Reggae trinity

By F.S.J. Ledgister

I & I: The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer, by Colin Grant
(Jonathan Cape, ISBN 978-0-224-08608-0, 305 pp)

Shop in Trench Town, Jamaica

In Trench Town, Kingston. Photograph by YardEdge, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

The music of Bob Marley and the Wailers was a central part of the soundtrack of Jamaican life in the 1970s. The group succeeded in doing three things that an observer of the society a few years earlier might have thought impossible: bridging the gap between lower-class and middle- and upper-class culture; increasing the respectability of Rastafarian modes of expression, particularly with the middle and upper-middle class; and fostering an international awareness of the dynamism and creativity of Jamaica’s black urban poor.

Colin Grant’s triple biography of Robert Nesta Marley (I recall, from my days at the Gleaner, a memorandum from the reporters covering the funeral of Bob Marley insisting that the singer’s middle name was actually “Nestor”), Winston McIntosh (Peter Tosh), and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) is the latest work to explore the lives of the three men who headlined the group that has come to be the definition of classic reggae. It is by no means a definitive work, although it is certainly worthy. I could have done without the blurb on the dust jacket which mentioned “Jamaica’s famously opaque culture” — a reference to the difficulties Grant had in making contact with Bunny Wailer, a man notoriously difficult to interview. Grant is the author of a biography of Marcus Garvey, Negro with a Hat (2008), and appears to have developed a project of explaining the Afrocentric side of Jamaican culture and history to the world.

Grant’s account begins, appropriately enough, with Bunny Wailer, the last living member of the iconic group. He launches straight into one of the most disturbing events in Jamaican cultural history, the “bottling” of Bunny at the Sting Concert in December 1990. If anything could be said to mark the end of the classic era of reggae, this direct physical assault by hooligans on one of the greatest exponents of the genre was it.

Grant links the births of the three headliners of the Wailers in the 1940s both to the constitutional awakening of Jamaica in 1944 — and thus to the protests of 1938 that had obliged the British to grant universal suffrage — and to the massive migration to Britain that began with the sailing of the Empire Windrush in 1948, leading to the existence of black British people with Jamaican roots, such as himself. Intriguingly, he is disturbed by the condition of Edna Manley’s sculpture Negro Aroused on the Kingston waterfront, using it to make a subtle point:

. . . history lies just beneath the surface of life in Jamaica; in the overheard snatches of an argument, a sentence that begins in the present, ends in the Morant Bay murders of 1865, having called in on Frome in 1938 and memorialised the euphoria of 1962’s independence along the way.

One of Grant’s sources, the psychiatrist Frederick Hickling, bellows at him, “If we can’t get the history right we can’t get the diagnosis right.” I wonder what Grant did or said to make the gentle, soft-spoken Hickling bellow at him? Grant labours to get right both the lives of Marley, Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, and the context — that is, the history, politics, and sociology of Jamaica. His descriptions of people, whether well-known figures like Chris Blackwell, or personal acquaintances from England he encounters while travelling in Jamaica, are crisp and clear. He leavens his account with anecdotes of his experiences in Jamaica as he pursued the story — and this is journalism as much as it is biography or history. Some of these anecdotes are illuminating. In one case, he finds himself being addressed as a white man and spat upon contemptuously by a roadside fruit vendor. He discovers an explanation for this in Ian Fleming’s essay on the island in Ian Fleming Introduces Jamaica, a 1960s-vintage guidebook; it is worth noting that the essay was written in the 1940s.

Fleming’s better-known works are used as a hook to introduce a description of the Kingston slums of the 1950s, and of Trench Town, which was created to relieve the blighted conditions in which the poorest lived in the early 1940s. Trench Town, in turn, is described as the setting in which Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Marley came together under the musical tuition of Joe Higgs, first as the Teenagers, and then as the Wailers. It was also the place where the three discovered ganja, and the place where they became Rastas. Grant is very thorough on both the cultural history of ganja and the religious folk history of Jamaica — on Myal, which he calls Myalism, Revival, and Rastafari. On the last he pays attention to the roles of both Mortimo Planno and Brother Gad (Vernon Carrington) of the Twelve Tribes in the lives of the Wailers. On the way, we get a description of the state visit of Haile Selassie in 1966, which did much to legitimise Rastafari, and which had a direct impact on Tosh, Bunny, and Rita Marley (Bob was in the United States at the time).

Grant deals with the conversion of all three Wailers to Rastafari, including the importance of this faith to the biracial Bob. It decisively addressed his racial ambiguity: “To become a Rasta was not to whisper, but to shout out your identity: you were black and African.” So, too, is the crucial political event of the 1960s, the Rodney Affair, which did much to build connections between Rastafari and politically awakened middle-class youth. This, it is worth remembering, was the banning from Jamaica of Walter Rodney, after ten months of teaching African history at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, and its aftermath: the student protest and the rioting triggered by the protest that convulsed Kingston in October 1968.

Grant writes very effectively about the Wailers’ breakthrough, under the tutelage of Chris Blackwell, into international fame. Their first steps were taken in England, where their cicerone in the early 1970s, Ben Foot, was the son of Jamaica’s penultimate colonial governor. “The group was amused by the irony that ‘the son of the former governor of Jamaica was at their beck and call, looking after a bunch of Rastas.’” Success led to the Wailers going off in different directions, and to Bob Marley becoming the worldwide face of reggae. Grant indicates this was because of Marley’s more tractable relationship with Blackwell, compared with Bunny Wailer, who was more inclined to withdraw to the countryside, and with the unpredictable and much angrier Tosh, whose name for Blackwell was “Whiteworst.”

The book also explores the ways in which the Wailers — Marley and Tosh in particular — interacted with Jamaica’s political life in the 1970s. The events that led to Marley’s wounding in 1976 (in an assassination attempt) and to the involvement of both Marley and Tosh in the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 are given their proper context. So, too, are the ways their music evolved over that decade. The deaths of Marley and Tosh — and, more importantly, the Rastafarian attitude to death — are all given attention. Interestingly, it is Tosh’s death that Grant attends to in more detail, not Marley’s, in a chapter titled “How Long Will They Kill Our Prophets”.

At the end, he brings us back to Bunny Wailer, whom he is able to interview not in Jamaica but at Gatwick Airport near London. Bunny, it was clear, had a firm understanding of his role as both a musician and a messenger of Rastafari. “He didn’t need to tour, he said, but believed it was his duty to sing the history of reggae. ‘Bob Marley and Peter Tosh will be here for posterity as their messages are prolific and eternal. Bob said, “You’re gonna tire to see my face,” and I get some serious vision of Bob and Peter, of us still walking on stage.’”

I began by saying this wasn’t a definitive work. It isn’t, but it does point the way to what a definitive history of the Wailers, and what definitive biographies of its headliners, ought to be. Grant does a decent job of connecting the music to the times. He places the Wailers very properly in their historical and cultural context. His bibliography is innocent of several of the most important works on Rastafari (for example, those by Leonard E. Barrett, Horace Campbell, Ernest Cashmore, and Joseph Owens), and he manages to write about the intersection of Rastafari, reggae, and Jamaican politics while Anita Waters’s book on the same subject, Race, Class, and Political Symbols (1983) goes unmentioned. There are some errors that will jump out at anyone familiar with Jamaica. (For example, the playwright Barbara Gloudon’s surname is consistently misspelled as “Gludon.”) Nonetheless, this is a useful work of popular cultural history. It is a book worth reading, and it tells a story as compelling as it is true.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2011

F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.