Throughout the ages and around the globe, drumming has been used for communication, entertainment, and prayer. That is especially true for the Rastafarians who performed at this year's Sacred Music Festival in Jerusalem.
If you haven’t heard of Nyabinghi drumming, you are not alone. It is sacred music, played as a communal meditative practice in the Rastafarian religion of Jamaica, and rarely performed in public.
As Jamaican reggae star Vivien Jones explains, it is a centuries-old link between the Caribbean and Africa.
“That's been in Jamaica since we were taken there as slaves," Jones said. "Slave master used to bang the drums. So the drums were there from the time we landed on that island, the drums were being played. So it was African drumming … all the way from ancient Ethiopia. All it did was it traveled in a slave ship to Jamaica and then it bloomed and blossomed again in Jamaica.”
It is a form of music passed down from generation to generation. Drummer Bonjo Iyapingi Noah started early.
"I grew up playing within the church," he said. "Before the elders would come up and play, we the children we have to play. We learn this all from the elders. The elders sit us down and they teach us what to sing.”
Bonjo plays with Drums of Defiance, a band of Jamaican musicians based in London. He says that although this is sacred music, the band is now beginning to perform it in public to spread the teachings of the Rastafarians.
Vivien Jones and Drums of Defiance perform at the medieval fortress, the Tower of David, in the heart of Old Jerusalem. (Courtesy Noam Chojnowski/Jerusalem Season of Culture)
“I was even thinking it was wrong for me to even record it. I’m going to make a Nyabinghi album because, the way I was seeing it is from the church, but now, as I said before, the teachings have to go everywhere," Bonjo said. "Everyone has to know what Rastafari is. Show the power of nyabinghi.”
For their performance at the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival, the band members are seated on stage. Some are dressed in white, and some are clad in vivid reds, yellows and greens, with long flowing robes and colorful headgear.
The musicians’ chanting often follows the “call and response” pattern that is typical of gospel and other genres of music whose roots are in Africa.
Biblical Israel is a core topic in much of gospel and reggae music. So when Vivien Jones had the chance to perform at the annual festival in Jerusalem, he didn’t hesitate. He invited the Drums of Defiance to join him.
"The importance of this place, Israel, from all our background, growing up as children, reading the Bible and things like this," Jones said. "Our parents are Christians, so it’s very special for me, because you feel a presence of a higher level of blessing and grace. You feel a presence of that. You can definitely feel it here.”
Nyabinghi drumming is ceremonial music for Rastafarians. But, it is also universal.
“This music that we play, this music is music of love and upliftment," Jones said. "This music is for the whole world. It’s for all nations. It’s for us to get together. This music will draw everyone together, all nations together. We’re not singing of war, we’re singing of peace, we’re singing of love, we’re singing of caring for one another, your family. This is what we're singing about.”
Jones and the Drums of Defiance plan to take performances of Nyabinghi music around the world.