Today, 11 May, it is exactly 39 years that Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley), the International reggae legend, died. That was on 11 May, 1981.
In this archival story, published by The Guardian of UK on Fri 1 June 2001, John Aizlewood, took a trip to Nine Mile, Jamaica, where Marley was born. Aizlewood connected themes and symbols in Marley’s music to what he experienced in his rustic village.
As Aizlewood put it: “Growing up between Nine Miles and west Kingston, Marley turned what he saw and heard into music with a depth and compassion that the smallest child and the oldest musicologist could appreciate. Walk a few miles in Marley’s shoes and everything becomes a little clearer. At one end of Nine Miles is 10 yards of paved road and a walled compound adorned with the red, gold and green flags of Rastafarianism, the million-strong religion occasionally feared but more typically ignored by the Jamaican state.
“In the early hours of February 6 1945, in a shack now within the compound, and with a roof that looks suspiciously like it has been renovated, Cedella “Ciddy” Marley, the young wife of Norvel, a white army captain from Liverpool old enough to be her father, gave birth to her first child, Robert Nesta Marley. Cedella still lives here (and in Miami), but the house at Nine Miles is now maintained by Richard Booker, Bob’s Miami-based half-brother. It is a strange, desultory place, populated by ganja-smoking Rastafarians who repeatedly ask, ‘You got anything for me?’ and where the toilets are labelled ‘kings’ and ‘queens’
The article is republished below, entitled:
Fighting for survival
By John Aizlewood
It is 20 years since Bob Marley died of cancer, his body laid to rest on a Jamaican mountaintop. But where Elvis and John Lennon have monuments, museums and disciples, the reggae star’s legacy is less clear. John Aizlewood travels to Kingston to ask his friends and collaborators: what does Marley mean now?
Native Jamaicans call the administrative district of St Ann, north-west of Kingston, the “garden parish”. They have a point. Expansively verdant, St Ann is one lush green valley after another, pockmarked by rural hamlets and roadside shack shops selling condensed milk, tinned mackerel, “protein conditioning gel”, wire wool and rum. There are more churches here per head – Apostolic, Seventh Day Adventist, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Anabaptist, Reformed Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal – than in South Armagh. There are food stalls around every corner, offering ackee, the pear-shaped national fruit that is mixed with swordfish and spices; nasberries; raw sugar cane; rice’n’ peas (rice and beans, in truth); breadfruit; and that Jamaican staple, curried goat. Uncurried goats wander everywhere. It’s picture-book territory, but Jamaica’s roads are so badly maintained that even the most scenery-struck driver must concentrate on the task at hand.
The mountaintop hamlet of Nine Miles, in the heart of St Ann, is almost unsignposted and accessible only by four-wheel drive. There is a tiny drinking shack, or shebeen – how the Red Stripe is delivered is a mystery – but little else save the birthplace and tomb of Bob Marley. Marley, alongside Elvis Presley and John Lennon, is one of the 20th century’s triumvirate of deceased musical patriarchs. Presley didn’t invent rock’n’roll, but he made it viable. Lennon didn’t invent lyrics or albums, but he made them matter. Marley didn’t invent the reggae beat, but he introduced it to a world audience.
Growing up between Nine Miles and west Kingston, Marley turned what he saw and heard into music with a depth and compassion that the smallest child and the oldest musicologist could appreciate. Walk a few miles in Marley’s shoes and everything becomes a little clearer. At one end of Nine Miles is 10 yards of paved road and a walled compound adorned with the red, gold and green flags of Rastafarianism, the million-strong religion occasionally feared but more typically ignored by the Jamaican state. In the early hours of February 6 1945, in a shack now within the compound, and with a roof that looks suspiciously like it has been renovated, Cedella “Ciddy” Marley, the young wife of Norvel, a white army captain from Liverpool old enough to be her father, gave birth to her first child, Robert Nesta Marley. Cedella still lives here (and in Miami), but the house at Nine Miles is now maintained by Richard Booker, Bob’s Miami-based half-brother. It is a strange, desultory place, populated by ganja-smoking Rastafarians who repeatedly ask, “You got anything for me?” and where the toilets are labelled “kings” and “queens”.
Alongside the memorabilia on sale is alcohol – in spite of the fact that Marley was teetotal – and trips to nearby marijuana fields, although ganja, like homosexuality, is illegal in Jamaica. We are the only visitors and it is raining. Our tour guide is Doctor Fuzzy, who claims to have been Marley’s first singing collaborator alongside Neville “Bunny Wailer” O’Riley Livingston, who was born across the road. “Doctor, Nesta and Bunny, that was us,” cackles Fuzzy. “To me, Bob don’t die. To me, he is here now.” Shoes removed, we visit the small bedroom that Marley shared with any number of siblings. There is a well-thumbed Bible on the table – true Rastafarians study the Old Testament deeply – next to the “single bed” of Is This Love? fame. Outside is the stone where Marley meditated, smoked and slept during his regular post-fame returns to his clan seat. So far, so mundane. Then we come to the tomb. Despite the incongruous Australian gold disc on the wall and the overpowering smell of incense, this is a temple of quiet contemplation.
After Marley’s state funeral in Kingston – 20 years ago to the day before our visit, although no one seems aware of this – his body was brought to this mausoleum. The corpse is above ground, entombed behind Ethiopian marble. According to Fuzzy, Cedella has insisted that her son be neither buried nor displayed until she receives a sign that the world is a better place. Beneath Marley’s head, a Bible is opened on the 71st to 74th psalms. He faces west towards a stained-glass window featuring the Star of David and, ultimately, Ethiopia. “Stop,” commands Fuzzy as I walk past, the shadow of my head inside the shadow of the Star. “Bob. He look at you now.” It is, in this fairly profane place, a sacred, stomach-tightening moment. “You felt it,” says Fuzzy quietly. “Good. We must go now.” Later, Chris Blackwell, the white, Jamaican-born scion of the soup dynasty and head of Island, Marley’s label since 1972, will tell me that Nine Miles is crucial to Marley’s music: “I never went there until Bob passed away, but I credit his rural background with a great deal of his success. In the inner city everything is instant; you don’t understand the importance of time, of nurturing something in order to harvest it. It was inherent in Bob.”
In 1952, Cedella began stepping out with Thaddius “Toddy” Livingston, Bunny’s father, and the pair moved to the urban sprawl of Kingston. Several months later, Bob took the bus south-east to join them. Today, the journey along unmaintained tracks and winding mountain roads into Kingston gridlock takes over three hours, even with Jamaica’s genteel code of the road, a complex semaphore of horn- blowing, gesture and mutual sacrifice which enables cars and buses to pass through spaces barely wide enough for one vehicle. Roadside signs declare, “Undertakers Love Careless Overtakers”; the KFC-sponsored national radio news tells of a man who has lost his mobile phone and is offering a reward for its return, and of Lascelles Gayle, who had returned home after 30 years in England and was held up and shot dead within an hour of landing at Kingston’s Norman Manley airport. Schoolchildren – boys in beige, girls in blue – wave and smile as we pass; so does a man with a sack of flour on his head, wearing a Chelsea away shirt.
The young Marley’s solo journey took days. Although just 75 miles from home, Kingston was a world away from Nine Miles. After the hurricane of 1951 devastated Kingston, the tide of rural migrants continued unabated and, fearful of the street population spiralling out of control, the administration built a number of low-grade accommodation blocks called “government yards”. Cedella and Toddy moved into one such yard in Trench Town, named after the trench that carries sewage through the heart of west Kingston. Today there are few more fearsome places than west Kingston, a sprawling network of shanties where most locals fear to tread and where the downtown Burger King closes at 5pm so that its workers can be bussed out safely. Ganja, knives and machetes have been replaced by crack, sub-machine guns and deepening poverty. But what appears on the surface to be a place of anarchy in fact has a sophisticated code of social control.
Jamaica’s two political parties, the ruling, nominally leftwing People’s National party and the nominally rightwing Jamaican Labour party, control a series of “dons” (part community leaders, part drug barons reporting to the drug overlords on the eastern slopes of the blue mountains, part goon squad commandants), who in turn control the gunmen, the drugs and the funds. Whole communities are PNP or JLP. Last week, PNP-aligned don William Moore was shot dead. Three PNP ministers attended the funeral and, over the next three days, paramilitaries from the PNP’s Hannah Town and the JLP’s Denham Town (Trench Town’s neighbours) fought such a ferociously murderous gun battle that the army was sent in to restore order. The streets of Trench Town are lined with people, some carrying guns, others machetes. Only the main thoroughfare is navigable; the sidestreets are blocked with burning barricades.
Our escort converses with the locals and explains that the situation is too volatile to venture further. Two days later, the police, army and other gunmen have killed some of the ringleaders and a brittle peace reigns. We try to reach Trench Town once more. The barricades remain, but they no longer smoulder and the streets are quieter. Young men play basketball, middle-aged men play dominoes and nobody pays us a moment’s notice. The Culture Yard, the “government yard in Kingston” of No Woman No Cry, is, like Nine Miles, controlled by Rastafarians, but these are a different breed. They are delighted that we have managed to get in unaccompanied, keen to exchange email addresses, neither offering ganja nor demanding cash. Our guide goes by the name of Madness. “Bob Marley was angry, powerful and significant,” he declares. “He could have chosen crime, but instead he chose music. He told us crime does not pay.” In the yard are the battered Volkswagen van that the Wailers drove to island gigs in, the guitar Marley wrote No Woman No Cry on, and another “single bed” – “where he made love”, adds Madness lasciviously.
There is the former communal kitchen that Marley lived in with Alpharita “Rita” Anderson, whom he married in 1966; the steps where he observed the Three Little Birds of that song; the back alleys where he ran from police raids, and the stool where he sat at the feet of his musical guru, Vincent “Tata” Ford, to whom Marley gave the No Woman No Cry songwriting credit. This is where Marley’s spirit truly lies. It is not Lennon’s Liverpool, or Presley’s Memphis, cities where anything felt and still feels possible, no matter how ingrained the poverty. West Kingston is a deeper circle of hell: the scarcity of older people suggests that merely surviving is a significant achievement. I meet Chris Blackwell, a key figure in the making of Marley, at Kingston docks. He tells me that Marley had been living in Trench Town and recording for 10 years before they met. “I knew he was going to be the one after I’d got to know him while working on Catch a Fire in the studio. I said that he was going to be as big as Hendrix. Everybody thought that was a stretch. “He had such talent that he would have done it without me. I had nothing to do with the songwriting, but I did market the Wailers as a rock and albums band. Bob thought his success would be in the American R&B chart and didn’t fully grasp my idea until I took him on tour with Traffic: they never had singles hits, but were selling out huge American arenas. Bob got it and felt there was a way he could reach that audience.
“I loved working with him. There were never any, quote, ‘misunderstandings’, and it was the most rewarding experience for me in the record business. I still feel honoured.” “The Wailers came at the right time,” says Garth White, research fellow in reggae studies at University College of the West Indies, Kingston. “The Skatalites had paved the way, so there was an opening for a band who were different. The Wailers weren’t the best in any one area: they didn’t write the best songs, didn’t have the best vocals and weren’t the most political, but they came through ska and rocksteady and were the only people who mixed social concern, rock, love and religion. Nobody had as much charisma.”
In 1973, as the money began to roll in, the pressures of ghetto living became too much for Marley. He moved five miles, to Island House on Hope Road, 200m from the prime minister’s residence. It was as much a world away from Trench Town as Trench Town was from Nine Miles. Still canny and streetwise, Marley took his downtown lifestyle uptown. Island House had its own yard and, according to Madness, the Trench Town posse vetted it before Marley “asked” owners Island Records to give it him. Essentially, he carried on as he always had, cooking ital food (the “natural, total” Rastafarian diet) outdoors, strumming on the porch, giving money to those who came begging, and playing football all day every day. “He was not someone who distanced himself,” says Blackwell. “He wasn’t aloof, he was out on the street, in touch with everybody. When people are like that, they continue to be creative and be aware.”
Today, as the temperature soars to 35 in this land without seasons, Island House has become the Bob Marley Museum. Outside stands Marley’s battered 1975 jeep, a rather bedraggled statue and a herb garden “where he used to smoke, drink herbal tea and meditate”, says our guide. Inside, beyond the God Bless This House welcome mat, are rooms of yellowing newspaper clippings (Reggae King Marley Hits at Birth Control, thundered the Irish Times in 1980); Bob’s juice blender; Bob’s pipe; Bob’s slippers; Bob’s CIA file; Bob’s seatless, pedal-less, flat-tyred bicycle; a reconstruction of Bob’s Trench Town Wail’n Soul’m record shack; more stained glass (here featuring the sleeve of the posthumously released Confrontation); Bob’s denim stage shirt; the stage clothes of Bob’s backing singers, the I-Threes; the backdrop to Bob’s self- financed gig in the city then known as Salisbury during Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations; Bob’s hammock, “in which he would meditate and smoke his ganja spliff”, and a tusk. We learn that brown and beige were his favourite colours – after red, gold and green, of course. Surprisingly, there is no “single bed”. At the rear of the house is the kitchen where Marley was shot in the chest and arm by a PNP – or was it JLP? – hit squad one December evening in 1976.
The bullet holes are huge, wide enough to ram your thumb and forefinger into. Marley would never again reside in his homeland for an extended period. The murals, painted after Marley’s death, give the place the air of a community centre, rather than the base from where the most famous Jamaican gave his country recognition, dignity and a fleeting suggestion that it was possible for a boy from the backwaters of a third-world country to change the world of music. Both gift shops would easily fit into the porch of one of Graceland’s. The Marley legacy is complicated by labyrinthine legal disputes. Wailers Carlton “Carly” Barrett, Junior Braithwaite and Winston “Peter Tosh” McIntosh were gunned down, the first by an assassin hired by his wife. The bulk of the estate fell to Rita and some of Marley’s acknowledged offspring by a variety of women. A plethora of Marley-related cases are still pending.
Continue reading the piece from the original source, The Guardian of UK.
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