It is just after midnight in Amityville, Long Island. The parking lot at 1 Commerce Blvd. is already packed, and more cars idle in front of the entrance, where what appears to be a convention of "Star Trek" extras is lined up for a security check. The grounds are awash in silver -- long lame dresses and capes, metallic tams, vests, pants -- and silver-shawled women shiver brilliantly under the lights of the graffiti-spattered door as the process inches along.
Some of the men wear long braids called dreadlocks to signify their belief that only 144,000 people will be chosen to enter the Kingdom of Jah (the rest live in dread of the Apocalypse). Others stuff their hair into red, orange and green tams. With the exception of a handful of guests, the people gathered at the Ace Community Center are Rastafarians, come to celebrate the New Year with the Tribe of Reuben, and from the most awesomely dreadlocked Jamaican to the most conventionally clad Brooklynite -- where most Rastas live in this country -- they know that this year will pass much like the last 13: another painstaking step toward a repatriation to Ethiopia that they may never live to see.
Though the atmosphere is hot through with an almost tangible exhilaration, this is no hell-raising, but a very mannered, civilized affair. Every woman wears a dress, every man is respectably if not lavishly clad, there are no catcalls or glowering stares, no four-letter words. Now and again, a voice cries "Jah!" and is echoed by shouts of "Rassss Tafari" (which means Prince Tafari, Haile Selassie's name before he became emperor), but the prevailing spirit is one of absolute calm.
"Many people have come," Brother Simeon I says as he sways to the music. "Many from the outside have tried to describe the fullness they find here, but they cannot. The world is crumbling in our time, especially in the West, but Rastamon knows how to wait, Rastamon knows where he come from, and where he will go."
The Twelve Tribes of Isreal were born in 1968, two years after Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's cataclysmic visit to Kingston, Jamaica, where his followers-from-afar proclaimed him Imperial Majesty, King of Kings, Christ in the Second Advent. Since that time, the tribes have built up an international network of Rastafarians who, week by week, 20 cents at a time, are funding the one-by-one relocation of blacks to Africa through a number system. (A rough estimate indicates there are 7,000 Jamaicans enrolled in the program, with 400 in New York, 50 in Canada, 100 in England and others scattered around the globe.) They have been helped in this quest by work of mouth, reggae music and a mentor known as the Prophet Gad. And by celebrations such as this one.
"Gadmon come here two years ago, and I never forget what he say then," muses a Rasta called Naptali, shaking his serpentine locks. "He say, 'Someday we will celebrate Reuben [the holy month of April] with t'ousands, but today we have only 40, and we will entertain them in His Majesty's service.' At Dan [the November tribe celebration] there were 300. At Benjamin [March], 600. It is reasoning t'ing."
Tonight there are nearly a thousand Rastas, from Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, New York and even Montreal. Having passes through the security check, they enter the basement-like structure and begin the first of eight hours of immersion into an African-roots culture so richly and powerfully detailed that if it were possible for an outsider to stumble in by mistake, he would become instantly disoriented as to time and geography.
"Socializing is a good thing," explains Joan Henry, a Jamaican-born consultant with Bowery Bank whose repatriation number is 339. "People socializing, love go t'ru, wisdom, go t'ru."
Inside the center, people line the walls, leaving a wide area of floor for dancing to reggae music with heavily Rastafarian lyrics which blasts through four huge speakers. They form a continuously moving circle, greeting old friends, sharing the latest news from Jamaica, or from Germany, where reggae star and culture hero Bob Marley is dying of cancer. They circle by the stage and watch the Dreads in charge of the music, around one stand offering I-Tal food and another offering weak rum punch and Guinness; they circle in and out of the tiny storage rooms that offer the only real light. Except for the ceaseless bass beat, there is amazingly little noise for a gathering this large. The music is as omnipresent as the blue smoke churning from countless spliffs of marijuana, which the Rastas smoke "not for kicks," but to achieve a higher state for meditating about Jah.
Devon, also known as Naptali I, is a Washington, D.C., Rasta who has been with the movement since its earliest days, although his smooth face and small frame give him the appearance of a youngster. He is respected throughout the Twelve Tribes for his experience as well as his deftness in "entertaining" at events such as these.
Sometime after 2 a.m., he is in the farthest corner of the hot building where an alcove deflects some of the loudness of the music, discussing his work in America, his disapproval of excess in everything from eating to smoking ganja, and his love of Jah.
Suddenly, there is a startling noise from the other end of the hall, and even Devon looks toward the source of the noise. It's followed by a series of sharp pops, like the sound of fire-crackers, and a general terror. In seconds, 600 people come surging toward Devon's side of the building like a human tidal wave, and the sher force of the crowd shoves people up against walls and though doorways. Hundreds of empty beer bottles become airborne debris, and shards of galss pellet elbows and shins like bee stings.
Without dropping either cigarette or beer, Devon turns and opens a door within the alcove, making space for the 30 or more people who are instantly shoved through. No one seems to know what has caused the panic -- fire? gunshots? a fight? -- yet after an initial, mass gasp, there is no screaming. In the stillness that follows, adrenalin-dilated eyes mirror each other, and only two cowards try to burrow further within the storage room. "Be cool," says Devon, "Jah live!"
Presently, the music starts again, and people slowly begin to file back onto the dance floor, picking up fallen chairs and broken bottles as they go. It is only much later that the source of confusion filters back to Devon: Overcome with heat, a Dread fainted, knocking over a folding chair and creating a domino effect.
Miraculously, no one is seriously hurt. "I told you it would be cool," Devon says hours later. "Rastamon have no need to fear death. Rastamon dead already."
Still, one woman shakes her head sadly over the incident. "Some kind of dread! Somebody fall down and people run everywhere. People so full of fear in this world we live in. Some kind of dread."
Sometime around 8 a.m., the crowd begins to dwindle. Light has long been pouring through the open doorway of Ace Community Center, but the music still pulses from the speakers, there is still food and drink. Rastas dawdle in the parking lot, singing and admiring each other's costumes in the broad daylight, reluctant to leave.
They will be back next month, this time decked out in gold, the color of the Simeon Tribe. Maybe then, says one, an American member of the Twelve Tribes, their numbers will increase. "Maybe then, there'll be 2 thousand."