Bob Marley's legacy and a look at Bunny Wailer, Peter ToshSunday, June 11, 2017
BY PAUL BUCHANAN
(In continuing our series of serialising sections of the book Jones Town Trench Town The Journey Back written by former Jamaica cricketer, economist and politician Paul Buchanan, today we carry a piece on the legendary Jamaican reggae great Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley, as well as some of the men who helped in his greatness — Neville Livingstone “Bunny Wailer” and Winston Hubert McIntosh “Peter Tosh”)
Robert Nesta Marley represents the epitome of Jamaica's ascent to greatness in our popular music. For almost two decades, he held Jamaica and the world spellbound with the words and sounds of his music. Indeed, his profound messages, social interpretations and poetry placed the 'greatness' of Trench Town and Jamaica on show, for the world to acknowledge and humankind to continue its embrace.
Clinton Hutton's article, 'The Power of Philosophy in Bob Marley's Music', presented in the Jamaican Journal Vol 33, forcefully provides us with an epistemic template of Marley's internationalism, a brilliant exposition of the generic roots of his music and the essence of his place in the narratives of repatriational freedom:
“In alluding to the African ancestral roots of knowing, being and freedom in his worldview and agential ethos, the Reggae King asserts metaphorically in 'One Drop':
“So feel this drumbeat as it beats within
Playing a rhythm
Resisting against the system...
So beats this drumbeat as it beats within
Resisting against ism and schism
I know Jah will never let us down.”
From whence came Marley's uncompromising advocacy of universal justice for the downtrodden? From whence came his searching insights into the “movements of Jah people”? How and why did he come to us so suddenly and so briefly, enriching our lives, bolstering our spirit of resistance and harkening back to who we are as a people?
“Bars could not hold me
Force could not control me
Now they try to put me down
But Jah want I around.”
Who was this man that Michael Manley called a great artiste, who moved from passion to compassion? Who was this messenger that spoke so eloquently and so powerfully to the redeeming glory of our long climb, with profound certainty in his song Zion Train?
“Two thousand years of history
Could not be wiped away so easily,
Two thousand years of history, black history,
Could not be wiped away so easily”
It is known to only a few that in his childhood years, Bob Marley, OM, born February 6, 1945, the grandson of a maroon myal man, or spiritual healer, and restorer of souls, practised the reading of palms, using his middle name Nesta, which his mother, Cedella, assured everyone that it meant 'messenger'. It was the local district constable of Rhoden Hall, St. Ann, who confirmed the unusual pastime of the four-year-old Bob Marley, carried out in the bushes of his rural village of Nine Miles in the parish. Whether this 'psychic gift' with which he was born contributed to his deep understanding of life and its mysteries, of current happenings and things to come, we cannot be sure. What we do know is that the songs he wrote and sang betray the thoughts of a visionary, a man ahead of his time.
We are reminded by Horace Campbell, professor of African and American Studies at Syracuse University, in his book Rasta and Resistance that in his signal exhortation, Redemption Song, Marley asked the question: “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” A few weeks later, the brilliant historian and Black Power revolutionary, Dr Walter Rodney, was assassinated by an agent of the 'system' in Guyana.
Again, from an early age, he came close by accurately predicting the time of his own mortality: “Me gwan die at 36, jus' like Jesus Christ.” Although Jesus actually died at 33, Bob's ability to see beyond the present was almost unerringly manifested by his death on Monday, May 11, 1981 at the age of 37.
Formative Years — 'The University of Trench Town'
Soon after arriving in Kingston, young Nesta was abandoned by his father, the diminutive five feet five inches tall 'Captain' Norval St. Claire Marley, a half-white clerk, who later professed the dubious claim of being a quartermaster in the British West India Regiment. This pushed him to not only attend Ebenezer Primary School in West Kingston and St Aloysius Primary School in Central Kingston but, importantly, he was mentored by Rastafarians at West Street, who saw his 'special gift' as akin to obeah practise, which they decried and urged him to 'face life' as a welder, augmented by the hopeful promise and desperate possibilities that music offered.
Later, his father was himself disinherited for marrying his mother Cedella Malcolm, a black woman, who would eventually seek marital and child support for Bob and herself.
Due to his father's senility at the time of the court proceedings, the matter was thrown out. Painfully, also, the 14-year-old Nesta was not embraced by his father's well-to-do family, which owned a major construction company at the time, Marley & Plant, located at Maxfield Avenue in Kingston. Consequently, the rejected, homeless teenager, who seemed out of place with his aquiline features in Back-O-Wall and West Street, then afterwards Trench Town, had to fend for himself among the 'sufferers', oftentimes 'kotching' and sleeping “on cold ground”, during his harsh sojourn in the fifties. Those hard years prepared Bob well for his inspirational journey and lyrical authenticity.
Christopher John Farley, in his thought-provoking book, Before the Legend - The Rise of Bob Marley, lays bare the blueprint for his authenticity:
“There was no separation between the singer and his song…His work has all the details
of life on the margins because of his first-hand observation, first-hand touch, smell, and hearing. He would sing of 'Trench Town Rock', of sharing the shelter of a single bed and the light of the communal fire…Bob would return to Trench Town and his songwriting because he couldn't leave. The effort it took to get out would mark him forever.
It would always make him one of the people even when he was considered one of the Gods. He was able to employ the same clear-eyed vision he used to find a path out of poverty, to look back and create songs that evoked his early days without pity, without overstatement, and with an authority that was without peer.”
Bob's search for self-discovery began with a group of 'brethren', who were themselves extremely talented and would become stars in their own right. After several name changes, they would forever be known as the Wailers. We begin with the first of them, 'Bunny Wailer'.
Bunny Wailer — The
Neville O'Reilly Livingston, OJ, called 'Bunny Wailer', was a self-assured, conscious individual, blessed with a nice falsetto voice and good musical instincts. Bunny, son of Thaddeus 'Taddy' Livingston also called 'Shut', a master hustler and street man, attended All Saints Primary and Camperdown High. Despite growing up like Bob in Nine Miles, St Ann, Bunny would have been more familiar with the realities of urban life. Hence, he should have been the early 'street philosopher' of the group, providing survival tips to Bob and Peter, who were mere 'country boys' from St Ann and Westmoreland, respectively. But Bob, the seer of life and Peter, who believed in supernatural beings and devils, kept their own counsels.
Bunny first met Bob as a youth, when Thaddeus moved briefly to Nine Miles, St Ann, and established a grocery shop, which might have been a cover for his more lucrative ganja hustling. Thaddeus soon sold out and returned to Kingston, where Bob's mother, Cedella, had a child for him. This would have drawn Bunny closer to Bob. Soon they would meet Peter Tosh at Joe Higgs' music and vocal sessions on Third Street, Trench Town. Thereafter, the three youngsters would move inexorably and decisively towards musical history and international stardom. Their bonding would be further tightened in later years, as Bunny's sister would bear a child for the tall, dark, militantly handsome Tosh.
Thaddeus had some financial base with his shop in West Kingston and having sent his son 'to a good school', wanted Bunny to pursue an 'upstanding profession'. As such, Thaddeus tried to prevent Bunny from getting mixed up with the music crowd including Bob, who ran errands while 'kotching' at his house. Bunny resisted and in the process provided a sense of pride to the group. Always neatly attired, always serious, 'not standing for foolishness', the Camperdown graduate was seen by the residents of Trench Town, as 'a boasy boy' who used a lot of 'big words', a habit that remained throughout his life. At the same time, although he believed in the existence of supernatural beings, he was a realist whose trust was not forthcoming, until one proved themselves by concrete works. Bunny, who was unfortunately and unjustly arrested, tried and sentenced to 18 months in prison for possession of ganja, would also have brought needed detachment and contemplation to decision-making, although at times, he seemed to have overreacted for his own self- interest.
This mediation capacity was critical, with the inevitability of tension developing between the tall, dark, strong-willed Peter Tosh OM, and the self-assured half-caste Bob, nicknamed 'Tuff Gong', for his will to survive hunger and rejection in the tough, Afro-centric Trench Town neighborhood. Unfortunately, Bunny was either unwilling or more likely unable to act as a mediator between his more productive and dominant partners. That role was left to Wailers' confidante, Allan 'Skill' Cole, who both men trusted. There are some, however, who argue that Bunny was more crafty and circumspect than decisive and would sometimes create disharmony then portray himself as a straight-talking arbiter.
At the same time, though less talented than Bob and Peter, Bunny brought versatility, cultural depth and a sense of maturity to the youthful Wailers. After going solo in 1974, he enjoyed a moderately successful career, in which he won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album, in 1984, 1986 and 1991. His nation would also recognise his fulsome contribution to the development of our popular music, by bestowing upon him the Order of Jamaica.
He was also acutely aware of the African struggle and its relevance to Rastafari. In addition, his deep understanding of his people and “reflective spirit” was recognised by Professor Horace Campbell, in a piece extracted from his album, Blackheart Man, where he proclaimed:
“…they killed Lumumba for his rights, but they can't keep the Rasta man down.”
In a real way, he gave to the group a wholesome respect for Rastafari and a deep sense of redemptive justice. The words of his song Pass It On, take us to the essence of his journey:
“If you live for yourself, you will live in vain,
If you live for others, you will live again,
In the kingdom of Jah, man shall reign,
Pass it on, pass it on.”
Peter Tosh — The Authentic Freedom Fighter
After cementing their early friendship, the team of Bob and Bunny was joined by Winston Hubert McIntosh of Belmont, Westmoreland, who from a tender age was given formal lessons in music, showed early talent at the piano and was later acknowledged as a brilliant all-round musician, particularly on the congo drums and the guitar. In fact, Bob was always quick to acknowledge Peter's special brilliance and unique role as his musical tutor. Known to all as 'Peter Tosh', he was not only a talented musician but also a song writer, whose militant posture and unapologetic railings against 'Babylon' marked him as a central figure in an inequitable and inhumane world.
While Marley's consciousness of the plight of the marginalised is undisputed, it was Tosh who first moved to do something about it, even if it meant physically confronting the institutional perpetrators of injustice, imperialism and racism. In this, he suffered repeatedly at the hands of the police and other agents of the State.
Where Marley came on stage in Zimbabwe after the battle was won, it was Tosh who, in his teenage years, had been arrested in his homeland for protesting against the racist government of Ian Smith's Rhodesia. It was Tosh, also, who challenged the international community to mandate the twin imperatives of equal rights and justice with one of his seminal works, Fight Apartheid. His life was marked by a raw, unrelenting passion 'to right the wrongs of the wicked and set the captives free,' hence, he left us with songs such as, Get Up, Stand Up, which he co-wrote with Marley and Bush Doctor, which demanded:
“No more police brutality
No more disrespect for humanity.”
There were others like, Dem Ha Fe Get a Beatin, a painful statement against injustice:
“I can't stand this no longer,
The wicked getting stronger
But dem ha fe get a beatin.”
Tosh was a genuine rebel against all forms of oppression. In that regard, his many confrontations with the State have unfortunately stereotyped him with a 'bad boy' image, especially when enhanced by militant lyrics in songs, such as, Stepping Razor:
“I am a stepping razor
Don't watch my style
I am dangerous.”
This misunderstanding is clearly revealed in songs such as Suffering, in which he rejects the 'rude boy' lifestyle:
“Now my brothers, stop from doing wrong,
Change your foolish plans, live like a man….”
And in Stand Firm, where he tells them:
“Live clean and let your works be seen.”
The strength of his convictions was underpinned by his uncomplicated knowledge of history and religion, enhanced by a cultural awareness that he practised so well. Tosh, the pastor's son, reflected this in songs like Moses-The Prophet, in which he affirms the omnipresence of Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Marcus, the Mosiah, Garvey; and his uniquely brilliant religious chant, Creation, which evokes teachings from the Book of Psalms. Perhaps his greatest but unacknowledged masterpiece is to be found in his theme of spirituality, with his song, Jah is My Keeper, being included in the hymnal of the West Indies Province of the Anglican Church.
Like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh was to die young but, unlike Marley, he never gained the universal fame and respect that was his due. Undoubtedly, Marley who galvanised the international community around the themes of peace, love and justice, as no other artiste has done before or after him, exceeded Tosh in impact and productivity. At the same time, despite his fervent cry in his classic rendition, War, that a man should not be judged by “the colour of his skin,” in an ironic sense, we cannot overlook the fact that the half white son of Captain Norval Marley, would always be more commercially viable than the royal black Tosh, in a world still steeped in racism. Beyond the colour question, however, where Tosh's voice was hard and uncomplicated, Marley's was unique and infectious, which would invariably impact record sales.
Tosh, who in earlier years displayed a refreshing sense of humour that was later replaced by a highly superstitious, moody, unsmiling, angry persona, sang, acted and lived the part of a revolutionary. Where Marley showed depth, Tosh too was cerebral but more direct. Tosh's 1988 solo album, No Nuclear War, which urged the international community to disband nuclear weapons, not only won him a Grammy but more
importantly, speaks to the span of his consciousness. Tosh always understood who he was, his capacity and convictions. To the end, he remained strong and independent. That is why he abhorred and rejected the marketing decision to rename the Wailers, Bob Marley and the Wailers. He could never be second place to no man or woman. Equality or nothing was his guiding philosophy, from which he never veered.
Clearly, Tosh's musical talent exceeded Marley's, but the 'Gong' was the better artiste.
Former Minister of Transport, Works and Housing and Member of Parliament for South St Andrew, Dr Omar Davies, who has done extensive research on Peter Tosh, is convinced that despite his more stable and academically structured rural upbringing, he was outshone by Marley due to his inflexibility on causes, creeds and personalities. He held fast to positions, even when prudent decisions pointed in another direction. As such, Marley showed greater balance and understanding of the commercial world, and imperfect humankind beyond the entertainment stage.
After initially signing on as a Wailer with Chris Blackwell's Island Records label, Tosh became upset as the promotion tour and sales of their Catch A Fire album were disappointing. This hardened his position in seeing most record producers and middle men as 'vampires' and 'vipers' and would not treat with them. Marley, however, took a different approach. Although he too abhorred 'Babylon', he was a more understanding, discretionary soul, who looked at the broad picture and recognised the need for philosophical compromises in the 'here and now' cauldron of life and music financing.
Thus, unlike Tosh, Marley was prepared to wait as he sought to weigh his personal misgivings, against the fact that he believed Chris Blackwell had the capacity to package him to stardom. He further reasoned that this would redound to the greater good, in his small contribution towards 'redemption' of the human race. In the end, Bob, the seer of life, was correct.
For Tosh, on the other hand, there would be no need for contemplation. He simply refused to deal with Blackwell and was prepared to sacrifice the possibility of commercial gain for his convictions, despite the promise of noble justification. In a poignant sense, it is this absence of practical evaluation that disallowed discriminating selection of close associates which ultimately led to his death. Despite this, his unwillingness to dilute basic concepts of right and wrong or compromise his principles, even in the face of popular acceptance of another path, designates him in the eyes of many, the more authentic freedom fighter.
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