WHEN Bob Marley arrived at the Norman Manley International Airport in late February 1978, it had been two years since he left Jamaica. He fled the country in December 1976 following an assassination attempt on his life.
The reggae star returned to Kingston for the One Love Peace Concert, scheduled for Saturday, April 22 at the National Stadium in Kingston. Two years earlier, he was shot in the arm while rehearsing for the Smile Jamaica show, another event meant to bring peace among Jamaica's political factions.
Marley, who died in May 1981, would have turned 68 today. In two months, it will be the 25th anniversary of the One Love Peace Concert, where he briefly brought then bitter adversaries Prime Minister Michael Manley and Opposition Leader Edward Seaga together in a symbolic truce.
Manley was the charismatic socialist leader of the People's National Party (PNP). Seaga headed the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) which opposed Manley's radical policies and close ties with communist Cuba.
Tommy Cowan was head of Talent Corporation at the time and helped market Marley's music in Jamaica. He met him at the airport and remembers a joyous homecoming.
"A lot of the brethren came out to see him. There was a motorcade and a lot of jubilation," Cowan recalled.
Despite the unresolved shooting at his Hope Road home in December 1976 where he, his wife Rita, manager Don Taylor, and another colleague were shot, Cowan said Marley seemed relaxed and happy to be home.
He was back in Jamaica at the coaxing of west Kingston enforcer Claudius Massop, who visited him in London where Marley lived after leaving Jamaica. Massop and fellow inner-city heavyweights Tony Welsh and Earl 'Tek Life' Wadley travelled to the British capital and convinced Marley that his presence at the proposed peace show would help defuse gang violence in Jamaica.
Cowan points out that the concert went beyond politics. He said Marley had other things on his mind.
"He wanted the Ethiopian Orthodox Church involved because he wanted unification of all Rastafarians, whether it be Bobo or Twelve Tribes of Israel," said Cowan. "It was important because the concert was held near the anniversary of His Majesty's (Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I) visit to Jamaica."
An all-star cast including Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller and Inner Circle, Culture, Zap Pow (with Beres Hammond) and Peter Tosh performed for a full house that evening. Tosh unleashed a fiery tirade against Jamaica's politicians and gentry, blaming them for the country's economic and tribal dilemma.
Marley was more diplomatic than his former Wailers colleague. He started with Conquering Lion, before going into hits like Natural Mystic, Trench Town Rock, Positive Vibration, and War.
While performing a high-energy rendition of Jamming, Marley invited Manley and Seaga, who were seated in the second row, to join him on stage. It was a spontaneous call that shocked even Cowan.
"It was a spiritual moment, Bob was in a different world. But I must admit, I wondered if they would come on stage," he said.
Holding their arms aloft, Marley seemed to savour the moment even if Manley nor Seaga did. It was an image for the ages.
Marley continued his performance with One Love, a song that has become synonymous with world peace. He capped an emotional set with Jah Live, his defiant 1974 ode to Selassie.
Bob Marley stayed in Jamaica until May when he and his band left for the United States to promote Kaya, his latest album. The following year, Island Records released his Survival album which was followed by an epic concert marking independence for Zimbabwe (previously white-ruled Rhodesia) in April 1980.
One year later, Marley died from cancer in a Florida hospital. His powerful statement at the One Love Peace Concert temporarily eased tensions among PNP and JLP supporters.
But in 1980 when Marley was being hailed as a peace agent in Africa, Manley called a general election that saw the JLP decisively taking power. It came at a bloody cost; leading up to the polls on October 30, over 800 persons were murdered.