Oh, for a Jamaica Music Day!

Published: Sunday | February 13, 2005

THE BOB Marley peace day is a great idea. But it's a pity that the focus is only on Bob, because with all this big Marley hoopla you would think is him alone make reggae and guys like Jimmy and Toots and Peter Tosh and Dennis Brown never existed. Personally, I prefer Tosh to Marley any day. And you ever notice how all you ever hear on the radio is Marley's Island stuff? They hardly play tunes like Small Axe or Nice Time or Trenchtown Rock, which personally I feel is his best song. Is pure Redemption Song and Three Little Birds and One Love.

Frankly, I'm so tired of them that when I hear them come on the radio these days I change the station. One Love is a nice song but really, what's so deep about 'Let's get together and feel all right'? The best parts of it comes from People Get Ready. But you ever hear anyone giving Curtis Mayfield credit? Believe me when it comes to Bob Marley, I don't know where the music stops and where the hype starts. Let me ask you this. If Bob Marley looked like Peter Tosh, and Peter Tosh looked like Bob Marley, whose music do you think would be more popular?"

When I heard my friend, the cultural activist Valerie Dixon, holding forth like this last week, I laughingly squeezed her shoulder and said "Sshh. Mind people hear you and lick you down for

dissing the great Bob!". "Well I'm only saying what I feel" she laughed back".

Well I don't share all of Valerie's opinions. But she makes some very valid points. Is it just Bob Marley's music that has made him one of the great global icons, or does his image have a lot to do with his popularity? It's a question that can never be answered of course. You can't unring a bell. And it's impossible to hear Bob Marley's music without his handsome, dreadlocked, almost Christlike visage coming to mind.


Apart from being a very good looking man ­ Time magazine once voted him one of the sexiest men of the year ­ Marley's racial mixture makes him an ideal global icon. Since he's obviously not pure anything, in a sense every race can identify with him. And let's face it, we live in a western media dominated world. If European and American audiences accept you, you will probably become famous everywhere. Is it merely coincidence that the three biggest selling Jamaican artistes ever ­ Bob Marley, Shaggy and Sean Paul ­ are all noticeably part white?

And it's not only a matter of Jamaican music. A lot of people assumed Mike Tyson was guilty of rape merely because he looked like how rapists are supposed to look - mean and ugly. While many dismissed Kobe Bryan's accuser as a gold digger chiefly because they couldn't see such a good looking guy having to force himself on anyone. Again, swap their looks and Kobe might now be behind bars.


Then there is the martyr factor. In our image driven age, as a wry comic put it, dying young is a great career move. Most of the dominant 20th century icons - James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Che Guevera, Princess Diana for instance - died before 40, or in Kennedy's case looked it. While their surviving contemporaries slowly dwindled into aged mortality, they in the public mind stayed forever young and glamorous. Watching Bunny Wailer at the New Kingston concert the other day made me wonder how people would have reacted to a similarly grey and grizzled 60 year old Bob Marley.

To be sure, glory is a cold sun that warms no bones. But in the minds of the living, those who die early are always pictured as somehow immortal and immune to the ravages of age - untarnished blank canvases on which we can paint our dreams of the ideal. Marlon Brando was a far better actor than James Dean. Eisenhower was a much greater leader than Kennedy. And Johnny Cash was a clearly superior artiste to Elvis Presley. But in the popular mind the accomplishments of fat old Marlon and bald Dwight and wrinkled Johnny just can't compete with handsome, sleek, air brushed Jimmy and JFK and Elvis.

None of this is meant to question Marley's greatness. He was without a doubt one of the finest musicians of the 20th century, and his global popularity is truly remarkable. Americans, Asians, Europeans, Africans, the young, the old, the middle aged - everyone seems to like his music. I asked a friend the other night if she could think of anyone else whose music had such universal appeal. "Maybe Michael Jackson and Abba!" she laughed. "Everyone starts singing along when their songs come on the radio!" And come to think of it, songs like Three Little Birds, One Love, Billy Jean, Man in the Mirror, Dancing Queen and Fernando do have a bright, top end, catchy hook common thread.

What sets Marley apart to many is the profundity of his universal philosophical message. And I'm certainly not going to argue with them. Indeed when I was a student in Canada and Bob was a touchstone of which every Jamaican could be unabashedly loud and proud, I used to read deep structural meanings into his lyrics with the best of them. But as I get older and more detached from the songs of my youth, I'm inclined to view music as just music.

Recent books about the lyrics of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Bob Marley attribute eye closing, head shaking, audible gasp meaningfulness to even trite pop song clichés. But I'm personally unconvinced. Most of the stuff that seems deep when sung looks mighty thin on paper. And anyway how it sounds is a lot more important in music than what it means. Who cares about the lyrics of Beethoven or Mozart or Verdi or Louis Armstrong or Ray Charles?

As a Jamaican Bob Marley's worldwide fame makes me immensely proud. How good it feels to know that no matter where you go people recognise his name! In a way he really has put this country on the map. Yet I wonder how all the other Jamaican musicians who have helped to create our wonderful music feel when foreigners, and indeed some Jamaicans, act and talk as if Bob Marley was the only reggae artist who ever lived.

It's inspiring to see Bob Marley's birthday becoming not only a nationally but an internationally significant date. But maybe my friend Valerie is right. Instead of focusing exclusively on one individual, wouldn't it perhaps be more appropriate to use February 6th to celebrate our full musical tradition - without which no one would ever have heard of Marley - and all those who contributed to it? Instead of Bob Marley Day, how about Jamaica Music Day?

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