dinsdag 2 september 2014

Animal references

It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.”

~ Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia

It is a common question I encounter regularly, at least in the Netherlands, where I live. “What do you like more: dogs or cats?”. This very question reflects the two main “pet animals” common in the Netherlands, but of course also in many other Western and other countries.

I have tried to answer this question for myself, and I have concluded that I am more a cat person than a dog person. Admittedly, for the basic, quite superficial reason that I find cats prettier to look at, and more pleasant to touch or have near. Perhaps there is even a reason beyond this: I find their behaviour more funny, and at the same time more “trustworthy” in some way. All this is subjective, and others may prefer dogs or other animals they know better.

In any case, I think it is interesting to focus a bit more on animals for me: from my perspective. This follows on a period that I increased my interest and focus on natural life in a more detailed sense. Although I might have been an “early adapter” to the environmental consciousness movement earlier in my life, and always loved healthy, natural landscapes.. it stayed somewhat abstract, detached, if you will, from actual animals – large and small – on the ground and in natural environments. Yet, those living beings keep nature going: think for instance of the important function of bees and their pollination in maintaining natural balance.


I was in this regard probably partly influenced by my upbringing. Like more cultures in the world, the cultures where my parents came from – Italy and Spain – were up to the 1990s not very “pet-minded”. Many of our Dutch neighbours had dogs, some cats, and some for some reason even hamsters. We only had little birdies – parakeets – in a cage for a time. Cats sometimes entered our backyard.

Like in for instance Caribbean and Latin American cultures, there were in Spain and Italy – especially in rural areas or outer parts of towns – dogs or cats that somehow were owned by people and loosely connected to particular houses, but they were rarely allowed inside the house, unless for purely functional reasons: cats to chase bothersome mice and rats for instance. Hugging pets too long, or even having pets “chilling” or “hanging” with you on the couch, or on your bed – common in e.g. Britain, the US, or the Netherlands - was in more Southern Europe long unheard of. This began to change – I understood - by the 1990s, when pets became more common as house-mates in South Europe. In some parts of Spain, having small pet dogs was for a time a trend, or distinctive custom, among particularly gay men (don’t ask me why), but it became more widespread among heterosexuals as well.

Likewise, elsewhere in the world, in e.g. Africa and the Caribbean animals were – even if connected to a household – long seen as especially functional, and only in a later instance affectionately. This is similar throughout parts of Europe – like I just explained – as well as most of Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Africa, and other parts. The “house pet” in the Western, domestic sense is in that sense rather exceptionally confined to North West Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. At least, it was for a long time.

Photo: a stray goat in the town of Falmouth in Jamaica. I took this photo in 2008.

Yoruba proverb:

Àìrí èyàn, la ńpe ajá ní àwé. / It's the absence of anyone around that one calls a dog a friend.

[In the absence of the preferred, the available becomes a choice]

All this – of course – does not exclude affection between humans with certain animals, also in those non-pet minded cultures. There are enough historical examples of this, such as from Ancient Egypt. An affectionate bond between a person and a particular cat, dog, or in Africa of humans with a strong bond with particular lions, zebras, monkeys, antelopes etcetera. It is all known and recorded throughout history.


In virtually all human cultures, symbolic meanings have been attached to animals. On a metaphorical level, so to speak. Animals are in most world cultures compared to humans, as model or “archetypical”, to teach philosophical lessons to human beings. Here is for instance an interesting article on the traditional meanings attached to animals in traditional Yoruba (Nigeria and around) culture.


Relatedly of course, the Yoruba have many sayings/proverbs figuring elephants, lions, snakes, ants, and other animals common in Yorubaland and Africa, and - as known – proverbs are meant to convey philosophical or moral lessons to humans.

Yoruba proverb:

Kékéré àjànàkú kì í ṣe ẹgbẹ́ ẹkùn. / A diminutive elephant is no peer to a leopard.

[Appearance can be deceptive]

Further, in the Akan culture of Ghana there is the oral fable tradition around the “trickster” Anansi spider: a spider outsmarting other animals through his wit, and with human characteristics. This also has a symbolic function, teaching young humans about life. To be expected: the Akan, like the Yoruba and other African peoples, also have many proverbs with animal references, such as these ones.

The rain wets the leopard's spots but does not wash them off.” (meaning: a person’s nature is not changed by circumstances)

The tsetse-fly is perched on the tortoise's back in vain.” (about something being futile).


It is on this symbolic and metaphorical meaning of and reference to animals that I will mainly focus on from now on. I do this, however, connecting it with two of my main interests: reggae music and Rastafari.

I can focus on reggae lyrics – and I will -, and I have already some songs I like in my mind referencing certain animals.

Reggae is in part influenced by the Rastafari movement, like reggae originated in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. The lion is an important symbol within Rastafari, as is more widely known. Moreover, there is also the idea of “natural livity”, the balance of humans with nature, that is a very important notion within the Rastafari movement and worldview, alongside the focus on Black empowerment and Africa (and of course Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie). How does this “natural livity” - and the fact that many Rastas are vegetarian as well – relate to actual symbolic references made to animals? I find this an interesting topic.

Not just the focus on nature and Livity, but also the Africa-centricity of Rastafari is interesting in relation to this. The fauna in Jamaica is mostly different from that in the African motherland, where the Jamaicans’ foreparents were stolen from: African animals as elephants, lions, antelopes, giraffes, zebras etcetera are not indigenous to the Caribbean, and can maybe only be seen for real in zoos. Other animal species are spread throughout different continents, of course: monkeys, alligators, birds, ants, by now dogs (also common in Africa now), cats, goats, chicken, crabs etcetera.

Analysing reggae lyrics by Rastafari-adhering artists is one way to get insight on Rastas’ reference to different types of animals, and their meaning.


The lion as an important symbol in the Rastafari movement can be related to one of the names Haile Selassie took on with his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. That the lion is the national symbol of Ethiopia, and is known as an African animal, perhaps further stimulated this symbolic use amongst the Rastas.

What might have stimulated it as well is the historical use of the lion as symbol of strength and ferociousness. It also is known as the “king” of the animal kingdom. Oddly enough this strength symbol of lions was adopted soon by many European nations as well. It is quite strange, when one thinks about it, why this (mainly) African animal became that important as national symbol for several European nations, even far up north (Scandinavia). Whereas eagles, bears, or wolves were more common and indigenous to Europe – and were also used as symbols in Europe - they became partly replaced by the lion as forceful symbol of a nation. That the bear had once this symbolic function as well in Europe can be deduced from the etymology of e.g. the place names Berlin or Bern.. both from the word for bear. Historians also say that the Spanish common surname García is originally Basque, and derives from a Basque (North-Spain and South West-France) word for “bear”, (as in “strong guy”). The word “garçon” for “boy/young man” in French – borrowed in English to mean "waiter" - has a related, Aquitanian/Basque origin.

The following list from Wikipedia is instructive: some “national animals” were chosen to be so because they are indigenous and typical within a country, others not (see e.g. Netherlands, the English ones, Luxembourg, Belgium, with regard to the “lion”).


Anyhow, the lion as Rastas use it has this reference to strength, but at the same time to Africa, and to Haile Selassie, giving it a wider, historical meaning, also for recuperating “identity” after historical oppression. It is used by Rastas at times to refer to oneself as a strong African, but also to refer to fellow Rastas, male or female (lions, lionesses), as terms of endearment so to speak.

This lion as a symbol replaced – some say – the Anansi (fable spider) figure, an Akan heritage also found in Jamaican folklore. Anansi is a trickster spider that through his cunning was benefited or got out of situations. While in some sense rebellious, Anansi represented at the same time an amoral model: selfish, and fooling already poor, downtrodden figures/animals as well when he wanted to or benefited from this, and not just mightier parties. The lion by contrast represented a “regal”, and more moral model – as well as a stronger and more independent image - that Rastas preferred over the trickster spider known in Jamaican folklore.

In a more negative way “wolves” recur also quite often in Rasta symbolic vocabulary. Though also strong and ferocious as animals, for which an unarmed human is no match, this is not regarded in a sense of dignity or pride. Wolves are discussed as mere predators: rapacious, murderous, treacherous, and opportunistic. The most common use in Rasta speech of “wolves” is therefore of “fake Rastas”, or other conmen, adding to wolves ..”in sheep’s clothing”, from the known saying. Devouring and preying on the symbolic “sheep” representing true Rastas and “Jah children”.

Beyond the lion-wolf-sheep contradictory trio, many more animals are recurringly mentioned in reggae lyrics.


Ask any Caribbean person who went to live in Britain or the Netherlands – or whose parents had - , and most probably you’ll hear the same: they did not have the pet culture in the Caribbean, and were once somewhat surprised by the intimate in-house bonds of some native Dutch or British persons with their dogs or other pets. Animals as such were of course there however in the Caribbean, and seen as a part of life, especially in rural areas.

Many reggae artists hail from rural areas or know the country, or have known animals in some urban parts. While reggae developed in urban Kingston ghettos such as Trench Town, these ghettos were inhabited by migrants from rural areas. So, many reggae artists were born Kingstonians – city slickers, you might say - , but just as many of them had rural family or personal ties. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, the Itals, Ijahman Levi, just to name some, as well as later artists Bushman, Anthony B, Fantan Mojah, Luciano a.o., all were born or grew up in part on the country. Besides this, many Kingstonians gave more attention to the rural and natural living – and self-sufficient farming - after “sighting” Rastafari (becoming Rastafari adherent): the already mentioned natural Livity idea.


This is relevant, I think, because these artists write lyrics from their own life experiences. This includes often poor ghetto living, but also rural settings. Though large-scale cultivation reminds of the slavery days and sugar plantations, small-scale or self-sufficient farming is mostly discussed positively by many reggae (and Rasta) artists. Many proverbs with animals in Jamaica seem to stem from the older popular peasantry tradition: “chicken merry..hawk deh near” is such a proverb, also found in reggae lyrics. It means: the chicken is merry, but does not know the hawk to slaughter it is nearby: meaning: not seeing things coming, being unaware of the situation..

In the Jamaican Creole language (also known as ‘Patois’) there are overall quite some proverbs involving animals. Some are comparable to ones found in English, or are derived from these, but there are many “own” sayings and proverbs as well. Like I mentioned before, the fauna in the Caribbean is partly different from the African motherland, and many seem to stem from farm life,..farm animals like cows, mules, and chicken recur in Jamaican proverbs. Also, dogs and cats recur often in these proverbs, later common pets (as mentioned) in countries like Britain. There are however also proverbs with monkeys, snakes, and lions, that perhaps have African origins.


The higher the monkey climbs, it is the more he will expose”, is an interesting Jamaican proverb. It means that when you “climb” socially, you get under more scrutiny.

Another common Jamaican proverb, also recurring in several reggae lyrics, refers to the also very urban mouse. “Fire deh a mus-mus tail..Im tink a cool breeze”: literal translation: the fire is close to the mouse’s tail, but the mouse thinks it is just a cool breeze. This also means that someone is unaware of what is to come.

These last two proverbs have a somewhat comparable meaning, pointing at changes in society and the need for consciousness, common in socially conscious reggae lyrics, of course.

Like in the Yoruba ideas in the article I referred to before, the Akan Anansi spider tales, but also in other cultures in the world, “animal rights” as such are not so much recognized as some would want, but animals are still symbolically and philosophically equalled with human beings: what can happen to them can happen to humans as well. This can be considered as a form of humanization. They are used as models to learn from, in that sense. Also many European proverbs with animals have that equalling or humanizing of animals of course, and had that long before something like “animal rights” were even considered in Europe. Animal behaviour as lessons or warnings for human mistakes is in other words common to many cultures globally.


The Livity idea – living in balance with nature, and eating no meat/fish - is widespread among Rastafari adherents. It is not unanimously practiced or required, but Rastafari does not have that much strict, centralized rules. It is highly valued though. The Twelve Tribes mansion among Rastafari is often looser on diet issues, for instance, even eating chicken and other meat and fish at times.

Many Rastafari are vegetarian however, and that is of course relevant for this post. To be more accurate, these Rastas prefer Ital food, which is broader than just the vegetarian not eating of meat or fish. Ital food should be really natural, and unprocessed, like raw fruit.

Nothing weh mi eat it nah bawl” sings reggae artist Bushman on his song “Fire Pon A Deadas”. The term “deadas” of the title is a disparaging term Rastas use meaning flesh: since animals were killed for it. The respect for life of animals is of course a praiseworthy attitude in societies where “animal rights” are under-recognized, or hypocritically dealt with, as in Western cultures.

The Rastas that eat meat or fish attach, again, some humanizing symbols to animals, even when eaten. There is a partly Biblical influence (no pork, shellfish, Levitical code), traditional African beliefs (in the avoidance of salt, for instance), and other rules on the animal characteristics. For that reason, Rastas avoid eating types of fish or other animals known as “predators”, for a possible infectious influence on humans eating them.


There is one contradictory aspect though. Hand drumming is also valued much by Rastafari adherents. The Kete drums are used for Nyahbinghi gatherings, including drumming and chanting, which are quite crucial “groundation” moments for many Rastafari communities. Besides Kete drums – based on Akan/Ghanaian Akete drum types - other drums recur as well, such as from the Congo-based Kumina Afro-folk tradition in Jamaica, djembes, or the Afro-Cuban (but based on African models, of course) congas or bongos. Most of these drums have heads made of animal hides. Maybe these skins were used after the animals’ natural deaths, but it is not known for sure. Kete drums tend to use goat skin, as do djembes, while sheep skin, cow skin (congas, mostly, and also bigger bass drums in nyabinghi), or buffalo skin (e.g. bongos) is also used. Historically in Africa, cow and goat skin, but further also antelope skin was much used for drum skins.

Nowadays synthetic drumheads exist, but many Rastas prefer traditional drums, also those who are vegetarian: with hides/skins of (killed?) animals. This is not hypocritical, I think, but can better be called ironic or inconsistent. I use the term “hypocritical” more for the “deceiving” manipulation of people with power, in higher social positions.

It is somewhat inconsistent though – using animal hides but not eating meat -, but “pro-nature” consistency is difficult if wooden materials are used, for drums or otherwise: trees have often to be cut for it.

Interesting is how traditionally in Nyahbinghi drumming sessions among Rastafari, animal hides are selected. The drums called “fundeh” (often mid-sized kete type drums), tend to give the “life line”, basic (heart) beat rhythms, with little variation. The variating role is much more there for the “repeater” drum, a kete that is a bit smaller/shorter in length (often also the diameter of the skin), and played for more varying, improvizing rhythmic patterns. Both these drums tend to have goat skins. Some Rastas – such as known drummer Count Ossie - believe, however, that for the head of the “basic beat” Fundeh a male (ram) goat should be used, and a female (ewe) goat for the Repeater head. This relates to the – compared to the male - more and varied - and higher-pitched - noises the female goat apparently makes when alive, thus fitter for the Repeater drum function. Animal characterizations also here, haha.

Even though a smaller head diameter and specific tuning – as well as length of the drum - influences the different pitch between drums, e.g. the fundeh and repeater (the latter is often tuned tighter), as well, different animal hides do have different sonic/tonal effects. That’s why for bigger, bass drums – as the big Nyahbinghi “Thunder” drum – the skin of cow (or sheep) tends to be used.

Photo: Me (Michel) playing with others during a Nyahbinghi session in a park in Amsterdam, Netherlands (2014). I sit around the middle (red sweater, yellow trousers) and play a Fundeh. The man on the right of me plays a Repeater (with a somewhat smaller drumhead size)


The Rastafari movement is Afro-centric, focussed on the African continent as the roots of kidnapped Black people in the West. “I won’t give up a continent for an island”, as Alton Ellis (and Hugh Mundell) sung, both now deceased reggae singers. The lived experience, however, is the Caribbean, and therefore specifically African animals are not mentioned very much, especially in Jamaican proverbs, though there are some examples. Also apart from the lion, that is.

Some African proverbs or tales (Anansi) have survived in the Americas, but many are derived from European languages or English, referring often to animals more common in Europe, and the Caribbean itself. Dogs, horses, wolves, cows, bulls, chicken, roosters etcetera. In other cases, proverbs come from Caribbean farm lands. Not much giraffes, elephants, or zebras in the wild there.. Sometimes, African (non-lion) animals are mentioned: leopards, elephants, as well as animals found on several continents. Bees, ants, birds, mules, monkeys etcetera, are all indigenous (in different subspecies) in both Africa and the Caribbean. The donkey is even originally African, they say. And the cat is, by the way, historically a domesticated version of the African wildcat.

More than fauna distribution, the symbolic use of animals is relevant here, also in (message) lyrics that characterizes much reggae, especially Rastafari-influenced reggae.

Thus contextualized, it’s now time to discuss examples of the reference to animals and their mostly symbolic meanings in reggae lyrics.


I will especially pay attention to Roots Reggae lyrics, with Rastafari influence, since the 1970s. This way I can bring reggae and Rastafari together in one thematic whole.

One side of Rastafari is the Bible, and a new interpretation of it, from a Black, African perspective. Though there are increasing numbers of Rastafari thinkers who opine that the Bible or Christian derivatives are over-emphasized in the Rastafari movement (Mutabaruka, for instance), the Bible still is overall important in the movement as a reference point.

This is also the case in reggae lyrics. The Congos’ ‘Ark of the Covenant’, refers to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, discussing different types of animals, saved on that ark, “even the ants”. Producer Lee Perry added cow sounds to the music for good measure.


The lion symbol recurs a lot throughout Roots Reggae, and New Roots lyrics. The song ‘Man A Lion’ by Bushman discusses it, ‘Black Lion’ by Jah Lloyd (a.k.a. Jah Lion). Burning Spear’s sings on ‘Lion’ (on the Man In the Hills album, 1976) not to kill the lion. The Itals sing ‘Don’t Wake the Lion’ (1976). Bob Marley sings about being “Iron like the Lion in Zion” (Ethiopia).

Dee-jay I-Roy also has a great song called ‘Heart of a Lion’ (1978) on this theme, from also a Rastafari perspective. Its interesting rhythmic and lyrical variation by the way proving that deejaying/toasting is a genuine art form (and not just someone talking over existing music).. but that’s another issue..

The Lion, especially in the phrase Conquering Lion, refers to Selassie, but the animal itself is also discussed as such, though also as symbol and animal at the same time.

On a more recent – energetic – tip: another example is a digital dancehall song ‘Lion Fi Roar’ (2002) by Sizzla.


References to the lion as Rasta symbol in reggae (including some dancehall) lyrics are overall too numerous to mention. The same can be said of the more negative use of the term “wolves” or “wolves in sheep clothing”. Dennis Brown talks about the evil by symbolic ‘Wolves and Leopards’ against sheep, in the song of that name (1977) , while Fred Locks also sings that wolves should leave the sheep alone (‘Wolf, wolf’, 1976) . Dee-jay Big Youth has a tune with the title ‘Wolf in Sheep Clothing’, but other reggae artists have similar song titles with “wolves” (Cornell Campbell, I Kong, Steel Pulse, the Abyssinians a.o.). I myself mention it in the last verse of my song ‘Rastafari Live On’ (Michel Conci, 2012).

Too much to mention – the wolf -, in titles or somewhere in lyrics, like the lion. Maybe for that reason it is interesting to discuss examples that are a bit more rare or (almost) unique. Original, some might say, though something that is not original can still be true.

Yami Bolo’s ‘Officials are like Locust’ (1994) a good song with good music led by Sly & Robbie, is an example of the use of a less commonly mentioned animal, in this case in a negative way. ‘Leopards’ in Dennis Brown’s well-known ‘Wolves and Leopards’ is in that sense also relatively “original”. Max Romeo compares foolish, aggressive raiding by police to ‘Three Blind Mice’ in the known song of that name. Mice indeed seem fast and nervous from our, human perspective, because their hearts pump blood faster, somebody told me once.

I liked the also quite original ode to the industrious, working Bee on the song by new artist Colah Colah called ‘The Bees’ (2012), a nice version on an old Studio One riddim, with a nice video as well, I think. Colah Colah even discusses the natural relationships between bees and other animals, like wasps, roaches, and rats.

From a ghetto, urban perspective, Mutabaruka talks about “roaches and rats take over the flat”, as indicative of poverty in the ghetto love song ‘Hard Times Loving’ (1983). Another early dancehall artist took on the odd, somehow funny moniker/artist name White Mice. Overall, however, in several (Rastafari-inspired) Roots Reggae lyrics, mice or rats are mostly presented as negative or at least as hindrance, perhaps predictable, due to the very behaviour of rats/mice: fast, and parasitic by gnawing on what humans leave – teeth of rodents grow faster than the rest of their body - while avoiding contact with humans. This causes irritation in several human cultures, although I have known about people who find rats actually “cute”.

In less Rastafari-inspired reggae, such as parts of Dancehall, names of “fierce” animals recur as monikers: think of the artists Tiger, Super Cat, and the funny name Mad Cobra. The artist name Eek-a-Mouse sounds fun, but refers not to a mouse, but to a race-horse the artist once betted on. He lost the bets on this horse, so his friends jokingly named him after that horse. Eek-a-Mouse called himself now “mouse” by the way too, as his artist name has taken hold.

Locusts, wolves, leopards are animals used as metaphors of negative, evil human behaviour. Also ravens, vultures (lyrics by Israel Vibration for instance), hyena’s (e.g. in a song by Apple Gabriel) are used as negative, devouring symbols in lyrics. The devil (as force of evil) is in some lyrics described as a “cunning fox”.

The lion is a positive symbol, there was an ode to the bee, but also other animals are referred to in a positive sense, as positive examples for humans to learn from. Burning Spear’s ‘Elephants’ (who unlike humans take good care of each other), or ants that live in unity (unlike humans) as in the lyrics of Culture’s ‘Chanting On’ (1989).

Then there are of course the many sayings/proverbs in Jamaican Patois, which I discussed earlier, that found a way in the lyrics of these Jamaican reggae artists. Example: “high seat kill miss Thomas puss” (Puss = cat in Patois), about thinking oneself unrealistically too high in social standing, the “greedy dog that lost its bone” (both mentioned in the Israel Vibration song ‘Greedy Dog’). “Fire deh a mus-mus tail, im tink a cool breeze” (I discussed already) recurs in lyrics of several reggae songs. Further, the saying “Too much rat never dig good hole” (having too many doing the same thing is counterproductive) is in a lyric of the group the Itals (song ‘Kill Crime’, 1983). Gregory Isaacs (and others) sing: “the higher the monkey climbs, the more he will expose”, which I also already discussed before.

The well-known song ‘Maga Dog’ by Peter Tosh (the Wailers) also refers to a Jamaican proverb/saying, mentioned in one of the links I gave earlier. Literally: if you help/feel sorry for a maga (thin) dog, he still can bite you.. it is about ungrateful people after you helped them.

In fact, I found that with more knowledge of Jamaican sayings (in Jamaican Creole/Patois) – in this case including animal references - I got to understand the precise meaning of many reggae lyrics a bit better as well. Educational!


The symbolic use of animals in reggae lyrics thus has in a broad sense similarities with many other world cultures. It is furthermore Biblical and also Western (British) influenced – the latter in sometimes “European” animals used in expressions -, though with some African influences, and an own Africa-oriented interpretation. Animals are discussed as proud and strong symbols of a people and king or leader (as in several cultures, world wide): notably the lion. You might even say that Rastas “re-appropriate” the African lion symbol, after the lion has been appropriated by non-African peoples (in Europe as well as parts of Asia). Certain animals in reggae lyrics further represent the evil within humans, and in a more practical sense as having behaviour that can be used to educate humans by focussing on the essential. This is also found in several cultures globally, including ancestral Africa.

On a positive note (at least for animal lovers): all the while, there is an ongoing comparison between animals and humans that at least connect the human and animal worlds structurally. Lyrics do seldom set animals apart as abstract, strange beings, but rather as part of a natural whole with humans. Reggae lyrics overall do neither emphasize so much animals’ supposed “inferiority” to, or mere functionality for, humans, perhaps less than elsewhere in the world or in other genres. Overall these lyrics tend more toward equality or at least respect for the life of animals, and not just humans. This probably reflects somehow the connection with the natural world and Livity influencing Rastas.

There is in this sense in part a parallel with the article on Yoruba views on animals, I linked to earlier in this post: including in the fact that animals are like humans imbued with divinity, sharing the same life force.

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