In my youth, my Reggae-loving friends fell into one of three camps: the cult of Bob, Peter or Bunny. Though they were all fans of the Wailers, they were divided in their loyalty towards the trio that formed the core of the original Reggae group, and who each represented a very different way of being black. Most idolised Bob Marley (charismatic, photogenic and pragmatic) or Peter Tosh (tall, very black, eyes permanently shaded by dark glasses and militant) – but for me, Bunny Wailer was always the first among equals.
Not only did Bunny Wailer have the sweetest voice and the dreadest locks, he seemed the most profound of the three; the most mysterious and spiritual. Just at the moment when the band was about to take off in the 1970s, Bunny turned his back on fame and fortune; refusing to go on tour. He retreated to the deep bush of the Jamaican hinterland to plant his crops and commune with his god. I imagined him darkly and stubbornly brooding in his tent whilst his eager compadres went out to fight over the spoils of Babylon.
There was a primal quality to Bunny Wailer that I, as the son of Jamaican parents, recognised. Bunny was the original Blackheart Man, a title he’d later adopt for his solo album. The artwork on the cover of that album was as unfathomable as the man – black, black, black, with all light drained from it, the image of a Rasta could just be made out; a lion of a man with fierce coils of snake-like dreadlocks. Blackheart Man and its cover chimed with my impression of Bunny Wailer as a man who was black from the peel to the core and who belonged to another time – not decades ago but centuries; his achingly beautiful songs, grounded in the blood-soaked soil of Jamaica, were carriers of ancestral hurt; but were also, like the man, ethereal too. He extolled music that, to my youthful ears, hinted at some kind of cultic mystery, one that left you on the edge of rapture. Divine.
My impression of Bunny’s peace-loving otherworldliness, though, was compromised by the stories I stumbled on about his fearsome, Old Testament zealotry when wronged. That side of his temperament found expression as a member of the Rasta cult. The common, benign perception of Rastas as spiritually-contented figures who recognise that Jah resides in the individual, where ‘I&I’ is me and God, obscures the language of violence and vengeance at its centre. When I started looking into it, I realised that the ritualistic Rasta meetings in the ghettoes of 1960s and 70s Jamaica were racial sacraments: they began with the chant ‘Death to the white man and his brown allies’ – a curse that promised to settle the score for the injuries meted out to their forebears by British overseers.
This wasn’t as much of a surprise to me as it would be for some. I grew up in Luton, and though far from the natural mysticism of Jamaica, my childhood was fuelled by stories of spiritual curses – in particular those resulting from Obeah (a kind of Jamaican sorcery akin to voodoo), a cult that the British had banned in the days of slavery. At the time, there were numerous accounts of entire slave populations perishing after succumbing to one Obeah curse or another. And every Jamaican I knew, even those in the middle-class elite (though they’d publically deny it), believed in the power of these practices.
Obeah was the reason why my mother would leave a pair of opened scissors on the staircase to ward off any evil duppies (spirits) that might enter the house and climb the stairs while we were sleeping; and why adult Jamaicans in Luton rarely gave out their real names. They had nicknames instead: my father was Bageye (because of his baggy eyes); Shine was bald; Pumpkin Head had a pumpkin-shaped head; Summer-wear always wore light summery suits no matter the weather. The monikers were backhanded terms of endearment, but they offered protection as well; for if someone wanted to do you harm and they knew your real name, well they could take your name to an Obeah man. He’d write it down and advise you to place the paper in the heel of your shoe; and then the intended victim was done for. He was under your heel.
Maybe that’s why the frightening stories I unearthed about Bunny didn’t particularly surprise me. It was well known among dedicated fans that Bunny’s father was a Revivalist priest, and that father and son lived cheek-by-jowl with the marginalised Myal men (Myalism is an ancient African form of spiritualism), Obeah men and Rastas in the ghetto of Trenchtown. Theirs was a crucible of feared and revered African paganism and sorcery. Bunny absorbed and cloaked himself in these ethereal and atavistic cultures; they deepened his mysticism and added to his potency and charm.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s Bunny filled my head with dreams and daydreams as I moved from adolescence into adulthood and searched for and fleshed out an identity; when the yearning to surrender unguardedly to some admirable other, in whose reflective glory I could bathe, seemed irresistible, there was always Bunny.
Decades later, long after Bob Marley had died from a melanoma and Peter Tosh had been murdered, I proposed to my publisher a book about the last remaining Wailer. The non-aligned purity of Bunny – Reggae artist and Rasta man – continued to fascinate me. Here was a man who would neither bend nor break. I was as keenly drawn to him as I had been as an adolescent, thirty years earlier. The publisher gave me the green light, but Bunny was to prove elusive.
At first I resisted the idea of making a direct approach. There was no romance, no poetry in immediacy. I imagined myself as a kind of suitor determined to win the hand of an unsuspecting beloved, embarking on an adventure that must of necessity include: chase; courtship; and consummation. I was both excited and terrified about the prospect of meeting my idol. I would defer the pleasure and seek out intermediaries in the first instance. I contacted agents, promoters, record labels and singers – anyone who might provide an introduction to Bunny Wailer’s inner circle. I need not have worried about any premature meeting because everything was much more difficult than I had envisaged. Bunny resided in a closed-off world, one to which few gained admission.
No one responded to my initial enquiries apart from Delroy, a dishevelled-looking former Reggae manager with twitching, unsteady eyes. I didn’t actually write to Delroy –having heard of my project, he came looking for me. Though down on his luck, Delroy refused payment; it would have sullied the beginnings of our friendship, he told me. Lunch, though, was acceptable; and looking over his shoulder as he wolfed down the first hot meal to pass his cracked lips in quite a while, Delroy slid a dirty piece of paper across the table. Bunny Wailer’s email address was scribbled on it.
Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest move to start sending speculative emails to someone like Jah Bunny. A blackheart man was more likely to be found sitting around a campfire with his chillum pipe, communicating with drums, than glued to a computer terminal waiting for unsolicited emails to drop into his inbox. Hell, a blackheart man probably didn’t even own a computer; the email address I’d been given was undoubtedly bogus. It didn’t stop me sending emails though – scores of them: professing my great admiration; unashamedly listing my nerdy scholarship of what there was to know about his life; seeking an audience just to sit and partake of his wisdom. The emails grew ever more ardent, but there was nothing from Bunny; only silence. I decided eventually that virtual enquiries were useless; I’d have to travel to Jamaica if I wanted a chance at making a real connection.
I’d been going to the island (mostly on my own) since I was nineteen; but when I mentioned my intention to go and find Bunny, my siblings and mother were filled with dread. They were rattled by tales of the Windrush Generation of emigrants, who had been retiring to the island only to be met with violence, muggings and sometimes worse. Increasingly, my family believed you went home to die – and not of natural causes.
I brushed aside their warnings. Flying to Kingston, though, was unrewarding. In the six weeks I spent questing across the island, Bunny Wailer lived up to his cultivated reputation of a magical man, spoken of only in whispered reverence. No matter who I asked about Bunny, I always heard a version of the same story: one minute Bunny’d be standing next to you, turn around and he’d disappear in a flash of thunder and lightning. No one could help me trace Bunny because, as I was told more than once: ‘You nah find man like Bunny, is him find you, you dig?’
I spent two years looking for Jah Bunny, and made three separate visits to the island. I’d hand over money to middle-men who’d assured me: ‘Yes, man me can tek you to him right now.’ Bunny was always meant to be at some all-night Rasta ‘groundation’ in Wareka Hills, or at a hideaway in Bull Bay at dawn, or on some street corner in Trenchtown at midnight. I’d arrive at one of the myriad destinations to which I’d been sent, only to be told: ‘Man, you jus’ miss him.’
He was never where he was supposed to be; he never materialised. The closest I came was in the district of St Thomas, when my most reliable fixer, Carl, drove me to the compound of an Obeah man called Brother D. One of Brother D’s retinue would be able to lead us to Bunny ‘right away, right away’. But the reward I offered, which he informed me should not be spoken of (‘whatever you feel is right’), was apparently not enough – was in fact an insult that brought the meeting to an abrupt, angry and irreversible end.
I returned to England. More publishing deadlines passed and still there was no sign of Bunny. I was reluctant and embarrassed to hand in the manuscript without him. Bunny was the foundation upon which the architecture of the book had depended – at least in the way I’d conceived and proposed it to the publisher. Without Bunny the book might collapse. But I had no choice. I rearranged the chapters, hurriedly rejigged and reimagined the book. I delivered this mutated version and waited nervously for the response.
Two days later, in the early hours, my phone rang. But it was not, as I expected, the publisher; breathing excitedly down the phone line was Delroy, the man who’d given me an email address for Bunny two years ago.
‘You still want speak with Bunny?’
‘Well get your backside to Gatwick.’
Bunny, he told me, was flying in with his band for a European tour.
I hurried to the airport, and found a double-decker bus in the car park. There, in wrap-around shades that matched the tinted glass of his tour bus, was Bunny, sat as still as a mendicant monk.
He was weary and wary; as he spoke, his voice thickened into a sticky surliness, directed at a retinue who individually and collectively appeared in the grip of unaccountable entropy. I took out my microphone and recorder and asked Bunny to say a few words about the stage he’d reached in his life. I could not see his eyes behind the dark glasses. His lips did not move. Thirty seconds passed. A minute passed. Still he did not answer.
‘I mean after all these years – you’re sixty something now. How do you see yourself?’ Bunny made no pretence of interest in the question. I tried again: ‘Singer? Songwriter? Percussionist?’ He leaned forward and growled: ‘Bunny Wailer. Bunny Wailer. Bunny Wailer.’
I’d been warned that Bunny was high-minded, a serious man who didn’t like anybody to ‘rough’ him (treat him with disrespect). There had been some terrible consequences – allegedly. In 1971 Bunny had stormed into the recording studio of the producer Leslie Kong and warned him not to bring out an unofficial ‘Best of the Wailers’ album. Kong had laughed at Bunny, even as he cursed him, threatening that he would ‘not live to reap the rewards’ of his transgression. Within three months of Wailer calling down a ‘dread judgement’, Leslie Kong suffered a heart attack and died. The same fate, according to Bunny, also befell Timothy White, who had incurred his wrath by publishing an unauthorised biography, Catch a Fire. Like Kong, White died of a heart attack, aged fifty, after Bunny put a curse on him.
Alone with Bunny at the back of the tour bus, I flattered my idol to a point beyond embarrassment, yet his sullenness suggested I’d already ‘roughed’ him in some unimaginable way. Only when a briefcase of ganja was brought to him did his truculence recede and the mood begin to lighten.
Our conversation, shifting through the gears of initial politeness, soon accelerated into a Bunny Wailer monologue of idiosyncratic aphorisms and Biblical quotations; everything was freighted with significance, though its meaning was not always clear. I wanted to know how he thought Jamaican music had changed. ‘You can change a roof or a door,’ said Bunny. ‘You cannot change the foundation.’ How, I wondered, had his song writing changed? ‘I don’t write songs,’ answered Bunny. ‘I make a statement; send a message.’
The interview, such as it was, appealed to me: it chimed with the enigma of the man. After an hour I bid farewell to Jah Bunny and rushed back to call my publisher, hoping that the manuscript had not yet gone off to the printers. It hadn’t.
Bunny’s messages found their way into the book, and enlivened the manuscript. The result – I&I, The Natural Mystics, my biography of the Wailers – was bookended by the violent incident at Jamaica’s Sting Festival in 1990 when Bunny was bottled off stage by Dancehall-loving, old-school Reggae-hating youth, and the interview and resurrection of his career in the Brixton concert that followed, where he was embraced by an adoring crowd, twenty years later. The book had a unity to it; it was published; had its moment of public interest, and then settled into a modest afterlife on shelves in libraries and bookshops.
Six months later, I received a crank email from someone purporting to represent ‘The Living Legend Bunny Wailer’. It told me to cease and desist from the book’s publication. Oddly, it came from the same bogus email address given to me by Delroy at the start of my quest. But there was nothing fake about the end of the email: it constituted some form of threat.
‘This kind of Timothy White opportunism and disrespect orchestrated, demonstrated and performed by Mr Grant, in the presumptuous, fictitious and misleading garbage illustrated in the related publication, will no more be accepted, allowed or tolerated.’
Buried in the text was a demand for money: ‘to recover all related damages in accordance with the violation of Bunny Wailer and The Wailers’ rights and privileges.’ It could have been from any number of the savvy middle men who had charmingly fleeced me over the past two years, but above all I suspected Delroy. He was the man behind the address, after all. I ignored it.
The next day came another email; and then another on the next. By the third or fourth email, I was beginning to suspect that the man purporting to represent Bunny Wailer might actually be the ‘Living Legend’ himself. There was a speaky-spokey quality to the writing that reminded me of the way Bunny had spoken on the bus. Where a single word would have sufficed, a dozen were employed in lustful legalese, providing a colourful but useless embroidery that was both absurd and chilling. Soon, I was convinced. Bunny, it seemed, had developed a less than flattering appreciation of my character over the past few weeks: ‘a rat will always be a rat and there is only one way to deal with a rat-like nature, double-dealing card gambler, who shows a hand from cards taken from the bottom of the deck, and that’s to be shot on the spot.’
I might have considered myself a follower of Bunny Wailer, but my idol considered me a pariah. I finally wrote back, expressing my disappointment at the tone of his emails, but also confirming my continued admiration for him. It was no use.
Sales of I&I, The Natural Mystics had been modest – no more than a few thousand copies. But it seemed that Bunny Wailer imagined I’d made a huge amount of money off an internationally-bestselling book, all at his expense. Over the decades the great Reggae artist had been exploited by countless hangers-on (‘kinckerbackers’ he called them). I was no doubt added to their number in his mind. The threats continued.
Eventually, I involved the lawyers of the publisher, who told me that they would write a stiff letter to Bunny and advised me to avoid any further communication with him. The emails continued, though now all one-way, and the growing intensity of his words climaxed with the curse that finally wended its way into my inbox:
‘The binoculars of Jah Rastafari is already upon your every movement in your lying down, your dreams and uprisings, your going out and coming in until such time that the Rastafarian ‘Order of The Dreaded Nyahbinghi’ is executed upon you and your conspirators and confederates in your extended intention of inflicting damage upon The Wailers, which pronounces death to all black and white oppressors now and forever, Selah, like unto Timothy White’s heart attack.’
No matter how I attempted to interpret the email, it could only be read in one way: I was out of the Bunny Wailer club. Jah Bunny had put a curse on me.
A couple of months later, I was invited to attend a literary festival in Jamaica. I decided to go, and as the date arrived, I found myself thinking more and more about Bunny’s curse.
Timothy White had died several years after Bunny cursed him. So not much evidence, then, of cause and effect. But Leslie Kong’s post-curse death had been much sooner: he’d only lived three months.
I had already lasted two, and I joked with friends that if I could survive a few more weeks, I would have outlived the range of the spell.
‘But Rasta is a powerful man,’ teased one of my friends. ‘Rasta chant, and Bunny is a man who can really chant when him ready. You t’ink if he can chant down Babylon he can’t chant down you?’
Another joked that it wasn’t a heart attack I should fear, but an appointment with a bullet. Why would Bunny leave it to Jah to bring down a dread-judgment heart attack on me, the friend argued, when in Jamaica he could hire ‘some likkle boy gunman for a couple of hundred dollars’. I guffawed along with my friends at the absurdity of the idea, but the laughter began to sound a little hollow as the festival date approached.
Bunny arrived unbidden into my dreams in the days before my flight to Jamaica – his face ablaze with fiery dreadlocks. In one dream he offered me his chillum pipe, and I was compelled to take a puff even though I knew it must be a trap because Bunny never offered anyone his pipe, even though I knew it must be stuffed not with ganja but rat poison. I woke in a sweat – alive, but frightened.
On the eve of my departure, my sister rang me. She told me she was filled with a sense of foreboding: ‘Don’t go to Jamaica,’ she warned, ‘You’ll come back in a wooden box.’
But I went anyway. I wasn’t about to let a superstition get in the way of my plans.
Throughout the flight to Jamaica, my sister’s prophesy coursed through the synapses and neuronal circuits of my brain. What if she was right? Her words followed me like a bad smell from the plane to the airport tarmac; from the tarmac to the baggage claim; to the taxi and on to the beach where the festival was to be held.
That night, I could not sleep in the lovely beach hut assigned to me at the festival; every time someone strolled past, I feared the assassin’s knock. My nervousness was beginning to feel a little too familiar; was reminiscent of the superstitions of my youth, growing up black, Caribbean and anxious in Luton.
It was not just a bodily fear that exercised me; it was existential. It was the fear of expulsion, of not belonging, of being on the wrong side of the Rasta man’s chant, of being outed as not-quite black; for to align yourself with Bunny was to assert your African identity and to surrender to the cult of blackness. Listening to Bunny Wailer had always been an act of validation. But not any more.
The dreams did not abate. In one I passed down deserted streets lined with WWI Lord Kitchener-like billboards. But instead of a military figure invoking the sentiment: ‘Your Country Needs You’; it was a Rasta with binoculars and the caption: ‘I&I is Coming for You!’
My continued existence in the morning did not, as I expected, relieve me of my ill-feeling of dread. The detritus of the dream filled my waking day – just as Bunny had intended: ‘every movement in your lying down, your dreams and uprisings, your going out and coming in until such time that the Rastafarian ‘Order of The Dreaded Nyahbinghi’ is executed upon you.’
I must have been talking about it too noisily at dinner with some of the other festival writers, because a waiter came up to my elbow and whispered that he knew a healer who would be able to help with my ‘head trouble’.
He knew of two brothers who were both Obeah. ‘If you want to kill, you go to the older brother, and if you don’t want to kill you go to the other one.’
‘I didn’t have murder in mind,’ I said.
‘Well all right,’ said the waiter, not registering that I was trying to make a joke. ‘Is the other one for you then. He can do a ‘cutting and clearing’ but you one mus’ buy the ingredient.’
‘What kind of ingredient?’
‘From what I hear is a big job. You might have fi buy a goat . . . for an offering like.’
I brought the conversation to an end and avoided the waiter for the rest of the afternoon. I found his enthusiasm distasteful, and felt he was gloating; far from being a skeptic, come crunch time, I was like every other Jamaica: a true believer.
Back in my beach hut that night, I found myself listening out for silent assassins again, focussing hard on the door handle, watching for the first sign of it turning. I could not have explained, or rather would not have liked to have explained, why every few minutes I placed two fingers over my wrist and felt for a pulse; nor why I failed to rid myself of another unwelcome thought.
The waiter had freed an idea that had been building up like a boil on the side of my neck. Why not lance the boil and see what an Obeah could offer? That would be the end of it, surely. What was there to lose? I didn’t have to be a believer to go along with it. I told myself that if I was to see an Obeah man, it would not be out of irrational cowardice, but rather as a continuation of the research I’d already conducted for the Wailers book. It couldn’t hurt. I decided that in the morning I’d go back to my fixer, Carl, who’d introduced me to the Obeah Brother D a few years back.
My luck held. I got hold of Carl, and it turned out he was already planning a trip to St Thomas, Brother D’s parish. He said he’d find a driver so we could go together. Part of me reasoned that if I went away for a night or two, by the time I returned the date for the curse would have expired. My three months were almost up.
I left for St Thomas the next morning, buoyed by having made the decision but still doubting the wisdom and expense of the journey and its eventual animal sacrifice. Carl had agreed a reasonable rate with the driver, but would not vouchsafe the cost of the Obeah man’s consultation and treatment. I wondered whether a goat was really necessary.
‘Depends,’ said Carl.
‘Depends on whether you want me to regret coming along and wasting my time. Depends whether you want a long-term, permanent or short-term cure. Depends on what you want or what you feel you need. You can’t carry on bad-man style when we get there, you know. If the brother say goat then is goat. Fowl may be cheaper but is no substitute for goat, you understand?’
I could tell by the intensity with which the driver stared straight ahead at the contours of the road that he was paying especially close attention to our talk of ‘sacrifice’, of ‘cutting and clearing’ to break an Obeah spell.
Large potholes, sometimes filled with loose rocks, lined the route. Perhaps because the driver’s car was in good order, he drove with anguish; his eyes registered every bump and calibrated the damage those rocks must be doing to the suspension and underside of the car; any minute now he would try to renegotiate the paltry fee that he had agreed with Carl. Eventually he pulled over and switched off the engine.
‘What you want do ‘bout insurance?’ asked the driver. ‘Me don’t have no license for no livestock in the car y’understand? No goat. No fowl.’
Carl interrupted before I could speak: ‘Neither goat nor fowl?’
‘Nothing alive soon fi dead. Me don’ deal with that.’
I’d misunderstood the driver’s growing distemper: it wasn’t the rocks in the road he feared, but the possibility of a goat with its throat slit dripping blood on the back seat. More than that, it was the destination that was at the root of his unease. St Thomas was known for its Obeah men, and had a reputation for its duppies. I’d often heard it said that the worst kind of duppy spirit was a St Thomas duppy, or a coolie (Indian) duppy, and the driver didn’t want to get mixed up in no Obeah/duppy business.
‘You see dis?’
The driver pulled down the flap of the sun visor to which his taxi license was attached.
‘Dis is my life. Any how I lose dis, my life finish.’
He started to turn the taxi around; gravel crunching under the car wheels. ‘Hold on bredren,’ shouted Carl. He sighed and shook his head. ‘You take another ten?’ The patois allowed for familiarity; broke down the social barrier between them. Although Carl was a university lecturer and the driver had had little schooling; on the road they were equal.
‘Make it twenty,’ said the driver.
‘OK, wheel and come again.’
We drove on in contemplative silence.
After several hours on rough roads, we turned off a dirt track at ‘Science Corner’ – a local reference to the Obeah men, who were also known as scientists. We were high up, several hundred feet above sea level; but the air was heavy. I was surprised when we turned into Brother D’s desolate compound – his church seemed precariously perched on the edge of a cliff. A snapping wind threatened to lift the corrugated roof from the church; intermittently the roof creaked and groaned. I had seen no telephone lines or mobile phone towers on our way to ‘Science Corner’, but when we stepped out of the car Brother D greeted me as if I’d been expected. Brother D answered to the description ‘healer’ rather than ‘Obeah’, and was both ancient and elemental.
‘Something trouble you?’ He asked in a high rasping voice. I was taken aback by the directness of the question and its immediacy. Brother D stood erect like a blind man calling on all of his other senses.
When it was clear that he would not elaborate, I decided to be equally direct. ‘Just imagine a scenario,’ I said, ‘where I felt myself to be the victim of an Obeah curse. What could be done about it?’
Brother D gestured for me to come closer, closer, until our heads were almost touching. He didn’t speak, just emitted a low hum that was a kind of ruminating growl. After some minutes I found myself wanting to lower my head onto his shoulder, but he pulled away.
‘What? What is it?’ I asked.
‘No. No. No.’ Brother D turned and faced me. I could not make out his expression. Cataracts clouded his eyes: ‘I don’t think there is anything I can do for you,’ he said.
I found myself strangely troubled by Brother D’s prognosis. Of course I didn’t believe in Obeah; to do so would be a libel on every fibre of my being. But, well, is it not possible that the body can act without agency, without the brain being fully engaged? I returned reluctantly to the car.
‘Everything all right? We cool?’ asked Carl. ‘You don’t look too much on the happy side.’
Carl was right. I was not happy to be going back. Paralysed with dread, I was as enthusiastic as a condemned man taking his final steps to the gallows.
I wasn’t sure of the date of Bunny’s original email and couldn’t remember exactly how long I’d lived with the curse. When I got back to the festival, there was no internet connection for me to get into my emails and check. And in the early hours, there was only one person I could turn to. My mother had no computer, but I reasoned that she’d be fine to call, no matter the hour.
She picked up almost immediately, and as I laid out my irrational anxiety she calmly and reassuringly offered me advice. Listening to her sing-song voice, thousands of miles away, I realised that my mother understood Jamaica and Jamaicans in a way that I’d recognised but never fully fathomed. On that last night, three months on from Bunny Wailer’s curse, I dug into my travel bag, as my mother instructed. I found a pair of nail scissors, opened them and placed them on the floor beside the front door to the beach hut; and fell into an easy sleep. For the first time in a very long while, I did not dream of Bunny Wailer.
Photograph courtesy of the author