An Interview With Percussionist Junior Wedderburn

Born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn is a master percussionist who has played drums for over forty years.  His music making draws upon the traditional Jamaican ritual styles of Kumina, Pocomania, Tambu, Bruckins, and Nyabinghi.  I interviewed Junior in November in New York City about Nyabinghi music as well as a documentary film he is helping produce.

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T: When did you first get involved in Nyabinghi music?

JW: A long time ago.  Nyabinghi is a whole lifestyle really – Rastafarian lifestyle: it’s music, it’s the food, it’s everything.  We call it “The Order of Nyabinghi.”  When we have groundations or commemorations for certain events, we call it a Nyabinghi Groundation—with chanting and drumming.  I was introduced to the Nyabinghi tradition at an early stage: I grew up in the church but I was playing the traditional rituals such as Kumina, Pocomania, and Karamanti.  I grew up around those things and the whole Africa-consciousness was there.

TB: In the church?

JW: Yes.  In Jamaica, Nyabinghi is the ultimate representation of Africa-consciousness—Nyabinghi came out of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, and it came out of protest and resistance.  There’s a movement there and you can find protest and resistance in all these rituals: in Kumina, in Karamanti.  So I was pulled to Nyabinghi through wanting to know more and be more vigilant and grow up more protective of what we have as African retentions.

TB: Protest and resistance against what?

JW: Against colonization, against slavery.

TB: So where does Rastafarianism fit into this?

JW: Rastafarianism is cradled by protest and resistance.  This is what it’s all about.  It was inspired by Marcus Garvey’s teachings about protest and resistance, the Back to Africa Movement, and all the earlier Jamaican Freedom Fighters—people like Nanny [Queen Mother Nanny, the 18th-century leader of the Eastern Jamaican Maroons], and Paul Bogle [leader of the 1965 Morant Bay Rebellion].

TB: You have been living here in Brooklyn for a long time.  So how does all of this live on in what you do here?

JW: There are Nyabinghis here.  In Prospect Park there is a large Nyabinghi every 23rd of July—the birthdate of His Emperial Majesty Ras Tafari.  There’s Coronation Day: I just did a show down in Brooklyn for that on the 2nd of November.  This year was the 80th anniversary of the Coronation of Ras Tafari.  So, wherever the Rastafarian movement is there are Nyabinghi celebrations.  And also wherever reggae music is.  In my view, reggae music was created to evangelize to the teachings of Ras Tafari.

TB: It kind of gets [the teachings] in under the radar?

JW: Yes, exactly.  Reggae is a part of it since it too was born out of protest and resistance—so the line is there.  The Africans who arrived in Jamaica as slaves—their resistance to the colonizers—that resistance is the same thread through the years that becomes manifest in reggae music.  Dancehall music really came out of reggae, but the teachings—the real consciousness, the real culture of protest and resistance—are not always as prominent in dancehall.  So I think we need to remember that the rights we enjoy now as musicians—a lot of people have suffered for this.  Our forefathers suffered for us to be the way we are now.

TB: Are there recordings of Nyabinghi music?

JW:  It’s going to be difficult to find recordings of straight up Nyabinghi music.  You can listen to one of my recordings, “Take I Home” here.

And you can find a lot of material on YouTube.  You could begin with Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation:

There was an artist named Ras Michael whose main focus is Nyabinghi:

And there are lots of other examples too.  The group Culture has a number of Nyabinghi-inspired tracks such as “Marriage in Canaan”:

“Holy mount zion”:

“No sin”:

and “Weeping eyes”:

Bob Marley has some Nyabinghi tracks such as “Rastaman Chant”:

and “Time Will Tell”:

There’s Jimmy Cliff:

Peter Tosh, of course, and his songs “Rastafari Is”:

and “Creation”:

There’s Bunny Wailer:

Artists such as Anthony B:

And the song “Chalice” by Capleton:

So, if you listen closely to any of these tracks you can hear the Nyabinghi influence.

TB: Are there also field recordings of Nyabinghi music?

JW: No, no.  It’s kind of difficult to find those.  However there’s an album with Rastafarian elders that was done in Washington a few years ago that is available.

TB:  Can you find film clips of Nyabinghi celebrations?

JW: Yes, if you go on YouTube you’ll find things.

[Nyabinghi celebration, Jamaica, 1994]

TB: Earlier you described the connection between Nyabinghi and reggae.  Where would dub music fit into this?  Some of the famous dub remixers—we’ve talked about Lee “Scratch” Perry—talk in terms that sound mystical…

JW: You cannot divorce Jamaican contemporary music from protest and resistance. That’s what we are about.  It’s kind of hard for people who don’t have that kind of experience, who don’t have that kind of background in their heritage, to relate to it.  But it is expressed in the food we eat, the way we talk, the way we relate to one another, the music, the rituals—everything.  Even the Church traditions in Jamaica show the connection.

TB: What kinds of projects have you been working on lately?

JW: Well, for me the Ancient Vibrations thing [Ancient Vibrations is a drumming, dance, and singing ensemble devoted to Jamaican traditional repertoire] is ongoing.  I’ve done it all my life and ever since I’ve been in New York.  And now, more than ever before, I’m seeing the importance of having a group that is dedicated to keeping alive some of those traditions just to share them.  It still amazes me: I did a show in Brooklyn a few weeks ago and there were some Haitian drummers there.  I had a few Jamaican drummers with me and we went up and played some Kumina.  When we got off backstage these Haitian drummers said: “What?  Jamaicans have these [drumming] things?!”  They couldn’t believe that we share these kinds of drumming traditions.

TB: There were connections.

JW: Yes.  And the popular music today doesn’t do much to bring out the traditional thing and those connections, but I think that they’re there.

I’m also working in global music group called Uzalo and I’ve done many collaborations with artists from all over the world.  As musicians we’re ever evolving: we adapt, we change, we explore, but we still know our roots and try to keep those links.

TB: Recently you have been working on a documentary film too.

JW: Yes, I’m helping to produce a film with the anthropologists Deborah Thomas and John Jackson.

TB: What is the name of the project?

JW: We call it “Bad Friday.”  The title comes out of an incident that took place in the Western end of Jamaica in 1963 that addressed state sponsored violence against the Rastafarian community and their struggles.  Because there have been a few incidents over the years during Jamaica’s development, and every time there is a consciousness rising, a movement that takes place where people want to assert themselves and really declare who they are as a people, the Jamaican government—with the help of the colonial powers—did everything that they could to suppress it…

As a kid I used to be scared of Rastafari because they were considered the ‘black art men.’  So this film is about this one incident where it is said that a Rastafarian got into an altercation with some police officers.  It all started with people in Rose Hall—Coral Gardens, an area around Montego Bay—taking little plots of land to farm.  Rose Hall wanted them off the land and burned them off the land, and that escalated into a physical thing.  And Rastas were being blamed for that.  This then triggered government involvement, and the government of course wanted Rastas out of the way, being pressured by Britain to stamp out this movement.

So the film speaks of the atrocities and tribulations these people had to go through.  Elders who survived the Coral Gardens incident and were beaten for nothing at all—a lot went on.  Today, there is a Rastafarian organization called the Rasta Millennium Council that is negotiating with the Jamaican government over reparations, dealing with the situation in an organized way.  In this film we researched all these people, recordings their testimonies.  We even have testimony from a police officer that was involved then.

TB: Did he eventually change his tune, the police officer?

JW: Well he was conflicted even then, because he had to go in and destroy crops that were grown on these plots . . . But this was his job.

TB: So how does this documentary link up with music?

JW: The music is what has fuelled the Rastafarian movement.  It has conveyed us, so to speak, to this point where we have a voice.  So music is an integral part of it.

TB: Do people re-live any of this history through the songs?

JW: Yes, of course!  And every year on Good Friday we still have commemoration in Montego Bay.  I grew up in Jamaica but just learned about this a few years ago.  That’s the thing: in the broader Jamaican society a lot of these things are hidden.  It was reported in the papers and on the BBC, but as to how the information was sent out—it was kept very quiet.  As I see it, this makes us consider the possibility that sometimes a government doesn’t want a people who are too conscious—you don’t want a population that is too aware of what has been going on . . .

TB: Thank you very much for speaking with me today Junior.

JW: You’re welcome.

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