There was some hype last year in December when Men’s Choir St. Johann of Basel in Switzerland performed three Nyabinghi chants.
Many questions arose as to why a church should use something from another that do not in a way subscribe to their belief.
Although we talk of Nyabinghi chants, even when Nyabinghi is one of the mansions of Rastafari which are branches of the Rastafari movement, the chants are done by all the mansions, including the Bobo Shanti, the Nyabinghi themselves, the Twelve Tribes of Israel and others.
Of course, the mansion term is taken from the Biblical verse in John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
And many individual Rastas are only loosely affiliated with these mansions, or not at all, according to internet information. This is in keeping with the principle of freedom of conscience, a general distrust of institutionalism shared by many, and the teachings of Haile Selassie I as Emperor that “faith is private” and a direct relationship requiring no intermediary.
Now let’s talk about the Nyabinghi chants also known as binghi. This is a kind of music that Rastas use when they congregate during their celebrations which are referred to as “groundations”.
Rastas say the rhythms of these chants were eventually an influence of popular ska, rocksteady and reggae music.
Nyabinghi chants use three kinds of drums which are called “harps”.
These ones include one that produces bass called the “Pope Smasher” or “Vatican Basher”, which is a means to denounce Catholicism and Babylon.
The other drums are the middle-pitched funde which plays a regular one-two beat and the bass drum strikes loudly on the first beat, and softly on the third beat (of four while the third one is akete which is also known as the “repeater” because it plays an improvised syncopation.
Count Ossie was the first to record Nyabinghi, and he helped to establish and maintain Rastafari culture. Ossie, born Oswald Williams around 1926 in Jamaica and died on 18 October 1976, formed a group called “Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari” as a renown Jamaican drummer with whom he issued two albums, one of them Tales of Mozambique.
Nyabinghi drumming makes basis rhythms for reggae music and it has revolutionised Jamaican music by combining the various Nyabinghi parts into a ‘complete’ “drum kit,” which combined with jazz to create an entirely new form of music, known as ska, which was the precursor of the reggae genre.
Ossie is attributed as the creator of Nyabinghi rhythms as he incorporated influences from traditional Jamaican Kumina drumming with songs and rhythms learned from the recordings of Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji.
Ossie combined Jamaican traditions with newly acquired African ones from the Nigerian master-drummer Olatunji.
Olatunji, born Lagos, developed his music while in the US after reading in Reader’s Digest magazine about the Rotary International Foundation’s scholarship programme and applied for it. He went to the US in 1950 but released released his first of six records on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion, in 1959 which became a major hit as it introduced many Americans to world music.
Nyabinghi drumming goes along with recitation of the Psalms as well as well-known Christian hymns hence Nyabinghi chants which was popularised with the recordings of Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, as well as the Rastafari Elders.
It is, therefore, a wonder that such a seemingly Rastafarian music is finding its way in white Christian churches which chanted ‘No Night in Zion’ alongside the other two chants.