THE FIRST RASTA by Hélène Lee

THE FIRST RASTA

Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism
by , translated by ,

KIRKUS REVIEW

The loose threads of Rasta history, impressively woven into a flag of green, red, and gold by French music journalist Lee.

This is a “real-time adventure in ethnology and religious history,” writes Stephen Davis in the introduction, and he might have added that it’s a clear-eyed political history, for Lee is a student of Jamaican history as well as a bit of a spiritual seeker. Rastafarianism is with Bob Marley and reggae, though Lee shows that it’s a multifaceted and abiding presence in Jamaica and beyond. It can be said to have started with Leonard Howell, a Jamaican who made the work of Marcus Garvey and Athlyi Rogers fit the Jamaican situation, borrowing elements of Millenarist and Ethiopianist religions, aspects of the Hindu cycle of karma and rebirth, and wedding them to the national struggle for power. As much as a spiritual vision, Rastafarianism was a class fight, a force at odds with the colonial authorities as it espoused the social redemption of the black race: this being treason, for the king revered was not George V but Ras Tafari: Halie Selassi I of Ethiopia, lord of the land of return. Then there is ganja, which Howell may have begun deploying in his “tea room” on 136th Street in New York—“we can hardly imagine him serving Lipton tea”—but which was used also for overcoming fear, as of the colonial authority. Ganja, like music, became entwined in a nexus of profit and spirituality yet played a pivotal role in the ascension of various political parties. And the music—Kumina on to Burru, Count Ossie, and Marley—could be what “defines the country,” though that seems a step back in terms of Rasta’s kaleidoscopic past.

Lee is an old-school journalist, building the story from the ground up. No politicos or academics for her: Rasta is a movement of everyman.

Pub Date: July 15th, 2003
ISBN: 1-55652-466-8
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2003




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