zaterdag 2 mei 2015

Drums of Defiance : Jamaican Maroon music

The Maroons are descendants of escaped enslaved Africans who went to live in relatively inaccessible, mostly mountainous parts of Jamaica, since the later 17th century. The “power vacuum”, temporarily left when the British captured Jamaica on the Spanish in 1655, partly caused the development of these Maroon communities. With the coming British victory, remaining Spaniards fled to Cuba, mostly leaving their slaves behind: these then took to the mountains, instead of being enslaved by new masters. Plantation slavery intensified strongly under British rule, so much more slaves were imported since then. Some of these could escape to the formed Maroon towns.

There – after some wars – the Maroons could fight the British forces off, who then had no other option than to recognize these Maroon towns’/communities’ autonomy, which was even laid down in treaties granting them land in the 18th c. Thus these Maroons secured their freedom. This is an impressive story of rebellion by Africans who were made slaves, but resisted and fought strongly and wisely against a powerful British army. One Maroon woman, called (Queen or Granny) Nanny, was very brave and successful against the British, and became a legendary, and eventually “national” hero of Jamaica.

The treaties between Maroons and the British in Jamaica were made in the 18th c., at the height of plantation slavery. Most Africans/Blacks in Jamaica were at that time, and well into the 19th c., still enslaved, mostly in a (sugar or coffee) plantation setting.

This history is very interesting and has received quite some scholarly attention. The same applies to comparable Maroons (escaped enslaved Africans), elsewhere in the region: Suriname, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, and other territories with relatively inaccessible areas. Geography of course played a role. Maroon communities in Cuba, for instance, developed mainly in the mountainous East (Oriente) of Cuba, for that reason.


Maroons in Jamaica largely retained a relatively pure African culture, with several interesting aspects and dimensions. In this post, however, I will focus on one (important) aspect of Maroon culture in Jamaica: music. Jamaica is of course known for one international genre, called Reggae. It put Jamaica internationally on the map, you can safely say. Especially Bob Marley’s international fame stimulated that since the 1970s, and made it part of common popular music. Granted, reggae is overall still more a niche market than a very commercial one, but it has a wide fan base globally, and specialized markets is a price you have to pay if you want to remain authentic.

Because of Jamaica being the place where the popular music genre reggae originated, around 1968 (following on predecessors ska and rocksteady earlier in the 1960s), I think it is interesting to analyse Jamaican Maroon musical traditions.


Another reason is that in Jamaica also the Rastafari movement originated, earlier in history in the 1930s. Also Rastafari spread internationally in a later stage. Rastafari is anticolonial, focussed on the African roots and repatriation, and foregrounds an own African cultural identity against the enforced Western/European one. The same type of rebellious spirit as found among the Maroons, you might say, and symbolic inheritors thereof.

Jamaica is quite a small island, so interchanges among cultures, peoples, and communities seem inevitable, especially in more modern times and with modern means. Indeed the Maroon communities, or “towns”, located in both Western and Eastern parts of Jamaica, got to interact more and more with the rest of rural and urban Jamaica, adopting practices, adapting them, while maintaining those of themselves as well. This interaction increased since the postemancipation period (after slavery), for obvious reasons. Christianity, but also Kumina, a mainly Central African music and dance, and other Afro-Jamaican practices like Pocomania and Burru are found in rural areas as well, also nearby what are known as Maroon towns. Rastafari is also spread throughout Jamaica, as is reggae and other popular music.

How has this all impacted Jamaican Maroon music over time? Is the latter still maintained as a distinctive tradition? The answer is yes. However: it is not realistic to expect that in a small island, with Maroon towns being in this time more accessible, this Maroon music would remain unadulterated or “pristine”. Indeed it has not remained totally isolated or “pure” in that sense.

It is true, notwithstanding, that certain cultural/musical traditions have remained quite pure, and stood the test of time, also within the traditional music of the Jamaican Maroons. There are gradations of this, though.

As a purer “memory” and tradition from Africa, this Maroon culture has inspired some Rastafari adherents in Jamaica, who sought African retentions to counter an enforced, Europeanized identity. This has also happened with musical (drumming) traditions of the mostly Congo-based Kumina traditions in Eastern Jamaica, influencing Nyabinghi drumming patterns of the Rastafari. Burru and Pocomania likewise influenced (hand and trap) drummers in Jamaican popular music like reggae, and this included Rastafari-inspired musicians. The Kete drums used in Rastafari Nyabinghi drumming directly derive from Burru drums, and further back from Akete drum types from what is now Ghana.

Can the same be said of drums that the Jamaican Maroons traditionally use? That they spread to outside, non-Maroon groups in Jamaica? Not so much. One can conclude that the Maroons were able to maintain certain traditions for themselves in their towns and communities, exclusively taking place in the own, “closed” Maroon context.

A look at the most common instruments used among the Jamaican Maroons will prove this point. We can also look at the deeper meanings and structure of music, of course. In that sense Jamaican Maroon music has many direct African retentions, including in the role of different types of drums, and the presence of drum patterns and songs meant to invoke spirits of ancestors, used in spirit possession, alongside “recreational” music, accompanying specific dances and ceremonies.


This ancestor spirit invoking and possession music is the most “secretive” or “exclusive” you might say, most restricted within Maroon communities, also linguistically (an African Akan/Twi-derived language survived among part of the Maroons). Partly this exclusivity within the community might have been prolonged because it was at odds with the strong Christian and Biblical influence in the rest of Jamaica. Even groups who called on Africa, and indeed incorporated several African traditions, such as the Spiritual Baptists, Revival Zion, or many Rastafari, stopped short of the “spirit invoking and possession” music/dance, soon deemed “devilish”, divisive, or backward.

After early experiments and tolerance for such practices among some of the early Rastafari adherents, in time the Bible became a more powerful guide for Rastafari spirituality, albeit in an own way (with some other influences), and with a “Black” or Afrocentric interpretation. This inhibited very tight connections of Rastafari with much Maroon music and beliefs, or for that matter with the parts of Kumina that also deal with ancestor spirits and/or possession. Some cultural or musical aspects were appreciated and copied by Rastas though, such as the mentioned Kumina musical influence on Nyabinghi drumming, There is also a proven influence from Maroon folk medicine on folk medicine by Rastafari. However.. is there also any musical influence of the Maroons on for instance the Rastafari, or vice versa?

Kumina did influence part of the Maroon traditional music, especially in the Maroon towns in Eastern Jamaica where Kumina was also nearer, Kumina being mostly found in the parish of St Thomas (see map). This influence has been documented and proven. This is for instance noticeable in drumming patterns: a typical mid-tempo to fast, rolling “heart beat” rhythm is therefore found in Kumina, as well as in some Maroon music.

Other aspects are shared and similar as well, but relate more to common African roots and general traditions in Africa, continued in different traditions in the West. One can think of the general polyrhythmic and percussive structures, drums with different pitches, with either leading or improvizing or basic, supportive rhythmic roles, the “call-and-response” principle, the custom of naming drums either male or female – with ritual functions -, the importance of “purity” among players of sacred drums or music etcetera etcetera.


The most common drums among Jamaican Maroons differ a bit across different Maroon towns. In any case, they include the Gumbeh and Printing (also called Grandy). The Gumbeh (or: Goombay) drums have a small, square, table-like form and has a goatskin. It can be considered a bass drum. It most probably has its origin in the Akan (Ghana-area) “Gome” drum, with a similar (if bigger) form, still found in Ghana today. The longer, thin, and cylindrical Aprinting – or Printing - drums are also common. Though the name is similar, the Apinti drum among the Maroons in Suriname is not cylindrical (and broadens in its lower part) and is less tall, though it has a similar tuning method.

Other percussion instruments commonly used among Jamaican Maroons include an instrument made of bamboo hit with sticks – called Kwat -, and a metal piece of percussion. Also used are wind instruments, most notably the Abeng, made from cowhorn. The Abeng is a sort of “national instrument” of the Jamaican Maroons, and has a strong sound. The Abeng horn was used also in the wars with the British, to communicate across long distances and across the mountains. The Abeng has essentially two pitches (tones), but was creatively used to communicate even complex messages. Pitch is changed of the Abeng through the use of the thumb.

The Maroons in Moore Town (parish of Portland) mostly use(d) the Printing drums, while other Eastern Maroons, such as in Charles Town or Scott’s Hall, also use the Gumbeh frame drum, also found in the Western Maroon town of Accompong, generally combined with the Aprinting/Grandy type drums.

Though the Printing drum has to a degree some similarities with the Kete drums used for Nyabinghi (and Burru), the use of either the Gumbeh and Printing drums in strictly Rastafari contexts has not been reported very much, although there are Rastafari-led percussion groups in Jamaica that play on occasion also these and other African drums.

The (Burru/Nyabinghi) Kete drums, but also Afro-Cuban or internationally better known percussion instruments such as the Conga, the Bongos, the Guiro, or the Djembe, have been used by session percussionists in reggae (Scully, Bongo Herman, Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, Sticky, Sky Juice, and others), and are still regularly used by younger percussionists. The more experimental among these percussionists also use specific African or Afro-Jamaican drums that are less known. It seems to fit well with the African, culturally rebellious focus of especially Rastafari-influenced reggae.

I would love to give you some examples of reggae songs with the Gumbeh or Printing used as part of the percussion, but this is unfortunately difficult to research. In liner notes of reggae albums, in most cases is just mentioned: ‘Percussion by…’ etc. (then names: Bongo Herman, Sticky, Scully or others), with rarely more specifications. There are some exceptions of more specific information given (beyond just: “percussion(s)”), such as the sleeve notes for Israel Vibrations’ song ‘Mighty Negus’ (on their 1996 album Free To Move), that percussionist Sky Juice uses a talking drum on it, while another plays the Ket(t)e drums, on this Nyabinghi-based song.

Written down in sleeve notes or not, it is in any case known and documented that several well-known percussionists in Jamaican reggae use different type of drums (beyond the more common Kete, Conga or Bongos), also to broaden their range. Maroon instruments might just be among them, even if Maroon communities long remained relatively somewhat “closed” from Jamaican society. Maroon culture has in any case “symbolic” power, one can say, also for Rastafari adherents.


Thus contextualized, it would be interesting, to further discuss, or “review”, an album or CD I have, which assembles Maroon music from several Jamaican Maroon towns. It is called ’Drums of Defiance : Maroon music from the earliest Free Black communities of Jamaica’, and was released in 1992. The music fragments on it are collected by ethnomusicologist Kenneth Bilby.

In an earlier post on this blog (August 2013) I discussed/reviewed a broader Jamaican “folk music” CD, called: ‘Jamaica Folk Trace Possession’ (2013), see here. This had a similar scholarly, anthropological focus as this ‘Drums of Defiance’ one, including also many “excerpts” or “field recordings”. It included examples of several older Afro-Jamaican folk music, but had no examples of Maroon music: this “Drums of Defiance’ album thus fills that void, you might say.

Sound quality is hereby not perfect: it involves music in a certain social or ritual context, that happened to be recorded: it was not popular or commercial music, perfected in a studio according to certain norms, for the market. The same applies to this CD on Jamaican Maroon music. The sound quality is mediocre, and many “songs” (or excerpts) last only about a minute. These are mainly meant to give impressions of different styles and variations within Maroon music. Subgenres you might say.


The recordings were made in the period 1977-1978. Most of these in Moore Town, a town in Eastern Jamaica where relatively more Maroon musical traditions continued to be practiced, at that time, while being a bit less present in the other towns known as Maroon towns. Musicians of traditional Maroon music could be found in these other towns, but often had to be specifically sought and gathered. Traditions were perhaps not dead, but dormant, and hopefully not dying.. Other recordings were made during actual community ceremonies (public or private).

The liner notes are a bit general but good, explaining well main types of Maroon music and their cultural context, based on research by Kenneth Bilby. Bilby studied and wrote about other Jamaican percussion traditions as well, including a very interesting study of the influence of African and Afro-Jamaican (Burru and other) hand drum traditions on percussion and percussionists in reggae like Bongo Herman and Sticky. Kenneth Bilby has also done some very insightful research of Maroons elsewhere, namely in Suriname, and other comparative research.

The liner notes, and the names Maroons themselves give to songs and genres within their music, are very instructive as well. The Kromanti dance ritual – involving spirit possession through dance – is the most serious as well as exclusive, as non-Maroons are (safe exceptions) not allowed at these Kromanti dances.

While “Kromanti” refers to Ghana (or: “Gold Coast”) and Akan-speaking slaves (also: Coromantee) etymologically, and also other terms I mentioned point at Akan or related Akan Fanti/Ashanti roots, it is too simplistic to conclude that these Maroons descend only from slaves brought from what is now Ghana or from Akan/Twi-speaking areas. A common misconception is, by the way, that most Jamaicans descend from slaves brought from the Ghana/Gold Coast area. A similar misconception I found among Afro-Surinamese people, by the way. In reality, African slaves in Jamaica came from several parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

It is true, however, that Akan-speaking, Coromantee, Fanti, Ashanti and related groups, were a large part of the slaves brought to Jamaica, but not a large majority. It is studied, and documented that probably about 45% of Africans brought to Jamaica were from the Ghana region, so not even a majority or about half, though it was the largest among ethnic groups. A similar proportion applies in Suriname, by the way. Quite some slaves ending up in Jamaica further came from the Igbo area (now Southeast-Nigeria), from Central Africa (Congo and Angola) – the latter Bantu-speaking Africans estimated at about 20% of the total, and further from Ewe-speaking areas (around what is now Benin and Togo), or from the Senegambia and Guinea region and elsewhere.

There is a strong Akan/Ghana influence on the Maroons in Jamaica – also linguistically -, and the Gumbeh drum is almost certainly a cousin to the Ghanaian Gome, as I already explained, but influences from other parts of Africa are found in Maroon culture as well. Besides from the ethnicities I mentioned, some historians also point at Yoruba (an ethnic group in what is now SW Nigeria and Benin) influences among Jamaican Maroons. The Maroons were slaves that escaped the slave-based plantations, and they came from different African ethnic groups, of course not only specific ethnic groups thought about escaping such a dehumanizing and oppressive system.

The Jamaican Maroons themselves recognize all this as much, in naming specific dances and songs after different African ethnicities. This is the case with specific Kromanti pieces meant to invoke ancestor spirits from specific ethnicities or parts of Africa. These are named by Maroons themselves Kromanti, Papa (referring to Ewe-speaking groups), Ibo (Igbo), and Mandinga (ethnic area around Sierra Leone).

According to the anthropologists/ethnomusicologists, however, this does not mean that a specific Kromanti piece called, say, Mandinga, has actual direct roots in music from Mandinga-speaking parts of Africa. It is a partly symbolic designation, combined with own creative interpretations by musicians, with Mandinga but also other African influences. African musical cultures thus were most probably mixed, and reworked in an artistic way.

Lighter, recreational forms of Maroon music are called Jawbone, while “Tambu” refers to Maroon music showing Kumina influences, as I mentioned before. Examples of all these genres and types are found on this CD/album.

The CD includes examples of both the Windward and Leeward Maroon towns mentioned: especially Moore Town, but also Charles Town, Scott’s Hall, and in Western Jamaica: Accompong. The latter has similarities, but also differences with the Eastern Jamaican Maroons. Spirit invoking is for instance different among Accompong Maroons, the latter paying more attention to funerals and burials. Another aspect, by the way, which many Rastafari eschew: funerals are by many Rastas criticized for impurely celebrating death, a disdain with also origins in the Bible (Levitical code, Nazarene Vow). Besides this, musically and culturally there are further many similarities of the Accompong with the Moore Town and other Maroons.

Apart from the explanatory liner notes, the CD “songs” and excerpts are interesting to listen to in and by themselves. Some background information helps with such a scholarly or intellectual focus though. I can get “in the groove” easily even with complex, drum-based music, but more knowledge about it adds to the experience. At least for me.

In the liner notes it is pointed out that certain types of songs among Maroons have a constant pulse throughout, while others are more “talking drum”-like, mimicking speech, and therefore have more meandering and varying rhythms.

The Maroons refer to a basic rhythm or pulse - mostly by the mentioned Printing drums - as “rolling”, while “answers” and variations on it are called “passing”. The latter “passing” rhythms are often by the lead drums: Gumbeh or other Printing drums or other percussion instruments. Crucially, these separate rhythms “interlock”, as common in the African polyrhythmic tradition.

The examples from Tambu (Kumina-influenced) are dynamic and show clear echoes of the “fast heart beat” rhythm found in Kumina. Jawbone and Kromanti examples often sound just as nice. The Aprinting drum also has an in my opinion a nice, “round” and deep sound.. This drum’s skin diameter is comparatively small (10 inches or less), but it has a “long” shape, affecting of course its sound, making its pitch somewhat lower and deeper than one might expect. Players of it on these excerpts play well and creative. I thus surely “got in the groove” – despite the mediocre sound quality and often short fragments - , even on the songs said to have less of a “constant pulse”. Most songs are certainly danceable, and I liked for instance some of the Ibo songs, and some of the Mandinga songs, while the opening Tambu song is very catchy, also because of the singing.

The Kwat (kind of a bamboo block) or metal percussion further add interesting support – or counter-rhythms - to the whole. The Gumbeh is heard a bit less through all these examples than the Printing, but the Gumbeh drum is also included in several examples, and sounds good and well-played too. The Gumbeh sounds a bit “clearer”, when compared to the Printing/Grandy. The Abeng also appears now and then, and this cowhorn adds a distinctive, atmospheric feel to the music. With the Abeng sound it reminded me (superficially) a bit of the Haitian Rara tradition, also including drums and horns (albeit in Haitian Rara mostly cylindrical bamboo or metal trumpets).


What I further found very appealing were the vocals. Characteristically sub-Saharan call-and-response singing, with a solo singer (often a male, though not always), alternated/answered by group singing by mostly females. Linguistically, variants of Creoles or African/Akan-derived languages are spoken/sung, and I often did not understand what is being sung. Parts I understood from my knowledge of Jamaican Creole (“wah mi gwine do?”, in standard English: “what am I going to do?”). Titles and liner note explanations further gave me clues.

It sounded nice and catchy though: both groovy and atmospheric, as all good call-and-response singing. That the female voices often provide the “choir” or “response” part of these vocals is interesting. In African music this is quite common, and in some areas of Africa traditionally the norm, but in the Jamaican context it has another dimension. In reggae music for instance, as in other Black popular music genres, call-and-response recurs as African retention, but in a modern form. With some differences though: the “response” choir vocals are in e.g. reggae, and other popular genres, often also by men. This reflects the fact that the “commercial music” scene (White or Black music, by the way) in the Western world, is a male-dominated industry. Reggae also to a large degree.

Call-and-response and harmony vocals in reggae (or in soul, salsa, kaseko, and other African Diaspora music genres) are not always less-beautiful or nice because of this, but it is a bit of a change. Not that male (or mixed!) “response” choir vocals are absent in traditional African music, it was present, but female ones (contrasting male “call” vocals) are overall more common. This is indeed also the case in this Maroon music: in it you will therefore hear many female voices singing. Even this aspect, “gender”, adds a nice touch, haha.

Likewise in Reggae, female background vocals do also occur, as well as mixed groups. Bob Marley and the Wailers had of course the female I-Threes as backing singers. Several albums by other artists, like Culture, the Congos, or Burning Spear, include(d) one or more female background singers (often alongside males), while several artists also have mainly female backing singers, also in the more recent New Roots subgenre (Sizzla, Luciano, Tarrus Riley, Jesse Royal etcetera).

It was however stated, by some writers, that the choice of the female ‘I-Threes’ backing singers of Bob Marley and the Wailers, was an adaptation to Western, European tastes. That can be disputed, I think, in light of what I described above: the important (choir) vocal role of women in traditional African music, and in relatively pure African-based music, such as by the Maroons.

The CD ends with a Nyabinghi medley. This Rastafari drumming had apparently by then acquired a place in Accompong, the Maroon town. Already then (this was recorded in the late 1970s), the Rastafari had influenced Maroon communities. Indeed, history shows that over time also many people in Maroon families in Jamaica became adherents of the Rastafari movement. Interestingly, the Accompong Nyabinghi players do not use the usual Kete drums for it. This can be heard, as the drum patterns (heart beat, varying Repeater etcetera) are typically Nyabinghi, and the chosen songs “classic” Nyabinghi songs ('Never Get Weary', 'New Name' a.o.), but the drums sound is quite different from common Nyabinghi:. Here you hear the sound of the Maroon drums Gumbeh and Printing, sounding a bit less ”sharp” than the commonly used Ketes. It gives, however, this Nyabinghi example on the album something unique, as also do certain Repeater patterns varying around the “heart beat” rhythm. These specific patterns probably reflect the Maroon music’s much more polyrhythmic structure (when compared to the somewhat more singular/linear Nyabinghi rhythms).


The recordings of the ‘Drums of Defiance’ album were as said all made in the years 1977 and 1978, and much may have changed since then. It seems probable, though, in light of the past cultural resiliency, that many of these Jamaican Maroon musical and other traditions are still maintained even today, in 2015. Even if partly evolved (as most cultures do).

The influence of Rastafari, reggae, and other Jamaican cultural expressions, on Maroons has increased since the 1970s. That is documented and proven. Some aspects of Maroon culture remained “closed” to outsiders (Kromanti spiritual dance/music, notably), inhibiting perhaps it spreading or influencing other Jamaican expressions, although such influence on non-Maroon Jamaican expressions can somehow still have occurred: in the percussion aspects of reggae music for example: just like Nyabinghi drumming included Burru and Kumina influences (and Nyabinghi in turn influenced reggae).

Reggae is of course in its origins influenced by traditional African music - as all Black music at least partly is. In addition, more direct African musical influences have always entered reggae (or ska and rocksteady) music since the 1960s, through percussion and otherwise, noticeable more directly in certain songs, think for instance of the percussive song ‘Congo Man’ by the Congos, and these might in cases well be influenced by “purer African” music retained among the Maroons, alongside influences from Burru and Kumina. In fact, this song ‘Congo Man’ by the Congos - on their 1977 Heart of the Congos album - reminded me of some Jamaican Maroon music on this album, and might well be influenced by it.

Either way, the symbolic importance of Maroons escaping from and resisting slavery is often expressed by Rastafari-inspired reggae artists, as noticeable in several reggae lyrics, mentioning Queen Nanny for instance.

As could be guessed, the entire album ‘Drums of Defiance’ can be found on YouTube as well, albeit without the informative liner notes (these can be downloaded through the earlier link I gave). The video underneath (on the Traditional Music Channel on YouTube) is in fact this whole album I just discussed, and opens (as said) with the Kumina-influenced Tambu music by Jamaican Maroons in Moore Town, continuing then with recreational Jawbone, spiritual Kromanti, and other examples, also from other Maroon towns. It ends in Accompong, and the very final part (after about one hour) is the mentioned Nyabinghi medley in an own “Accompong Maroon” way..

1 opmerking:

  1. Not too many people (not even those with more than a passing interest in Jamaican music) seem to be aware of this record, which is a bit surprising considering it bears the Folkways imprint. Tried to find more recorded material on Afro-Jamaican drumming traditions a while ago but came up empty-handed, so if you know about some, please let me know. Congrats for such a well-researched piece.