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Nyabinghi, also Nyahbinghi, Niyabinghi, Niyahbinghi, is a form of ritual drumming performed as a communal meditative practice in the Rastafarian tradition in Jamaica. Like many facets of Rastafari, it evolved from the drum ceremonies that enslaved African people of various ethnic groups brought with them to Jamaica. As the country grew more industrialized throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, Nyabinghi songs were celebrated only among followers of the Rastafarian practice (based on mythology about Ethiopia and a very different interpretation of the Bible from the Judeo-Christian status quo), while most Christian-indoctrinated Jamaicans saw the Afrocentric drum and chant ceremonies as primitive and backward. Nowadays, Nyabinghi is used mainly as a term for a certain sect of Rastas (see Mansions of Rastafari), as opposed to just the rhythm or the music.
Various oral traditions exist that explain how Niyabinghi became a revered goddess. One account states that in 1700 AD two tribes inhabited the Uganda/Rwanda area: the Shambo and Bgeishekatwa. Queen Kitami, who is said to have possessed a sacred drum of phenomenal power, ruled the Bgeishekatwa tribe. When Kitami died she was given immortal status and the name Niyabinghi (Freedman 63). Another tradition states that Queen Niyabinghi ruled the Northwestern Tanzani kingdom of Karagwe and married the chief of Mpororo from the southwestern kingdom of Uganda. Envious of the Queen’s power, the ruler ordered her death which is said to have brought “untold horrors to his kingdom” (Kiyaga-Mulindwa 1163). After her death, her spirit continued to be praised and to possess her followers for the next two centuries.
The Bgeishekatwa tribe was eventually defeated by the Shambo clan who adopted the Bgeishekatwa’s rituals for Niyabinghi . A century later the Shambo were defeated by the cultivating Kiga clan (there are legends that the Shambo’s defeat is connected to the attempt to kill a woman who was possessed by Niyabinghi ) (Freedman 74). Once the Kiga tribe reigned over the land, Niyabinghi became known as a matriarchal power, and the Kiga’s century-rule is characterized as the reign of the Niyabinghi priestesses.
Kiga women who received Niyabinghi’s blessings and were said to be possessed by Niyabinghi came to be called bagirwa (Hopkins 259). Eventually the revered bagirwa gained political dominion and became governors of the Kiga people living a dual life of political and spiritual leadership. The bagirwa, including Muhumusa, remained governors of the Kiga people until 1930 after losing their land to British, German, and Belgian imperialists, which they fought for a period of twenty years. The singular form of the word "bagirwa" is "mugirwa". At some point, men became Niyabinghi priests as well (Freedman 80-81).
So African warrior Queen Nyabinghi was believed to be the reincarnation of the leonine Kemetic warrior goddess Sekhmet. Queen Nyabinghi was known for playing her powerful, mystical trance drum. Her Ugandan female followers, called bagiwas, were so fearsome in victory that the invading colonialists had them branded as witches performing rituals with the drum. The drum was eventually outlawed. The Nyabinghi rhythms of resistance have long played a major role in Rastafarian culture.
The Niyabinghi resistance inspired a number of Jamaican Rastafarians, who incorporated what are known as niyabinghi chants (also binghi) into their celebrations ("groundations"). The rhythms of these chants were eventually an influence of popular ska, rocksteady and reggae music. It is the traditional music of the Rastafarian practice and it is used during "reasoning" sessions and consists of chanting and drumming to reach states of heightened spirituality. Nyabingi music consists of a blend of 19th century gospel music and African drumming.
Niyabinghi drumming is not exclusive to the Niyabinghi order, and is common to all Rastafarians. Its rhythms are the basis of Reggae music, through the influential ska band, the Skatalites. It is said that their drummer revolutionized Jamaican music by combining the various Niyabinghi parts into a 'complete' "drum kit," which combined with jazz to create an entirely new form of music, known as ska. Niyabinghi rhythms were largely a creation of Count Ossie, who incorporated influences from traditional Jamaican Kumina drumming (especially the form of the drums themselves) with songs and rhythms learned from the recordings of Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji.
Though Niyabinghi music operates as a form of Rasta religious music outside of Reggae, musicians such as Bob Marley and even non-Rastas such Prince Buster (Muslim) and Jimmy Cliff used the idiom in some songs. Recently, dancehall artist Sizzla, American roots-Reggae artists such as Groundation and Jah Levi, and Hip hop have used Niyabinghi drums extensively in their recordings. Though sometimes claimed to be a direct continuation of an African cultural form, Niyabinghi drumming is best seen as the voice of a people rediscovering their African roots.
Combining Jamaican traditions with newly acquired African ones, Count Ossie and others synthesized his country's African traditions and reinvigorated them with the influences of Nigerian master-drummer Babatunde Olatunji, as a comparison of Count Ossie's Tales of Mozambique and Olatunji's earlier Drums of Passion will reveal. Indeed, it is that combination of inherited traditions and conscious rediscovery of lost African traditions that makes Niyabinghi drumming—and Rasta—so powerful.
Three kinds of drums (called "harps") are used in niyabinghi: bass, also known as the "Pope Smasher" or "Vatican Basher", reflecting a Rasta association between Catholicism and Babylon, the middle-pitched funde and akete. The akete (also known as the "repeater") plays an improvised syncopation, the funde plays a regular one-two beat and the bass drum strikes loudly on the first beat, and softly on the third beat (of four). When groups of players get together, only one akete player may play at any one time. The other drums keep regular rhythms while the akete players solo in the form of a conversation. Count Ossie was the first to record niyabinghi, and he helped to establish and maintain Rastafari culture. Only Rastamen are allowed to play drums at Nyahbingi. Anyone may play shaka, or shekere.
- Thunder: It is a double-headed bass drum, played with a mallet. The strokes are an open tone on 1 and a dampened stroke on 3. Occasionally, the thunder player will syncopate the rhythm.
- Funde: The funde is the middle drum. It maintains the dominant heartbeat rhythm as the funde player makes steady, dampened strokes on 1 and 3. it is thus dually known as the heartbeat and has the least improvisational role.
- Repeater: The repeater or kete, is the smallest and highest pitched drum. It is somewhat of a single elongated bongo. The drummer tends to play around 2 and 4, with a syncopated, rather than a backbeat fee. These beats are important to the overall feel of the Nyahbingi rhythm, but the repeater has a very improvisational role in bingi because it is seen as the carrier of spirit.
- Shaka: The shekere, which is commonly found throughout Africa, the Caribbean Latin America, has a place in Nyahbingi. The shekere player has a somewhat flexible role: He/she has been known to play on “1”, “1&”, “1” and “3” or “1&”…“3&” [The following should be noted regarding the curious nomenclature of this instrument—Perhaps the word is a simple corruption of the proper pronunciation; and there is the possibility that it is a more calculated allusion to the Zulu word for fire, shaka.
Niyabinghi chanting typically includes recitation of the Psalms, but may also include variations of well-known Christian hymns and adopted by Rastafarians. The rhythms of these chants were eventually an influence of popular ska, rocksteady and reggae music. The chants contain ideas of black redemption and repatriation. They help people to participate and feel included in the Rastafarian community.
Nyabinghi chants include:
"Every time I chant Nyahbingi"
"Psalms 137" aka "Down By The Rivers Of Babylon"
- "400 Million Blackman"
- "400 Years" (its lyrics influenced Peter Tosh's "400 Years")
- "Babylon In I Way"
- "Babylon Throne Gone Down" (arranged by Bob Marley to "Rastaman Chant" in 1973)
- "Banks of the River"
- "Behold Jah live"
- "Blackman Get Up Stand Up" (its lyrics influenced Bob Marley's and Peter Tosh's "Get Up, Stand Up" in 1973)
- "Chant Zion Chant"
- "Closer Than a Brother"
- "Come sight up in Jah Army"
- "Fool Fool"
- "Have a little light in I"
- "I'n'I Riding"
- "I Am Getting Ready"
- "Idemption Trodding"
- "I Must Trod Home"
- "I Shall Not Remove" (its lyrics influenced Bob Marley's "Forever Loving Jah")
- "I Will Not Go With You"
- "Jah Got the Whole World"
- "Jah Wind Blow East"
- "Leave Babylon"
- "Little Children"
- "Mystery Babylon Have To Move" / "Him Have To Move"
- "Never Get Burn"
- "New Name"
- "No Night in Zion" (arranged and released by Culture in 1997, arranged and released by Luciano in 2001)
- "Nyahbinghi Voyage" (arranged and released by Steel Pulse)
- "One Day Nearer Home"
- "Over Hills and Valleys"
- "Peace and Love"
- "Promise to Hear I Chant"
- "Rastafari Conquer"
- "Rastafari Know What This Gathering For"
- "Rivers of Babylon" (arranged and released by The Jamaicans, Boney M arrangement became a world hit)
- "Rock-of-my Soul"
- "Rock of Ises"
- "Roll River Jordan"
- "Run Come Rally"
- "Satta Massagana"
- "Send One Mighty Ingel"
- "So Long Rastafari" (arranged by Bob Marley in 1978; arranged and released by Dennis Brown in 1979)
- "Take a Sip"
- "The Lion of Judah" / "The Conquering Lion" (arranged by Bob Marley in 1976)
- "The Things You Do" (arranged and released by Sizzla Kalonji)
- "Universal Tribulation"
- "Volunteer Ithiopian"
- "What a Weeping"
- "What a Woe"
- "Will You Be Ready"
- "Zion Land"
- Katz, David (2003). Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80496-4. Cite error: Invalid
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- Bradley, John H. (June 2009). "House of Judah Nyabinghi Rastafarian Grounation in Khayalethu South Township, South Africa". Cape Town to Cairo Website. CapeTowntoCairo.com. Retrieved 2009-11-10.
- Hopkins, Elizabeth. “The Nyabingi Cult of Southwestern Uganda.” Protest and Power in Black Africa. Ed. Robert I. Rotberg and Ali A. Mazrui. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. 258-336.
- Kiyaga-Mulindwa, D. “Nyabingi Cult and Resistance.” Encyclopedia of African History. Ed. Kevin Shillington. 3 vols. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.