July 19, 2006

Feel it in the One Drop

Driving through Miami on bright, sunny days when I am crossing the Julia Tuttle Causeway, I like to drop Survival in the CD player and listen to “One Drop.” But lately, when the thunderstorms come rolling in over the Everglades, I don’t have the chance anymore to roll down my windows and to be soothed by the wind along with the toom of Family Man’s bass. Yet, even with my rolled up windows, “One Drop” makes me feel irie. I’ve always liked the song because it’s a distillation of the particular style of reggae that had been perfected Carly and Aston “Family Man” Barrett. “One Drop,” a seemingly simple song, represents an auditory representation of the Jamaican milieu during the late seventies that Bob translated into Wailers’ reggae. "One Drop" may also refer to the "one drop" rule in the United States where anyone with one drop of African blood is considered black--a way of Bob turning the tables of those people who didn't think he was "black enough" and called him a "half-caste."

The song begins with Carly’s signature “one drop” on drums, an introduction by Wire on keyboards, Bob and I-threes on vocals, and Seeco on percussion. Carly repeats the “one drop” and introduces Family Man on bass. Then, Bob accentuates the “one drop” again on the line, “So feel this drum beat”—pause—“one drop”—“As it beats within,” and continues with lines that describe Bob's solidarity with the sufferers (the downpressed victims of Babylon--the system that values profits over people). Next, he offers a solution, “But read it in Revelation/ you’ll find your redemption,” and issues a call for resistance until the end-of-times, “Fighting against ism and skism.” 

Throughout the song, the three elements that gave Wailer’s reggae its particular sound are highlighted: bass guitar, drums (“one drop”), and the syncopated pause. What’s also interesting about the song and differentiated the Wailers from other reggae bands is that the Wailers didn’t play a straight bass line. The Wailers relied on a conversation between Carly and Family Man that was punctuated by Carly’s “one drop” and Family Man’s response to the displacement of time. The Wailers’ reaction in the gap, that moment of suspended infinity, where the spontaneity, artistry and improvisation of the artist become manifest, fired the imagination of a generation. The Wailers captured the mood of radical transformation that Jamaica was going through during the seventies-- “the generation gap”-- when the children born around the time of Independence came of age.

All of the forces that had been simmering in the Jamaica, Rastafarianism, nationalism, and civil unrest over the plight of the sufferers were expressed primarily in music (reggae), verse (dub poetry) and fiction (reggae novel). These three forms shared a concern for the conditions of the dispossessed and a reliance on solutions that began within the experience of the people: “Most people think great God will come from the sky/Take away everything/ and make everybody feel high/but if you know what life is worth/You will look for yours on earth/ So now you see the light/Stand up for your right” (“Get up, Stand up). 

In his book, Natural Mysticism: Towards a Reggae Aesthetic, Kwame Dawes, outlines several of the salient features of this new approach that were articulated in reggae: “A deeply complex music that walks the peculiar tightrope of the sacred and the profane—the holy, the prophetic and the erotic (134). It is this syncopated, uneven beauty that is seen in the landscape, our man-made objects and the way the women saunter. It is the fragmented aesthetic that Kamau Braithwaite champions in “nation language” and his insistence that borrowed forms cannot contain the energy of Jamaican and Caribbean life: “The hurricane does not speak in pentameters.”

For many of the artists and writers who grew up during those the seventies, those dread times continue to haunt our work: the blinding blue of the Caribbean, the haunting ochre of the countryside, the terrible beauty of Soufriere, and the plight of the sufferers. Sometimes, in the middle of Miami when the rain comes tumbling down, the “one drop” is our only redemption.

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Anonymous said...

weeks ago i was with Bunna, the leader of "Africa Unite", the most famous italian reggae band
He told me that in reggae music the "pauses" are very important... in a certain way the pause is more important than the music... no need to fill always the tempo (time) with notes: in reggae music is better a good pause than a careless note. it's the one drop philosophy ;)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, Marco, yes.
And that's why I love "Concrete Jungle" and the end of "I Shot the Sherriff"