Small Axe 10.1 (2006) 59-73
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Imported Topics, Foreign Vocabularies:
Dread Talk, the Cuban Connection
Samuel Furé Davis
The speech associated with Rastafari, labeled variously "I-ance," "I-yaric," "Rasta Talk," and "Dread Talk" (DT), is one of a small number of codes created to serve the specific ends of a particular group. Other such codes, however, have not spread beyond the narrow confines of their constituencies. Today the language of Rastafari has spread not only beyond that group to the wider Jamaican society but also beyond Jamaica to the international community.
Music has been crucial in the spread of the philosophy of Rastafari even within Jamaica, moving it from the depressed areas where it began, to the living rooms of the privileged. The uptown following of Rasta of the sixties and seventies was partly the response of the young men in those homes to the lyrics of songs they were able to listen to over and over in their own space. Ironically this led them ultimately to a rejection of that space.
Pollard describes the transformations performed on the words of Rastafari as they interacted with the popular languages of St. Lucia and Barbados following the spread of "the word" to those islands. Included in that paper is a discussion of the debt owed to reggae music for the spread of the philosophy and language of Rastafari, mentioning the more charismatic reggae exponents including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and U Roy.1 The argument put forward then was that "the transference of philosophy and language by remote control is new and could not have happened before technology advanced as far as it has today."2 [End Page 59]
van Dijk gives a comprehensive and enlightening review of Rastafari communities outside of Jamaica.3 While he identifies migration and travel as one route by which the philosophy spread, he points to radio and television waves as the means by which "the message of Jah people, cached in the powerful rhymes and pulsating rhythms of reggae, travels almost without restriction and sweeps 'Rastology' even into the remotest corners of the earth."4 Furé Davis, writing on Rastafari and popular culture in contemporary Cuba, notes that "Cuba did not escape the internationalization of reggae music that started mainly with the international tours of Bob Marley and the Wailers, the many reggae bands which sprang up at the time and the growing interest of record companies in selling reggae outside of Jamaican borders."5
Discussing the youth culture in Cuba, Furé Davis comments on the "search for new, unexplored cultural patterns including music associated with certain attitudes" and on the influence of reggae, hip-hop, and other "imported lifestyles" that are quickly adapted to the new context. He notes that "even language is adapted since they have to express themselves in Spanish about an imported topic with a foreign vocabulary always yielding something new and different from the original contexts, owing to the endless Caribbean transculturación."6
Transculturación, the term Furé Davis uses, is particularly apt. It was coined by the Cuban critic Fernando Ortiz. It is an excellent term to describe what is happening as the culture of Rastafari spreads to new lands and interacts with other cultures. Nancy Morejón, a famous Cuban twentieth-century poet commenting on that term in a different context, writes that "transculturation signifies constant interaction, transmutation between two or more cultural components."7 The variations inherent in this cultural interaction are part of what Furé Davis describes as "something new and different." Indeed his phrase is reminiscent of "something torn and new" which Edward Brathwaite, writing three decades earlier, used to describe the rhythms of the steel pan, a metaphor for the new Caribbean man: [End Page 60]
and new 8
Perhaps a new Rasta man or several versions of such a man will emerge as the movement interacts with cultures that are different from the Jamaican culture, which gave it birth. Perhaps different versions...