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Book Reviews

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

By Published: October 1, 2003

The people of Jamaica are from Africa; their music is black too. Early drum units (called to jam in Rasta communities, for example) made a pact with instrumentalists, with the end result that their beat became simplified but still highly stylized. Count Ossie had his first big hit in 1961. Jamaica would go through ska and rocksteady before it hit reggae, and then down the road dub, toasting, and dancehall. At each step along the way the international community found a new source of musical food to devour. Less and less of the music may be ostensibly associated with Rastafarianism, but those roots still run deep in a spiritual sense.

VII. The Meaning of Rastafarianism

The fundamental concerns of Rastafarianism past and present revolve around the dichotomous relationships between Zion and Babylon. Zion, for the Rasta, represents a return to home and spiritual peace. It is that place of good we all desire to inhabit, in this case a special corner of Africa one can call spiritual home. Babylon symbolizes oppression (and white masters, among the racist faction), injustice (economic as well as social), and many other things which demean human dignity. To turn toward Zion requires turning against Babylon, which is reason enough for anyone to pause.

Interestingly enough, only a very tiny fraction of Rastafarians actually made the pilgrimage to Africa, despite the fact that Haile Selassie reserved a special place for them to live. The vision seems to have been more important than the execution.

Reggae may have been the mouthpiece of the movement, but the fire lives on in thousands of Jamaican hearts. They know what they need, and they know what they want. It always helps to have a leader (in the form of Leonard Howell or Bob Marley, or any of today's visionaries), but in the end they are more the channel than the revelation.

Hélène Lee understands all this. The ensuing events following the demise of Pinnacle mostly evade hearty concern on her behalf, which is fair given the book's obsession with the "first" Rasta. She treats them as relevant details which connect a continuum, but obviously wasn't all that inspired about it. An understandable position... let the scholars come to terms with the complete story from soup to nuts. The music makes a nice link for her to recognize and appreciate.

VIII. In The End

But in the end politics, history, and culture all matter. We all need a hero; we all want a messiah. If not today, then tomorrow: rebirth is the route to eternal life. Smoke some ganja and listen carefully to some Marley and maybe you'll understand this fundamental truth more deeply.

But don't smoke ganja while reading The First Rasta, though, or you'll get derailed in no time flat.

Note: this book was originally published in 1999 by Flammarion, France as Le Premier Rasta. The translation by Lily Davis and the author works great for me.

The First Rasta is also available in paperback form as of January, 2005.

For more information, visit Independent Publishers Group on the web.

Also see Time magazine's extended Selassie coverage, or read Haile Selassie's address to the United Nations General Assembly in October, 1963.

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