Music

RASTAMAN RISING

As an African tribute proves, Bob Marley continues to inspire

JONATHON GATEHOUSE February 21 2005
Music

RASTAMAN RISING

As an African tribute proves, Bob Marley continues to inspire

JONATHON GATEHOUSE February 21 2005

RASTAMAN RISING

Music

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Rise up this mornin’, Smiled with the risin’ sun, Three little birds Pitch by my doorstep —Bob Marley, 1977

THERE ARE WAY MORE than three of them, and they aren’t little. In fact, the birds that Rita Marley is trying to shoo out of the cardboard boxes and into the Addis Ababa evening sky look suspiciously like common pigeons. Grey. Fat. Not easily flustered. They ignore her waving arms and kicking legs and perch on the lip of the stage, cooing. “Sixty birds gone free,” she screams optimistically into the microphone. “Bob Marley’s spirit free in Ethiopia!” In the pit down front, locals are scooping up the avian escapees. Masi Mario, a university student, clutches two to his chest. “I will make them

more and more,” he says, pushing the birds together. “One love. One love.”

Rita’s efforts to start a chorus of Happy Birthday to You for her deceased husband fall similarly flat. Even if that’s what Ethiopians sing on such occasions, it’s unlikely the crowd is comprehending much of the Jamaican patois booming out of the speakers across Meskel Square. During the 14 years of Mengistu Haile Miriam’s communist dictatorship, this downtown plaza was dominated by giant portraits of Lenin and Marx. Tonight, it’s images of the reggae superstar, and the logos of Coca-Cola, Sheraton Hotels and Ethiopian Airlines, corporate sponsors of the celebrations marking “Honor Rebel” Bob Marley’s birth 60 years ago.

A little later, The Marley Brothers—Ziggy, Damian, Stephen, Kymani and Julian—plus another son, Rohan Marley, take the stage to pay tribute to their father (as his biographers are careful to point out, Marley had 11 “acknowledged” children by eight different women) with renditions ofhis many hits. Bumin&

Lootin’, I Shot the Sheriff, Get Up,

As an African tribute proves, Bob Marley continues to inspire

Stand Up, War. In the VIP seating area, largely populated by foreigners who have paid US$100 to watch this free-to-the-public Africa Unite concert from inside protective rings of steel barricades and armed police, the unmistakable perfume of ganja hangs thick in the air. White kids with dreadlocks dance with abandon. A middle-aged man with one leg and one arm, and a joint hanging from his lips, pushes his wheelchair against the speaker stacks and lets the bass thunder through his body. In the rest of the square, a crowd of more than 200,000— overwhelmingly black, young and genuinely African—rejoices at something it can fully comprehend, singing along, surging and pulsing to the music.

In early January, what would have been Elvis Presley’s 70th birthday passed without much notice. On this same February night, Paul McCartney is playing the halftime show at the

Super Bowl—the safe and inoffensive re-

joinder to Janet Jackson’s nipple. (Although the U.S. Federal Communica-

tions Commission did log two complaints about the former Beatle’s boring performance.) Both those artists were bigger stars in their time, and have sold millions more

records than Marley. Yet almost a quartercentury after Marley's death from cancer at the age of36, there's little question of whose musical legacy is more vital. Try to name another performer whose songs so effortlessly transcend barriers of language, age, culture, race. From American frat parties to African slums, Indonesian beach bars to English pubs, Marley's music is the one common element of the global soundtrack. Despite what his more devout Rastafarian brethren may tell you, Bob, the man, is long dead. Bob, the product-as evidenced by the celebrations in Ethiopia-is still being packaged as crassly as chewing gum. But once the music starts playing, there's a truth that can't be denied. Bob, the symbol, is bigger than ever.

AMONG THE MANY shots that diplomats, aid workers and UN personnel receive before shipping out to the developing world must be one that inoculates them against irony. How else do you

explain something like the sparkling UN conference centre in Addis Ababa? All granite floors, white marble, polished brass, lacquered wooden desks and comfortable leather chairs, hidden behind high walls topped with electric fencing and razor wire. There’s a zinc-roofed shantytown across the street which doesn’t look that different from the Trench Town ghetto where Marley grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. Except that it’s a middle-class neighbourhood by Ethiopian standards—a country where the annual percapita income hovers around US$100 and life expectancy at birth is just under 41 years.

The conference centre is hosting the academic portion of the Marley birthday celebrations, a three-day symposium, jointly sponsored by the African Union, World Bank and UNICEF, on the wisdom his music offers for the continent’s women, youth and political leaders. On the day devoted to gender issues, titled “No Woman No Cry,” Dr. Debrework Zewdie, director of the World Bank’s Global HIV/AIDS Program, delivers a grim précis of the factors— economic pressure, social and religious stigma, physical violence—that make it so difficult to combat the spread of HIV among African women. “If Bob Marley, the hero we are honouring, were here today,” she concludes, “he would say, ‘Act now!’ ”

If you can get beyond the odd sight of suit-and-tie-wearing NGO workers and heavily dreaded Rastafarians having

earnest exchanges on subjects like genital mutilation, there’s an obvious consensus at work in the building. The problems facing Africa and the rest of the developing world are so grave, so intractable, that anything that focuses attention on them is worth trying to harness. It’s the same reason people smilingly tolerate Sharon Stone hijacking a Davos forum on malaria, or Bono’s lectures on debt relief. The crucial difference here is that the power of Marley’s name, image and music isn’t limited to the West. The late singer—product of a short romance between a white army officer and a rural black girl—is an almost universal brand.

Angelique Kidjo, the Grammy-nominated West African songstress, delivers an impassioned speech recalling what Marley and his music meant to her and her school friends growing up in Benin. “He inspired and provoked us to fight against every kind of darkness that keeps the light away,” she says. Hollywood actor Danny Glover, who is attending in his capacity as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, fondly recalls seeing Marley and his band, The Waiters, play in San Francisco in the early 1970s. “It’s resistance music,” he says in an interview. “It inspires young people because it’s about change and revolution. It’s music that says we can tell truth to power.” Dudley Thompson, a Jamaican lawyer and politician considered one of the fathers of the Pan-Africanist movement, says the musician’s message resonates with anyone who’s ever struggled against the establishment. And the 88-year-old, who defended Jomo Kenyatta during the Mau Mau rebellion trials, dreams aloud about using the Rasta mystic’s pleas for justice and unity to drive the continent’s future. “They gave us the crowns and kept the jewels,” says Thompson. “We need a movement for the restoration of black dignity.”

Marley may indeed be the perfect vehicle

for such lofty aims, but the fact that he has been unable to speak for himself since 1981 means his memory is freely being used to drive all sorts of causes. In Shashamene, a dusty rural town 250 km south of Addis, there are fond hopes that Bob will fulfill prophecy, and bring profits, for a small community of Rastafarians. Ethiopia’s last Emperor, Haile Selaisse, whom Rastas consider a divinity rather than a corrupt despot, as is conventionally held, gave a 500-hectare land grant in 1963 so that his Jamaican followers could return to Africa.

The pace of the exodus has been glacial, however. The communists took back almost all the land, and the 200 or so “pioneer” families in the colony live in a legal limbo, with no Ethiopian citizenship or rights. The Rastafarians would like to make Shashamene a model community for the repatriation movement. And if Rita Marley follows through on her recent public musings about moving Bob’s remains to Ethiopia—timed to draw media attention to the birthday celebrations in Addis (the concert is being turned into a DVD and album)—tourism could become a major industry for the colony. “It would be right if his bones were buried here,”

says Baby I, a 65-year-old Jamaican immigrant. Sitting on the porch of her red, green and gold home, decorated with murals of the Emperor, Baby I laments that the Nayabingi church she and her husband, Bongo Rocky, run, still lacks windows, doors and pews. “We need money to build up the place,” she says. “Now come inside and sign the guest book and make a donation.”

THE MERCATO IN ADDIS, an endless warren of crumbling shacks, broken pavement, overloaded trucks and plodding donkeys (“We call them Ethiopian Volkswagens,” jokes my guide), is reputed to be the biggest market in Africa. And you don’t have to travel far inside to encounter Marley’s music or likeness. In one spice stall, four young men are gathered around a battered transistor listening to Coming In From the Cold. “We like Bob Marley a lot,” says Mumlu Seifu, a 23-year-old trader. “I’d like to move to Jamaica.” A couple of shops away, Meselech Omar, 20, is sorting out piles of black cumin. “The young people love Bob Marley,” she says, “because his music is always talking about the struggles of black people and the need for Africa to unite.”

At a reggae show in the upscale Trend nightclub on the other side of town, Wondwossen Mergersha and three friends are grooving to a Marley cover band. “Bob is way big,” says the 30-year-old, a former resident of Vancouver. Rastafarians are another matter, though. “Most Ethiopians don’t really like them. We don’t think Haile Selaisse was a god. He was just a normal king.” Back at Meskel Square, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who’s credited with introducing Marley to the world, marvels at how far the music has travelled from their Jamaican homeland. Last year, Blackwell was reading a magazine story on the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest when he noticed a familiar face in a photo. In the bar where Sherpas relax between trips, a poster of Marley hangs over the pool table. Blackwell shakes his head. “I don’t think anybody compares to Bob. In the West, he would be in the top five of all time, but when you bring the rest of the globe into the equation, he’s the biggest there’s ever been, and will continue to be so.” Another Marley song booms across the plaza. The crowd roars in agreement. n

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com