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Natural Mysticism: Towards a new Reggae Aesthetic

Written by Geoffrey Philp for The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 14 on no date provided

Children get your culture / And don’t stay there and jester.'
Bob Marley, 'Natty Dread'

In Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic in Caribbean Writing, Kwame Dawes, critic, fiction writer, musician anthologist, playwright and essayist traces the influence of reggae on the work of established and emerging writers from the Caribbean. In the work of writers such as Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison, Anthony McNeill, and Dennis Scott, Dawes detects what he calls a 'natural mysticism' which may be defined as, 'the capacity to be at once politically honest and true to the pain of existence and, at the same time, to be able to transcend this pain and find beauty in the creative process and in this process discover a deeper sense of the mystical in Life' (212). Throughout Natural Mysticism, Dawes offers a wealth of biographical and discographical sources from Yabby You to Albert Murray to support his thesis that reggae deserves far more critical scrutiny than it has received in the past.

Natural Mysticism may be divided into three parts. The first is a journey of personal discovery - the effect that reggae had in shaping Dawes’ critical and creative sensibilities. The second part identifies the characteristics of the reggae aesthetic, the nature of the reggae lyric, the erotic dimensions of reggae, and an application of the reggae aesthetic on Jamaican writing of the sixties. The book concludes with an examination of Don Drummond, Bob Marley, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, and Burning Spear, a close reading of the poetry of Dennis Scott, Lorna Goodison and Anthony McNeill, and demonstrates convincingly how the reggae idiom has influenced their work.
Taken as a whole, Natural Mysticism presents an entirely new way of reading Caribbean literature, which has too long been locked into the colonial/anti-colonial model. Dawes argues that reggae, with its Rasta bedrock, established a new pattern: 'Rastafarianism presents a mythological shift in the Caribbean person’s relationship with Africa. This is very important for it both redefines the terms in which our history is approached and represents a defiant critique of Western historical practice. It does this not simply by attacking and questioning Rastafarianism, but by replacing it with another mythological framework' (99). Reggae and Rasta, with their roots in folk sensibilities allowed many middle class writers to 'write themselves into relevance' (38) without the affectation or condescension that had plagued the work of earlier writers. In essence, reggae gave younger writers an authentic Caribbean voice to emulate, and thereby allowed them to find their own voices without the anxiety over Eurocentric sources or forms - a concern that marked the early work of writers such as Kamau Brathwaite and especially Derek Walcott.

Another of the book’s many strengths is that Dawes unearths archetypes that have existed in Caribbean literature and shows their corollaries in the music of songwriters such as Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Dawes locates the trickster figure in Bob Marley and his own trickster poems, and the prophet/madman figure in Burning Spear and in Naipaul’s Man-Man from Miguel Street. Also present within the music is 'this sense of the underdog fighting against powerful dominating forces, for reggae is always situated in the position of the rebel figure, the figure seeking to break free from oppression' (101). Anyone who has listened to Peter Tosh will understand the cultural script that he was playing out in his life and music. And this is why Dawes’ work is so important. He has revealed what many writers, such as myself, have been doing intuitively, and he has given us a conscious means of evaluating our work.

What fascinates Dawes, however, is the ability of reggae to combine diverse elements of experience into 'a deeply complex music that walks the peculiar tightrope of the sacred and the profane - the holy and the prophetic and the erotic' (134). The ability to hold these elements, sometimes in a single stanza, had a profound effect on Dawes’s awareness of his surroundings and shaped his understanding of reggae and his poetry: 'The reggae lyric, then, with its connection to Rastafarian ideology, is rooted in an ethos and aesthetic space which encourages dialogue between the temporal and the eternal; between politics, issues of current social interest, sexuality and spirituality' (129). In other words, psychic wholeness. Dawes explains that reggae’s ability to weave seemingly disparate values into a coherent value system arises because Rastafarianism, like puritanical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers, 'represents the last expressions in Western culture of an undivided sensibility' (189). It is this breach of the spirit, after the brutality of slavery, colonialism, and race/class warfare in the Caribbean, that reggae and Rastafarianism tried to heal and attracted many young writers to attempt to understand the dynamics of the reggae aesthetic.

The emergence of reggae and its subsequent influence on the writers from the Caribbean are not only historically important, but also mark an important milestone in West Indian literature because a significant paradigm shift occurred - a new creation - something 'torn and new' was born. Natural Mysticism has gratefully recorded this change and is a book that should be read by every reader and writer of Caribbean literature.

This is a review of Natural Mysticism: Towards a new Reggae Aesthetic

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