The Dispersal of Rasta Music

Soon after, Rasta music became a primary feature, a grounding force, at the mushrooming campsites of West Kingston and in the hills around the city.  The routing of Leonard Howell's Pinnacle Hill commune in 1954 and the constant police harassment of Rastas, at Back-o-Wall and elsewhere in Kingston, in the late 1950s meant even greater dispersal of the Rastafarian brethren, with their pulsating music and their message of black awareness.  Chief among the campsites was Ossie's camp, first at Adastra Road and later at the present premises, on Glasspole Avenue in East Kingston, where the Mystic Revelations of Rastafari (MRR) Community Center built by Ossie now stands.  Ossie's camps attracted the cream of Jamaican jazz and pop musicians, including the Gaynairs, Tommy McCook, Viv Hall, Don Drummond, Ernest Ranglin, as well as musicians from abroad.  During these sessions of reasoning and musical exchange, the compatibility of Rasta drumming and voice instruments and the creative possibilities of the music were realized.  It is said that out of this experience, the trombone of the great Don D. (Drummond) took wings.
        In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the system of Rasta camps and communal living had become quite the thing for many of Jamaica's social outcasts (those forced to be and those who chose to be).  In addition to camps in West Kingston were Issie Boat's camp in the reaches of Wareika Hill and Ossie's meeting place at Slip Dock Road.  The Rasta camp at the time was a very mobile community.   Brethren came and went as the spirit or occasion moved them.  There was a great deal of dialogue, and the exchange of ideas was very strong.  This was one of the means by which Rasta music spread from camp to camp and parish to parish in Jamaica.
        Christmas 1949 saw the first really big congregation of Rastafarians at Issie Boat's camp at Wareika.  Singing, drumming, and dancing by Ossie's group and some Burru players; chanting; herb smoking; and feasting went on for days.  At that time, Ossie, Brother Philmore Alvaranga, and "Big Bra" Gaynair, saxophone virtuoso, were known as the "Big Three" of the Rasta world.  They, along with then-famous Rasta preacher Brother Love from the Mountain View Area, led the brethren in music and scripture reading and exhortations.
        Ossie moved from Slip Dock Road after being displaced in 1951 by Charlie, the killer hurricane.  Ossie says that he became a watchman on the building site of the Rennock Lodge housing scheme.  There he used to beat his drums day and night with Brother Nyah.  Later, Ossie set up his famous camp at 32 Adastra Road.  This remained his campsite until 1974, when, along with the Mystic Revelations and with the aid of wellwishers, he built a community center on Glasspole Avenue.
        Wherever he camped, Ossie's music was followed and observed by other Rasta brethren, potential drummers from other groups.   "Man would come and listen," said Count Ossie, "until they could memorize a ridim.  Then they would go back to their group or dem yard and practice on drums, or whatever, until they have that ridim under control.  Then they would come back to the camp to learn something else."
18  Not only in this way did Ossie's music spread; he and Phil Alvaranga used to go street-preaching the word of Rastafari.  Ossie and his group supplied music for the meetings.  They also visited out-of-town campsites, spreading the message and the music.
        In the early days, among those who accompanied Ossie (repeater) were Eric Tingling (bass), John "Beck" Dale (fundeh), and Leighton "Worms" Lawrence, who sang and danced sometimes.  As the Count Ossie Drummers became popular, his steady drummers were George "Little Bap" Clarke (first fundeh), Winston "Peanut" Smith (second fundeh), and Bunny Ruggs (bass).  Later, Ossie's son, Time, became second repeater player, displaying something of the virtuosity of his famous father.  Ossie has been acclaimed by many of Jamaica's top musicians as having an extremely keen sense of ridim and timing - one of the most creative musicians alive up to the early 1970s.  The dispersal of Rasta music continues to occur chiefly by oral tradition, with the "groundation" acting as the principal medium of dispersal.

Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, Edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane (Temple University Press 1998), pp. 240-241.

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