Sunday, February 28, 2010

Young legend - Remembering the work and life of Garnet Silk

Sixteen years after his death, one question seems to come to mind when Garnet Silk is thought of or mentioned - What if?
What if he didn't die at 28, and had gone on to fulfil his promise as the next truly great global reggae star? What if he hadn't left his wife, Novlyn, and three children in Kingston to visit his mom in Mandeville on December 9, 1994, which turned out to be his last day alive? What if he were alive today? Where would his legacy be among those of the greats?
If one were to put imagery to Garnet Silk's voice, it would be like honey flowing through a well-tuned Don Drummond trombone, manifesting itself each time the instrument was played.
His voice was sweet, soulful and equally rich on each note and inflection. It had a pureness and clarity that was beautifully simple. Then there were the lyrics, his conversion to Rastafarianism shaping his message, which earned him comparisons to Bob Marley.
Little Bimbo
At 28 years old and with a relatively small catalogue, Silk, born Garnet Damon Smith, had a profound impact on Jamaica's music landscape. His career boom (1992-94) came at a time when the public was converting from vulgar dancehall tunes to conscious songs that spoke to the needs and desires of the African diaspora in Jamaica.
Over his life, there were specific developments that shaped Silk into the person he was up to death. He was first known as Little Bimbo in Manchester while he worked as a toaster on local sound systems in the mid-'80s. He was soon convinced to pursue singing instead of deejaying as his voice was more suited for it. Around the same time, friends Tony Rebel and Yasus Afari and brother-in-law Frederick Bent introduced Silk to the philosophies of Rastafarianism and he accepted them. His conversion a few years later gave new perspective to his songwriting.
Silk teamed with producing duo Steelie and Clevie in 1990 but was dissatisfied with the development of his album and went on a hiatus. This break allowed him to rejuvenate in Manchester and focus on his songwriting with friend Anthony 'Fire' Rochester. He returned to record some of his best tracks, including Zion in a Vision .
At the apex of his career, Silk and his mother perished by fire in their Mandeville home. Like other musical immortals, the combination of his impact and untimely death at a young age forged an iconic status on Silk among reggae lovers.
Some of the persons who knew the 'silky one' best divulged details on some of the key periods of his life that saw the development of Garnet Smith to Little Bimbo to Garnet Silk to a young legend.
Early Life
As told by his sister, Marcia Smith
"Garnet really born in dancehall. That boy been licking pan and deejaying from him was nine years old. We use to have hard time fi him go school. As day light him use to go inna one likkle old van weh mi father had and beat it like a sound system.
"Not too far from the house in Hatfield (Manchester), there is a centre, that them also use as a basic school, and they use to keep events there, so that's where he started. There were two main people in the area with sound systems. There was Soul Faith, owned by Robert Palmer, and Girl Soul International by Teddy Hickling. They use to put Garnet on beer box so people could see him, and him would deejay and mash up the place.
"Him grow up fast. When he was 15, you couldn't even call him a boy 'cause him a work him likkle $250 pon the sound.
"At around 17, he did his first recording with Delroy Collins ( Problem Everywhere ). After that him use to be back and forth to Kingston and Mandeville just fi get a bread, enuh. Me always use to beat him and tell him fi go learn trade because this music nah carry him nuh weh. When me see him start locks mi use to lick him same way, because yu grow up and people always think seh Rasta a cruff and all dem things deh so deh likkle mentality in a yu same way.
Nah dutty up him hand
"Mi use to tell him fi go do woodwork, and him rail up and tell me seh him nah dutty up him hand, a music him a do, and mi tell him seh him nah get nutten out a music, yu just a walk and a mek up noise, and him seh, alright you will see. Yeah, man, that was him. The music born in a him.
"His intention was always to help him mother 'cause she never really had it. So fi him intention was just to go out there and do sum'n so that mamma could a survive."
Garnet embraces Rastafarianism
As told by Tony Rebel
"From mi know Garnet Silk him was a yute weh did a seek. From in the late '80s, when me live in a di hills a Manchester, him use to come link mi and we use to have some serious reasoning. When he converted to Rastafarianism, he converted with a deep conviction. He was a genuine yute. Him love Rastafari, mi know that fi sure.
"Rastafarianism changed his life. Him was a yute who use to sometimes shy towards certain things. I remember one day, when him just start dread, him use to wear him tam, and one day him couldn't find any and him had to go downtown without it, and him seh him just feel a braveness. There was a certain amount of bravery that came with it because to grow yu dread in a society where, even though Rasta was originated there, there was certain amount of opposition that was still around that he was aware of. So he didn't know if he would be welcomed or not. After wearing his locks, he expressed to me that he felt he did something right.
"As his dreads grew and his belief in Rastafari grew, it simultaneously grew with his music into the faith and the whole combination of Rastafarianism and his spirituality enhanced his music. He was singing long time, but not like the way he was when him turn Rasta. Even his persona changed. Him just start look different when him start wear him dread. We use to sit down and reason seh Rastafari really enhance his life, wholistically, and that was true."
Career peak
As told by former manager Bridgett Anderson
"When we just started working together he was working mainly on sound systems but he had a vision of working with live music and taking his music to another level. Garnet's music was about saving souls. We use to leave the house up by Tavistock Avenue (Millsborough) and he would say, 'Well, we gone save some souls now.' And he never cared if there were two people in the audience or 20,000. He always wanted to know that he touched people's lives by what he made. He was selfless when he was on that stage performing. He let go of self and really allowed the spirit of God to move through him and that was evident in how he performed. He was an evangelist. Money and all those things didn't matter to him that much. He was a kind person. He gave and gave and gave. He had a list of things he would bring back for people each time we went out to work.
"I've represented a lot of good artistes and Garnet is in a category by himself. When it came to the message in the music, he was an advocate for truth and rights and righteousness. At that time there was a lot of slackness in the music. I remember Angie Angel before she was a Rasta, we were at a show in Bermuda, and Garnet just said to her, 'God want you, enuh.' He was just like that.
"People never use to jump up and down when they listened to Garnet. They stood spellbound. They were transformed just standing up and drinking in his performance. We did a show at CV Smith Park in Miami in 1993 and the next day they called it Garnet Silk Day. People were just in awe of his performance. I saw people cry and said, 'Your music gives us hope. It gives us something to hold on to'. He was something else. He was really an awesome human being and he was dedicated to spreading his message of truth and love.
"During this period he did songs like Christ In His Kingly Character , Mama and Zion In A Vision . Christ In His Kingly Character was a very crucial song for him. His acceptance of Christ and the role that His Imperial Majesty played in the personality of Christ - that song explains his belief of the personification of Christ in a kingly character."
The professional
As told by producer Donovan Germain
"Garnet was the consummate professional in his whole attitude and approach towards the work. He was always well prepared and that's one of the greatest things about an artiste. He didn't come around trying to find the song. He always came prepared so it was just a mater of fine-tuning it when he got to the studio. I would normally give him the track in advance and he would go home and write the song and rehearse so when he came to the studio it wouldn't be any long drawn-out session."
Garnet Silk's legacy
As told by Yasus Afari
"I would define Garnet as a silk worm who was given the mandate of adorning the people with a vocal garment of music. So we would want to see that garment getting stronger in the future, hopefully being more relevant. This is a very special garment that we need to value and learn from and be inspired by. Over the last 16 years, that has been happening to different degrees. And for the next 16 years and beyond, hopefully, we'll cherish that garment. Don't misuse it but use it just enough to get the value that it was placed for.
Capsules of memories
"A man's works is his testimony and we judge him by the fruits weh him bear. Garnet's legacy - these songs and inspirations and capsules of memories - can be likened to his fruits. Memory is the sperm of life and time, so you could consider his memory as a legacy also.
"Outside of the music, people have encountered him by absorbing his energy from the stage, from interviews, from walking with him on the street, from embracing him, and these could be etched in the psyche of people.
"Silk had so much love, and that is part of his legacy - the love weh him have fi di people and the love weh dem reciprocate. Garnet is a yute weh Jah inspire and that was his life; it was an intrigue and a fascination. He was in awe of Jah as a student of Jah. So he absorbed Rastafari love and blessing and then passed that on to the people as much as possible and that, I think, was a peculiar ability."-The Gleaner

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gentleman Shows His 'Diversity'

After starting work on his fifth album two years ago, Gentleman said he is finally ready to release it.
"I just collect the songs and now I feel like it's the right time to put it out. Good things take time. I wanted to release it last year but the time never right," said the German-born reggae artiste.
"The longer I am in the business, the harder it is to please myself. That's why I took so long, everything have to be right. I am definitely satisfied with it."
Gentleman said he will release his new 20-track album Diversity on April 9. He said the name was chosen because there is a wide variety of songs on it, from reggae to dancehall to R&B.
And, the diversity is also shown with the types of collaborations. He did songs with artistes like Tanya Stephens, Christopher Martin, Jack Radics, Sugar Minott and Luciano. But only six of the 20 songs on the album are collaborations.
The bulk of the album is produced by Don Corleon, who did about 10 songs. Work on it was done by other producers like Shane Brown, Jammys, Pow Pow, Red Rose, Sly, Exterminator and European producer Denny Blanco.
so versatile
As pleased as he is with his new effort, Gentleman said others will like it too.
"I think it is gonna be great 'cause it's so versatile. There's a song for everyone. This time it's all mixed together 'cause it's all reggae music. I wasn't afraid to extend the horizon," he told THE STAR.
With that said, Gentleman had a few words for those involved in music piracy.
"Just buy the album, don't burn it. The lyrics are positive and uplifting and that's what the music needs right now. I am very proud of my project and I put a lot of love in it," he said.
After some amount of promotion on the album, he said he will tour Europe and the United States, before doing shows in the Caribbean and Hawaii.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Re-empowering the Unsung Wailers

The following is the second instalment of a two-part feature on the importance of Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston to the rise of Bob Marley as an international reggae icon. Part one was carried yesterday.
The Wailers were a musically cohesive unit on all angles. Together, texture, vocal flexibility, timbre, sense of musicality, thematic interest, kinship and vision was reflected in their overall sound and informed their spirituality and aesthetic concepts. Qualities of voice notwithstanding, they all were fine singers for a number of other reasons. Bob Marley's haunting beauty, with its hint of hurt and urgent optimism; Peter Tosh's bold enunciation, his texture and clear diction, natural range between baritone and tenor, coupled with his ability to swoop between ranges without effort, sometimes interchanging with Bunny Livingston whose honey-flavoured tenor revealed none of the artificiality that accompanies those achieved by way of falsetto, which was the property of singers not as endowed.
Double consciousness
The group's overall sense of timing, harmony, nuance, call and response, shouts, grunts, hollers, innovation, and downright daring, conveyed both regret and celebration that resulted in emotional counterpoint that played to W.E.B. Dubois' point about double consciousness. Melancholy and cheerfulness, unreserved and unrequited love, optimism and despair, imbibed lyrics that danced or moaned over driving ska, rocksteady and reggae rhythms that are the quintessential expression of celebration.
The outcome was a mixture of delight and sorrow, a combination of tragedy and exhalation, sensibilities that are as emblematic of the blues as they are testimony to Albert Ayler's maxim: "Music is the healing force of the universe." That Marley's genius would embody many of these attributes is indeed testimony to his ability to harvest from the epic poetry that exemplifies The Wailers as a group.
Too many songs with political meaning that have become hits had messages that were lost on listeners, because they lacked empathic intimacy.
Individually and collectively, Tosh, Marley and Livingston represented the varied approaches to black cultural production; preaching, oratory, and singing, playing with and shaping words, phrases and rhythms, narrowing the boundaries between singing and testifying, entertaining and educating, stretching and constricting syllables, signifying and troping, often vocalising phrases as though the lyric ricocheted from drums with fresh syncopation and punctuation to the poetic sensibility that informs the text. In the hands of any other group, then or now, the sensibilities that imbue the gems that exemplify the original Wailers would have been missing and the music would not have had the same resonance.
For those reasons, this trio remains the zenith of distinction and the essence of greatness; they define the idea of interplay, in-group collaboration, and reflect the result of collective and individual commercial and artistic successes.
The success of later editions of The Wailers, and also the individual successes each member of the trio attained, owes much to the efforts of their own innovations and pioneering adventures. Yet, through no doing of his, Marley has been the recipient of all the accolades, and as his stature has ascended to that of demigod, the contributions of Tosh and Livingston, more and more, have been erased, remains overlooked and is all but forgotten, leaving the impression that on his own, the achievements were all Marley's.
Take for instance Vinette Price's eye-catching headline from a recent article of hers - 'Marley's 'Catch A Fire' makes it to Grammy Hall of Fame' [Sunday Herald: Class, December 13-19, 2009. Page 18]. Here is a recording first released in 1972 under the name of the title The Wailers: Catch A Fire . A few years later it was being marketed as Bob Marley and The Wailers. Now we are lead to believe Catch A Fire is Marley's sole effort. Here is the first sentence of Prices article: "Bob Marley's Catch A Fire release is finally considered timeless by the Recording Academy, the music specialists responsible for the Grammy Awards."
Misleading pronouncements
Notwithstanding that the last line of the second-to-last paragraph of the article refers to the recording as Bob Marley and The Wailers, such pronouncements are misleading and serves to diminish the contribution made by Tosh and Livingston to this fine recording. Indeed, this first international release by the group, also showcases in addition to Marley, both Tosh and Livingston as lead singers, composers and instrumentalists - in the case of Tosh on no less than three instruments. Drawing attention to the collaborative effort, here is a quote from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia regarding Catch A Fire's impact.
"The recording's ... socially aware lyrics and militant tone surprised many listeners, but others were attracted to songwriters Marley and Peter Tosh's confrontational subjects and optimistic view of a future free from oppression." [Wikipedia. accessed 10/1/2010]. And as Jimmy Guterman writes: "Marley's not the only lead singer; this is very much a group, as proved again in the nearly equal follow-up, Burnin' , which featured more well-known songs like Get Up, Stand Up , and I Shot the Sheriff ... (N)ever were Marley, Tosh, and Livingston more impressive than when they worked together." [Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time , 1992. accessed 10/1/2010]. Continuing to place emphasis on group contribution and interplay, Michael Woodsworth adds:
"Not only was this the first reggae album to penetrate the rock market, it was also Marley's key collaboration with fellow Wailers' founders Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston. ... Backed by the ... squeaky-clean upbeats of Tosh's guitar, the trio laid out the range of their vocal ability, broadcasting their militant message in rich harmony. Tosh's forceful 400 Years and the wailing, menacing Slave Driver recall slavery's oppressive historical legacy.
Marley sings lead on all save two of the tracks, but Catch A Fire is definitely the work of a band - one bursting with hunger and creative energy." [Michael Woodsworth, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die , 2005. accessed 10/1/2010].
So, if you are among the multitudes who only think of The Wailers as the post Catch A Fire (1972) and Burning (1973) group led by the incomparable Marley, or one likely to be confused by ill-informed or wilful statements that diminish the contribution of Tosh and Livingston to the legacy of The Wailers and Marley's acclaim, you are urged to immerse yourself in the music of the aggregation's formative years to understand just why they alone among Jamaican groups could have become trendsetters on the competitive international scene as early as they did. To better understand and appreciate the contributions of these two outstanding original Wailers, one must be willing to go beyond the Island recordings and engage in the early recordings for Clement 'Coxone' Dodd, Beverley's, Lee Perry, and on their own Wail 'N' Soul 'M' label.
The two-disc compilation, Bob Marley and The Wailers - One Love At Studio One 1964-1966 , (1991, Heartbeat Records) is perhaps the best place to start. It collects 41-tracks that brings together the A and B sides of a range of singles, many alternate takes and previously unissued sides to give a most compre-hensive overview of this amazingly authentic group, their singularity and the contributions of its two overlooked, if not underrated members. Livingston and Tosh are featured here not only as harmony singers, the greatest in my estimation in vernacular and idiomatic terms, but they are also placed centrestage as lead singers, and in Tosh's case, musician (guitar, melodica and keyboard), and are also recognised for the compositions they contributed. It is important to know, as well, that unlike many groups that fell apart after their lead singer (in reference to the Wailers, two lead singers, first Junior Braithwaite to Chicago and then Marley to Delaware) migrated, The Wailers held together and continued having success with massive hits. Ironically, songs recorded prior to his return are today routinely accredited to Marley in spite of his absence when they were recorded.
Since his death, a carefully designed and executed kind of slanted promotion has given the impression that Marley was the Wailers, and that Tosh and Livingston were secondary participants, utilised as backup vocalists. But nothing is further from the truth. In fact, in an interview with Neville Willoughby, Marley stated his commitment to the group by subtly addressing the skewed publicity that undermined the trio's democracy.
"I am committed to The Wailers. Fi some reason dem seh, Bob Marley and The Wailers. I neva tell anyone fe seh dat."
Reconfigured Wailers
The success of Bob Marley and The Wailers, the reconfigured group, beginning with the release of Natty Dread (1974), could not have been achieved without the combined efforts of these three titans of early Jamaican popular music. They, above all others, are responsible for modernist approaches to how they and the music would become internationally marketable, and to deny any of the three the honour of recognition for his efforts is to deceive, discredit and defame.
Combining idiomatic influences, philosophy, social consciousness, style (both visual and auditory), attitude, originality and most importantly, authenticity, the contribution of the original Wailers (Bob, Bunny and Peter) to sonic and stylistic Afro-modernity parallels The Beatles' in terms of the British quartet's influence on modern pop and Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Picasso's ability to be simultaneously fashionable and profoundly artful.
Social inequity
Like Picasso was able to achieve with his tour de force paintings, 'Guernica' [1937], which captured and reflected the shock to Franco's acts of terror during the Spanish Civil War, and 'Massacre in Korea' [1951], based on the slaughter of Korean civilians by US forces in 1950, The Wailers were equally up to the task of addressing institutional and social inequity and malevolence through their compositions. Albums such as Catch a Fire and Burning , both by The Wailers, and Blackheart Man [1976], Exodus [1977] and Equal Rights [1977] by Livingston, Marley and Tosh respectively, can be acclaimed as socio-political statements without succumbing to commerciality at the expense of creativity, artistic integrity, or the complexity that characterises the vital force of humanity. And as much as Marley is its most recognised member, both Tosh and Livingston must be acknowledged as the next two most important and influential group members whose collaborative willingness engendered the greatness of The Wailers, and helped to stimulate Marley to become the creative genius that we celebrate. Elevating Marley and denying Tosh and Livingston their rightful credits, kudos and the respect due them is a travesty. If we really regard our musical history, respect truth and consider the importance of The Wailers and its best known member, Marley, among Jamaica's uttermost gifts to the world, let us as historians, publicists and cultural custodians make it our duty to challenge those who wish to rewrite history by distorting facts. Let us commit to re-empower these two unsung Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston. Such truth, democracy and attention to injustice, is what the individual members personified and the original Wailers exemplified.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Reempowering the Unsung Wailers - The Importance of Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston to Marley's Ascendancy

The following is a two-part look at the role of Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston in Jamaica's most popular group The Wailers. Part 2 will appear in tomorrow's Gleaner.
Reggae month (February), also the earth month of Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, is a vital period in which to highlight the effort of historians and commentators who attempt to redress misconceptions perpetuated by clever record company public relations and publicity personnel and other interest parties that distort reggae music's reality, purposely or innocently.
The case of the original Wailers, who were primarily Bob Marley, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, but at times included Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso, Cherry Green, Rita Marley and Constantine 'Dream' Walker, is a paramount and instructive case. It is a case, which, according to a Marley insider, without any apology, seeks to "position Bob in the public consciousness morning, noon and night". What was implied is that this would be done without much, if any, mention of the others who have been part of the group.
Some time ago, on a Sunday morning, I listened to a popular radio DJ play an extended selection of old Wailers recordings. It was the beginning of the week that would mark Peter Tosh's birthday. The DJ repeatedly referred to the selections as Bob Marley's without acknowledging the others, even when Tosh or Livingston was obviously the lead singer. He did so on some selections in spite of the fact that Bob was clearly not present on some songs. After repeatedly doing so, I decided to call the radio station and point this out to the DJ and to also suggest that he dedicate the session to Peter Tosh since Tosh's birthday was a few days coming in the middle of the week. He, in no uncertain manner, let me know he knew what he was doing and didn't need my opinion. The DJ went back on the air and said: "A bredda just call and want to talk 'bout Peter Tosh. If him want to hear Peter Tosh, mek him go play him own Peter Tosh".
This is the kind of mindset that is cultivated if Bob Marley continues to be positioned in the public consciousness at the expense of the other principal members of the original Wailers, the group which, in my opinion, is Jamaica's finest.
For this treatise, I will concern myself with the importance of the Wailers' primary three, Bob, Bunny and Peter, with only minimal mention of others.
In the early days of our popular music, Jamaica produced many outstanding harmony groups. Most notable among them were duets such as Higgs and Wilson and Alton and Eddie. Groups such as the Down Beats, Jiving Juniors and the Rhythm Aces paved the way for The Paragons, The Heptones, The Gaylads and The Wailers. All were outstanding groups that copied the styles of their favourite American counterparts, even covering their hits. Some as much as adopted the names of foreign groups or applied to it some slight adjustment. Many dressed in fashions similar to the 'brothers' up north and even twanged when they addressed audiences. Though outstanding and well received in the role of clone, many lacked originality - the ability to display any real authenticity or inventiveness. Indeed, the local recording industry began in earnest in order to fill the void caused by the unavailability of the type of doo-wop and rhythm and blues songs that were popular in Jamaica but on the wane in America.
The Wailers could have been just another outstanding group to gain popularity by shadowing an American model, in their case, The Impressions, if they had remained so focused. But with the exception of a number of covers, to which a distinctive Wailers ethos was employed - What's New Pussycat, Sugar, Sugar, and Go Johnny Go, among them, and a variety of successful songs that resembled the late '50s and '60s- R&B and soul variety, it was clear to all with insight that this group's promise was beyond cloning. In terms of identity, The Wailers were remarkably different from any other group before or after. They made successful hits in the American vein and like too many others, may have retarded their originality and stifled their authenticity had it not been for their individual and collective awareness to retain the individuality that comes with being home-grown.
immense talent
As a group, they had a sense of mission and were conscious that their immense talent, especially that of their visionary lead singer and principal lyricist, Bob Marley, was too remarkable to waste on being copycats. Unlike the polished sound pursued by most Jamaican groups (The Maytals and Justin Hines are exceptions), The Wailers perfected a style that was both raw and elegant. It was built around Pentecostal shouts, chants, and a crying wail; a fusion of melancholy and hopefulness that was ultimately celebratory; a sound that moved beyond the sentimental and engaged the profound.
In addition to The Skatalites and Don Drummond, for many of my generation, those of us who came of age during the 1960s, The Wailers simply made the most unbelievable and believable music. It was real, it was palpable and The Wailers were the voice of the people. In simple terms, they represented the rebellion against the false values that existed in a generally inequitable and divided society. They provided those of us at odds with the status quo an identity.
Marley was the group's most adept songwriter, and rather than a sweet singer, he was more of a storyteller, a griot, if you will. His voice was the perfect instrument to convey and emphasise the song's message, and it blended with Livingston's and Tosh's to empathise with the ordinary person's fears and aspirations. Using related themes, The Wailers linked songs thus creating a grand narrative, a sequence of compositions that connected like the chapters of a well-conceived, richly textured and dramatically nuanced work of literary art. And while few artistes, whose work has been imagined as social and political commentary, were as insightful, perceptive, and successful as The Wailers', Bob's writing and the group's performances displayed neither simplistic notions of heritage nor brayed the sort of protest that was the dogma of lesser talent, most of whom have realised the shallowness of their vision as time passes.
Artistes with ambitions as social commentators had available to them situations in Jamaica that provided an extraordinary and complex range of resources. Inherent in the system were signifiers or themes that have always had an impact on great visionaries and leaders for social transformation. Society provided a scope of complex references and ambiguous interactions that revolved around questions of identity, humanity, collective dignity, the responsibility and accountability of the individual, the community and government, the elegant and the obnoxious, flaws and virtues, and the successes and failings of a plantation society system seeking change but in conflict with hegemony, deceptive and often corrupt politicians and law enforcers, pompous Europhiles, ambitious nationalists, and Afro-centric romantics weaved into a tapestry of social interaction weft together by the inevitability of destiny.
Collectively, The Wailers observed and understood these complexities. They wrote and performed songs that definitely were protests in form and meaning. However, sentimentality was unquestionably absent from their interpretation of bygone or present-day life. They effectively sculpted music through which the traditional and the modern were expressed as intricate imagery and meticulous gradations of intent, of colour and tone that are symbolic in character. Indeed, they provided a heightened awareness of responsibility, dignity and humanity that is historic, mythic and caustic.
During the decade of the 1960s to the early '70s and at their socio-political best, radio stations, and especially middle-class Jamaicans, snubbed The Wailers. How short-sighted they were! The group, which served notice to the world when Chris Blackwell signed them to his Island label and released their first concept album, Catch a Fire in 1972, always sang protest or 'culture music' with an impeccably buoyant beat. They would celebrate, could lament, were melancholy, or, whenever it was appropriate, even sang pure pop, imbued at times by an affable innocence.
They were masterful at projection. With their skilful use of studio and stage, flawless diction, charismatic phrasing and keen ear for melody, plus their ability to impart the meaning of the lyrics in a song, The Wailers, like all great performers, were also able to make each fan feel as if they were the group's personal focus.
Arguably, they had the most positive effect on reggae during its classic period. The Wailers were key in pioneering the internationalisation of the genre, which, since its inception, had assimilated all that had gone before. Studio owners and quasi producers had previously dominated the scene with musicians and singers dependent on their benevolence. By liberating themselves from established local studio identification and establishing their own label, The Wailers delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce that gave singers the independence and significance that were previously exclusive to producers. No longer merely vocalists associated with the stables of the studio owners, The Wailers paved the way for singers to take responsibility for what they record, reducing studio bosses to collaborators, hired producers or consigning them to oblivion. Like the most intense percussive-driven horn music of The Skatalites and its brilliant soloist Don Drummond, the music of The Wailers was/is a music of cathartic experience that somehow spiritually, emotionally and psychologically purified the angst of social degradation.
social realities
Marley wrote and achieved hits with Simmer Down, Rude Boy Ska and Jailhouse, while Tosh contributed I'm the Toughest, and Bunny offered I Stand Predominate, a body of work whose sentiments reflected social realities. Marley would further provide the group with substantial hits such as I'm Gonna Put it On, Bus Dem Shut, and Hypocrites in addition to Black Progress and Arise Blackman by Tosh, and Rolling Stone by Livingston that extended the theme.
The Wailers' music characterised life's myths and reality as art by its passionate enthusiasm and nuanced suggestiveness; excitement that had impact on their followers, by being staggeringly provocative, and because of its heroic impressiveness, which unfolded like the plots and dramatic text that defines theatrical quality. Their music was inspirational, bold, vibrant, and strikingly remarkable in form and effect.
The Wailers were always synthesising in each composition many different myths, metaphors and realities. They brought out the vulnerability and the agony of the poor with tunes like Hurting Inside, which also communicated the wailing cry of parent and child and also a haunting aura of hopelessness.
On Fussing and Fighting, the group asks, "Why is this fussing and fighting, why is this cheating and lying," and offers advice: "We should really love each other in peace and harmony instead of fussing and fighting like we aint supposed to be."
Not only are the lyrics and musical arrangements noteworthy of the overall meaning of these kind of songs, but also notable were the forces that brought together these three singers with their unique characteristics, including their haunting melancholy, and sweet and sour quality.
Yet with all its hurt, the music was not about defeat. The opposite also abound. Small Axe expresses the defiance of the little people against the big man: "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down".
The optimism, the hope and the possibilities conveyed by the music they made were also clearly evident. (Both musically and topically), their music (more so than any of their contemporaries,) was both more expansive and expressive than any of their contemporaries', but that is inevitable, because The Wailers never patterned themselves on metropolitan references. Trench Town Rock, for example, is both lamenting the plight of West Kingston's inner city and at the same time expressing the "grooving" good times, the humanity and the sense of defiance the marginalised can summon to balance the challenges of their existence. And in its delivery, not only is there a sense of the combative, but also a light-hearted playfulness that captures the dichotomy of ghetto or sufferer life.
meanings and emotions
The Wailers' music also demonstrated that some of the meanings and emotions that can be conveyed by being grounded in idiomatic forms could not be conveyed through sensibilities that are copies of another culture, in spite of sharing similar experiences. For instance, the myth of Mr Brown, a song about the sighting of a coffin running around town with two John Crows, one on either end, begins with a holler, perhaps to invoke the presence of spirits or the memory of an ancestor. It is shouted in a kind of yodel that would be out of place for an aggregation whose references are to Broadway or whose style is influenced by the smooth approach of an American soul group. That approach would lose the vernacular meaning of the song. And too many songs with social and political meaning that have become local hits had messages whose impact was lost on listeners because they lacked empathic intimacy. In the case of The Wailers, the energy, the emotional energy that comes from those expressions, is not lost. It captures and communicates the Jamaican capacity for optimism, resilience and vision.
Although best known as artistes whose major works reverberated with socio-political imagery, The Wailers were also masters of the romantic ballad. They rendered chestnuts like the Junior Braithwaite lead It Hurts to be Alone, Smokey Robinson's I Need You, with Bunny Livingston singing lead, and the perennial classic, I'm Still Waiting, which features Marley's aching voice, all without betraying a hint of sentimentality or over-romanticising. Later masterpieces would include the poetic brilliance of Sun is Shining, the herb influenced and metaphor-laden Kaya, while the touching mating call inherent in Guava Jelly and the playfully suggestive Stir it Up remains perhaps their most sensual and sexual pieces of creative verse.
rude boys
The overall oeuvre of The Wailers' music presents ideas that were unsentimental and complex - Jamaica is paradise but misery for those without the wherewithal; opportunities abound but not for the poor; rude boys are lawless but their benevolence benefits the community; folk culture is rich in metaphors, historic references and mystique but next to European culture it is viewed as quaint; blacks live in hopelessness but with optimism in abundance. The music of The Wailers, therefore, reflects the textural magnificence of life, simultaneously mirroring both sides of a world that inspired the motto 'Out of Many One People': the universe of the black, the Jew, the Chinese, Indian, Syrian, the mulatto, the Jamaican, white and the immigrant; the peasant, the farmer, the government and the governed; whether rich or poor, fisherman or preacherman, higgler or merchant, professional or manual labourer, this "out of many one" motley crew shaped this grand narrative that is Jamaican from which the Wailers - Bob, Bunny and Peter- composed a perceptive and insightfully splendid enough epic that makes their best work the kind of classics they have become, and them, the acknowledged masters that they are.
And so, contrary to popular belief as perpetrated by the messages of hired publicists serving the self-interest of his beneficiaries, Marley could not have done it alone. Tosh and Livingston were crucial to Marley's success. The three were uncannily suited to each other in personality, attitude, talent and philosophy, even in difference.-The Gleaner