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Bob Marley with a Bullet

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A rain a fall but the dirt it tough
A pot a cook but the food no' 'nough . . .
We're gonna dance to Jah music, dance,
Forget your troubles and dance

—"Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" Natty Dread

Not until it dawned on me that the Rastas and their music are under heavy anaesthesia and that the violence of reggae (like everything else in Jamaica from room service to interviews with Bob Marley) is on a soon come basis, could I understand how so much social outrage could coexist with the ricky-tick syncopations of reggae. The disparity was even more disturbing when I first arrived in Babylon and saw what all that benumbed and bemuted outrage was about.

"Is this the area they call Trench Town?" I asked the cab driver, gawking out the back window at endless pathetic claptrap shanties and tin-roofed shacks. "Noooooo, mon," he said, swerving to avoid a stray goat, "Trench Town is a bad place. Dat be in de ghetto."

Unfortunately, the distinction was lost on me. For, not even the most strident protests of Marley, Tosh and other reggae artists, or the reggae cult film, The Harder They Come, had prepared me for the absolute squalor I saw along the narrow Casbah thoroughfares where sullen Caribbean Staggerlees stood on Catfish Row corners outside funky, blasting juke-joints with paint-potched Red Stripe Beer signs dangling down. Nothing had done justice to this place, I realized, staring dejectedly out the window at too many ragged urchins with spidery limbs and swollen bellies swarming through the Casbah swelter, scattering all my palmy, tourist-brochure preconceptions along that dismal roadside.

Then, my spirits lifted momentarily when the first real live Rastafarian I had ever seen breezed by on a motorbike, dreadlocks flying like freakflags. But my driver apparently found the spectacle less than exhilarating. "Bloodclot!" he spat (a mean menstrual epithet which may be the worst thing you can call someone in Jamaica). "Like de fruit fly dat prey upon de crops dem bloodclots wid de dreadlocks is a blight upon dis very island . . . No, mon, dem not de true religious mon what grow de dreadlock for strictly religious purposes as claimed by dem . . . Dem gunmen dat grow de dreads to strike fear in de heart of de people. My advice to you is stay away from dem bloodclots dat call demself de Rastas, mon. Dem racist murderers dat prey upon de tourist and de people alike."

A couple of nights later I remembered his warning when a guy called "Killy," who plays conga drums for the Sons of Negus, came to take me and a couple of other Babes-in-a-Babylon to a religious Rasta celebration known as Grounation.

The Grounation took place in Olympic Gardens, a funky suburban shantytown of small decrepit buildings not far from Trench Town, with bonfires burning, babies bawling and dogs barking in the surrounding blackness. The smell of human sweat and ganga was everywhere as the bodies milled around in little dirt alleyways between the clapboard shacks and poured into a crude pentecostal meeting hall, slightly larger than the rest, which looked like a one-room schoolhouse.

The room was packed with people, and the whole scene had the quality of some voodoo hallucination as they danced, fluid phantoms in the glow of a single candle burning on a makeshift altar beside a battered Bible. Killy took his place among a brace of drummers who were already pounding away. They were backing veteran reggae singer Ras Michael, a bearded, goatlike man who was sweating profusely in a bulky cable-knit sweater, singing a song called "In Zion." This was the most basic, noncommercial type of reggae music – unadorned and undiluted. The pentecostal fervor peaked when Michael went into "Old Marcus Garvey" – a song made popular by another local group, Burning Spear.

Suddenly, several soldiers appeared in the doorway. But the spliffs and the music kept smoking as Ras Michael aimed his song at the intruders like a spear. Wearing the sour faces of party poopers everywhere, they seemed to decompose into the surrounding dark, like spirits banished by communal scorn or some witch doctor's charm.

The drummers pounded triumphantly and the people rose up off bare fundamentalist benches, bare feet thudding on bare floorboards. Moon-faced women in sack dresses with spliffs lighting their gold-toothed smiles rolled their hips in perfect undulation, while old, rabbinical, bearded Rastamen (dreadlocks snowy but still full of juice) executed sly signifying choreographies and infants barely able to walk danced around the singer's feet, toddling in perfect reggae time. (This is how you would have to grow up if you wanted to call yourself "roots"!) Meanwhile, a bunch of giggling kids stared in the window as a white photographer danced in spastic, acid-casualty abandonment.

"De roots music have powerful magic, mon, to drive out de armies of a Babylon and make dem soldiers shameful for dem trespassin'," Michael explained later as we gagged down the ritual goat soup, flavored with herb and ladled out of a big black pot. "Why dem soldiers come here? What need to come where people is peaceful and makin' music to praise Jah? Dem feel foolish an' shameful for comin', mon, to de Rasta camp to disturb de peaceful Grounation . . . "

What bearing it has on the entire subject of roots, I do not know, but eyeing us through the door was a heavyset middleaged woman, swaying in a hammock strung across the alley. She was smoking a spliff and every couple of seconds she would giggle to herself and, in a warbling crone's drone, she would start to sing. She kept singing the same chorus over and over, and while the melody was familiar, the words sounded foreign through her pepperpot patois . . . until I recognized "Like a Rhinestone Cowboy."

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