28 Apr Soul Rebel
At breakfast in the Bethany Diner last week, I recognized the song playing as background music – it was “Soul Rebel”, by the Wailers. The Diner had tuned to a reggae station and here was music I knew well, having had this record in my collection some years ago. The Wailers at that time – 1970 – were a Jamaican trio of Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone and Bob Marley. Influenced by Jamaican mento, calypso, black American doo-wop and soul music, the Wailers sung three part harmony over a potent rhythm provided by bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Carlton, who played the drums.
Lyrically the songs combined elements of the Bible, Love and Rebellion. Peter Tosh sung about slavery in “400 years”, and colonial education in “You Can’t Blame the Youth”. Marley used religious imagery on the song “Small Axe”, about a small record company standing up to a larger one. All three were Rastafarians, a branch of Christianity which believes that Christ’s second coming had taken place in the form of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Followers read and quoted verses from the King James Bible while smoking industrial quantities of ganja, or “herb”. The Book of Revelation was a popular reference, as it predicted the end of the world and the overthrow of the unjust system which oppressed the people. They drew parallels between themselves and the Israelites in exile in Babylon.
The music was sublime and unexpectedly became popular worldwide. Tosh and Livingstone both left the band in 1973, on the cusp of worldwide fame, and led their own successful solo careers: Tosh signed to Rolling Stones records and sang a duet with Mick Jagger. Livingstone released “Blackheart Man”, which remains a classic roots reggae album. With the support of his record company, Bob Marley continued to record and tour until his death from cancer in 1981.
When the time comes for me to record my own story of conversion to the Christian faith, the music of Bob Marley (and others like Burning Spear and Augustus Pablo) will have an honored place. In the way that I am inspired by say, Handel’s Messiah, I am also inspired by some of the more devotional reggae music, such as “Forever Loving Jah”, which is as reassuring a song as I know, and one which gives me peace in a troubled world. Marley’s music has a strong strain of optimism, no better expressed than in the song “Three Little Birds”. I remember once being late to check in for a flight at the airport in Munich; Michael, my German host and driver, struggled to find the correct terminal. As my anxiety increased, he broke out into song, “don’t worry, ‘bout a thing, cause every little thing’s gonna be all right.” At that point, I could have murdered him, but instead smiled in exasperation. We eventually located the terminal and discovered that the flight was delayed.
Marley’s music remains popular and Sirius XM have recently dedicated a station to his music. I love the music still, and their bassist and musical director, Family Man Barrett, is one of my musical heroes. (Miles Davis was also a fan). Two years ago I saw the Wailers Band at a small venue at Ardmore PA. Family Man sat with his back to the speaker. When the music began, the band soon locked into that roots reggae groove, where no one stands out, but all the parts contribute to make the whole. For me, this was deeply spiritual music – soulful, disciplined, tight. Sometimes you worry if a favorite musician may have lost something as they get older, but this wasn’t the case here. After the interval, a new bass player emerged; it appeared that Family Man had retired for the night. The music became looser, more jammy, but less inspiring. I’m glad I was there for the first half of the show.
What of the rest of the Wailers from 1970? Peter Tosh and Carly Barrett both died violently in 1987. Earlier this month Bunny Livingstone (aka Bunny Wailer) passed away. The small island of Jamaica still punches above its weight musically, although since the 1970s and 80s the music has changed direction and lost some of its universal appeal.
Despite listening to music made by Rastafarians, it never once crossed my mind to become one. Marley was smart enough to write lyrics which resonated with the strict Rastas, as well as with mainstream Christians like me, and also with atheists. His music seeks to diagnose problems and find solutions. Marley also wrote tender love songs. His success was abetted by a strong work ethic; he worked the band hard and, although no angel, extolled the virtues of discipline and self control.
As we come to the end of our Covid year, Marley has a prophetic message for us from his song “Zion Train”. “The Zion train is coming our way; People, get on board! Thank the Lord!” It’s time to emerge from isolation and fear and rejoin life in its fullness. We were made for community, for worshiping together and for being one people under God’s love.