A Bob Marley look-alike sang with fire and passion Sunday, accompanied by three undulating female singers and a crack reggae band.
No, the closing event of Los Angeles' sixth annual Bob Marley Day celebration at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was not "Marleymania--an incredible simulation." This was the real thing, and Marley's ghost was his flesh-and-blood son Ziggy, who demonstrated that he has what it takes to carry on his father's legacy.
Since Bob Marley died of cancer in May, 1981, reggae has seemed to be at a standstill, with no figure stepping forward to advance the Jamaican-based music as Marley had.
But the events of Sunday, following on the heels of a Saturday performance by longtime reggae leader Burning Spear at the Beverly Theatre, suggested that reggae does indeed have a bright future--and that Los Angeles could play a large role in it.
Unlike Julian Lennon, another offspring of a fallen hero, Ziggy's resemblance to his father goes far beyond novelty. His songs on the recent "Hey World" album show a striking maturity and promise of great things to come.
On the Civic stage, it was the power and passion behind his message (stated simply in between-song chants of "unity, peace, love, happiness") and the undeniably sexy presence he displays that justified him as the legitimate heir to his father's crown.
In a conversation backstage before he went on stage, Marley, 18, expressed no discomfort with having the mantle thrust in his hands. "It feel good and so that why I do it," he said in a thick Jamaican accent, speaking with the same poise he shows as a performer.
But he also expressed hope that reggae could advance without relying on one central figure. "Even my father say reggae can't die. It's not only one man to carry on. It's many people. I just want to play reggae music and give my message."
Turning to the Rastafarian faith that fuels much of reggae, Marley concluded, "I no want to be a leader. Jah (God) is the only leader, you know?"
But even Marley's mother Rita, who sang behind the elder Marley as one of the I-Threes, believes that as much as he might like to, Ziggy cannot avoid being seen as the leader--perhaps even savior--to follow Bob.
"There's no getting away from it," said Rita, a non-performing member of the entourage Sunday. "I myself question it when I hear him talk or sing. Is this Bob's return?"
Performing with an eight-piece band featuring former Bob Marley sidemen Tyrone Downey on keyboards and Chinna Smith on guitar, and backed by three singers including his sisters Sharon and Cedella (their 14-year-old brother Stephen, normally part of this group, couldn't get away from school for the tour), Ziggy showed that not only is Marley the name of reggae's past, it is the name of its future.
Equally significant in the Marley Day event was the fact the audience that packed the hall for a bill that also included local reggae acts Metuzalem and Prince Ital Joe was a cultural cross section. Most notably, it included a surprising number of young whites, perhaps introduced to reggae by the popular English group UB40.
The same was true at the Saturday concert by Burning Spear (Winston Rodney). Spear's spiritual and political meditations never brought him the attention accorded to Marley or Jimmy Cliff, but have made him one of reggae's central artists for the last two decades.
This certainly exploded the notion held in some quarters that since Bob Marley died, reggae's audience has been largely restricted to ethnic music fans and latter-day hippies drawn by the slinky rhythms and one-love philosophy. The wider appeal seems to be particularly evident in Los Angeles. "This city is poised to become the No. 1 reggae city in North America," said Roger Steffens, host of KCRW's Sunday afternoon "Reggae Beat" show and one of L.A.'s most enthusiastic reggae cheerleaders, before the Burning Spear concert.
Accordingly, the promoters of the Marley Day event promise next year's celebration will be even bigger. After the concert, Reggae for Cultural Awareness president Henry Thomas announced that he is hoping to have the festival headlined by Peter Tosh, who was Bob Marley's partner in the original Wailers.
Marley and company will be at the Belly Up tavern in Solana Beach tonight, and at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Wednesday.
And what was the big weekend event in Marley's native Jamaica? Judging by American media coverage at least, it was MTV's "Hedonism Weekend," having little to do with the spirit of the late reggae king.
To be fair, MTV did spotlight some Jamaican performers, including a segment featuring the young Marley taped last week. But most of this had a gosh-look-at-the-colorful-natives tone, while the central focus of the coverage stuck to booze, bikinis and Bon Jovi, the American mainstream metaloid band whose concert was the centerpiece of the channel's special programming.