zaterdag 7 mei 2011

Reggae biography time

Several biographies have appeared on Bob Marley by now. The recent work titled ‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh and Wailer’ (2011) by Colin Grant, is partly another one, moving thus on a well-trodden path. Yet it is more than that, and is more original.
Actually, it’s a biography of the Wailers, all three original Wailers: including Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh - to an equal degree - elaborating on the developing relationships between Bunny, Bob and Peter, as well as of these three with other influential persons in Jamaican music and society, such as studio owner Coxsone Dodd, Rasta ”leader” Mortimmo Planno, Joe Higgs, Chris Blackwell and others.

Thus, you get the combined life stories of the three original Wailers who met in the ghetto of Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, up to international stardom of Bob and later careers (and lives) of Peter and Bunny. The author, Colin Grant, knows how to write. He has the ability to write engagingly, humourously and at the same time educationally. I noticed this already with one of my favourite books, also by Grant: ‘Negro With a Hat : Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey’ (2008), a biography of Marcus Garvey.

A difference with the book on Garvey is that in ‘I & I’ Grant interchanges information and stories on the Wailers’ lives with his personal travel experiences in Jamaica. A great skill of Grant is further the way he elucidates the essence of human relationships, in such a way that all dilemmas and complexities of human beings come to the fore in an insightful manner. Jah knows that all three Wailers are/were interesting, strong personalities.

He furthermore places these personal stories in the context of Jamaican history, culture, and Rastafari’s development in Jamaica, including in Trench Town. Rastafari is mostly discussed socially and less spiritually. How the three Wailers “converted” to Rastafari gets attention, but less why. That is a criticism I can give to an otherwise outstanding work.
Bunny Wailer’s and Peter Tosh’s fathers were both ministers of local (Protestant Christian) churches, and were generally raised in a Christian context, as was Bob Marley. The social dilemmas of turning Rasta in conservative Jamaican society are well-described in the book. Rastas were often seen as undesirable outcasts, made to pay social prices for their alternative, rebellious thinking and way of life.

There are thus various threads in this work, skilfully intertwined and combined by Grant, and based on various sources, biographical, press, archival, strictly scholarly etcetera.

Especially on Bunny Wailer's and Peter Tosh's lives and backgrounds not much is widely known. The information on Bob Marley is more known to more experienced “reggae readers”, but is presented from another perspective.

I considered the most interesting parts the Wailers’ dealings with producers, such as Coxsone Dodd, the depictions of ghetto life in Trench Town around the 1960s, as well as the added background knowledge on Jamaican history and on cultural and social customs, such as the value placed on having many children or several women. Information on or anekdotes illustrating Bunny's, Peter's, or Bob’s personal character, attitude or temperament are very interesting to read as well, as are Grant’s memoirs while travelling. How growing up in the ghetto necessarily “roughened” the characters of the Wailers becomes clear, as do influences from other life experiences, such as gaol time for Bunny Wailer (accused of ganja possession).

Rastafari reference in Trench Town, which I visited in 2008. Not far (around the corner) was the “yard” where Bob Marley lived

A well-written and insightful work that may be interesting for Marley “novices”, but also for those who know already more about the Wailers and reggae history.

Still, on a sidenote, a thought repeatedly came in my head, while and after reading this work: it is time for a biography on other “icons” of Jamaican musical history, equally well-written and insightful. I mean, more scholarly, and not superficial biographies. The names Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Joseph Hill of Culture, Mikey Dread, Lucky Dube, Alton Ellis, Yabbi You, Sugar Minott, Coxsone Dodd, I Roy, Garnett Silk, Augustus Pablo, Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, Junior Delgado - all unfortunately no longer among us - come to my mind.

The lack (largely) thereof may be explained by commercial/marketing reasons, problematic often also in academic circles. A market beyond (albeit international) reggae enthusiasts for a more thorough biography on, say, Mikey Dread or Hugh Mundell, should maybe not be exaggerated, but it’s the loss of that wider public. Jah knows that their lives in themselves are surely interesting and multidimensional enough for an insightful elaboration. Even, I think, for a monography/book and not just a shorter article. At least a combined biography (like Grant’s book) seems an option.

The sudden (natural and unnatural) deaths of many of these illustrate issues of their lives. In general, - as one of the world’s sad truths - the poor and hard-working die younger. Drugs (cocaine) or other habits may furthermore exert influence. The causes of these artists' mostly premature deaths ranged from cancer, other, suddenly fatal diseases (cardiovascular, lung-related or otherwise), as well as car accidents (Jacob Miller) or being shot (Hugh Mundell and Lucky Dube). One’s death often – though not always - says something about one’s life, while on the other hand these artists “live on I-tinually”, such as through their music. Well worth biographies!

Several of these deceased artists I mentioned grew up in Kingston ghettoes (Trench Town or other), though there are variations. Joseph Hill came from outside Kingston (Linstead, near Spanish Town I believe), Mikey Dread also (from Portland), while Augustus Pablo had exceptional middle-class ties and an equally exceptional Indian background. How they started in music, their developing career, how they grew up, family and other social relations, personal beliefs: all interesting.

Still, the biggest, international name of reggae remains Bob Marley, that is a fact also in 2011. The biggest and therefore most “marketable” name.
At the very least Colin Grant’s book, by discussing e.g. also Bunny Wailer’s and Peter Tosh’s post-Wailers work, treats Marley in a broader reggae and social context than other biographical works on Bob, adding to its quality, and, perhaps, necessity. Recommendable.

I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh and Wailer: Colin Grant . – 305 p. – London : Jonathan Cape, 2011. ISBN: 9780224086080

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