La Oferta

March 26, 2023

On Jamaica: Harry Belafonte meets the rivers of Babylon

Jamaican Rastafarians hold ‘grounation’ songfests up in the hills.

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

It’s “Sing-Along Night” at one of the posh resort hotels in Port Antonio on the northeast beaches of Jamaica. Guests are wearing funny hats while they swish around drinks with little umbrellas in them as the band bats out some of the all-time favorites from the Harry Belafonte songbook.

They join the band singing about the likes of Angelina’s concertina, jumping in the line, claiming man is smart (but woman is smarter) and asking their brown skin girl to stay home and mind the baby.

Hotel band plays favorite calypso songs.

Meanwhile, up in the nearby mountains, throngs of dreadlocked Rastafarians are smoking the island’s national plant and sitting around in what they call ‘‘grounations” – singing biblically inspired tunes brought to the islands long ago by missionaries. But in grounations, the tunes are sung in classic African call-and-response style backed by a line of drummers ranging from bongos to big bass drums played on the songs’ first and last beats.

Called “Nyabinghi” music, one such band, tagged “Wingless Angels,” thumps away the evening with drummers and also a guitar played by the band’s executive producer, Keith Richards. Yes, THE Keith Richards.

Down at the beach hotel, the guests get their wish to join in Belafonte’s “Day-o, day-o….Daylight come and me wan’ go home.”

Steel band on St. Croix

Up at the grounation – which typically lasts for a few days or as long as anyone wants to stick around – slow-thumping drums set the pace to the words of the Rastas’ biggie: the biblical “Rivers of Babylon” (based on psalms that helped spark a global religion whose deity is a 20th century Ethiopian emperor believed to be the 225th descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba).

Back at the hotel, a “charro” (a Mexican cowboy) does seemingly endless rope tricks (and puts half the crowd asleep). The other half doesn’t know it yet, but the next act, a mime, will probably do likewise with the rest of the guests.

At last the mime calls it quits, and the band hops back on the stage to play hip-swinging West Indian songs for the rest of the night. Guests rush to the dance floor to shake their booties to reggaes from Jamaica, sexy zouks from Martinique, merengues from the Dominican Republic, junkanoos from the Bahamas, funjis from Tortola, brukdowns from Belize, spouges from Barbados, tumbas from Curacao and of course salsas from Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Merengue band backs up the nuptials at a wedding in the Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, up in the hills cutting through the grounation’s smoky air are the likes of Nyabinghi favorites “Roll Jordan Roll.” Zion Bells,” “We Shall Overcome” and “No Dark on Mt. Zion.”

Pivots are taken now and then to peppy reggae versions of oldies-but-goodies such as “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Wooly Bully” and the Caribbean chart topper “Hot, Hot, Hot.”

How do you dance to the hotels’ West Indian music? Any way you like. Visitors are welcome to get out on the floor and do everything from country and western line dancing to old-fashioned swing steps. But if you’d really like to get with it, take a few minutes to learn the simple one-two step of the Dominican Republic’s merengue. It’ll work for most Caribbean beats.

How do you dance to grounation or Nyabinghi music? Usually, you don’t.