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Interview With Bob Marley From The Wailers: Natty Dread In Babylon

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Interview with BOB MARLEY from the WAILERS


By Marc Gregory and Mike Dunitz

One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain; Hit me with music, hit me with music; This is trenchtown rock. . .

Reggae madness hit this trenchtown last week. A superb performance by Bob Marley and the Wailers at the newly reopened Showcase Theatre in Detroit had the Motor City and WCBN airwaves buzzing with reggae, the Jamaican-originated music which is slowly but surely capturing the tropical island's northern neighbor. Reggae's influence on American popular music is becoming quite marked, from Taj Mahals' latest lp, which is all-reggae, to the success of Eric Clapton's cover and definitely weaker version of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." The Rastafarian culture which centers on the famous Jamaican herb is also coming under increasing scrutiny here in the States.

Jamaica is where the shores, the mountains, villages and cities all chuck to the sound of reggae. The music comes from every window and doorway, the jukeboxes shake from the bass overdrive which marks the music throughout the island. "Reggae is a vibration that you get from the earth, ya dig it. . . ," Marley told us at his hotel before the performance. "Reggae is different from all other type of music."

Marley felt the vibrations young -- in the hills where he was raised, where creative musicians play on homemade string and percussion instruments made from washtubs and jawbones. Spiritual and folk music is an integral part of the religious life in Jamaica. "The first time I hear singin' it was my mother singin' gospel. My grandfather played the violin, a sort of country-western, what they call "quadril..." From this mixture of folk, spiritual, then calypso and latin rhythms, came reggae.

In the early 1960's Bob Marley, Peter "Tosh" Mclntosh, and Bunny Livingstone started playing together - Marley on guitar, Tosh on organ and Bunny on congas and percussion. They helped create a beat which has since been described as "rocksteady," a unique Jamaican counterpart to American r and b. Some earlier "pirated" recordings of this group have recently been released on Trojan label, the albums being "Rasta Revolution" and "African Herbsman." Soon came the Barret brothers -- Aston "Family Man" on bass, and Carlton "Carly" on drums. This expanded group recorded two albums with Island records, "Catch a Fire" and "Burnin'..." Now we have "Natty Dread" (on Island again) which finds Marley and the Barret brothers joined by another guitar, Al Anderson, organ player Touter, and some tasty backup vocals by the I-Threes. and horns too.

Yet throughout these 15 years, and many changes, the Wailers have remained obscure and unknown in the USA. Perhaps it was because people here weren't ready for such a radically different beat and sound, or else the cut-throat nature of the Jamaican (and often American) music business fostered this lack of recognition.

Marley confirmed some of the music-business nightmares portrayed so vividly in the movie about Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff, "The Harder They Come." The movie shows the production and distribution of records in Jamaica at the whim of company moguls and executives, rather than the actual talent or audience response to a live artist. "Plenty of dem things that true," Marley explained. "When me go up in a Trojan office now, and me go in, me see a big guy who is a big thief. After we finished "I Shot the Sheriff" the guys go in the studio behind our back, and get it a little bit too quick, ya know, so the quality leave it. The record companies down in Jamaica, mon, ya have some guys are hustlers, guys don't love music, competitive guys, ya know. And the guys who can deal with music, somehow get pressurized, so them can't even get a good studio together." A familiar story, indeed.


The highly natural Rastafarian way of life practiced and preached by the Wailers is linked to the abundance of ganja (marijuana) in Jamaica. "Herb is natural," explained Marley as Thai sticks lit up the room. "Herb is the healin' of the nation. Everyone on earth is supposed to smoke herb. When you smoke it, we can see and talk real nice and get along. Now for some reason, some people feel, 'No, these people shouldn't smoke herb, because them gonna live too good, and then we no got no power. Ya dig it? God created herb for man mon. Let them tell me 'don't sniff hashish' or 'don't take cocaine, great. But when they tell me don't smoke herb, it come like its crazy, mad! But if you just smoke and smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke foolishly, then you can get hurt, you know. Be wise enough to give thanks and praises to the most High (Jah!)"

Ganja to the Rastas is part of a more encompassing plan to live in total harmony with nature. Their view is that humans should not destroy the harmony with nature. Their view is that humans should not destroy the delicate ecological balance that Jah (God) has created. This extends to their eating habits, which are largely vegetarian. "We have certain meats that can be eaten at times, but many that ya mustn't eat. We don't eat things like pig, lobster, crab, shrimps. Dem things feel nice but can kill ya, because they're made to clean the place where what THEY eat live." The Wailer's got a kitchen of their own in their hotel where they cook themselves. "We don't make people cook for we. A restaurant is the hardest place to eat, because you're not gettin' clean food. They could do it clean, ya know, but it's not happenin'." 

The Rasta consciousness extends to social and economic problems, including the political situation in Jamaica.

I, rebel music

I, rebel music 

Why can't we roam this open country

Oh, why can't we be what we want to be

We want to be free

3 o' clock -roadblock, curfew

And I've got to throw away

Yes. I've got to throw away

My little herb stalk.

Marley's political consciousness is obviously linked with the ganja trade and trouble in Jamaica. He feels that native political and social unrest is a direct result of the politician's insane campaign against the herb. "One's supposed to smoke herb freely and be free. That is why there's so much quarreling upon the earth and confusion, because the people, them can't get herb to smoke." The Rasta outlook is that while God is almighty and supreme, people must do for themselves if they want to change.

"Now is the time when you have to get conscious. We must know that things now. God goes on forever; minutes slip by, plenty things happen, but people make decisions."


Marley offered the observation that strife in big cities around the world is simply a reflection of an obviously unequal economic distribution. "It happen a lot in every capitalist place, where one guy has $7 million, a guy has $2,000, and another guy has none, ya dig it. It is not in balance. Me go out in the street and you have your million and you don't like to see me, 'cause ya just feel like I gonna rob ya. So it kill you, your millions. Capitalism is strictly madness."

But the eventual outcome of all this political persecution will be the fall, "the bottom will drop out." "I hear the words of the Rasta man say / Babylon, you throne gone down, gone down / Babylon, you throne gone down. . . "

"When I talk about the guy who rule America," Marley offered, "dem thing have to wipe out. The earth have to be one. There's too much heads, too much worthless rulers. Plenty things don't happen yet, you know, because is plenty things have to happen. Me know plenty people going dead. Plenty people will die, because righteousness have to run the earth-is just truth, ya know. Armageddon will come. Some of the earth must destroy, but the kingdom can then go on."

Slavedriver, The Tables are Turnin'...

One area of the Rasta philosophy is quite controversial, which is the relationship between men and women. The Rastas believe men and women should live together and create households with children, yet no artificial contracts are stressed. "We don't particularly believe in marriage, because we feel somehow people must love freely. Me can't give myself to one woman, that is a mistake. Women great, ya know, but she make a mistake when she want a man for herself."

But this ability to love depends on women being separated from men during the monthly period, a leftover from Biblical dictates - especially when it comes to preparing foods. It is also for this reason that Rastamen will not share a spliff (enormous joint) with a woman.

Another controversial view is the belief in the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, as God. Selassie, or Ras Tafarai, is portrayed as the living God who is here to teach us how to live, sort of like a 20th century Christ. "You know you have two roads before you," Marley explained. "You have life and you have death. The gift of god is life and all the other business is death . His Imperial Majesty is the almighty." (Ed. note: This view of Selassie is nut reconciled with his recent history as a ruthless dictator in Ethiopia, where he was recently deposed.)

But overall Marley's music, approach and philosophy provide a delightful experience in conversation, on record or live. His performance at the Showcase was simply stunning. Don't miss the Wailers if they come back around.

One last word Marley gave is; "We make everybody know about Rastafari, that is our job. That means when you finish now, about that is your business--me make sure me do my work." Now we've done ours, mon.



Chasin' The Trane, The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane, by J.C. Thomas, Doubleday & Company, $7.95.

by Bill Adler

There's been scandalously little written about John Coltrane, a man of inestimable musical and cultural impact. Those scraps accessible to the seeker of biographical information available from liner notes, the odd interview, or hearsay, and the story the music itself told, added up to a mystique--Coltrane was/is a saint, at least. So it was with great excitement and the expectation that I'd finally be able to get to a little reality concerning this man's life that I acquired this book.

Well, Chasin' The Trane, for all it's worth, is hardly the definitive biography. Ross Russell's life of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, Bird Lives, published last year, set a high-water mark for jazz genre musical biographies. It is a multi-dimensional, socio-historical work that fixes Bird firmly in his era. It was, in its intent and effect, demythologizing. Which isn't to say it denied Bird's genius. It just restored his humanity. Thomas, in his book, prefers to emphasize the "mystique" in his title.

Now I'm more than a little disposed to believe in front that John Coltrane was an exceptionally talented, intuitively spiritual person from a very young age on but Thomas insists on making these points in the most blatant, distasteful manner throughout the book and refuses to let the story unfold of its own weight. He is an evangelist and his text is thick with miracles and testimonials. We are told that "even at that age, around 10 or 12, John's eyes had already achieved a quality of luminosity, of absorption, that made one wonder if he could see in the dark like an owl." In addition, Thomas alludes to the "beginning...of the sadness that was well beyond the blues." This same heavy-handedness is evident when he attempts to create (or recreate) the magic of the time John, age 13, first blew a note on clarinet, his initial horn. "He didn't hold the horn at the popular 45 degree angle, instead, as if shyly experimenting, he pointed it toward the floor, looking down, and brought a great gust of air up from his diaphragm through his lungs and throat, culminating in a surging release from mouth to mouthpiece, filling the clarinet's two-and-one-half-foot length with air to spare. And music changed the air."

When Thomas isn't melodramatizing he manages to convey a rich lode of information concerning both John's musical and spiritual development, much of it previously unreported. Apparently Trane knew that music would be his life by the age of 16 when he graduated from high school. He picked up the alto sax by himself, to begin with, and when he moved from his childhood home, High Point, North Carolina, to Philadelphia, excelled on it at the Ornstein School of Music. He was drafted into the Navy in 1945 and played clarinet in the Navy Band. But the alto moved him more and shortly upon his release he was astonishing tenorist Benny Golson with a "fat, exquisite sound that I'd never heard before." Coltrane spent a period of time working in r&b bands in the city because that's what was happening and was hired, as a tenor player, by bluesman Eddie Vinson in 1947. His rise was swift and he worked thereafter with trumpeter Howard McGhee, in Dizzy Gillespie's famous big band, and in r&b bands again when the Gillespie unit broke up in 1950. He absorbed every musical morsel these varied situations had to offer with an insatiable voracity. 'Chasin' has an essentially anecdotal format and Thomas has gathered up any number of entertaining and illuminating stories concerning Trane's musical apprenticeship through his extended sojourns with Miles Davis' and Thelonius Monk's groups.

As for Trane's spiritual education, it happened in Gillespie's band that saxophonist Yusef Lateef, an orthodox Muslem, aroused John's latent interest in religion and philosophy. He suggested that Trane read Kahlil Gibran, the Koran, and Krishnamurti. As time went by the hungry young player was turned on to yoga, Egyptology, Scientology, Plato, and Aristotle. Later he got into astronomy, astrology, the Kabbala, Sufism, and, in Seattle in the fall of 1965, LSD. (When he came down he said, "I perceived the interrelationship of all life forms."  It seems that when he wasn't practicing or performing, Coltrane was reading and it's easily understood why he said, towards the end of his life, "I haven't had much leisure time for the past fifteen years."

It was probably also due to Yusef's influence that John began his long love affair with Eastern music and culture. He would in fact, eventually correspond with, and then meet, Ravi Shankar whose music he admired so much that he would name his 2nd son Ravi.

In 1959 Trane told the Nigerian percussionist Olatunji, "I must go back to the roots," began to study African culture, languages, and music, and first heard in his head the type of drum sound he'd want in the quartet he'd soon be forming. Leon Thomas tells this story--"When I knew them, Trane and Eric were listening to tribal recordings of South African pygmies. He told me that each drummer has a certain rhythm to play and doesn't try to play all the rhythms at once. What he heard was several drummers playing polyrhythms. But what he wanted in his band was Elvin playing polyrhythms all by himself." And bassist Steve Davis recalls, "That first night Elvin was in the band, he was playing so strong and so loud you could hear him outside the club and down the block. But Trane wanted a drummer who could really kick, and Elvin was one of the strongest, wildest drummers in the world. After the gig, Trane put his arm around Elvin, took him to a barbecue place around the corner, and bought him some ribs. Trane and Elvin were tight from then on."

Anyway, Trane and Olatunji got together in1965 to talk about some "extramusical" matters. Thomas' report is the first I'd read about these self-determination efforts. Trane and Olatunji were both pretty fed up with their exploitation at the hands of the men who ran the concert and recording scenes. They decided to work together to make an African cultural center a reality. Yusef Lateef was also interested in participating and the three of them agreed to combine their financial resources, book their own groups, rehearse their music at the center, and eventually form their own recording company. Although Coltrane died before the plan came to fruition, this action represents the continued development of a maturing political consciousness in a man usually described as "completely apolitical" despite his well-known pacifism. In his own way he had expressed himself explicitly and eloquently on a couple of violent American (continued on page 22)