Los Angeles, California
For over five decades, singer and percussionist Ras Michael has remained true to the diverse currents out of which reggae emerged, from its roots in nyabinghi drumming to the deep spirituality and sense of justice that inform the music. Nyabinghi is both the heart of Rastafarian religious ceremonies and a precursor of Jamaican reggae, ska, and dancehall. Ras Michael has been one of nyabinghi’s most visible ambassadors since the 1960s through his performances with Bob Marley, his educational and religious leadership, and his roots reggae group, the Sons of Negus.
The development of nyabinghi is intertwined with the history of Rastafarianism, a spiritual, social, and political movement that began to develop among Jamaica’s poor during the 1930s. Rastas, as they came to be known, believed in the divine nature of Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, and helped to revitalize Pan-African nationalism throughout the island. Nyabinghi takes its name from a Ugandan/Rwandan tribal queen who resisted colonial invaders. While rooted in the African drumming styles that came to Jamaica with slavery, its beat is slowed down to allow for meditative chants. The core of “binghi” are three drums: the giant bass drum, the cylindrical funde and the smaller kette or repeater drum. Their sounds ring out when Rastas praise the power of Jah and chant down oppressors. Binghi is commonly heard at ceremonies like Groundation Day, an annual celebration of Selassie’s first visit to Jamaica. The rhythms of nyabinghi first met Jamaica’s recording industry in 1958 when Count Ossie played hand drums on the early ska recording “Oh Carolina,” creating a “riddim” found in dancehall hits to this day.
Ras Michael discovered Rasta culture and philosophy in urban Kingston in the late 1950s. His Sons of Negus group was originally based in Trenchtown. (Negus is an Ethiopian term for a supreme ruler.) That gave him access to recording studios like the renowned Studio One, where he traded session work for studio time to make his first recordings. When the Sons of Negus released their first records in the late ’60s and early ’70s, they added an electric guitar. To this day, Ras Michael frequently incorporates electric instruments in his performances. In Richmond, the Sons of Negus will include bass, keyboards, guitar, trap drums, and saxophone along with the three traditional binghi drums. “Even after I got the other instruments involved, the vibration of the music is always nyabinghi—binghi is the heartbeat of reggae,” Ras Michael explains.
That reggae/binghi sound was heard on his landmark 1975 LP Rastafari, which opened with Ras Michael’s trademark song “None of Jah Jah Children” and featured Peter Tosh on guitar. Three years later he would play a key role in the One Love Peace Concert where Bob Marley attempted to reconcile warring political factions whose disputes had resulted in bloodshed.
Intervening years have seen Ras Michael continue to teach, tour, and record from his base in Los Angeles, where he also is active with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahido Church and the Rastafarian International/Marcus Garvey Culture Center. He says his role is to “teach and show this generation and the generation to come that this nyabinghi is the real roots of the music. When you have the nyabinghi, it is taking you back to Africa.”