“There is a natural mystic blowing through the air” – Bob Marley
I first met Renard Jude Shy in Thailand on July 15, 2012 in a small garden restaurant attached to a hostel outside the walls of old Chiang Mai City. We’d been friends for a little while on Facebook and I’ll forever remember the moment he strolled onto the balcony to see me below, greeting me in his now familiar baritone lilt “Ben Bowler – live and direct”.
Renard is a real character and I was immediately struck by his whole story, hearing how in his youth he’d been inspired by a Bob Marley song to go AWOL from the US army and had spent many months eluding the authorities.
His conversion to Rastafari spirituality radically changed his life and has impacted many thousands of people since, myself included.
Also at that meeting was a local Thai Reggae artist known as Sista Apsara and together over lunch the three of us set about planning the U Day / U-Nite concert and multi-faith gathering that would happen in Chiang Mai on December 22, 2012 – the supposed end-date of the Mayan calendar.
U Day, though humble in scale, would prove to be an event of great significance in my life. Bringing together local and international artists to celebrate through music the possibilities of unity and peace while also having the involvement of local religious leaders from a wide spectrum of faiths, proved to be a sweet recipe for spiritual community, joy and inspiration. It was also my first project working with Pato Banton and his wife Antoinette Hall. Pato is a genuine Reggae legend who blew the lid off the U-Nite concert. It was Antoinette, an accomplished musician in her own right, who had earlier introduced me to Renard on Facebook. Altogether the whole U Day crew were a dream-team and we experienced an extraordinary coming together. There was indeed a natural mystic blowing through the air.
Spending time with Renard during those preparations and the event itself was a highly educational experience for me as I began to realise how ignorant I was about the Rastafari religion. Like a lot of people I loved the songs of Bob Marley but beyond that my reggae literacy went about as far as UB40s “Red, Red Wine” or 10CC’s “Dreadlock Holiday”; OK as a suburban Australian I can perhaps be forgiven for not realising they aren’t a real reggae band (I don’t like Cricket, I love it).
Being someone with a lifelong interest in world religions it was with genuine fascination that I began learning that the spiritual inspiration behind Reggae music is in fact a real, living faith. Renard, who is more widely known by his spiritual/stage name Ras I Ray, is the founder of a movement called Until That Day. Like many others I was intrigued by this phrase and asked him the obvious question – “which day are you waiting for”? To which he answered “the same day you are!”
He then went on to teach me that Until That Day refers to a speech given to the United Nations General Assembly in 1963 by the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. I had known that Haile Selassie was seen as the Messiah for Rastas but in truth I knew nothing about him. Through Renard’s sharing of his own faith I became intrigued to learn more about this great figure of world history. (My 85-year old father recently told me he used to read about Haile Selassie in comics and hear news of him on the wireless back in the late 30s). The more I learned about him by reading his speeches, the more impressed I was that Selassie, himself a devout Christian, was a great leader, a visionary, and perhaps even a prophet. I have come to believe that Selassie’s grand spiritual and political vision for a harmonious future for humanity is indeed inspired. For all that, I was aware that most people I knew generally had little idea about him or his visionary ideals.
Then, earlier this year in March 2015, I was attending the world’s largest travel trade show, ITB Berlin promoting our little Spiritual Travel company World Weavers. We have been running spiritual immersion programs into Buddhism and Sufism since 2009. So it was with much excitement and enthusiasm that I learned that Jos Wesemann, a fellow operator in cross-cultural tourism had recently moved to Ethiopia and was planning to bring groups there to experience life within Rastafarian communities. Again it seemed a natural mystic was blowing and we immediately set about planning the pilot program for Rasta Roots.
You may be wondering why Ethiopia, isn’t Rastafarian a Jamaican thing? In truth Ethiopia is the Holy Land for Rastafari spirituality. It is the land of Haile Selassie, known as the heir of Solomon, King of Kings and the Lion of Judah. Ethiopia is the spiritual homeland for all Rasta believers, it is Zion itself, the Promised Land, even Heaven on Earth.
In 1948 Emperor Selassie donated some of his own land in the south of the country around Shashamene to Jamaican Rastas inviting them to repatriate “home” to Ethiopia. Today there are Rastafarian communities living there and it is one of the key locations where Rasta Roots, our cultural and spiritual immersion program is taking place. Ethiopia is so sacred for all Rastas that in 2005 Bob Marley’s widow Rita ran a serious though ultimately unsuccessful campaign to have Bob’s remains exhumed from Jamaica and reburied in Shashamene. By all accounts it is a community that is somewhat run down and impoverished and the intention is that this new tour, by employing local Rastas as guides and patronising local businesses can be of some economic and social benefit to the community.
So I am going to Ethiopia on a spiritual pilgrimage and soul adventure. I am grateful to my wife and work colleagues for allowing me the precious time to take this journey. I am blessed to be going together with Renard who in many ways is the catalyst of this experience for me. We are heading off with a small group of pioneers including Jos and World Weaver’s marketing director Eden Brownlee. For me it is a chance to come deeper into contact with and to explore the prophetic vision of Haile Selassie and to experience the faith and spirituality that drives one of the most popular genres of music in the world.
I really don’t know what to expect, which is usually the best kind of adventure.
In light of all the very present dangers of a circumscribed worldview that cannot see beyond its own circumference, be it secular or theological in nature, any act of reaching out to sympathetically understand life beyond one’s own cultural borders has got to be a good thing. It feels in some way that this cultural and spiritual exploration is, at least in some small sense, part of the solution. The last word I leave to Haile Selassie who concluded his address to the United Nations in 1963 with these words:
“We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”