Jamaica and Brazil || Common Origins, Common Vibrations
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Photo: Andy Falconer
When Bob Marley visited Brazil in 1980, invited by the record label Ariola, the local military regime didn't allow him to perform live. But he was shown in primetime on a TV station scoring a goal in an amateur soccer field and running with Jacob Miller and Junior Marvin on the Copacabana Beach boardwalk. Besides that, he gave interviews to newspapers and magazines from Rio de Janeiro. In one of them, for the extinct magazine Manchete, he said that "samba and reggae are the same things, they have the same feeling as African roots". Soon after he would use the drumsticks and a cuíca bought in Brazil in the arrangement of his megahit, 'Could you be Loved'. In 1981, Jimmy Cliff and Gilberto Gil played for thousands of people in a massive tour all over the country. Cut to the 1990s, when reggae went big in Brazil with local bands like Cidade Negra, O Rappa and Tribo de Jah, which opened one night of Reggae Sunsplash in 1995. Reggae acts like The Wailers, Ziggy Marley, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs start to come regularly to Brazil. Cut again to 2019, directly to a street dance in São Luís do Maranhão, northeast region of the country, where the radiolas, local versions of sound systems, are playing reggae out loud to thousands of people, of all ages, some dancing in pairs, since the 1970s. In other parts of Brazil, mainly in huge cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, Curitiba or Belo Horizonte, reggae is currently maintaining a loyal audience to Jamaican, international and local acts. A new generation of performers like Monkey Jhayam, Laylah Arruda and Nubia, raised in the sound-systems nationwide, is seeking for this place under the sun.
Reggae was never mainstream in the Brazilian market, but it has a lasting and robust presence, which sets it apart from other musical genres. In some places, such as Maranhão or Bahia, it has long been deeply rooted. So we have to go back to Bob Marley's interview to ask: why would samba and reggae be "the same thing" for him? What exactly are these African roots? Could they help to explain this solid and constant cultural dialogue between Jamaicans and Brazilians?
Bob Marley's intuitive argument about the common origin of Brazilian and Jamaican culture in African diaspora was right. Still, recent research has drawn the attention to one of the concrete ancestral connections between them: Bongo nations, communities based in the Jamaican parish of Saint Thomas, composed by descendants of Bantu people from Angola. The lethal and tragic human trafficking known as the slave trade brought them to the Caribbean after it was considered illegal by the British Empire in 1807 and by Brazilian Empire (only in 1830). In this context, British vessels started to intercept illicit slave ships that were going to Brazil. After a brief period in the island of Santa Helena, many of them, like Ma Mbamba Mbizi Nkadi, known by the British as
John Thomas (according to Jamaican documents found by researcher Monica Schuler) settled in Jamaica. They maintained religious traditions that are called Kumina in Jamaica, where many rituals use words in what they call the African language. Two anthropology researchers, Kenneth Bilby from USA and Fu-Kiau Bunseki from Angola identified these words as a variation of Kimbundo language, one of the many Bantu languages. The entities are known as nkisis (known in Brazil as inquices), and the all-powerful Zambi cited by Kumina practitioners are also the basis of the Brazilian afro-religion Candomblé Angola, also organized by Bantu descendants. According to Bilby's research, Kumina drumming is one the base of the nyabinghi beat, so important to contemporary Jamaican music. And samba is rooted in the rhythms performed by Bantu descendants in Brazil, according to Brazilian researchers like José Jorge de Carvalho.
This ancient connection is still active. Fifteen years ago, a beat that came directly from the Candomblé yard, called "Curimba riddim" released by Digital Dubs, a sound system from Rio de Janeiro. The beat was "rided" by Brazilian reggae singers, like Jimmy Luv and Biguli, but also by Bnegão, a singer from the rap group Planet Hemp and a Brazilian funk star, MC Catra. After that, because of Catra's popularity, the riddim was adapted by other Brazilian funk MCs, many times in a beatbox riddim they called "tamborzão" (big drum), which are in use until today, with some variations.
For all this, we can say the music produced in Jamaica wouldn't be a significant influence in so many Brazilian bands and to sound system culture it has common origins with the music produced in Brazil, that can and should be better studied. For example, new musical genres in dialogue, such as samba-reggae in Bahia and reggae-toada in Maranhão deserve more distribution and study. We also have collab projects between Brazilian and Jamaican artists, like the Bambas 1 and 2 albums, produced by Brazilian studio wizard BID. It would' t be strange or foreign, but part of the constitution of the culture created in these two countries with has a black majority (something often "forgotten" or denied in Brazil). In this continuous cultural dialogue, Africa is placed face to face with contemporary production, where time folds, traditional culture is updated and continues to feed the present, a tradition that needs to be valued, encouraged and preserved for new generations.