Rasta Around the World
People interested in the music might not have the patience for this much cultural backstory (most other Marley/Wailers histories keep it to a minimum), but music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by the cultural forces of the hour, and it returns the favor. Grant carefully builds that case here, revealing how the Wailers’ individual personalities began to emerge against the backdrop of post-independence Jamaica and its continuing class divides (curiously, Grant makes little mention of perhaps the most important moment in Jamaican history, its gaining independence from mother England in 1962).
No group came to symbolize those divides more than the dreadlock-wearing, ganja-smoking Rastafarians. For decades they’d been scorned by the Jamaican mainstream, to say nothing of the police. Eventually, a charismatic, well-spoken Rasta, Mortimo Planno, emerged as the key figure in Kingston’s Rasta community. The sessions of “reasoning,” informal bull sessions and explanations of the Rasta way of thinking, became widely known throughout Trench Town; it’s not too farfetched to think of Planno as akin to the Malcolm X of the early ‘60s, translating for a new generation the ways of a mysterious underground tribe, one with its own cosmology and an appearance that confounded the establishment. Planno guided the Wailers into Rastafari, but he was not quite so mystical as to not want a piece of the musical pie.
Grant does fans of Jamaican music a huge service by spending so much time on Planno, and Rastafari in general. It was a presence on the island well before independence, and it took on even greater significance after the visit of Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie in 1966 (Rastas believe they saw the stigmata in his hand when he waved to the crowd during his visit, thus confirming him in their eyes as Christ in the flesh). It’s long been axiomatic that reggae music had a heavy Rasta vibe throughout the roots era of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Grant takes us deeply into Jamaican life to show how Rastafari took hold of a generation of young men, whose music would then take Jamaica – and Rasta – around the world. In this respect and others, The Natural Mystics might be the most thorough and accessible Jamaican history book a music fan might ever need.
But it probably isn’t the only Marley/Wailers book that fan might need. Without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the entire Wailers timeline, readers might be a little rudderless when it comes to grasping the basic facts about the band. And forget about understanding the music itself; Grant makes no pretences towards music criticism or analysis. What he does do is flesh out the stories and personalities of Tosh and Wailer, sometimes at the expense of the far better-known (and much more written-about) Marley. (Thus, it’s a little ironic that the book’s title comes from a Marley solo song.) We end up seeing the arc and inter-personal dynamics of the trio’s run, from its Trench Town roots, to its desperation after years of getting shafted by various producers and ill-fated ventures, to its eventual breakthrough with the passionate backing of Chris Blackwell at Island Records.
After the first two albums for Island, Tosh and Wailer departed for solo careers, leaving Marley to carry the Wailers name across the globe without his original bandmates. Grant doesn’t spend much time on the subsequent solo careers, save for pivotal events in their lives (the 1976 attempted hit on Marley and his appearance at a benefit concert two nights later, Marley’s and Tosh’s performances at the 1978 One Love Peace Concert, their respective deaths). In the end, Bunny Wailer looms triumphant, approaching 70 content in Jamaican semi-seclusion after an incredible run from boyhood struggling to international stardom.
A stretch like that suggests that there’s a Wailers biopic to be gleaned from their story (as opposed to the various Marley biopic projects that have surfaced from time to time). The Natural Mystics is not a particularly clear road map toward such a treatment: Grant’s insistence on including history, nuance and present-day asides doesn’t jibe with how most rock band stories have traditionally been told. But the Wailers weren’t just a rock band: their emergence into the international spotlight paralleled that of their nation, and the music Marley, Tosh and Wailer made as a band over ten years both reflected and was rooted in their experiences as Jamaicans trying to survive Jamaica. Grant’s book seems only nominally about music much of the time, and it’s far from the smoothest read, but it’s all the history, nuance and present-day asides that will contribute to any true appreciation of one of pop music’s most important bands, ever.