First came the sensuous rhythm of the drums, then the pulsating bass. The guitar began the off-the-beat chords and the sounds of “Redemption Song” spilled into the night. For that moment, Bob Marley was alive again.
It was a concert celebrating the 50th birthday of the late Bob Marley, reggae king and folk icon whose international esteem and continuing popularity outstrip that of any other Jamaican public figure nearly 14 years after his death.
And for four hours last Monday night, the spirit, if not the body, of one of the most influential pop musicians of this century had thousands of Jamaicans and others dancing and singing the songs that are as well-known in Miami and Zimbabwe as they are here in the land of his birth. (Southern California’s annual Marley tribute concerts will be held Feb. 18 and 19 at the Long Beach Arena.)
“He ain’t dead, man,” said Ambrose Brooke, one of the thousands who had gathered on the grounds of Marley’s home for the birthday party. “He ain’t here, but listen to that and you know he ain’t dead.”
Whatever Brooke said next was lost in the sounds of the crowd, stomping, dancing and singing along with the band. Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be all right.
Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, ending an 18-year career that brought international renown and marked him as one of the Caribbean’s most influential figures, not just in music but also in politics, religion, society and even business.
“He is to us what Mahatma Gandhi was to India and Martin Luther King Jr. was to (Americans),” according to Ingrid Riley, a reporter for the Daily Observer, one of Kingston’s newspapers.
So it would seem. His birthday was declared a Jamaican holiday, and the Observer printed a 24-page supplement dedicated to reflections on his life and work.
Marley’s church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere, held a prayer breakfast to celebrate his Rastafarian beliefs, seminars were held throughout the day and poetry was written for the occasion.
“Messenger sends his message,” intoned poet Mutabaruka at the concert. “Messenger is gone. . . . You left without saying goodby; why? Wake up and live.”
Marley’s legacy is clear and constant. His presence is everywhere. His picture is on billboards, his recordings still top pop music charts and schoolchildren are taught to sing “Won’t you help me sing these songs of freedom?” as if they were the words to the national anthem.
The familiar thick dreadlocks, the wispy goatee and the angular cheekbones are featured on the T-shirts bought by tourists throughout the region just as they are on posters that have long hung in American college dorm rooms.
In Kingston, a city kept tourist poor by crime and a lack of beaches, it is Marley’s home--now the Bob Marley Museum--which brings in the only significant number of visitors, more than 40,000 a year.
A foundation that Marley established still works on behalf of Jamaica’s poor, particularly children, and distributed 10,000 textbooks on Marley’s 50th birthday. His corporation, the Tuff Gong Group of Companies, makes school uniforms for impoverished students. It also runs Jamaica’s largest recording studio, disc-pressing plant and music distribution company.
But it is reggae, with its revolutionary lyrics, that really marks Marley’s continuing presence.
More of his recordings are sold now than were sold in his lifetime. “Legend,” a greatest-hits collection issued in 1984, averages sales of 75,000 a month worldwide and has total sales so far of 11.8 million. More than a million sets of Marley’s four-volume compilation titled “Songs of Freedom” have been sold, reportedly an international record for a boxed collection.
In 1994, Marley was the first Third World musician inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jamaica honored him with the Order of Merit, and a campaign is under way to rectify what his supporters say is the one significant missing honor, a Grammy Award.
Marley did not invent reggae, a unique Jamaican musical form that grew out of ska and rock steady, two earlier, rock ‘n’ roll-influenced styles. But he was the one who introduced the soulful, poignant lyrics that led Neville Garrick, director of the Bob Marley Foundation, to say that “Bob Marley was writing the new psalms.”
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” Marley sang. “None but ourselves can free our mind.”
To some of his followers, particularly his contemporaries, it is that spirit of liberation, revolution, personal responsibility and morality expressed through his lyrics more than the tunes that is the heart of Marley’s continuing power.
“Open you eyes and look within,” he wrote in “Rastaman Vibration.” “Are you satisfied with the life you’re living? . . . Everything in life has its purpose, find its reason in every season.”
Steel Pulse headlines both days of the 14th annual Bob Marley Day Festival, Feb. 18 and 19 at the Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, 1:30 p.m. $25. (310) 436-3661.