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It is now 34 long years since the lionized musician Bob Marley died. Robert Nesta Marley passed away on Monday morning, May 11, 1981, at exactly 11.40am. Born at 2.30am on Wednesday, February 6, 1945, he was only 36 years old when he passed on but he had more than conquered the world. Rastafarian, revolutionary, poet, icon, Bob Marley was arguably the most remarkable musician of his age. He was the product of a liaison between a black mother, Cedella Booker, and a white father, Captain Norval Marley who was a quartermaster with the British West Indian Regiment in Jamaica.
There was scant education for the almost fatherless Bob. In a 1975 interview Bob Marley said: “If I was educated I would be a damn fool.” What he had was inspiration, a stubborn hope to make a success against all odds in his chosen musical career. He was toughened in the slums of Trench Town in Western Kingston, Jamaica. It was Peter Tosh who taught Bob how to play the guitar when they formed the group known as The Teenagers, a group made up of Bob, Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Junior Braithwaite and two girls who sang the background vocals. Bob Marley had started writing tunes in 1961, and according to his biographer Stephen Davis, the young musician was then “a light-skinned, sharp-featured teenager with an askew mouth and dashing eyes.
Bob worked as a welder until a freak accident affected his eyes and made him decide that welding was not his forte in life. In 1962 Bob met Jimmy Cliff who was, at 14, something of a child prodigy and singing sensation. The producer Leslie Kong recorded Bob’s first few songs, notably “Judge Not”, “Terror” and “One Cup of Coffee.” Bob had no roof over his head at age 18 and had to make do with living in the streets. By 1963 Bob and his group were now known as The Wailers, and their meeting with the acclaimed master of Jamaican music business, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Rodd, launched forth their musical careers.
It was the meeting with Rita Anderson that changed Bob Marley’s life completely. Rita was initially attracted to the boisterous Peter Tosh as opposed to the always “observing” Bob who hardly ever talked. As Bob had no home to retire to, Rita took him in. They were married on February 10, 1966, but Bob flew away to work in Delaware, USA, a day after their fairy tale wedding, leaving Rita behind to wallow in bewildering desolation. It was akin to how Bob’s father left his mother except that, in this case, Bob eventually returned.
Bob later hooked up with the wizard of sound engineering, Lee Perry, who had nicknames such as Scratch, Little, Upsetter etc. Bob Marley and the Wailers backed up Johnny Nash in his worldwide smash hit, “I can see clearly now.” It was not until 1971 when “Trench Town Rock” was released that Bob Marley and the Wailers came into hot demand. Bob met the legendary producer Chris Blackwell of Island Records in December 1971 and things would never be the same again in the world of music. The release of the album Catch a Fire in December 1972 by Island Records put Bob Marley firmly in the consciousness of the world. Bob Marley alongside The Wailers recorded the album Burning in 1973.
Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone broke up with Bob Marley in January 1975, even as the third album with Island Records Natty Dread was released barely a month after. The fourth album was called Bob Marley and The Wailers Live. The release of Rastaman Vibration in May 1976 shot Bob Marley up to the top of the world music charts. He toured America and Europe for three months to promote the breakthrough album.
Bob Marley was shot at in Jamaica on Friday night, December 3, 1976. He narrowly escaped the assassination attempt as the bullet missed his heart and went through the bicep of his left arm. Two days after the shooting, Bob Marley hit the stage in the “Smile Jamaica” concert to the huge appreciation of an 80,000 sellout crowd.
The release of the album Exodus in 1977 shook up the very foundation of music to its roots, and it is no wonder that Time magazine would later name it “Album of the Century” worldwide in Year 2000. Kaya was released in 1978 and the album showcased Bob’s talent as a passionate singer of love songs.
The album Survival serenaded Zimbabwe’s independence with the song Zimbabwe in which Bob Marley asserted: “Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny.” The last album released by Bob Marley in his lifetime was Uprising. A posthumous album containing the hit track “Buffalo Soldier” was released shortly after the master’s death.
Bob Marley broke barriers in music. A committed artiste, he put his music in the service of humanity. Music was a political weapon for him, a masterful art imbued with a rich vein of meaning. He was unapologetic in his militancy, and he was richly rewarded with a reach all over the universe. Jamming with his “I Threes” of his wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, Bob Marley was poetic sublimity writ large.
A football fanatic, Bob got the first intimation of the cancer that would eventually kill him when he wounded his toe in a training match. Cancer cells were diagnosed in his leg wound, and these cells were removed surgically. He took the pain and played his music, and then on October 7, 1980 tests showed that he had lung and stomach cancer together with brain tumour. According to the doctors, he would not be alive after five weeks. He however stayed alive until May 11, 1981, when he told his mother Cedella Booker, “Come closer, come nearer,” before lapsing into unconsciousness at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, Florida, USA.
There is no point weeping for Bob Marley. The music plays on today, tomorrow and forever as the world shakes to the beats: “Zion train is coming again…”