It works something like this. Ships come in bringing slaves from Africa, bringing music. In a climate of brutal oppression, the music toughs it out, assuming the importance it had in Africa as the culture's psychic and social foundation. As in Africa, there is an emphasis on rhythms, and the rhythms have a story to tell – often literally as speech-inflected patterns – and work to do. They bring people together, draw them into participation and serve as mediators between the individual, the community and the world beyond the world, the world of the spirits.
As the culture evolves and slavery's death grip at last begins to falter, rhythmic fundamentals begin to spread beyond the ritual setting. As populations leave the countryside for the cities looking for opportunity, dance music built on sacred rhythms spreads into urban dance halls, bars and theaters. There the music encounters the mediums of radio and recording: flashpoint. Suddenly, the venerable rhythms are the latest thing, a pop sensation. From plantation drumming and voodoo ceremonies to country-church "shouts" to Bo Diddley to James Brown: That's the North American version of the tale. The Jamaican version runs from the drumming of the Maroons (runaway-slave societies) to the pocomania and Revival Zion churches to the Rastafarians to mento, ska, rock steady, reggae and Bob Marley.
Robert Nesta Marley was born Feb. 6, 1945, in the heavily forested country of St. Ann's Parish, the child of 19-year-old country girl Cedella Booker and a white colonial then working in the area, Captain Norval Sinclair Marley. The captain did marry Cedella, then abandoned her. Bob grew up in a back-country world whose values and beliefs were still profoundly African, a world more permeable to superhuman forces both natural and supernatural than any city child could know. His grandfather Omeriah Malcolm was a respected man in the parish, a myalman adept in the ways of sorcery and spirit propitiation. Long before he embraced Rastafarianism as a spiritual philosophy and a way of life, Bob Marley was on intimate terms with his culture's deepest mysteries.
When the teenage Marley arrived in Kingston, Jamaican music was entering a period of unprecedented expansion and growth. Mento, an acoustic popular music comparable to the calypso of Trinidad and Tobago, was being displaced from the forefront by an increasingly Jamaicanized take on Southern R&B and soul music. As the new ska sound developed, it began to exert a subtle but increasingly significant influence on North American soul.
Island rhythms had been an important ingredient in New Orleans' musical gumbo since the early days of jazz. Professor Longhair, the founding father of New Orleans' piano-based R&B, specifically mentioned his wartime experience playing with "West Indian boys" as a factor shaping his influential polyrhythms of the 1940s and '50s. By the mid-'60s – when Jamaican tempos slowed, its grooves deepened, and its bass moved out front in the mix, creating the style dubbed rock steady – Jamaican rhythmic ideas were beginning to surface in Memphis soul music as well.
Al Jackson Jr., the seminal Booker T. and the MG's-Stax Records session drummer, began vacationing in Jamaica, buying records, visiting sessions. Listen to Jackson's rhythm arrangement on Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" back to back with the Silvertones' rock-steady cover of the tune, and you will readily hear the connections. All rock & roll styles are derivative of earlier musics in the beginning. Jamaican music quickly grew out of this phase, becoming part of a two-way rhythmic dialogue, transcending geographical and national boundaries.
Marley did not spend much time watching these events from the sidelines. A precocious musician with an already distinctive vocal style, he began making records in 1962. He sounded nervous, high-pitched, painfully adolescent on his debut ska recording, "Judge Not." But already he was drawing on Biblical imagery and themes in original lyrics that had an important social dimension as well as a spiritual and moral imperative: "While you talk about me/Someone else is judging you."
Marley's earliest ska recordings were solo efforts, but the '60s were the heyday of Jamaican vocal groups, and Marley had been woodshedding with a loose group of friends from Trenchtown. When he became dissatisfied with his original recording situation, he auditioned with the group for No. 1 sound-system man Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd.
Of the original group members, Junior Braithwaite and Beverly Kelso soon dropped out, leaving a tighter-than-tight trio of running partners to carry on. Neville "Bunny" Livingston, later Bunny Wailer, was one of Bob's earliest and closest childhood friends from St. Ann's Parish. Marley's mother and Wailer's father were living together in Trenchtown when Bob and Bunny met Peter McIntosh, later Peter Tosh, who completed the triumvirate.
This trio's mesh of voices was never conventionally pretty. The three voices didn't so much blend as create a constantly shifting ensemble texture, tightly interwoven but with each singer's timbre remaining distinct. Unlike most singers on the way up, Marley, Tosh and Livingston refused to cosmeticize their back-of-town rawness, realizing from the first that their origins were one of their greatest strengths. They had in fact chosen a group name that called attention to these origins; they were Wailers, they said, because they were ghetto sufferers, born wailing.
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