Rastafari reclaim Jewish roots

Carolyn Cooper, in this article for Jamaica’s Gleaner, looks at the Jewish roots of Rastafarian beliefs.

Last Sunday evening, a binghi was convened on the sandy ground of the Shaare Shalom synagogue, located downtown at the intersection of Duke and Charles streets. This crossroads, named for British royalty, was transformed into a gateway to the roots of Rastafari. Majestic Nyahbinghi singers and players of instruments celebrated the survival of both Jewish and African people who learned to chant songs of freedom in a strange land.

Grounded in the Bible, much of Rastafari symbolism is rooted in Judaism. Though Rastafari themselves reject ‘ism and schism’, their philosophy and livity owe much to the ‘ism’ of the Jews. Captive Africans in the Americas identified with Jews enslaved in Babylon. Zion became a code word for Africa; and Babylon was the diaspora.

It was the Melodians who composed and first recorded the Rastafari chant, By the Rivers of Babylon, which was adapted from Psalm 137: 1-4:

“By the rivers of Babylon

Where we sat down

And there we wept

When we remember Zion

For the wicked carry us away captivity

Require from us a song

How can we sing King Alpha’s song

In a strange land?”

The holy book of the Jews provided vivid imagery for many other reggae songs, as in Bob Marley’s Redemption Song:

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation


Marley’s lyrics echo Genesis 49:24: “But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob.”

King Alpha, Emperor Haile Selassie I, empowered Rastafari to refrain from weeping in exile. He facilitated the process of repatriation to the continent of Africa. In 1948, the emperor set aside 500 acres of his own land for Rastafarians in Jamaica and members of the Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated (EWF), based in the United States, to establish a settlement in Shashamane. The EWF took its mission from Psalm 34:14 – “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”


The cross-cultural groundation in the synagogue was part of Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), the exhilarating urban arts festival that ended yesterday. First staged in 2007, KOTE continues to cross borders and level barriers. This year’s theme was ‘Identity The Opened I’. The sacred concert in the synagogue was certainly an eye-opener.

The photograph here, taken by Stuart Reeves, documents the grandeur of the occasion. The sand on the floor is a reminder of the wandering of the children of Israel in the desert for 40 years after they escaped Egypt. It is also a symbol of the divine promise recorded in Genesis 22:17: “That in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.”

During the Inquisition, many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to escape death. But they continued to practise Judaism in secret – in much the same way that many Christians in Jamaica practise obeah, I suppose. According to legend, the undercover Jews used sand on the floor to muffle the sounds of their prayers.

Behind the magnificent mahogany doors in the synagogue is the sacred space in which the Torah is housed. These doors also provided a towering backdrop for the musicians. Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, popularly known as ‘Melchizedek, the High Priest of reggae guitar’, was the chief celebrant. The Hebrew word ‘Melchizedek’ means ‘my king is righteousness’.

All of the Inna de Yard musicians who performed with Chinna Smith lived up to their righteous, royal calling: Kiddus I, Cedric Myton, Jesse Royal, to name just a few. Della Manley and Suzanne Couch also performed. After the concert, Ras Sangie confided that it was he who had written Wake Up and Live, a song he gave to Bob Marley.


Other events for this year’s KOTE festival included an open house with the Rose Town Potters; a short film festival at Redbones curated by David Morrison; a public forum on ‘Copyright Laws and the Creative Arts’ at the National Gallery. The Kapo Gallery was reopened last Sunday. One of my favourite Kapo paintings is titled ‘My Plumbubi’. It shows a man and woman tightly locked in an erotic embrace – a divine encounter.

Last Friday evening, the infamous L.A. Lewis, whose purported signature defaces many public spaces, made his debut as a ‘real-real’ artist at Redbones. Described as a ‘conceptual’ artist, L.A. created an installation that included, according to the KOTE brochure, “some items that he has ‘actually touched'”.

More conventional artists like David Muir, Maxine Gibson, O’Neal Lawrence, Carol Crichton, Mortimer McPherson, Gisele Gardner, Garfield Morgan, Olivia McGilchrist, Mark Harrison, Ingrid Coke and Inasi also exhibited during the festival.

Thanks to the founders of KOTE – Enola Williams, Beatriz Pozueta, Carolyn Lazarus, Joaquin Portocarero and Omar Francis – we’ve been reminded yet again that, despite all the crime and violence, Kingston is a capital city.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com  and karokupa@gmail.com

For the original report go to http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120701/cleisure/cleisure3.html

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