Jamaicans have a marvelously vivid word — blueswee — to describe those who are wily and hard to pin down: i.e., the Bob Marleys of the world. In native folklore, these qualities of cunning are personified by Anancy, a legendary figure whose name comes from the Twi anànse, meaning spider. The Anancy stories, derived from the Ashanti and brought to Jamaica in the 1600s on slave ships from the Gold Coast, are fables wherein the small, weak spider man befuddles and outwits a host of adversaries, among them Brer Monkey, Brer Tiger and even Brer Death. Relying on his guile (and a mystical faculty to alter his appearance at will), brave Brer Anancy illustrates the ability of the downtrodden to overcome the mighty — an inspirational bit of symbolism for the thralldom in slavery days.
Like the blueswee spider man, reggae, as played by Bob Marley and the Wailers, is both a wellspring of homespun adages and a canny cultural tool with great facility for adaptation and innovation. Tracing the Wailers’ growth from the falsetto vocals and languid R&B/jazz-tinged shuffle of their seminal ska era in the early Sixties, on through the percolating soul of rock steady, the raw, late-Sixties stutter beat of reggae, to the rise of the dub-wise march cadences (dubs are sledgehammer rhythm tracks) popularly referred to as rockers and militant, the band’s evolution is so dramatic that one realizes the music has never lingered in any stylistic camp for more than two years. In fact, the Wailers are the only group to have thrived during these many phases, producing reggae as desperate as the souls who fill Jamaica’s troubled hills, savannas and ghetto streets. Still, it’s surprising to find Marley, on the live Babylon by Bus, turning a new musical corner with an altogether buoyant sound that’s religious in its life-affirming Rastafarian underpinnings and universal in its romantic longing.
For a multitude of Jamaicans, Bob Marley is Anancy incarnate, a sagacious shantytown hero whose concerts evince the fearsome ballet of a black widow spider and boast a musical artifice shrewd enough to sidestep Brer Death himself. Indeed, Marley narrowly escaped assassination in December 1976 while rehearsing for an outdoor Smile Jamaica festival in Kingston. But he went on as scheduled, opening the tense, nighttime program with “War,” a 1968 speech by the late Haile Selassie that the singer had set to a loping tempo. At evening’s end, Marley opened his shirt to show his bullet wounds and then parroted the two-pistoled fast draw of a frontier gunslinger, his dread-locked head thrown back in triumphant laughter.
That was a mythic Marley performance, the spindly singer/songwriter embodying the defiant rudeboys, righteous Rastamen and duppy (evil spirit) conquerors with which he peoples his most ominous compositions. As in the Smile Jamaica show, the highly charged rendition of “War” on Babylon by Bus (now paired with the contrasting “No More Trouble”) no longer possesses any of the gloomy solemnity of the version unveiled on Rastaman Vibration (1976), Rather, its tone is one of humble admonishment, fired by an uplifting, rock-oriented fabric of hard guitar, rich organ swells and brisk percussion. It seems, for the time being, that Marley’s terrifying brush with fate has helped him exorcise most of his personal demons and caused him to shift his thematic focus from mayhem and apocalypse to the many faces of love and the continuity of life.
Despite the sternness of the material, Rastaman Vibration was Bob Marley’s first attempt at joining the immediacy of reggae’s volatile social and religious commentary with the visceral release of a unique brand of rockin’ soul. On succeeding Wailers albums (Exodus, Kaya), he eschewed the grim dictums of classics like “Concrete Jungle,” “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” “No Woman, No Cry” and “Johnny Was” (in which a ghetto mother weeps for a son killed by a stray bullet) in favor of such songs of hope, affection and fulfillments as “Jamming,” “Is This Love” and “Exodus.” These last three are given especially joyous treatment on the new double set, Marley’s most fully realized record since its polar opposite, 1974’s chilling Natty Dread.
As a rule, most reggae programs (with the exception of Toots and the Maytals’ untamed soul revue) have little of the hedonistic abandon of the standard rock & roll show, if only because the numbing authority of the former’s drunken tick-tock beat instills a kind of mass hypnosis. Since the overwhelming majority of reggae’s exponents are devout Rastas, the proceedings build with a reverent unhurriedness that combines the self-absorption of a backwoods Pentecostal service with the chantalong intensity of ritualistic Rastafarian Grounation meetings. The Wailers’ previous in-concert LP, Live! (1975), documented this obsessive approach, the band making music so steadfastly angry that the listener was almost afraid to be in a room by himself with it.
A far happier version of “Lively Up Yourself” is the only Live! selection that appears on Babylon by Bus, where it becomes a dervish-like ode to earthy bliss. Of the current album’s thirteen tracks, all but two were cut during Marley’s June 1978 dates at the Pavillon in Paris. The exceptions, “Stir It Up” (from the London show that produced Live!) and “Rat Race” (recorded in 1976 in the Hammersmith Odeum), contain an air of exhilaration that would reemerge full-blown in the Paris performances.
From the raucous invocation of Selassie’s divinity that kicks off “Positive Vibration” on side one to the unabashed good cheer of side four’s wrap-up rendition of “Jamming,” we hear a new side of Bob Marley — fanciful, lovelorn, vulnerable — that’s as riveting as any of his sulfurous early tirades. After the preceding Kaya (until now, his only disc with a cover that shows him smiling), Marley took a lot of critical heat from those who felt that by crooning anthems to the spiritual and temporal raptures of Jah (God), ganja, brotherhood and womankind, he’d betrayed his “roots” rage. (As if anger were a more creditable emotion than joy!) From a technical standpoint, both Kaya and Babylon by Bus surpass any of the Wailers’ previous efforts and demonstrate a degree of sophistication that was either unavailable or unattainable in the simple one- and four-track Kingston studios where the group did its real roots recording.
Mindful that ska, rock steady and reggae were once emulations of American R&B, soul and rock & roll, I can accept Marley’s fascination with Seventies funk and rock idioms. Why shouldn’t he and the Wailers continue to grow and expand?
Babylon by Bus offers a fine sampling of material from the group’s Seventies repertoire, ranging from the wrathful “Rebel Music” and “Rat Race” to such sultty dance tunes as “Stir It Up.” Yet each number is now infused with a sprightly clarity and tenderness that redoubles the emotional impact. Bob Marley’s vocals are his most expressive — and least pompous — ever. It’s thrilling and often deeply moving to hear the mutually exultant dialogue he establishes with his Parisian audience: a testament to the global appeal of his positive vision. Jamaican guitarist Junior Marvin breaks new ground with spare, stinging leads, and his wisecracking interplay with Tyrone Downey’s carnivalesque keyboards on “Lively Up Yourself” is a disarming delight. Even “Kinky Reggae,” the haughty sexist cant on 1973’s Catch a Fire, becomes a shade more palatable here because Marley’s self-mocking singing and the I-Threes’ coy backing refrain dismantle the song’s macho malarkey.
And there’s an improved arrangement of “Punky Reggae Party,” an addlepated paean to the British New Wave released last year in Jamaica (and in England as an import) on Marley’s Tuff Gong label. The original might well be the Wailers’ worst single, eclipsing such memorable ska indiscretions as their cover versions of “A Teenager in Love,” “What’s New Pussycat?” “Hava Nagila” and a bizarre 1965 Christmas release called “Sound the Trumpet.” Marley knows that the words to “Punky Reggae Party” are throwaways, but recognizes the tune’s funky danceability. Working with the premier reggae rhythm section of Aston and Carlton Barrett (bass and drums, respectively), he cooks up a pogo sizzler.
Purists will observe — quite correctly — that the overall direction of Babylon by Bus is much too rock-oriented to be called reggae. But before they make disdainful comparisons between, say, ex-Wailer guitarist Peter Tosh’s acclaimed “roots” reggae lead on Catch a Fire’s “Concrete Jungle” and outsider Junior Marvin’s spacious blues noodling on the new record, they should know that the guitar player on the earlier LP wasn’t Tosh but an uncredited Wayne Perkins.
Babylon by Bus reverberates with an awesome faith in the power of love in all its difficult and rewarding forms. It’s a statement that Bob Marley and the Wailers have been building up to for some time, and it explodes here with a humanity and an urgency as potent as any of the band’s previous darker calls to arms. For sheer emotional impact, Marley’s strongest song on Live! was a stark, accusatory “Them Belly Full (but We Hungry),” while the most affecting track on the current album is “Is This Love,” whose jubilant message of ardor is every bit as stirring as that of its predecessor.