Harry Belafonte was one of the very first.
Calypso. West Indies island rhythms. His "Calypso" LP is still one of the biggest-selling albums in RCA's history, and "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" brought a Jamaican folk song style to American audiences caught up in Rick Nelson and Dave Brubeck.
He was a "nice" singer, a charismatic, interesting, intelligent man who charmed the jewels off the opera crowds at Carnegie Hall and the Greek Theater. The lilting patois of the Jamaican was accepted by libraries and musicologists and homemakers. Good clean fun.
But Jamaica isn't solely an island paradise of turbaned beauties and rum drinks in sidewalk cafes, a sunny bohemian nature garden of tropical treats. It knows extreme poverty; the wretched slums of western Kingston known as the City of Fires are filled with the scent of bonfires and burning sugar cane.
On the opposite side of the island, the shacks of Montego Bay creep up the mountainside like sunburnt ragged ferns, and political unrest is a way of life. Belafonte sang of sweet li'l pickaninnies and penny whistles, but in the background lies a rugged real world.
From this landscape came a triple threat of cultural roots: the street life of the "Rude Boys" who migrated to Kingston from the country; the Rastafarians, religious devotees of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie; and musicians who combined the native music of calypso with the bass-heavy dances of "ska" and "rock-steady," which became known as reggae.
The absolute spearhead of reggae music, the man known in Jamaica as the Negus (the semi-divine Ultimate) of the art form, was Robert Nesta Marley. Born in 1945 in St. Anne (one of the 12 divisions, or "parishes" of Jamaica) to a local woman and a retired major from the British Army, he left the rural parish at 14 to head for Kingston.
By 1967, Marley had combined his songwriting and vocal abilities with those of Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, and upon meeting the Barrett brothers, drummer Carlton and bassist Aston "Family Man," decided to join forces. The Barretts were the cream of Jamaica's crop of musicians and together with the vocalizing of Marley and the wailing Wailers, a new sound began to take shape.
Eric Clapton recorded a Marley song, "I Shot the Sheriff," and Marley had a number one song around the world. Tosh and Livingston left the group in 1974, and were replaced with a trio of female singers (including Marley's wife, Rita) who would be known as the I-Threes. The Wailers steadily built up a following, touring the globe and becoming the rage of other superstars, including the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, until Marley would become recognized as the premier exponent and songwriter of reggae music.
Flash from the City of Fires to the Sunset Marquis Hotel, just off Sunset and La Cienega boulevards, a few blocks from the heart of the Sunset "Strip." Hidden away, off the beaten, the Marquis has been the Los Angeles home of the Wailers for years. The hotel is secluded by lush trees and hedges from the traffic that drifts up and down the steep grade of Alta Loma, and the low-profile luxuries are right in line with the Wailers' subdued approach.
It is 8:30 on a bright Sunday morning, and for once Sunset is silent and empty. An occasional car twists down the boulevard, but there are no tour buses, no long lines of Mercedes and Turbo-Carreras usually seen during "business hours." There would have to be good reason to snap awake at a Sunday hour which has gone unseen in months, to find oneself prowling the grounds of an "in" luxury hotel in the crisp a.m. air, and as the search for an open liquor store begins, the reason looms in the head like adrenalin.
Bob Marley and The Wailers will perform this day in Santa Barbara, at the beautiful outdoor County Bowl. I am to ride with the Wailers on the chartered Greyhound they had taken to their gig the day before in San Diego, two days earlier to UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, and which would take them the few blocks to The Roxy two days later. It seems a good enough chance to turn witness to a gorgeous day of reggae music and Rastaman vibrations.
It is still early before departure, so as the huge diesel idles in front of the Marquis, a quick walk turns up a mini-mart a few blocks down Sunset. Grapefruit juice into a body fresh from a Saturday night goes down like an old friend, and the walk back is quiet and calm.
I enter the hotel lobby, and the only signs that the Wailers are here are a few Anvil cases stacked by the phones and a Rastaman organizing papers and making small talk to the girl behind the desk. I walk through the lobby out into the swimming pool area and see a sign saying "SPA, Hotel Guests Only," with an arrow pointing left. Through a dark hallway, out a door, and a garden gate looms ahead.
The gate swings open into a hilly courtyard with putting-green grass, a spa, dressing rooms and flowers everywhere. There are a few private villas, townhouses set apart from each other and the rest of the hotel, and brick paths lead up to their doorways. The Wailers are in one of these and since there is no discernable action indoors, I wander around the green gardens until I feel an overstayed welcome coming on.
Back to the lobby, where now various Jamaicans, most with the red, yellow and green national colors in their dress somewhere, dreadlocks flashing, are slowly beginning to get the show on the road. A sleepy, underwater atmosphere and attitude is prevalent, and it will remain throughout the day. Ganja and reggae music do not contribute much to hyperactive, frantic states.
A signal from Bernice Sanders, Marley's press officer, motions me toward the bus, and as it is boarded, the only empty seat is at the very front to the right of the driver. A long-haired fellow motions me toward the window seat next to him, and as I am seated, the bus pulls slowly away.
The seat next to me is occupied by Viv, the Wailers' road manager, and a thorough professional. His past is an array of anecdotes, as he managed Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen road tour, and handled Traffic for its entire existence. He has been with Marley for many years. There are ten million questions in the back of the brain, but it doesn't feel quite right to pump him for info. All In good time.
We are up the coast now, the ocean is glassy blue, no waves anywhere, and the bus is thick with a rich aroma from the back. I sit up, and badly balanced, trip toward the facilities in the rear of the bus. Looking straight ahead, I enter the airline-like chamber after nearly crushing a Rasta as the bus lurches around a bend, and curse my luck. First impressions...
As I leave the strange little room, a Rastaman with a brightlycolored yarn turban is standing in the aisle and laughing. Our eyes meet as I try to stumble back to my seat, and I nod politely. Bob Marley nods back, and gestures me on in silence.
Viv is reading a manual for his new computer when I get to my seat, and the air of professional nonchalance is entering me. No matter I have just come face to face with the Black Prince of Reggae, the greatest exponent of the art form, a songwriter of mammoth talent, and an absolutely riveting showman...
I look out the window at the non-waves. From the back, a portable cassette machine plays roots reggae, a more primitive sound than that of the Wailers', the authentic non-commercial reggae music found only in one or two shops in L.A. There is still that peppery aroma from the back, and I glance over my shoulder toward the source. Eyes catch an unwavering jet black set of eyes, as once again Marley's eyes meet mine. I learn not to gawk.
As we approach Santa Barbara, "Survival," the recent release by the Wailers, is heard from the cassette player. I have been occupied with my own thoughts, wondering where the waves are, as "One Drop," one of the most uplifting tunes on the album, comes on. I am humming along with it as Viv is back to his computer manual, and things are feeling smooth. There's somebody in back singing pretty well to the tape, and I risk a glance back again. Marley is standing in the aisle, spliff dangling from his fingers, singing along with his own album. This is one of the moments I will remember.
The bus edges through the city limits of Santa Barbara, and Viv jumps out at a light to ask where the County Bowl is. The bus driver shakes his head and looks out the window.
Up the hill a ways, we pass a natural foods restaurant called Them Belly Full, which is taken from the title of a Bob Marley song. ("Them belly full, and we hungry/A hungry mob is an angry mob/The rain a fall the dirt be tough/a pot a cook but the food no 'nough.") Viv and I look back and call to the Wailers to look out the window. Most of the entourage sees it in silence, but Marley is concerned with other things.
We come to a gate at the bottom of a long driveway, and a semiofficial asks who's in the bus. "Who do you think?", says the driver, as reggae music and peculiar odors filter out his window. We are given the go-ahead to continue up the steep hill. Outside, scads of concertgoers try to peer in the windows, but the blue tint makes it impossible to make out the bus's occupants. We make it, barely, to the top of the hill, and Marley appears at the bus door before we come to a stop. The door opens, and he steps off quickly, looks back and calls "Sound check!"
Marley's walk is like that of an astronaut--he prefers heavy shoes and pegged pants--as he stomps as if in a space suit: slow, regal and determined. He enters the back door of the backstage area as the rest of the bus empties out onto the dirt driveway.
A busload of Rastafarians is a sight most would find...unique. They embrace green army fatigues, like young Castros, and their silence is like that of royalty. No loud cries; smooth, calm manners, with stately beatific poise. The Santa Barbara college girls don't hide their stares; a girl in white comes up to the semi-circle of Rastas and takes their picture with an Instamatic from about five feet away. They say nothing. There is no need.
Ital stew (a vegetarian Rastafarian dish) is steaming in slow cookers in the backstage area, and most of the entourage disappears to eat. I begin to wander again, and end up on stage, in the large area in back of the equipment. Their gear has already been brought by a huge semi truck and set up by the road crew, and the mass of cables from the sound company, the video company, the light company are like rubber snakes sunning themselves. It is still an hour and a half before the concert starts, and the stands are empty of spectators (the line of fans winds down the driveway, down to the street, and along a sidewalk of suburban Santa Barbara).
The Wailers straggle up the stairs from the backstage area to begin the sound check. Drummer Carlton Barrett breaks into the reggae beat he will play unwaveringly for a half hour, and "Family Man" joins him with a rolling bass line. The two guitarists, Al Anderson and Junior Marvin, begin to keep the rhythm, and the keyboards of Wire Lindo and Tyrone Downie chunk out the groove. Marley's precise guitar chicken-scratch afterbeat fills the spaces, and soon the soundman has the reggae echoing off the empty bleachers.
Marley sings a loose vocal for the soundcheck, and with turban still on and no magic moves, eyes open and studying the situation, he looks curiously small and thin. The mystique is still there, but it is a human one, not the shaman-like gyrations of the performing Marley. It is an odd moment.
Back downstairs to wait for showtime, and people begin loosening up. The local Rasta contingent is there, and together with percussionist Alvin "Seeco" Patterson, form a ring of about fifteen and begin tossing around a soccer ball. With their feet. A few of the younger ones have their moves down, as they bounce the ball off their heads, shoulders, ankles, toes, thighs and foreheads, back and forth to each other. When Seeco gets the ball, they watch with respect until he punts it across the circle to someone else.
It is all relaxed, comfortable, and as I watch the circle of soccer, Carlton Barrett joins me in the sunny doorway. We begin talking and sharing, but his patois is so thick I can barely come close to making out his words. I tell him so and he laughs and blows out a hit of smoke. "When I and I play, the spirit is there" is the basis of his speech, but embellished with such vocal authenticity I am almost hypnotized. Marley walks by and notices Barrett's rambling discourse, and nods. He is aloof, but aware of what goes on everywhere around him.
Later, as I am standing in the same doorway (the sun shone strong through it, the brightest spot backstage) in the daze of the day, I notice Marley has been standing next to me. "Sun feels good," I say. Bob nods, and continues standing. Five minutes pass. We do not speak, just stand and soak up the hot sun. We both turn around to face each other, and I smile. He gives me his first smile of the day.
The show opens with an energetically pedestrian halfhour set by R&B singer Betty Wright, but since there is more action downstairs, I continue to mill around. From the Wailers' off-limlts dressing room, the chords to "Rastaman Vibration" are heard coming from a small practice amp. The sax player is playing jazz solos through the music, and the Wailers are singing the words in a beer-bar style; loose, but comfortable. This jazz/reggae could catch on as a style almost as strong as pure reggae.
Soon, it is time for the Wailers' set. Viv calls "five minutes" throughout the backstage, and the friends of friends pile out into the audience. I turn invisible and follow the band up the stairs onstage, past the gate guard, and find a place on a wall in the wings.
After Marley's traditional praises to Rastafari, he looks to the sky and chants "Rastafari. Rastafari" over and over again, until the crowd is centered. Suddenly, smoothly, "Rastaman Vibration" opens the set, and Marley is now the master--dreadlocks flying as he swings his head to emphasize words, stomping/dancing in an almost American Indian style, arms pointing out into the audience and up toward the sky, eyes shut tight and his old Les Paul flattop guitar strapped around him. The Barrett brothers lay down their state-ofthe-art reggae beat, and Seeco is in his land of rhythm, playing hand drums, shakers, wood blocks, and anything else he can get his hands on.
The crowd goes wild before, during and after the song, and as the Wailers put out two hours of precisely perfect music, the hypnotic sounds take hold. The Wailers are calm as they play, as Carlton Barrett turns the beat around into the reggae, and Family Man's bass booms out half the total sound as he plays so far in back of the beat it's like a giant rocking ship. Marley's voice is a bit hoarse from the previous nights' concerts, but he soulfully makes up for it with tosses of his dreadlocks and improvised scat-singing.
And the ultra-smooth I-Twos--two ladies moving and swaying to the beat, singing back-ups with punctuation crisp as a horn section. Rita Marley, Judy Moffatt and Marcia Griffiths are usually known as the I-Threes, but Griffiths' pregnancy has her away from the performances this tour. They are invaluable to the Wailers' sound.
The band ends its set with a six-song encore that has the place on its feet, and as the rhythm section still churns out the beat, Marley sets his guitar down and space-walks off stage, down the steps, and disappears into the dressing room. The rest of the band follows, and the trance that is reggae is postponed until two days later, when they will appear for a benefit at The Roxy.
It is nighttime now, and the air is tight with a chill. Rasta children run through the throngs of well-wishers backstage, and the Wailers' families are united in the dressing room. Marley holds a quick "press conference" in a corner of the room, surrounded by onlookers who hang on his every word. Family Man rolls a thick spliff on the other side of the room, and spirits are relaxed and high.
The bus is idling already, and soon it is time to depart. We board, and in no time the Greyhound is sliding south toward L.A. The coach is dark inside, and the cassette machine is softly playing reggae. The spicy smell returns, and Viv is finally relaxed. He asks Rita for the brandy she has held for him, and pours two paper cups half full of Hennessey. Viv starts describing his farm in Wales, tells strange tales of life on the road with Rastamen, refills the cups more than a few times, and soon the black coastline turns into sparkling Hollywood streets.
We pull up next to the Marquis, and Bob Marley is again first out of the bus and quickly vanishes through the buses toward his townhouse. I hear someone trying to get my attention through the latenight haze, and see Rita Marley motioning me to pick up her bag. I jump to it like a porter, and follow her up the street toward her doorway. It is quiet and dark.
When we reach the apartment, I tell her that they played well and how much I enjoyed the show. As I turn to leave, I look over my shoulder to see Bob Marley a few steps away in the trees watching over his wife. Our eyes meet. Then he silently slips back into the night. The hedges close after him.
©1995 Phil Bunch