If Bob Marley had not left us for Zion on that May day back in 1981, he would have turned 56 years old this month. And as with Elvis, Jim Morrison, and my late hamster Lucky, I sometimes fantasize about what the world would look like if Bob Marley were still alive: The sagging state of reggae is still flush with the influence of its most vital spirit, Jamaica is a model of peace and equity, the universe hums along at a slightly more perfect pitch, and Bob's birthday is celebrated in his home city of Miami with the best reggae festival on the planet.
Far-fetched? Not entirely. Like a Jamaican Gandhi, Bob Marley was a powerful symbol of peaceful revolution and justice for the down-pressed, not just in his homeland, but all over the Third World. And he had the pull to effect political change. He brought the two rival leaders of Jamaica's violently clashing political parties together, onstage, at the One Love One Peace concert in 1978. He was the honored performer at Zimbabwe's independence ceremonies in 1979. A poll taken among African children in the late Eighties named him as the most revered figure on the continent, ahead of Nelson Mandela.
Marley's generosity was legendary as well. Often inundated with petitions, he would take time out of each day to meet with the multitudes that came to his home -- poor people, musicians, rudies, and dreads from the ghettos of West Kingston -- looking for help or money. Friends say he would hand out as much as $40,000 on some occasions. "He gave his dinner away," Cindy Breakespeare, mother of Bob's son Damian, once said. "People begged him things every day. Every day! He gave whatever to whoever. He didn't prize material things. And he didn't prize money."
So it's only proper to pay tribute to such a universally loved man with a festival, which is exactly the idea of the Eighth Annual Bob Marley "Natural Mystic" Festival this Saturday at Bayfront Park Amphitheater. Established in 1994 by promoter and Marley family friend Stella McLaughlin, the festival was inspired by the highly successful Bob Marley Day Festival in Long Beach, California. "I had gone to L.A. and went to the Bob Marley festival at the Long Beach Auditorium and saw these huge crowds, 18,000 people a day," recalls McLaughlin in a recent interview. "I called Mother B. [Cedella Booker, Bob's mom] and said, We've gotta do something like this in Miami.'"
The L.A. trip was followed by a Marley family performance at another festival in Houston, where, McLaughlin says, "the incredible crowds that showed up and the love you felt" inspired her. She said to herself: We've gotta do this in Miami, the home of Mother B. and, on and off, for the rest of the Marleys since the Seventies.
Although the Houston festival promoters brought in to help establish the Miami fest in 1994 had a few quibbles with the organization, there was no mistaking the conscious, noncommercial spirit of the event. Admission was free for the first 15,000 people who showed up with a donation of canned food to benefit the Camillus House. The festival continued that way -- free of charge -- until 1997, when McLaughlin added five dollars to the "ticket price" of three canned goods. But the powerful lineup that included Maxi Priest, the Mighty Diamonds, and Wyclef Jean drew an overwhelming crowd. "We weren't prepared for these huge lines of people," says McLaughlin of the lines that stretched from the amphitheater to the Hotel Inter-Continental. "The police got scared and decided to let everyone in for free," the promoter remembers, "so it was a big financial fiasco."
Eager to avoid further trouble, McLaughlin handed the festival reins to Richard Booker, Bob's half-brother and the son of Mother B. In conjunction with the Bob Marley Movement (a fan club started by the late singer himself in the Seventies), Booker and his partner, Sharien Fogle, have been organizing the festival for the past four years. The pair has taken the event in a decidedly new direction. The price of admission has risen each year, up to $20 in advance and $25 at the gate, plus another $4 or four cans of food for the very worthy Food For Life Network. The event also has featured more commercially attractive, non-Caribbean acts, including Santana, Erykah Badu, and hip-hop artist Dead Prez. And in what could be seen as an attempt to draw a wider audience, this year's bill includes Hootie and the Blowfish. "Bob wasn't just reggae," offers Fogle as the reason for booking Hootie. "He was just people. He wasn't just trying to relate to people through reggae. We try to go for people who are open to the message, not just reggae."
Although Marley's beatific spirit might have embraced such scheduling, reggae fans and mere mortals may not be so forgiving. It's bad enough that the headlining Hootie has absolutely nothing to do with Jamaican, Caribbean, reggae, or world. It's even worse given that this supposedly mainstream act is sinking fast into a well-deserved obscurity. Even in their prime, these poster boys for corporate Babylon's safe sounds and high profits never produced any conscious riddims. At this stage of their career, the Bob Marley festival does more for them than they can do for it.
Despite Blowfish topping the bill, roots fans might still happily slap down a Jackson plus five (and four cans of soup), to see roots veterans Burning Spear, originator of the most essential of reggae albums, Marcus Garvey. Then there's the roots harmonizing of Morgan Heritage, a vocal group made up of the three sons and two daughters of the legendary Denroy Morgan. And of course there will be appearances by all the progeny of Bob: Ziggy, Sharon, Cedella, Stephen, Julian, and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley.
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But given the festival's history, there is no guarantee that any given act will show up. The 2000 festival advertised appearances by Lauryn Hill and Jimmy Cliff, but neither performed, leading the large Hill contingent to close the festival with a chorus of boos. Fogle claims that the organizers tried to get the word out about Hill's no-show a week before the concert.
Last year's production also suffered from technical difficulties that delayed the performance by the Marley brothers. "They worked on the sound stage (or at least that's what they made us believe) for more than an hour," wrote one disappointed fan on a popular Bob Marley Website. "For the amount of money they made, you'd figure they would at least have the stage set up with some professionalism. No one should have to wait that long."
According to a source close to the festival, those "technical difficulties" were caused by an attempt made by Richard Booker, using his stage name Richard Booker Marley. Not considered one of the family's performers, Booker recently had added the Marley moniker and, claims the source, was using the venue as a chance to advance his own musical aspirations. The concert stalled, according to this account, while equipment being set up by Ziggy's crew was taken down by Richard's, and back and forth. Compounded by Erykah Badu's overtime performance, the delay forced the Marley brothers to play an abbreviated set before the city's mandated curfew shut down the show. (Repeated calls to Booker were not returned.)
In its present incarnation Miami's Bob Marley festival is a far less lustrous tribute than the Long Beach version where Bob's bandmates -- Bunny Wailer, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt -- take the stage along with roots giants Toots & The Maytals, Culture, Ras Michael, and Ky-Mani Marley (noticeably absent from the Miami lineup), as well as contemporary stars Capleton, Shaggy, and Buju Banton. As long as the Marley family name is attached to the festival here, however, there is always hope for redemption. "We contacted the Wailers but there was a schedule conflict," says Fogle. "It's something we would like to do in the future -- to bring some of Bob's former bandmates together with [the Marley kids]." Until the Miami festival looks beyond the box office, all the Blowfish in the world will not fix it.