PROLOGUE: No Country for Old Men
Twenty-five thousand boisterous music lovers made their way to Jamaica’s National Stadium in Kingston on Boxing Day, December 1990 for the Sting Festival, an event which the promoters described modestly as ‘The Greatest One-Night Reggae Show on Earth’.
More than forty bands were booked to appear. The first was due to take to the stage at 6.15 p.m. but many in the crowd lingered on the outskirts hoping to catch a glimpse of the musical motorcade, especially the top acts billed as the ‘Devastating Dozen’, a mix of gold-toothed dancehall DJs and dreadlocked Rasta Reggae stars – including Bunny Wailer, the last remaining member of the original Wailers.
The duo Ghost and Culture sparked guffaws, some taunts and good-natured banter when they rolled up to the stadium gates and emerged, chalk-faced, from a funeral casket on board a hearse. But even this stunt was outshone by the main attraction: the ragamuffin DJ Shabba Ranks. Fresh from negotiations of a million-dollar contract with CBS, Mr X-rated himself arrived in a white presidential limousine, accompanied by four police outriders. To his many fans, some of whom had brought along pistols to be raised and fired in a gun-salute, Shabba’s grand entrance was not only befitting but expected. In a few hours, armed with a microphone, he would thrust himself on stage and begin trading insults in a lyrical clash with Ninja Man, his DJ rival for the title ‘King of Jamaican Music’.
Such a spectacle could not have been envisaged ten years previously at the time of Bob Marley’s death from cancer. Together with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, Marley had formed the most powerful Reggae group of all time. Bunny Wailer struggled to come to terms with Marley’s passing and on at least one occasion, he’d had a vision that Bob Marley was still alive. He’d rushed to tell Peter Tosh the good news – that he’d seen Marley bathed in light on a musical stage, surrounded by an adoring crowd. Tosh placed a hand on Wailer’s shoulder and whispered, ‘But Bob’s dead. The Wailers are dead!’ Following the murder of Tosh in 1987, Bunny Wailer baulked at efforts to promote him as the new ‘poet laureate for the oppressed’. Now he stood to the side and watched in dismay the elevation of Dancehall DJs who didn’t ‘sing in keys … know chords or changes’. But more than this perceived lowering of musical standards, it was the DJs’ embracing of the culture of ‘slackness’ – lewd and vulgar sexualised lyrics with a focus on ‘punany’ – that distressed Wailer. ‘What they are bringing to the music can’t work,’ he told journalists, ‘What the DJs are doing is destructive to themselves.’ Bunny Wailer could do little to arrest the march of Jamaican culture towards a Utopia of slackness but he was not, and would never be, a ‘punany’ lyricist.
The musical marathon rolled on through the night. But though the musicians kept the beat, they couldn’t always keep to their allotted time. Not until 5 a.m. were Bunny Wailer and his band, the Solomonics, summoned from the green room. In front of the huge crowd, Wailer paused for the ritual he had assigned to himself over the last few years: lowering his gaze, he tried to conjure his dead compadres, Tosh and Marley, onto the stage with him. And then slowly, with a gentle quietness that was almost imperceptible at first, Bunny Wailer started to sing.
He was due to perform twenty-one songs. He started with a series of ‘specials’ which had not yet become Reggae standards, and which, of course, bore little resemblance to the highly-energised booming blast of Dancehall. Later, the promoters would chide him for not being ‘more sensitive to the needs of the audience, though not in a vulgar way’. Elements in the auditorium were growing impatient over the tardiness of the advertised clash between the ghetto-fabulous, simulated sexual gymnastics of Shabba Ranks and the kamikaze-scarfed Ninja Man, whose parody of gangster violence shone in the tiny Kalashnikov embellishment on his gold-capped tooth.
It took a little while for the first rumblings of discontent to reach the stage. Above the buzz and hubbub of the crowd, the occasional vaporous effusions of semi-drunken, spliffed-up wags; above the cries of cold-supper vendors, jerk-chicken men, grapenut and peanut higglers and youths lugging crates of warm beer for sale, Bunny Wailer could discern an uglier sound. Not even to the most determined wishful thinker could belligerence be mistaken for ardour or veneration. But still there might be some small element of doubt and difficulty in divining the intent behind the growing cacophony. After all, Jamaican crowds were past masters of interaction, of audience participation, both welcome and unwelcome. By Bunny Wailer’s fourth song any lingering self-deception was no longer possible. The boorish, vocal elements, popping up randomly like explosive geysers, were increasingly rancorous and abusive.
A medallion of the Lion of Judah adorned the fine and noble forehead of Bunny Wailer as a third eye, lovingly-tended dreadlocks swept down his shoulders and back; with his arms raised before him and hands cupped almost in prayer, he more closely resembled a mendicant than an international music star. He had begun the set in sublime communion with his fallen brothers but his temper was disturbed by the discordant braying of a small section of the crowd. The diminutive, 5’2” star stopped singing. He held out and began flapping his arms, beckoning his band to put down their instruments. The jeering and bad-mouthing continued. Bunny Wailer came to the edge of the stage, his face ablaze with fury, and raged. Did they, the nay-sayers, not know his pedigree? Did they not feel privileged by his attendance? Shouldn’t the elders of Reggae (he was forty-three) be revered? Had he not helped put Jamaica on the map? Hadn’t he toiled for years without recognition, made huge sacrifices? Had he not fashioned music to soothe the soul and raise the spirits? Well no more: ‘I and I . . .’ His litany of disbelief was interrupted.
The first bottle pierced the night air, whistled past his head and landed a few feet behind him. It acted as a release and a salvo of missiles followed, the air thickened with beer bottles, cans, rocks and stones. The dancers and band members ran for cover. For a while Bunny Wailer was immobilised. Then roadies rushed to shield him from the onslaught of yet more bottles and bricks, and ushered him from the stage.
The forensic post-mortem began in earnest the next morning. ‘Wailer Feels the Sting’ screamed the Gleaner headline. Jamaica was ‘faced with a calamity’ following a night which was a ‘gross production in shame’. In a country where the concept of respect was central to its culture, the feeling of dishonour and embarrassment was enormous. The tributes paid to Bunny Wailer read like obituaries. But the shock and trauma was so great that few articulated that which was undeniably the case, that the bottling off stage of one of the giants of reggae marked a violent changing of the guard.
Just beneath the surface of the angry and frightened letter-writers to the Gleaner was the unspoken question: If Reggae music had delighted and enthralled so many around the world, transformed a tiny island into a musical superpower, and given a platform to the Wailers, a trio of extraordinarily poetic and powerful natural mystics, then how could it, in the space of thirty years, rise and fall so spectacularly and end so brutally? A cultural coup had taken place, and in decades to come the lament that ‘the singers must come back’ haunted the land. In the 1980s, the passing of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh had left a vacuum, and on 26 December 1990, the last remaining Wailer, the Caribbean region’s finest voice, had been rendered mute.
This is an excerpt from I & I: The Natural Mystics by Colin Grant, published by Jonathan Cape.
Photograph © Piano Piano!