STJ#1042, Rivers of Babylon

We have seen this before.

Well, not, entirely – in July, we sang a round based on the first two lines of Psalm 137, and noted that more would come. Well guess what – it’s time for more, and based on my searching, it’s not what we think.

First, let’s look at the lyrics and listen to the original recording, by The Melodians:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down,
and there we wept, when we remember Zion.
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down,
and there we wept, when we remember Zion.

Where the wicked carried us away captivity,
required of us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land.

So let the words of our mouths
and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight, O Farai.
So let the words of our mouths
and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight, O Farai.

Now that you have your reggae groove on – a groove many in our congregations will be familiar with because it became a popular song in the 1970s, I should tell you that this version is not as straightforward as you might think, despite it being based on Psalm 137 (and a line from Psalm 19).

It’s not just Judaism set to a reggae beat, it’s Rastafarian – an Abrahamic religion of its own.

In a nutshell (albeit a hasty and not-well written nutshell – apologies), Rastas believe that Ethiopian emperor Haile Sallasie was at least a prophet, and possibly the second coming of Christ, and most certainly, in his role as emperor righting against colonization, the one who would lead a future golden age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity; in this system, developed in Jamaica in the 1930s during British Imperial rule, Sallasie and his wife were called King Alpha and Queen Omega – the beginning and the end. Babylon then is any principality/government/system that oppresses, and the call of the faith is liberation.

Thus, this song, written in 1970, captures the Rastafarian spirit, the hope that we would be freed from exile and led into liberation and prosperity. According to one if the composers, Brent Dowe, the song was initially banned by the Jamaican government because “its overt Rastafarian references (‘King Alpha’ and ‘O Far-I’) were considered subversive and potentially inflammatory” – and yet, as we know too well, truth will out. And after its popularization in the Jimmy Cliff film The Harder They Come, the song spread far and wide.

What I love about the song is the hopefulness – something that is missing from the original psalm, which is by all accounts a lament. (In case you don’t know, the psalm was written while the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, a long hard time when they longed for their homeland.) Adding a sense of hope that there would be deliverance from exile, not just praying for it – offers a resolve that freedom will come, that our prayers are being answered.

Now in terms of using it in our congregations, the best advice I can give is what I give often: have good song leaders (and maybe drums and electric guitar), offer some context, and for goodness’ sake, don’t let it just be a cool pop music break. There’s deep meaning here, and the call is clear.

It’s a great song, used in Jamaican churches to this day. I hope we can expand our understanding of liberation and music by including this one in our congregation too.

Postscript: if you want to mix an appreciation of reggae with bingewatching, I highly recommend Death in Paradise, on Netflix; the score is almost entirely reggae music, and the show itself is great fun – mystery and comedy plus beautiful scenery.

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