Nyahbingi Drum Choir

Nyahbingi was an East African political movement, which emerged around 1850 and extended to the 1950s. The Nyahbingi adherents fought against European domination, colonization and imperialism. The British made great efforts to stamp out the Nyahbingi movement but were unsuccessful. One pretext that the British used was that the Nyahbingi adherents were involved in witchcraft-shades of the Inquisition. The word Nyahbingi also signifies a goddess in the Rwandan pantheon and her followers. There is a Nyahbingi spiritual movement, based on a mythical ‘Amazon queen’ that exists in Uganda and Rwanda. Burru emerged from the drumming traditions of various West African countries and ethnic groups. Primarily Africans who endured the Middle Passage and African indentured servants, who went to Jamaica after emancipation 1834-1838, brought these drumming traditions to Jamaica.
Burru is a complex spiritual and secular form of music, dance and theatre comprising satirical songs, gossip songs and songs of levity, etc. Burru also has East Indian influences, as does Kumina. Some of the finger techniques and rhythms of Burru, Kumina and Nyahbingi drumming are reminiscent of the tablas, mridangam and ghatam. It is said that Burru drummers performed/worked, as work song providers, work stimulators and tempo regulators on plantations. Like Nyahbingi, Burru utilizes a set of three drums including the bass drum.

Nyahbingi refers to the set of three drums utilized in the Rastafarian liturgical chants, music and dance. The full set of drums comprises funde, repeater & bass drum. As a boy growing up in Kingston Jamaica, I used to hear the drums from afar while walking in the Rockfort area, and at Douglas R. A. Mack’s grandparents home on Sheffield Road; the music was captivating, hypnotic, magical and majestic. My first close encounter with the Nyahbingi drums was up at Oswald “Count Ossie” Williams' camp, on Adastra Road in Eastern Kingston, Jamaica, at the foot of Wareika Hills.
I used to go to Count Ossie’s on Saturday afternoons/evenings after attending, or making an appearance at, my grandmother's Seventh Day Adventist Church on Langston Road in Rollington Town, Kingston. I would go to church, as was required of me, as a boy growing up in my grandmother’s home and then go to Groundations (a gathering in which reasoning takes place, Nyahbingi drums are played, food and sacraments shared) at Count Ossie’s. My guardians did not know of these visits for sometime, but eventually family friends informed my grandmother of my visits to Count. Whenever I mimicked Count’s drumming by playing altered tin cans, my grandmother would say to me “I don’t want any Burru (explain this word) drumming in here…in my yard.” I did not understand where she was coming from, as my grandparents were Garveyites. However, Rasta was a different equation..."a horse of another color." Jamaicans in the larger society did not identify with the Rasta/Rastafarian movement at that time. The movement was too Afrocentric, anti-colonial, anti-materialistic and emanated mainly from the poorer classes. I could not comprehend the order not to play the Burru/Nyahbingi music, as we would listen to music that was contrived by cultures that had done their utmost to exterminate our culture and us. I continued to play my altered tin cans anyway and my grandmother tolerated it/me.
Nyahbingi music is a synthesis of Kumina and Burru music. The Nyahbingi bass drum, is also called the thunder drum or heart beat; the Funde, representing the excited heart beat, and the Repeater (Akette/Kete/Kette/Peta) the drum that embodies aspects of the Funde and is the principal improviser and the eloquent propagator of complex syncopated rhythms, accents, tempos, textures and dynamics. The bass drum will sometimes improvise but will return to its time keeping function. Some of the best Nyahbingi drums are constructed of cedar wood, goatskin and steel tuning mechanisms. The Funde and the Repeater are played with bare hands, and the bass drum with a mallet.

Kumina is the music and way of life of the Guinness tribe from the Gold Coast of West Africa (Ghana), and the Kongolese/Congolese of Central Africa. Kumina is also an Afrocentric and polytheistic religion that encompasses spirit possession, animal sacrifice, and reverence for ancestors. There is also a secular type of Kumina called Bailo and a Country Kumina that is more deep, serious and geared to its practitioners. The drums used in Kumina are the Playin Kyas and Kbandu; goat skins are used in their manufacture: Kbandu is the larger of the two drums and the head is made of has a ram’s skin, and the Playin Kyas (Playing Cast) is smaller, higher in pitch, and its head is made of has an ewe’s skin, which is thinner than the ram’s. Kumina is found in many parts of Jamaica: St. Thomas, Portland, St. Mary, St. Catherine, Clarendon, Kingston and St. Andrew; it has spread to other regions of the island. Kbandu, the larger and lower pitched drum, plays a steady 4/4 rhythm with accent on the first and third beats. The lower pitch is achieved through the use of ram’s skin for the drum’s head.

I commissioned a set of Nyahbingi Drums form master cabinet and drum maker Headley “Balbo” Carr around 1983; Balbo also made drums for Count Ossie and his ensemble, Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. After three years I received the set of drums and I founded the Nyahbingi Drum Choir in Chicago Illinois, in 1986. The Ensemble consisted of Keith McEachron - Funde and Voice; Hamid Drake - Funde, Repeater, Agogo & Voice; Light Henry Huff - Reeds, Harp & Percussion; Janis Lane - Bass Drum, Dee Alexander - voice; and Douglas R. Ewart - Bass Drum, Funde, Repeater, Shakuhachi, Bassoon and Voice.

In the “Nyahbingi Drum Choir” we sometimes use several Funde players, two or three bass drum players and two Repeater players. We also use a plethora of musical instruments: Djembe, Djun Djun, congas, bongos, rain sticks, didjeridus, bells of all kinds, saxophones, clarinets, flutes, bassoon, etc. Dance and poetry are integral aspects of the ensemble. The “Nyahbingi Drum Choir” provides a wide variety of music and music theatre.

The Rastafarian movement has begun to develop more dogma, strictures, hierarchy, codification and thus orders. Some of the orders are Bobo Shanti, The Twelve Tribes of Israel and Nayabinghi. Although inspired by Rastafari traditions, the Nyahbingi Drum Choir is not aligned to any of the many sects/orders that have sprung from the Rastafarian movement.

By Douglas R. Ewart  


1) From Babylon to Rastafari: Origin and History of the Rastafarian Movement
Douglas R. A. Mack (Author)

2) Africa live in Kumina published: Sunday | October 9, 2005
Web Jamaica- gleaner.com

3) Kumina
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

4) Mansions of Rastafari
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

5) The Black Perspective In Music
Spring 1982 Volume 10 Number I
Conversations with Marjorie Whylie
Religious Cult Music in Jamaica
By Wendell Logan