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Book Reviews

Hélène Lee: The First Rasta--Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

By Published: October 1, 2003

Hélène Lee relates her study of the so-called first rasta in a narrative that pauses for oral accounts and dwells in depth on scholarly examination. Given that this is the first formal study of Leonard Howell, her occasional dryness deserves forgiveness. Debating whether and when exactly Howell lived in Panama during his youth, for example, holds only marginal interest and relevance. But the scholars care, so let them study this. The rest of us can move on.

And Lee's story, as it unwinds, is masterful in its coherence and understanding. Leonard Howell, son of an agricultural worker and sometimes tailor, left Jamaica in his youth to explore the big world, pausing in New York to absorb the surging black culture of the Harlem Renaissance and its intense, often fragmented spiritualism. Apparently he never went to Ethiopia, an interesting fact given his obsession with that country and its leader. But no need; he learned how to preach and recruit. These skills allowed him, after some time, to build a following in his home country.

Whether or not they might seem like a distant antecedent, Howell's roots matter. They help explain his methods (not too different from street preachers and cult leaders of the day, though he had his own rules and a personal vision). His relationship with Marcus Garvey, mentioned at several points throughout The First Rasta, remained more ideological than personal. The return to Africa was the shared concept. Bob Marley did not write "Exodus" for no reason.

V. Pinnacle

Along the way, as might be expected given the insecurity of Jamaica's government and Howell's outspoken criticism of false authority, he was subjected to police scrutiny and imprisonment. He spent some time in a mental institution. But despite intermittent bouts of growth and persecution, Howell found a home for himself and his people. It was called Pinnacle, a patch of land high in the hills of Jamaica, isolated from the rest of the island, with an incredible view of the land and the sea. The land wasn't particularly fertile, but Howell managed (after some hard times) to find sustenance for his community of thousands of followers.

Which brings us to the sacrament of Rastafarianism. Marijuana, or ganja, has long been regarded by Rastafarians as a vehicle for spirituality—ganja projects its strength in the form of awakening and awareness. Here is where Hélène Lee hits her stride. She makes a point of visiting Pinnacle (now defunct and run down), spending enough time to absorb the ghostly spirit of the place.

Starting on page two and through most of the book, she relates how Pinnacle became home for a people who shared a messiah and a hero, a safe haven from the forces of oppression. Interestingly enough (and relevant to the Rasta belief system), women played a subordinate role to men both in the general community and in Howell's personal harem. Apparently he was quite an attractive fellow, or so they say. I don't doubt it.

Here is the ultimate irony of Leonard Howell and Pinnacle. Lee does a masterful job of communicating this point, conveying the information without judgment or heavy-handedness. The sacrament of Rastafarianism, a fundamentally peaceful and private gesture toward reconciliation, became the movement's product. When sacrament becomes product, you know a culture is in trouble. (Look at today's world for more evidence.)

Anyway, ganja was the (ostensible) reason Pinnacle went down. The Jamaican goveernment grew tired of its massive marijuana cultivation and export, sending forces up the hill to burn the fields down and destroy the commune. They succeeded.

VI. Aftermath and Rebirth

After this 1954 event, Howell mostly faded into the background until his death. Other leaders stepped up to fill his shoes, propagating his core ideology and introducing enough new ideas to fragment and unify the movement. Without Pinnacle, Rastas returned to the urban ghetto, where their poverty served as a constant reminder of the basis for their beliefs. Depending on their affiliation, they were subject to harrassment and persecution by the government or rival sects. The Twelve Tribes of Israel (founded in 1968) drew Bob Marley into their fold, for example, as a representative of Joseph. But the Twelve Tribes did fly high for long.

Lee spends some time with the aftermath of Howell (who didn't personally go until 1981, after his "seventh crucifixion"). It's not a particularly exciting time, except for the music.

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