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Natural Mysticism: Towards a new Reggae Aesthetic

Written by Michael Kuelker for The Beat on no date provided

In ‘Sunday A Come’, the late dub poet Mikey Smith alludes to a new consciousness: ‘but a like how yuh scratch dem drum/fi know yuh name an whe yub come from/for dat note is a long note/too long fi I sing it straight.’ The drum and identity, the stress and syntax - all bound in coherent meaning, something that Kwame Dawes might call the reggae aesthetic. Knowing that grammar is a kind of morality helps explain a lot about language, from how it develops to how it shapes perception and makes meaning out of experience. Nation language (i.e., the vernacular) challenges the old orthodoxy of language. The movement of Rastafari lingua into the Jamaican mainstream and beyond in the last generation is part of a sea change in the long project of decolonizing Jamaica, invoking a set of ideas about identity, history and language itself.

And in a broader sense, if we want to know Jamaica’s post-colonial life, argues Dawes in his remarkable new book, we need to understand how reggae gives voice to an ethos. ‘Reggae is a cultural phenomenon that is rooted in a spiritual and ideological context which has shaped not simply the way singers sing or musicians make music but in the way in which people talk, the way artists paint, the way Jamaica sees the world, and the way the world sees Jamaica and Jamaicans.’ Dawes’ new book will appeal to anyone for whom these subjects are matters of interest.

This volume of literary, musical and cultural commentary is part of a continuum of Dawes’ conception of something he terms the reggae aesthetic. He writes that an understanding of Caribbean writing of the last 30 years needs to be fortified by knowing what reggae is and how it functions. The reggae aesthetic comes out of ‘a working class art [that] asserted itself in its own terms and through a language and discourse that would in time shape the way an entire society defined itself and its artistic sensibilities.’ From its beginnings, reggae music registered the changing political and social consciousness of its time. Jamaican literature lagged behind, says Dawes, because it resisted speaking nation language and felt uncomfortable about Africa. While Jamaica has a tradition of literary nationalism, it was usually marked by European standards and conventions.

Why is it important? As my teacher Walter Ong has said, the more words you know, the more ideas you can have. Or, as critic Robert Benson notes, coming to terms with social change means coming with terms that adequately express it. That means expanding the field of discourse beyond the establishment’s. By widening the vocabulary lyrically and musically, reggae opened vistas of expression in social shape-shifting ways.

Dawes is an ideal grammarian for the reggae aesthetic, his voice the estuary where his energies as a poet, professor and one-time musician are poured. He bears a gift, rarer than it should be in academia, for intellectually processing his subject and still yielding enlivening writing: ‘For me, a vershan break, a shift to solely drum and bass, is a thing of beauty - it moves me. In the same way, the vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of the drum and bass, leaving the high-ended dance of guitar and keyboard, represents a moment of strange anticipation that affects my whole body. And when the drum and bass enter into that space that has been throbbing with possibility, I am forced to move, to turn, to react. I call this sheer beauty. I call the lyrical grace of Marley, his brilliance as a poet and visionary, a thing of beauty. I find...’ many things, occasionally in an effulgent chant, always in a disciplined and empathetic form.

Like Ralph Waldo Emerson in 19th century America, Dawes has a group of ‘representative men’ whose lives speak to history and human nature in Jamaica and who helped define the reggae aesthetic.

Don Drummond typifies ‘jazz and the reggae poetic archetype,’ at once defining himself as an artist on his own iconoclastic terms and as a representative of the values or the working class and the Rastafari. These influences contributed to the development of a distinctly Jamaican art form - ska.
Dawes’ commentary on Burning Spear, an archetypal ‘prophet,’ is fascinating. His point of departure is Spear’s cover of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Estimated Prophet,’ which comes initially as a surprise. Those of us who find the reggae/Dead crossovers better marketing than music may want to rethink things in this instance. Dawes locates the virtues of the reggae aesthetic in the song’s post-colonial sense and its artistic self-containedness. Burning Spear completely reconstructed ‘Estimated Prophet,’ singing it in nation language, making it pulse with a juggernaut reggae beat and adding traces of his signature ‘Marcus Garvey’ horn line. The song was then stamped with a fresh imprimatur, one that signified Spear’s prophet of black identity, Marcus Garvey. ‘And it is by this brilliant and respectful transformation of an American rock anthem into a totally Third World and Jamaican construction, that we see again the distinction and distinctiveness of the reggae aesthetic.’

Another surprising choice - Lee Perry’s From the Secret Laboratory (1990) - becomes a chapter centre-piece. Improvisatory, experimental, destabilizing in art and life is Lee Perry, who represents the Jamaican psyche just as he does a madman-artist figure favored by (mostly white) reggae fans outside Jamaica.

Again and again, Bob Marley emerges as the transcendentalist, defining the local moment with the power of Biblical verity. ‘Burning and Looting,’ for example, is elevated from ‘a cry for actual violent insurrection and social defiance ... to an act of intellectual and spiritual guerilla activity’ whereby the line ‘Burning all illusion tonight/Burning all pollution tonight’ signifies ‘A cosmic expiation of the sins of the oppressor and enactment of the ""fire next time"".’

Natural Mysticism is a wide text not because Dawes is comprehensive - he readily admits how much remains to be done with the reggae aesthetic with respect to specific reggae artists and to other Jamaican music and art - but because he allows for a multi-vocal treatment of his subject in the course of his deep meditations. Blending rigorous analysis with autobiography and poetry, his anatomy of reggae culture stands as a groundbreaking work quite nearly resembling a manifesto.

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

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