Legends and History
The Deepening Roots of Reggae Music
by Winston W. Hale
An Ancient Tradition of Music and Dance
Throughout much of Africa, the people were masters of song and dance. In ancient Egypt, The Pygmy people were brought from the Sudan to entertain and inspire with what became known as "The Dance of the Gods". The tradition of dance for story telling, healing, teaching, building spiritual power and filling the heart and body with joy was a central ingredient in many of the cultures that populated the continent of Africa.
On the Isle of Goree, West Africa, the native people came under attack by Slave Traders from Portugal in the 1500's - less than 500 years ago. Imagine the trauma of being captured and taken from home and family by aliens - a boat instead of a space ship but no different than being stolen out of your life and transported to some far away work planet with no concern about your family or the life you had: Chief, company CEO, Medicine Man, doctor, tribe historian, high school teacher, father or daughter... it didn't matter, you were merely a commodity of trade. For these prisoners, the "Dance" became an important part of their means of survival. Dance offered a chance to be in touch with their culture and to communicate between each other without the knowledge of their captors.
Most Africans who were taken hostage were forced to endure voyages lasting anywhere from fifteen days to four months depending on weather at sea. When weather permitted, the captives were compelled to dance on the deck of the slave ship, often prompted by whips. This was known as "dancing the slaves" by ship captains, and was used for preservation of human cargo so the captives would look healthy and bring high prices in the New World slave market.
When the captives arrived in the New World, their tradition of dance helped keep their spirits alive. with a force that had been an integral part of their cultures for centuries. Cultural dance was central to the people's heritage - an expressive voice that offered no advocacy of other attitudes inherited from the cultures of European captors and the society they were forced into. The moving spirits behind the rhythm and pattern of the dance growing out of this tradition offers something for enjoyment, personal power and healing for the body that few others can equal.
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The captives finessed a fight/dance art to keep their fighting skills sharp so they could protect themselves from the oppressors. The slavers believed the slaves were being playful but later realized the power of these dances, known as "Yelle" and banned it outright. The fear "Yelle" inspired in many of the slavers actually lead them to make the practicing or teaching of this art punishable by death. The practice continued but in secret as a means of establishing contact with the ancestors and the gods of the captives held in the evil grip of slavery.
The different dances of Yelle were kept alive by new prisoners who were constantly being shipped from Africa, bringing fresh memories of the homeland and traditions of the forefathers. "Yelle" carried with it the collective memory of the ancestors - to sing it is to be impressed by the epic nature of the Human Story.
The origins of "Yelle" are with the Ceddos Warriors, who settled along the West African rivers in Senegal. Ritual performers of the tribe, they encouraged nobles with their praise of songs and poems and often claimed a reward like a tithe. One day after a particularly fierce conflict, the Ceddos gave away all they had to the Grios who were the musician and songkeepers of the tribe. "We'll give you Yelle" they said. "From this day forward we'll sing and dance it no more. Now you will sing and dance the Yelle wherever you go".
And so Yelle spread and evolved. As we near the new Millennium, the spirit of Yelle, still carrying a majesty and thread of the rich history, is heard around the world in the words and rhythms of Reggae Music.
More soon come from including excerpts and insights from the soon to be published "Anthology of Reggae Music". For more information, e-mail 2rasjohn@RadioREGGAE.com and reference "Myths and Legends" by Winston Hale.
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