Caribbean Beat Magazine

Bongo Herman — The Sacred Drum

Being a master Nyabinghi drummer in Jamaica brings you close to the essential rhythm of the Caribbean. Simon Lee talks to Bongo Herman to find out what it's like

  • Dancehall star Capleton. Photograph by Dexter Fletcher
  • Bongo Herman, Jamaican master drummer. Photograph by Dexter Fletcher

Mi na beat drum, mi play wid notes. When oonoo beat drum oonoo beat woman too. Oonoo mek all type a noise. King David say fi play pon yuh harp wid ten string, an de ten string ah mi ten finger. When mi play mi put miself inna mi drum, mi spirit inna mi drum. Whatever sound mi need, mi express it onna de drum. Is a heartbeat. Yuh haffi feel it. When fi play an when not fi play.

 

This is the testament of Bongo Herman, master Nyabinghi or Rastafarian drummer and percussionist, in the biblical language characteristic of the sect. Fifty-three-year-old Herman hails from Trench Town, the same Kingston ghetto which spawned Bob Marley. “We play football an do show togedda,” he says of Marley.

To Herman, the drum is sacred: “de first soundin’ instrument next to man, used to send message an correspond.” He explains how Nyabinghi drum groups traditionally use a bass (or batter) drum and a funde (or flatter) which both have ramgoat skins giving a flat tone, and a repeater (or scatter) drum, his instrument of choice, with a she-goat skin which gives a higher pitch ideal for carrying melodic patterns, and which he tunes to middle C on the piano.

But Herman says the drum can also be a powerful weapon against oppression. He delves into Rastafarian history, recalling the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 when “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie call de great warrior Ras Kassa to raise de Nyabinghi, de greates’ order, de ites of ites. Dem a play fi seven days an nights an rain fall an killer bees rise up an some big ants, and turn pon de Italians dem.” Nyabinghi means “death to all oppressors”.

Herman’s credits read like a roll-call of Jamaican greats over the past 30 years. He’s played percussion for Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Rita Marley, and for Marvin Gaye and The Jackson Five when they performed in Jamaica in the ’60s. Nowadays he’s often called into the studio “to put in de spice an seasonin dem” in a recording.

With his vast experience and boundless confidence, Herman insists: “Mi a well put together musician, spiritually and inna every way. Me a fit into any band an play any instrument dat have a sound. Mi never did come, mi ah send. Is hard when oonoo come, an oonoo find tings nah work. When oonoo send, oonoo a deal wid de hard an de good time dem.”

His Nyabinghi Zen approach makes him an unflappable MC. Besides playing percussion for “conscious” dancehall star Capleton, on the road, he opens the show. “Mi can carry de show. Mi a vibes man. Once mi hit de stage, me a livewire. A mi set de tone. If de MC don’ give good introduction dem a drown de artist.”

Armed with his 20-piece percussion set, including rain stick, vibra slap, kabassa, chimes, maracas, kettle drum and trusted repeater, Herman is ready for any musical occasion. “Even if it a steel band or a four-piece playin God Save de Queen, mi can go out dere an a hold mi own. If dem a have power cut, mi jes keep playin till it a come back on. If a comedy dem want, mi a give dem dat too.”