Words by Jesse Serwer—
In the late 1970s, few musical acts in Europe were bigger than Boney M. While the brains behind the outfit was German producer Frank Farian, the group itself was 100% Caribbean, consisting of vocalists Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett from Jamaica, Bobby Farrell from Aruba and Maizie Williams from Montserrat.
This aspect of Boney M.’s makeup might not have always been apparent to the European listeners who accounted for the majority of the 150-plus million records sold by the group, but it was front and center on their second biggest hit, 1978’s “Rivers of Babylon.” (The biggest being the over-the-top, Russian-inspired “Rasputin.”) The song was a cover of the 1970 reggae tune by The Melodians, popularized internationally several years later through its inclusion in The Harder They Come. It’s since been covered by everyone from Dennis Brown to Sinead O’Connor and Sublime but the Boney M. version, which reached No. 1 across Europe, is far and way the best known.
For the “Rivers of Babylon” video, the group traveled to Jamaica, where they performed for a large crowd in Montego Bay and shot scenes at Dunn’s River Falls, Rio Grande and other landmarks.
“Brown Girl in the Ring,” the song released as the B-side to “Rivers of Babylon” later became a hit in its own right. It, too, was rooted in Jamaica. “Brown Girl in the Ring,” for those that don’t know it, is a traditional Jamaican children’s song sung while playing the “ring” or “circle” game of the same name played by kids in Jamaica (and other islands as well) to this day. More recently, the song has turned up on the kids’ TV show, The Wiggles.
Though some efforts have been made to continue the group, Boney M., like most producer-driven disco acts, flamed out after the early 1980s. Their music definitely lives on, though. Their version of “Mary’s Boy Child” continues to be one of the most popular holiday songs in Jamaica during the Christmas season. Among numerous samples of Boney M.’s work over the years, one of the most notable is 2010’s “Barbra Streisand” by A-Trak and Armand van Helden’s Duck Sauce project. It’s built almost entirely around “Gotta Go Home,” Boney M.’s autobiographical song about returning to the islands from Europe.