Monday, April 16, 2012

Marley (advance screening)

Bob Marley, poet and a prophet
Back during my days as a summer camp counselor in Massachusetts, there was this guy named Nick. He was one of the counselors, and he was a good guy; very laid-back. Nick played guitar, and his bag was world music. I remember him teaching me about some Brazilian music that I really dug. Nick played guitar, and all summer long he tried to get the kids into reggae music. There were two songs in particular he loved playing most. "Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals was one; the other was "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley.

He had mixed success. Nick was popular and well-liked by both campers and staff, so it wasn't anything to do with his personality. He was a decent singer, so it wasn't that. I suppose some songs connect with kids more than others.

Every now and then I think of Nick whenever I hear reggae music, and in my neighborhood, I hear it almost as often as I do hip-hop. To be honest, reggae has always been difficult for me to get into. A lot of the time, I can barely understand what the singers are saying, partially because of the thick Jamaican accents, partly because of the cadence of their singing. "Pop" reggae stars like Shaggy and Sean Paul are different, naturally, though I imagine most reggae fans would probably turn their noses up at those guys. And then there's someone like Matisyahu, who is perhaps in a league of his own.

Bob Marley taught me how to off it
Still, when you talk about reggae music, sooner or later you have to come to Bob Marley, because in practical terms he was the Elvis of reggae. No one in the field has the following he does, even long after his death, because over the course of his brief life he grew to become much more than a singer. Like John Lennon, he was an icon for peace.

The forthcoming documentary Marley captures his life and music beautifully, including interviews with members of his band, The Wailers, plus family, friends, and business associates, and of course, lots of news and concert footage.

The film goes into the singer's conversion to the Rastafarian religion, but it doesn't go that deep into the faith's basic tenets. We do see quite a bit of discussion on the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who's revered as some sort of reincarnation or direct descendant of Christ or something, like Linda Fiorentino's character in Dogma, but we don't really find out how he got that way. Rastafarianism is such an integral part of Marley's music; it would've been nice to have gone a little more into it, I thought.

And then there's the political aspects of Marley's life. We see the opposing political parties in Jamaica during Marley's time, his involvement, the attempt on his life during a concert in Jamaica, as well as the subsequent concert, years later, that the country practically begged him to do in order to restore peace between the factions.

Seeing all of this reminded me of the activism in pop music that I grew up witnessing in the 80s. Whether it was to fight drugs, or South African apartheid, or hunger in Ethiopia, I don't recall ever questioning its place, even if I didn't always understand what the cause was about. Take apartheid, for example. I vaguely remember learning a little about it in school, but I probably learned more about it from singers like Peter Gabriel than anything else. It's an aspect of 80s music that's rarely discussed. People sometimes mock 80s music, but for all its synthesized sound and big hair and heavy makeup, it was also a period of great activism, and that activism was front and center in the mainstream.

Bob Marley, walk it like he talk it
Marley, though... imagine an entire country looking to a singer to quell civil unrest and inspire hope and freedom amongst the populace. And not just in Jamaica, either; the doc also shows him in a concert in Zimbabwe on the eve of that nation's independence. (Of course, no one knew at the time what their leader, Robert Mugabe, would turn out to be like, but hey.)

Perhaps the only contemporary musician comparable to Marley in terms of combining popularity and politics might be Bono, but even he doesn't come close to the reverence many people felt, and still feel, for Marley. There was no one quite like him.

Marley the doc was screened last Thursday at a club called the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. This was my first time there. The bar/lounge area is surrounded with paintings of musical stars, like Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, and Johnny Cash. In one corner there was a video game console where people were playing Tetris. I played it for a bit before we were all let into what would normally be the concert hall for bands. There were folding chairs all around in front of the screen on the stage. I sat up in the front row for a change.

The audience was a diverse one, and it soon became clear to me that some people knew Marley's history better than others. A woman in the row behind me periodically responded to salient points on Marley's history with knowing "um hmms" in recognition. She talked to her friends quite a bit, but it never quite reached the point where I felt I had to shush her.

Marley will be released April 20 (Four-Twenty, of course).

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