Review by NBAA member Segun Le French is a poet, actor, jazz musician & producer http://www.segunleefrench.com/
Compared to the extensive literature dedicated to reggae’s younger cousin, hip hop, there are surprisingly few books published on the history of reggae. There are collections of first hand accounts by reggae artists, producers and camp followers, like “Solid Foundation” by David Katz and “Bob Marley and the Golden Age of Reggae” by Kim Gottlieb-Walker. Lovingly edited by reggae aficionados, these are heavy on biographic detail and musical stylistics, but light on cultural and social analysis. The style is hagiographic, almost as if the writers are so honoured to be close to the reggae scene that they dare not critically examine their subjects or Jamaican culture in general. In contrast, Lloyd Bradley in “Bass Culture” deliberately chooses a polemical approach to the history of reggae, debunking the idea that Bob Marley is representative of a golden age. Bradley focuses attention instead on the influence of Jamaican and UK sound systems to demonstrate that Bob Marley’s music in the 1970s developed quite apart from the mainstream of reggae. Indeed, Marley’s music was not really considered to be “Black” by most Black people at the time; the more Bob brought reggae to the attention of global audiences, the less like reggae his music became.
Like Bradley, in “I & I The Natural Mystics”, Colin Grant interweaves his own personal experiences with social history and cultural analysis. One might be forgiven for seeing Colin Grant’s book as a riposte to “Bass Culture”. Grant opens with an incident in December 1990, symbolising the deathrattle of roots reggae, when a dancehall hungry audience at the Sting Festival bottle Bunny Wailer offstage, concluding that “the last remaining Wailer, the Caribbean ’s finest voice, had been rendered mute”. In fact, Grant’s mission has a much broader scope to examine reggae as a cultural barometer of Jamaican social transformations in the 20th century. In particular, Grant traces the role of music and roots reggae as an expression of Jamaican masculine identity. Grant vividly brings his subject to life with an eye for narrative structure and colourful descriptive passages. He investigates the complex sexual politics of Jamaica , dwelling on a car journey during which his two Kingstonian drivers spend hours swapping accounts of their sexual escapades with “barefoot and pregnant” country girls. The drivers’ macho banter ends abruptly when one man reluctantly confesses to dating a sixty nine year old woman just because he likes to “lie down and listen” to her stories. Grant situates the profligate polygamy of Marley and Tosh, who both had over ten children, in the context of Jamaican history and the atomising effect of the slave plantation system on Black family structures.
It is in this interweaving of present with past that Grant’s book derives its particular power. He describes sweaty car rides across Jamaica to interview Jamaican Black Power activists, Rasta elders and reggae veteran musicians, counterpointing these accounts with detailed reconstructions of key moments in Jamaican society, then relating these themes to the personal stories of the three Wailers. One of the most fascinating sections in the book describes the early years of the Wailers in Trenchtown, setting as a background an analysis of how the area came to be the most notorious ghetto of Kingston . The city planners originally conceived Trenchtown as an idealistic experiment in social housing, but, running out of funds before completion, they left the housing project with open sewers. When thousands more residents than expected moved in as squatters, the Ruskinesque model village rapidly became a slum breeding crime and deprivation.
In the first two chapters, Grant’s sudden asynchronous jumps from present to past social history and between each of the Wailers are rather disorienting, but by the third chapter, when the teenage Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer start to perform their first gigs, the reader begins to feel a much more profound sense of time and place. This understanding helps to illuminate the contrasting musical and political directions the three Wailers choose to forge when they eventually separate. Grant’s narrow focus on these three significant players in reggae is like a magnifying glass that serves to illustrate the rigid social stratification of Jamaican society and the limited range of options available to most Jamaican men in the years following independence. Through the validation of a pan-African sense of identity, Rastafari and roots reggae offered a means for psychological survival in intolerable living conditions. Yet, Marley, Tosh and Bunny, alongside other roots pioneers like Burning Spear and Lee Scratch Perry, demonstrated that it was possible to remain true to ghetto roots and ital principles, whilst also achieving global success.
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (27 Jan 2011)
Colin Grant’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/I-I-The-Natural-Mystics-Marley-Tosh-and-Wailer/162370420462689
Colin Grant’s website: http://www.colingrant.info/#/i-and-i-natural-mystics/4532005691
Colin Grant on Twitter: http://twitter.com/colincraiggrant