Bonfires and Other Gateway Drugs

One thing leads to another and suddenly I’m on a beach under the full moon at 9 on a weeknight, swaying around a bonfire to the sounds of Rasta youths spitting troots and the soulful melodies of Kali Grn and DReblz.

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Glowing embers and DReblz in action

I think I’ve started taking deliberate steps down a path of cultural appreciation – specifically an appreciation of Rastafarianism and its associations. Rastafari is one of those aspects of our culture that we don’t really notice until we stop and look at it. But it’s all around us, like water to a fish, and it impacts so much of our daily life – from curse words to our reaction to authority to our taste in music. Rasta gave us reggae and weed and locs. In return we gave them Bad Friday and a persistent (though waning) stigma surrounding their lifestyle.

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Hol’ a vibes

I’m not sure when this journey started, maybe the day Obie and I visited the Rastafari Exhibit at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre. But it was definitely after Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded when we discovered (Columbus-style) Kali Grn that we fell down the rabbit hole. First it was the Spring Equinox Festival then a beach bonfire under the full moon then the Bad Friday commemoration at the Civic/Cultural Centre on Good Friday.

The experiences that lie along this path have been, so far, incredible. I used to think – and perhaps it used to be true – that MoBay had little to offer in the way of cultural events. Compared to Kingston where there are reggae concerts practically on a weekly basis, and a variety literary/musical/artistic gatherings we are taking our first tiny steps. But they are definitely steps in the right direction.

Spring Equinox at the Rasta Village

Barefoot, bamboo pipe and box food – this was the scene at the Indigenous Rasta Village on the outskirts of Montego Bay last Sunday. It was a space for communion, reasoning and celebration.

The Rasta Village is accessible by one of two routes – you can drive through Porto Bello to the Montego River Gardens then cross a river to get to the venue. Or you can drive through Fairfield, down a narrow winding dirt track until you reach the last house at the end of the lane. Behind the house is the village.


Welcoming is the first word that comes to mind when you step into the circular space that housed the festival. Everyone nods and smiles openly when they greet you, with an enthusiastic clasping of hands in what feels like a physical manifestation of namaste.

The full programme included yoga, drumming sessions and an open mic segment. There were performances by Mentor, Nomaddz and Rasta Village Live. Around the central camp were stalls displaying natural oils and soaps. Two huge jars of cannabis stems rested atop a table under the main gazebo. The smell of cook food and ganja perfumed the air.


As I sat cross-legged on a borrowed bamboo mat I drank my sip and looked around at the motley collection that had gathered. There were a lot of Rastas, certainly, but also several bald heads (I know, you don’ haffi dread fi be Rasta), more than a few mature upper middle class people, and quite a lot of people my age or a little older.

The vibe of the gathering had put me in a mood for reflection (or maybe it was the contact high) and I was intrigued by the thought that all these people from different backgrounds had come here with the same purpose: to revive, renew, replenish and reaffirm. That everyone would be affected by the experience in different ways, and would take away different things from the event that touched them uniquely, if it touched them at all.

Nomaddz and Rasta Village Live

I leaned into the Rastafarian faith a little more that day. A lot appealed to me: the ideas of personal divinity, the belief in livity, the impressive respect for life in all its forms and yes, the ital food did taste good too.

But I also couldn’t stop my usual anxious over-thinking. I was convinced that there was a right way and a wrong way to be Jamaican and I was definitely doing it the wrong way. every “Blessings” or “Blessed love” I received in greeting I returned a nervous “Good afternoon”. I couldn’t help it – when I’m anxious my Patois stalls. I felt like a fake, because I have locs but I know very little about Rasta culture beyond what I read in school. Only the warm smiles from everyone (and I mean literally everyone) kept me from running away with my head bowed in shame.

How Agent Sasco song go, “no fashion dread nuffi come a talk bout Selassie”?

But over and over my mind kept returning to the deep seated contentment that shone from the faces of the Rastas I interacted with. They had invited us into their sanctum santorum and were so willing to share their music and ideas and food with us – a little bit of their culture free of charge. Maybe it was the weed or maybe it was the kind of peace that springs from a deep personal connection with faith, but however they achieved it I wanted some of that contentment for myself.

I left the Village feeling inspired and uplifted, on a healthier mental and physical plane. The sip and ital food had warmed my belly and the conscious lyrics of Mentor and Nomaddz had warmed my heart.

Then I promptly went and had KFC for dinner. It’s a work in progress.

{17} Rastaman deh pon top, as usual

Rastaman deh pon top as usual. Rasta. Dread. Natty. People with locks been called so many things, some of them not very nice, some of them completely false. So why people nowadays getting up and saying they want locks for style? Since when dreadlocks stop being dread and start being high fashion? Is something I have to look into since, after all, I want locks too.

My most profound experience with Rastafari came about as most of my profound experiences do: through a book. This one was in my school text, an excerpt from Rastafari: A Universal Philosophy in the Third Millenium. It’s the chapter where Mutabaruka reflects on Rasta from Experience. Mutabaruka used to be a very strong cultural icon, for the Rasta as well as the everyday Jamaican. I say used to be, because to my thinking he’s out of shape. No self-respecting orator can turn to nighttime gossip shows and still hope to be taken seriously, but I digress.

Muta talks at length about the history and origins of Rasta, from Back ‘o Wall days, mentioning Marcus Garvey and the Rastafari tenets. He looks at the different sects of Rasta, the different beliefs; he scorns the ‘town’ Rasta, who have to back up their ideas with Judaeo-Christian teachings, and reveres the Rasta in the hill, for whom Rastafari is not a bible-ting, because him don’t need to validate his beliefs. In the town, people called on the Rasta to validate himself constantly. Not combing the hair was foreign; believing that God used to be a man was heretic; smoking ganja was borderline illegal (and is now). Xenophobia is as old as time.

The fear of the locks was dreadful, dreadlocks. -Mutabaruka, Rasta from Experience

So this is where Mutabaruka says Rasta is coming from. This is the history of ‘dreadful locks’ and like he says you used to find Rastas in some weird places just because they looking different. So what would Muta say now? Rastas, they everywhere. In your schools, in your churches, in your offices and on the streets. But the attitude towards locks and Rasta still so different even here, where Rasta born and grow. In Mobay, people still don’t like them much. You mostly find locks on the labourers, the skilled workers and not so much the professionals. The older folks look down on locks, even the ones for style, and most of the middle generation not comfortable with it, either. The distrust and bigotry is still there in a big way.

Then take Kingston, the cradle of Rasta. They come a long way there, people with locks strolling up and down the university campus like ants on sugar. Doctors have locks, lawyers have locks, lecturers have locks. Is not just the artistes and the liberals, the button-up types adopting the style too. Is not just for the rebels, the khaki soldiers and the Che Guevaras among us anymore. But then Kingston is usually the trendsetter, especially for we here in Mobay and in no time, you see we stop turn up we nose at the Rastaman. But no matter where you go in Jamaica, Babylon still running them down for the herb.

To the rest of the world, Rasta is Bob Marley, is reggae music, is being high. Locks is not so much style as lifestyle and, for the few that adopt it, identification with a persecuted subculture. On the international scale, locks are still sneered at and scorned. It untidy, it nasty, it don’t look neat. You don’t see business professionals and academics with locks; you see entertainers and athletes and artists. No 9-5’ers here, locks stuck with the liberals and the rebels. But Rasta is not reggae music and Bob Marley and locks. How the old song go?

You don’t haffi dread fi be Rasta

And locks is not synonymous with being high and worshipping the Marleys. Sufi monks have a choice between shaving the head and growing the hair as dreadlocks; both styles represent a disregard for the physical body in the search for spiritual enlightenment. Rastaman have him reasons same way. In the hill, Rastaman grow locks because to do otherwise is to interfere with nature. On the ground Rastaman say that in Numbers 6, the vow of the Nazarene tell him not to cut him hair. Or him use the story of Samson and Delilah.

As for me, locks is a lifestyle choice. I have a whole lot of history backative and cross-cultural motivation, to say nothing of current fashion. As far as I’m concerned, combing hair should be the least of my priorities and not something that I obssess over. In the grand scheme of life, there are more important things I could be doing in the time it takes to do hair. Hypocritical? Yes. I still have to visit the hair salon every so often to keep it neat and clean. So, no, I haven’t entirely forsaken the ways of the world. But as Miss Lou say: if you don’t follow fashion, you will never inna style.