Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rock Steady

Confessions of a Fashion Victim

In an effort to cool down during the boiling Japanese summer, and pay tribute to my reggae heroes - King Tubby, Tapper Zukie, The Congos, U-Roy - last July I purchased a vest proclaiming the legend ‘Jah Rastafari’.

This refers, of course, to Jamaica’s Rastafarian religion, which originated in the 60s as a fringe movement celebrating African roots. It proclaims a biblical belief in the messianic qualities of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

But as an atheistic materialist who rejects non-rational explanations of phenomena - including religious dogma - was I wrong to purchase and wear this product?

Surprisingly, none of my friends took issue with my fashion choice, even though Rastafarianism proclaims the kind of goofy beliefs which they know I could never subscribe to.

They include the dubious notion that Haile Selassie was God incarnate and that his 1975 death was a hoax designed to hoodwink non-believers.

Many Rastas still believe that Selassie will one day return to liberate his followers, counting themselves as physical immortalists. They insist that only the 'chosen few' will continue to live forever in their physical bodies. Parallels with numerous religions and loony cliques here.

The most celebrated example of this is Bob Marley's refusal to make a will despite his impending death from cancer. An attachment to such worldly concerns would have meant Marley was - unlike we lesser mortals - abandoning himself to death, thus forgoing his chance at ever-living life. As if Bob wasn't already assured of immortality through his musical innovations.

I imagine Marley's religious dogmatism didn’t go over too well with those who had to withstand the resulting legal controversy over the distribution of his fortune, including a lengthy court battle with Bunny Wailer – Bob’s friend and band mate – which the Marley family eventually won.

Women might also have reason to feel aggrieved at Rastafarianism. In its early years, it famously demanded that females be subordinated and excluded from religious and social ceremonies, especially during menstruation when they were regarded as ‘unclean’.

Times have changed and Rasta women now have far more freedom to express themselves. But when I was a student and rabid reggae fan, this nonsensical belief jarred with my liberal philosophy.

The Rastafarian principle of repatriation to Africa also seems dodgy to me, partly because of the financial and logistical difficulty of relocating thousands of Rastas, but also because - according to my research - only a moderate trickle of Rastafarian immigrants have ever repatriated to their 'spiritual homeland' - Shashemene in central Ethiopia. Since 1966, when Haile Selassie extended an open invitation, fewer than 200 Rastafarians have settled there.

However, despite its barmy side, there’s also something to admire in Rastafarianism.

Like all religious beliefs, its teachings should be viewed in their historical context and understood as symbolic rather than literal.

Rastas say that Jah, in the form of the Holy Spirit, exists within every person. Thus they often refer to themselves as "I and I". It's a phrase I've always admired though rarely used at the risk of sounding like a complete prat. It just doesn't sound the same delivered in a West Midlands accent.

I reject misguidedly literal interpretations of religious ideas, but on a metaphoric, poetic level I’m in full agreement with my Rasta brothers and sisters that brotherhood and godhood live in everyone, and it's up to each of us to bring it forth.

I also generally agree with Rastafarians’ celebration of ‘Ital’ (Vital) food, the idea that food should be natural with no chemically modified or artificial additives. In this sense, Rastas were ahead of the trend for vegetarianism and organic food which took off during the 1970s, and which makes even more sense in the context of global warming, overfishing and the depletion of natural resources.

In addition, Rastas’ rejection of western society (or, "Babylon") doesn’t seem entirely unsound when you look at the chaos of modern life and the prevalence of greed, wage slavery and consumerism.

Rastas espouse a peaceful lifestyle which proclaims ONE LOVE. For most, their philosophy is not a "religion" at all, but rather a "way of life". Most do not claim any sect or denomination, encouraging their brethren to find faith and inspiration within themselves.

One way to do this is by enjoying the more than occasional 'ital' spliff.

The spiritual use of cannabis is a well-known preference among Rastafari, and as an occasional partaker of the sacred herb I have to say - health issues aside - what’s wrong with that?

It's not for everyone, but it's way more righteous than most religious practices I could name. Unlike certain spiritual maniacs I doubt you’ll see Rastas committing any heinous acts of terror. They’ll be far too busy chillin’ over the chalice and shaking their natty dreads to some irresistible riddims.

Obviously there’s a huge Rasta influence in Jamaican music, and if you're a fan, this is the clincher: the thousands of inspiring albums, singles and 'version' which have been committed to vinyl in the name of Jah.

For me, Roots is where it’s at, and I'm sure I’ll never stop loving the seriously righteous riddims of U-Roy, Tapper Zukie and their brethren. Their message of love and peaceful co-existence is simple and direct, and is delivered over some of the most groovy, intoxicating vibes ever recorded.

So let I and I rock steady, and if you don’t mind, continue to proclaim "Jah Rastafari" in a spirit of love and unity.

Max Romeo & The Congos - Give Praises:

Sunday, November 9, 2008


David Sylvian (Ambient / Installation)
LP: When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima
Soundscapes composed for Naoshima Island, Inland Sea, Japan. (Samadhisound, 2007)

Through their traditional temples and gardens, Japanese designers have long explored the interplay between art and nature, and in a modern context there are few places where they integrate as seamlessly as on Naoshima Island.

Known for its many contemporary art museums - including the celebrated Benessse House and
Chichu Art Museum - Naoshima offers a unique aesthetic experience.

Indeed, with its remarkable juxtaposition of fauna and human creativity, the island is the exhibit.

Its romantic - if somewhat recherché - ambience derives from the dialog between its lush landscape and rarefied modernist artworks: buildings, installations, paintings and sculptures by Tadao Ando, Claude Monet, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama and others.

A companion piece to the Naoshima experience, David Sylvian’s When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima CD couldn’t strictly be called music. Rather it’s a collection of acoustic patterns and voices, a detailed soundscape which reflects Naoshima’s island environment.

superimposition of aural landscapes seems directly inspired by the multi layered dimensionality of the island. For instance, the way the Chichu Art Museum is situated underground, its collection illuminated by ghostly natural light which projects downward from skylights far above.

When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima may be alien and avant-garde, but neither is it forbidding or unapproachable. If it’s ‘formless’ or disorientating, it's no moreso than our daily experience, and Sylvian succeeds in inspiring an awareness of other levels of reality whilst enhancing, contrasting, and amplifying the present moment.

Like Naoshima itself, elements on the recording haphazardly (?) interact, and the contrast of natural sounds with found recordings mirrors our relationship with nature as we contemplate and interact with our environment.

cool aesthetic - observationally detached yet emotionally engaged - is an appropriate aural corollary to Naoshima's serene eco-modernism.

LINK: Benesse Art Site, Naoshima