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Natural Mysticism: Towards a new Reggae Aesthetic

Written by Kevin Le Gendre for The Independent on no date provided

The hardest-working man in literature - a writer who produces poetry, short stories and plays as regularly as dance-hall singer Beenie Man knocks out ‘boom’ tunes - has always claimed that reggae was the driving force behind his creativity. In fact Dawes’s literary world is framed as much by the lyrics of Bob Marley as it is by the poetry of Derek Walcott. 

It was his Ghanaian father, a serious jazz fan, who introduced Kwame to Marley’s music when he was a boy growing up in Jamaica, and as he subsequently developed as a writer, he came to realise that the impact on him of works such as ‘Natural Mystic’ was a profound one. These life experiences are at the core of Natural Mysticism. The text is alive with anecdotes - both personal and reported - that place the reader right inside a coherent analytical framework. The crucial moment in this book is Chapter 3, where the author examines the way in which reggae has provided a uniquely Caribbean voice, free of post-colonial mimicry, for artists working in many other genres - notably literature.

Reggae evolved during a major socio-political shift in late Sixties Jamaica - urbanisation. The ensuing cultural flux, with the assertion of Rastafarianism and Afrocentric positivism, was to create both an ideological and linguistic climate that would foster ‘Jamaicanness’ above all else. Politics, spirituality and eroticism, Dawes argues, are drawn together by the music of Bob Marley, Winston Rodney aka ‘Burning Spear’ and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. In the world of reggae, there is a teeming conflation of emotions, myths and creative impulses that all ferment into a unique form of expression, a bold aesthetic underpinned by principles of beauty, humanity and integrity.

In the lyrics of Marley and Rodney, Dawes finds a defiant affirmation of a people. In the offbeat pulse of roots reggae, he hears an earthy mysticism, and in the elliptical echo of dub instrumentals, he recognises a subversive creativity that transforms the disparate elements of a post-colonial society into a progressive whole.

The most pleasing thing about Natural Mysticism is its sense of balance as well as depth. The author is exhaustively thorough in his commentary and totally coherent in the way he marshals his arguments but at no time does he lose his sense of perspective or his underlying musicality. As well as analysing important songs and their ramifications, Dawes also lets their energy, their rhythm filter through his text. You can almost see him digging the beat as he hits the keyboard.

The work is split into chapters that paint a colourful canvas of a reggae landscape, or should I say a soundscape; reggae and literary models, reggae and eroticism, reggae and existentialist thought. Of equal importance are the personalities who have made their mark on the music. Burning Spear, Don Drummond and Bob Marley are all evaluated as pioneers. As for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, he is the subject of a brilliant study of the figure of genius/madman with all-incumbent ‘Anansi’ trickster overtones.

This is an important book in so far as Kwame Dawes not only celebrates the pivotal importance of reggae as an art form but also captures the soul and spirit of the music in his writ-big. There is joy, sadness and beauty in Natural Mysticism and, most of all, a feeling of authenticity, of being taken right inside the music. But then again, within the title you have one of the most significant songs Bob Marley ever wrote: ‘Natural Mystic’.

This is a review of Natural Mysticism: Towards a new Reggae Aesthetic

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