A few weeks ago almost everyone I had spoken to in Birmingham, seemed to know that the Bob Marley Musical was about to be staged in the second city. A former headmaster offered, “they have already extended the run”. Come what may expectations were high. I arrived from London on the Midlands train, turned left up New Street and headed for the Birmingham Rep. At the bottom of New Street in the shadows of the Rotunda building, lies the Birmingham Odeon. When I lived in the city this was the home to pop and rock acts; Chuck Berry, Tom Robinson, Deep Purple, the Moody Blues and Ted Nugent to name a few. This is where I saw them all ply their trade. Further up New Street is the Birmingham Town Hall. Here one could see the Soul Acts; Diana Ross and Junior Walker and the All Stars, which were all memorable shows, witnessed by this impressible music fan.
One concert at the Odeon stands out; it took place forty-one to be precise and the year was 1976. Bob Marley and the Wailers were coming to town. Bob Young a fellow Bournville College friend, had given me money to buy his ticket. I bought two tickets, lost them and had to find the cash to replace both lost tickets!
At the time, there were two Bournville students who were part of a local Reggae band. One of the two, the quiet, thoughtful Mykael, attempted to have his band booked for the End of term Student Dance. He was turned down in the most uncurious manner and I can still remember his disappointment, hurt and pain. The band? A young Steel Pulse and its early members, Ronald McQueen (bass) and Mykaell Riley were students at Bournville College of Further Education. And the band that got the gig? a journeyman rock outfit called’ Smokiebetter’ remembered for Living next door to Alice.
Some forty years later it was time to see One Love, the Bob Marley Musical. Anyone who has been involved in any project around the name Bob Marley will know that not only does it take years, but more often it ends in tears! For that reason, Kwame KweiArmah has to be commended for putting on stage, the life, music and persona of one of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century.
In the programme notes, Kwame writes, “I don’t think you can tell the story of someone as significant as Bob without feeling fear. My first thought was I have to look at the integrity of not just his reputation but his spirit. This isn’t sing -along-a-Bob.” It might be suggested that the writer would have worked out potential criticism and hence his blanket advance defence. If you have seen Kwame’s work, you will undeniably agree he is a writer of note and a gifted craftsman.
As I approached my seat, row I seat 5, I excitedly rang an old friend, the celebrated Jamaican Entertainer Count Prince Miller. “Why had he not been invited to the Press night?” he bellowed down the phone. “I have no idea,” I reasoned. “Don’t these people know of my work with Bob?” Before I could offer reassuring words that no malice or forethought existed, he had started his rant. “I was Bob Marley’s recognised MC. I did the Exodus tour, I was with Bob in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, all over and then we did six nights at the Finsbury Rainbow in London”. As he paused for breath I jumped in, “Prince, I know it’s your voice introducing Bob in the Time Capsule buried under Times Square to be opened at the end of the 21st century. I know you and Bob were tight and that you were the one who introduced me to Bob’s Manager Don Taylor in London.” “Ok then as long as you know.” Reassured he hung up, “let me know what you think.”
If perchance you have just arrived from another planet and have never heard of Robert Nesta Marley, a quick glance of his life show that he was born February 6th in 1945 in rural Jamaica. His mother, Cedella was a Jamaican of African descent, fell pregnant at age 18 by his dad Norval, a white Plantation overseer. His father died when Marley was aged 10.
From these humble beginnings, he would go on to become the Developing World’s first global super star. A singer songwriter whose words are quoted in the manner of a literary giant. He has his own star on Hollywood Walk of Fame. One Love was voted song of the century by the BBC. Through reggae music he became a symbol of hope for the Voiceless the world over. He popularised not just reggae music but became a window for all things Jamaican. When Saint Lucian Nobel Laureate, the late Derek Walcott (dubbed the finest writer in the English language) appeared on BBC radio programme, Desert Island Disc, two of his eight favourite chosen songs were Marley penned, No Woman No Cry and Redemption song. Walcott went even further in his acknowledgement of Marley’s talents. For the epigraph of his poem, ‘The Light of the World’, he quotes from Marley’s song Kaya. “Got to have Kaya now, got to have Kaya now, for the rain is falling”. On Desert Island Disc, Walcott goes on to explain Marley’s ability to create words, images and thoughts which explains the human condition in the most poetic way.
He was the world’s first instantly recognisable Rastafarian. He is known the world over and instantly recognised in the manner of a Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali. He was different, he was unique, but above all his persona and message transcended the art form for which he would became famous, celebrated and acclaimed. Written by J. D. Douglas. 21.3.2017. (Part II to follow)