A Real Jah-Breaker

Reggae messiah Bob Marley gets two 50th birthday parties here in Miami

Back in 1978 violence and enmity were ripping Jamaica in two. On one side were supporters of socialist prime minister Michael Manley, on the other were backers of Manley's conservative rival Edward P.G. Seaga. In the middle was bloodshed and rioting. That was the year someone tried to assassinate legendary Jamaican reggae musician Bob Marley. During a Marley concert shortly thereafter, the musician brought the two politicians together on-stage and forced them to shake hands in an unprecedented public forum. The moment was stunning and enduring, an apt tribute to Marley's ability to create unity from the most divisive circumstances, as well as to the credo he lived by: One Love.

Had he not died of cancer in Miami in May of 1981, Marley would have turned 50 years old on Monday, February 6. And this year, in an odd and rancorous turn of events, Miami will be the setting for not one, but two Marley birthday festivals. The organizers of the two celebrations make Manley and Seaga look like best buddies. Both claim that theirs is the legitimate festival, both claim that the other is incompetent, dishonest, and not acting in the good faith Marley's name has come to stand for.

The schism traces back to Houston, Texas, and a rainy day ten years ago. In February 1985, Houston record-store owner Stephen "Iya" James presented a Bob Marley tribute at a club called Fitzgerald's, which filled to capacity for the salute to the reggae great. James restaged the event each year thereafter, moving to larger and larger venues to accommodate the burgeoning crowds. In 1988 he accepted the aid of veteran concert producer Sirron Kyles, and in 1993, for the first time, members of Marley's extended family took part in the Houston concert, including Bob's mother, Cedella Booker.

Booker and her associates were impressed. They decided to promote a similar festival in Miami, with help from James and Kyles, who had already begun taking the concept on the road, staging annual celebrations in San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, Tucson, and Cancun.

The tribute shows are free to the public, with the promoters either making or losing money on concessions, booth-space rentals, and corporate sponsorships. Judging by the attendance -- about 15,000, organizers say -- last year's Miami event was a success, but in fact it lost money.

Kyles contends that James and Cedella Marley Booker Enterprises's Stella McLaughlin neglected their duties, saddling him with most of the job. Further, while Kyles felt the event should be promoted as a festival, with the entertainment taking a back seat to other aspects, McLaughlin and company wanted the music to be foremost. As a headline act, they wanted to bring in Bob's son Ziggy Marley and his popular band the Melody Makers. Though Ziggy was willing to perform for free, his entourage of 24 required individual hotel rooms, as well as a special chef. According to Kyles, who opposed the extravagance, costs associated with Ziggy came to $16,000 A the amount the concert ended up losing.

McLaughlin blames the losses solely on Kyles. "Sirron made many false promises," she says. "We ran in the red because of his speculations on corporate sponsors that didn't come in." (Accounts about the bottom line differ: Kyles and James say they split the $16,000 shortfall out of their own pockets; McLaughlin says the loss totaled $20,000 and that she chipped in $3500, with James paying the rest.)

In the ensuing months, Booker Enterprises and Sirron Kyles would sever their relationship. "He's so disrespectful," McLaughlin says of Kyles. "He twists the truth. When we were in Cancun, he tried to pay us in pesos."

Kyles calls the falling-out "a blessing. Stella undermined my concept," he says. "I'm not degrading her; she's smart, but she doesn't have the common sense."

Houston's Stephen James also parted ways with Kyles. "Sirron was trying to take over, trying to tell me what to do with my event," James says.

Kyles maintains that the event is his. He says he came up with the festival concept, and that he took the event on the road as a tour. "The festival in Miami on February 25 is the same tour that came through last year. Theirs is the offshoot. Theirs is the breakaway," he asserts, adding that he booked the Bayfront Park Amphitheater far in advance, on May 1, 1994.

McLaughlin and her group booked the amphitheater even farther in advance Ain February of last year. "There are two private promoters, with their share of differences," confirms Bayfront executive director and general manager Ira Katz, "But we're not here to censor entertainment. Anyone who meets the requirements can rent the venue."

The Booker event this Saturday will be headlined by Ziggy and will feature several family members, as well as Shinehead and a number of local reggae acts. Kyles's version later this month will feature a number of somewhat obscure acts A Errol Blackwood & Injah, MK Shine, Kimbute and the Freedom Tribe, and others A because, he says, he wants to bring attention to deserving newcomers. While his acts are pegged to follow the tour from Florida to a dozen other cities in the U.S. and Mexico, the Booker tribute, with its completely separate lineup (including Ziggy Marley), is a one-of-a-kind, Miami-oriented show.

"Mrs. Booker," Kyles says without sarcasm, "has an open invitation to perform at any of my tour stops. The rest of the family, though, aren't really qualified. They don't even have product out. I want people to come in the spirit of a festival, not for the bands."

McLaughlin says she sent a cease-and-desist letter to Kyles because he was using the Marley family's name in his advertising. She further alleges that Kyles contacted sponsors and vendors of last year's event claiming that his was the legit sequel. Kyles maintains that he's the one being wronged, in that the Booker group went after his sponsors and stole his concept.

Happy birthday, Bob.

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