common practiceof narrowly viewing proverbs as reflections of group "values," it is importantto understand the cultural and historical factors that shape theperspectives and concerns of the artists whose lyrics are under discussion.Otherwise, one cannot fully appreciate the distinct uses of proverbs withinreggae compared with their uses within other song traditions. For example,Folsom (1993c) notes that the proverbs Everything that glitters is not gold,Absence makes the heart grow fonder, Still waters run deep, An ounce ofprevention is worth a pound of cure, Where there's a will there's a way,and A rolling stone gathers no moss are found in American country music.Taft (1994) and Prahlad (1996) examine a plethora of proverbial expressionsfound in African American blues music, including You reap what you sow,A rolling stone gathers no moss, You never miss your water until your wellruns dry, The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice, Don't bite the handthat feeds you, Seeing is believing, Don't burn your bridges behind you,and To jump from the frying pan into the fire. As it turns out, all of theseproverbs are also used in reggae; but, as one would expect, there they carrydifferent shades of meaning. To a large extent the differences result from theradically distinct worldviews informing blues, country music, and reggae.

    An examination of the cultural context out of which these songs arise isalso essential to understanding the aesthetic dimensions of the lyrics, includingpoetic devices, timing, innovations in syntax, and relationships to musicalelements. Because Jamaica has retained such a strong African heritage, its proverbialspeech is more African-influenced than parallel speech behavioramong African Americans. Numerous scholars have written on the generalimportance of proverbial speech across the continent of Africa (e.g., Finnegan1970; Christensen 1958; Messenger 1959; Oledzki 1979; Crepeau 1978; Yankah1989a, 1989b), where it is said by the Yoruba that "Proverbs are the horses ofspeech; if communication is lost, we use proverbs to find it" (Priebe 1971, 26).Even more scholars have studied specific applications of proverbs within particularAfrican groups. For instance, Evans-Pritchard (1963a, 4) and Finnegan(1970, 424) both discuss the uses of proverbs among the Azande as a part ofsanza, or veiled insult. Yankah has written the most on contextualized uses ofproverbs, discussing aesthetic dimensions of them among the Alcan (1989).

    A number of studies provide information on the uses of proverbs in Africansong traditions. Knappert's exegesis (1997) of Swahili proverbs in songs isa glimpse into a fascinating tradition of proverbs in Islamic poetry and song,covering a wide range of areas, including work, love, marriage, hymns, epics,and political song. Ogede's insightful essay on proverbs in the praise songs ofthe Igede (1993) provides an intimate look at the use of proverbs by an Africanbard, Michah Ichegbeh. Among other things, we learn from these articlesabout the strong African tradition of proverb use in song as forms of socialcritique and to boost the spirits of warriors. But what distinguishes Jamaicanproverbial speech from that of the above-mentioned groups on the Africancontinent? Furthermore, what aesthetic influences do the beliefs and practicesof Rastafari add to Jamaican proverb use? How do other influences such asbiblical, American, African American, and British enter into this sociolinguisticequation? To what extent does the medium of popular music affect theencoding and decoding of reggae proverbs? And finally, how are these influencesrealized in the proverbial language of reggae discourse? For answers tothese questions, we must begin with an investigation of the cultural and ideologicalcontext from which reggae discourse arises.

The Proverbs

In Michael Taft's essay on proverbs in blues lyrics, he concludes that althoughproverbs are not uncommon in blues, they are relatively infrequent. He onlyfound about twenty-five proverbs, thirty-six proverbial comparisons, and fifteenproverbial expressions in several thousand blues texts. I have not undertakenthe same kind of statistical survey of reggae, nor have I listenedextensively to all types of reggae music. My survey does suggest, however, thatproverbs are frequently found in a certain kind of reggae and, more specifically,that the lyrics of particular artists are especially rich in proverbial expressions.These artists include Culture, Bob Marley, the Itals, the WailingSouls, and to a lesser degree Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Justin Hinds andthe Dominoes.

    We might conclude from this, therefore, that such artists are proverb masters(Prahlad 1996) and that it is their mastery of proverbial speech more thanthe genre of reggae itself that accounts for the proliferation of proverbial itemsin their works. It must certainly be more than coincidence, however, thatthese artists share ideological orientations, reached the height of their artistryaround the same time period of reggae's development, and all play "roots"reggae. Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the emergence ofproverb masters and these other factors. The generally recognized periods ofJamaican popular music are ska, rock steady, reggae, dancehall, and ragga.Although some critics refer to all of these periods as "reggae," each period is,in fact, marked by distinct musical and lyrical elements. The category of"roots" was most prominent during the rock steady and reggae periods. Theroots category refers to reggae that is inspired by Rastafari ideology (as wellas musical and lyrical aesthetics). This includes a conscious effort to celebratevarious African-influenced cultural elements, including but not limited toverbal expressions. Reasons for the prevalent use of proverbs in this type ofreggae will become apparent as this study unfolds.

    In addition to "traditional" proverbs—those that have already been documentedin a previous collection—I am also concerned with so-called inventedexpressions in this study—hence, with the issue of proverbiality as well as withproverbs proper. Within the context of reggae discourse, phrases are used effectivelyas proverbs even though they may have no established traditionalityprior to the lyrics of a particular song. Several factors facilitate this. Many ofthe proverbs used in reggae discourse are Jamaican and are thus unfamiliar toa large percentage of the foreign reggae audience. Therefore, foreign audiencesare commonly confronted with expressions that sound proverbial but ofwhich they have no previous knowledge. Why should such listeners respondany differently to invented expressions than to those that are, in fact, traditional?Rather, it is more likely that invented expressions can succeed rhetoricallybecause they sound proverbial, and within the context of a song therhetoric of sound is paramount. Arora (1994) has demonstrated in her studyof Hispanic proverbs and speakers that listeners often assume proverbialitybased on the sound of an expression. My study of blues lyrics also indicatedthat proverbs were often found with accompanying lines that sounded proverbial(1996, 81-90). It would prove negligent to ignore examples of inventedproverbs in reggae discourse, especially if the aesthetic rhetoric of the lyrics isa main concern.

Ideological Influences in Reggae

The lyrics and rhetorical strategies of reggae reflect a wide range of influences.Proverbs, for instance, which sparkle like diamonds among other preciousstones, are one of many traditional genres that find their way into this music.In order to understand the role proverbs play, however, the connection betweenthem and other genres must be explored; at the same time, we have tosurvey the general and specific cultural contexts out of which these oral traditionsemerge. Such an examination of Jamaican traditions is particularly complex,as it includes elements from the rich and diverse African heritagesrepresented in different parts of the country; a variety of religious and secularfolk groups, dialects, and performance styles; a dense fabric of mythology, legend,ritual, and belief; and a charged history of political and social movementsthat have had no small impact on the aesthetics of proverb use. In fact, I willonly have time briefly to mention these components, which are extensiveenough to require multiple volumes to give them the scrutiny they deserve.The dominant worldview influencing the construction of roots reggae is, ofcourse, Rastafari. Hence, this chapter is concerned with the ideology of thismystical religion in the historical context of Jamaican society and, specifically,with those elements that have the most profound impact on reggae discourse.Narrative personas and the diverse rhetorical genres that comprise reggae willbe explored in the next chapter.

    Before the advent of Rastafari influence in reggae, the lyrics and musicwere less rhetorically complex. Early reggae was dominated by lyrical trendsborrowed from American rhythm and blues and from soul music. With thedevelopment of ska and rock steady, we see the inclusion of more purely Jamaicanaesthetics. It was not until reggae artists began their conversion toRastafari, however, that elements of African Jamaican culture moved to theforefront as symbols of identity and pride, and as markers of aesthetic standards.One can compare this period in Jamaican music to the Black ArtsMovement in African American poetry. Beginning with the Black Arts Movement,African American poets rejected English standards of poetry, turninginstead to their own oral traditions to define the parameters of their aesthetics.While earlier poets, such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and JamesWeldon Johnson, may have occasionally relied upon oral traditions, mostpoets began doing so after the Black Arts Movement. Hence, the AfricanAmerican poetic aesthetic was permanently changed. My discussion of reggae,then, begins with a comparable period of dramatic change in the way in whichJamaican reggae was conceptualized.

    One of Rastafari's most significant contributions to reggae was the impacton the narrative personas used by singers in their lyrics, lives, and performances.The spread of Rastafari eventually heralded a new age of consciousness,an era in which many Jamaicans—not only reggae artists—would experiencea fundamental transformation of identity. With this new identity came formsof self-presentation, a new voice, and an altered relationship to elements ofJamaican and African culture. The role that the music played in society andthe nature of the audience also changed. Prior to 1945, for example, "the radiostations of Jamaica continuously played the music of white America—ElvisPresley, Pat Boone, Doris Day and Neil Sedaka" (Campbell 1987, 126), andearly singers aspired to an aesthetic for popular and "worthwhile" music thatwas based upon European and American aesthetics.

    The introduction of Rastafari elements into Jamaican music coincided withthe emergence of ska and the tradition of "sound systems." Sound systemsdeveloped in the mid 1950s as a reactionary response to the neocolonial controlof Jamaican airways. In fact, many people had no access to radios becausethey could not afford to buy them. Sound systems brought people together inlarge yards, in Kingston and rural areas, where "the music of Jamaica andblack America could be played without restraint" (Campbell 1987, 127), wherethey could dance, party, and have a good time. The name "sound system"referred to the powerful, large sound systems (amplifiers, turntables, andspeakers) that the deejays used and that were the heart of these gatherings.Deejays such as Duke Reid and Clement Seymour Dodd competed with eachother for the best sounds and largest crowds, beginning a tradition that remainsan integral part of the Jamaican music scene today. Jones writes: "Todate the sound [system] remains the principal context of musical activity fora large proportion of the black working class, and one of the main institutionsthrough which reggae's audience is able to exert some control over the music,by demanding danceable and relevant music" (1988, 30). In many ways, soundsystems are comparable to secret nocturnal meetings held by slaves in busharbors (hidden meeting sites) or other out-of-the-way places. These meetingsallowed slaves the opportunity to sing, dance, and worship in the manner theypreferred, but which was forbidden by slaveowners. Sound systems were acontinuation of a tradition of resistance that characterized every slave andneocolonial settlement of Africans in the Western world.

    During the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Rastafari influencein Jamaican music emerged, alongside songs that addressed social problems.This period is marked by the Folks Brothers, "Oh Carolina," which featuredthe burro drumming of Count Ossie, "the renown Rastafarian elder and percussionist"(Barrow 1993, 32). Campbell writes:

The drumming of O Carolina heralded a new era of music, for the songs sung by theRastafari which extolled Ethiopia and Africa were developed within the confines of thesound systems which vied with each other for supporters. Socio-religious and politicalsongs echoed and reverberated across the gullies from the sound systems, with By theRivers of Babylon, Let the Power Fall on I, and the Macabs Version played along withthe classic instrumental records called Man in the Street, Schooling the Duke, Far East,and other music of joy, consistent with the pride of achieving the status of politicalindependence. (127)

So while the majority of singers continued to base their lyrics and performancestyles on American soul and rhythm and blues, the seeds for a new musicaldirection had begun to send shoots up from the soil. The guiding conceptof a song was still as a form of entertainment; however, a dramatic shift inthis as well as in the concept of audience, as indicated by the emergence ofsound systems, was in progress. Much to the dismay and discomfort of theJamaican elite, singers began composing in the dialect of the ghetto and addressingthe masses at the lower end of the social ladder: the people of theghetto, the Dungles, and the rural parishes and shantytowns.

    The new identity that began to take root among Jamaican artists includedelements from a plethora of sources. The combination of these influences representsa complex synthesis of traditional Jamaican, African, African American,African Caribbean, European, and biblical components, as well as manyconstituents that cannot be divorced from their associations with local andinternational popular culture, such as allusions to American film. While someof these elements may have been of relatively new historical origins, the principleswhereby the synthesis or creolization of these diverse ingredients wasorganized have roots in the historical experience of Africans in the New Worldand, more specifically, in Jamaican culture and history. I have argued elsewherethat the three major personas in roots reggae are the priest, the rudeboy,and the epic hero (Prahlad 1995). While I would like to modify thesehere, I will first examine the roots of these narrative personas that led to significantaspects of their philosophical orientation, aesthetic guidelines, andperformance styles.

Rastafari, Resistance, and Revolt

Certainly the most dominant factors bearing on the philosophical and rhetoricaltenor of roots reggae is Rastafari. The religion itself evolved as a culminationof a diverse set of influences and events. Its origins are sometimes citedas the crowning of King Haile Selassie in Ethiopia in 1930, which precipitatedthe teaching of a new religion by a number of former Garveyites, includingLeonard Howell, Archibald Dunkley, Robert Hinds, and Joseph Hibbert.However, seeds of Rastafari were planted in the soil of the slave trade and thesubsequent colonization of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. This singleevent in Western history set the stage for the dehumanizing and oppressiveconditions under which not only Jamaicans but other survivors of the African

Excerpted from REGGAE WISDOM by Sw. Anand Prahlad. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

The Original Man: Culture and Ideology; A Contextual Frame 1
Jah Message to Preach: Personas and Rhetorical Aesthetics 32
No Cup No Mash: Proverbs in Jamaican Society 70
New Brooms Sweep Clean: Proverbs and the Rhetorical Strategies of Address in Reggae Discourse 112
Still Water Run Deep: Proverbs of the Itals 139
Fire, Corn and Pots: Proverbs of Bob (Robert Nesta) Marley, O. M. 170
App. 1: Partial Discography 207
App. 2 List of Major Proverb Users 214
App. 3 Interview with Keith Porter 217
App. 4 List of Proverbs by the Itals and Bob Marley, by Album and Song 226
App. 5: Proverb Index 234
Notes 275
References 279
Index 291
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