Sandwiched in between two “great” Marley recordings, it has perhaps been easy to ignore—forget really—the significance of Bob Marley 1978 recording Kaya. Exodus (1977) was a commercial success largely on the strength of “Jammin’”, which became the song most synonymous with commercial audiences in the post-Bunny Wailer/Peter Tosh era. By the time of Survival‘s release in 1979, Marley was ready to trade on his commercial viability to openly address some of the political realities of the time. With tracks such as “Zimbabwe”, “Africa Unite” and “Ambush”, Marley injected his voice into the myriad of voices addressing the fall of Rhodesia, the need for stronger diasporic ties among African peoples, and the continuing brutality of military forces in his native Jamaica. Marley was perhaps simply finding some quiet time with Kaya—a chance to recover from assassination attempts, the pressures of balancing his “righteousness” with his growing iconical status and the realities of always (quick shout to Duke Ellington) being on the road. Kaya finds Marley in love—in love with a thick stiff spliff, some bright mornings, and that lil’ brown gal ‘round the way.
“Excuse me while I light my spliff” and thus are the opening lines of “Easy Skanking”, the track that opens Kaya. A little more low key than the “Spliff” that adorned the original cover are of the now classic Catch a Fire, the line fully captures the mood of the recording. Kaya is of course the “ganja” plant and there is a picture of one that adorns the backing cover-art. Throughout Kaya, Marley is personal, unguarded, playful, full of joy in ways that had not been present in his earlier work as he sings “Got to have kaya now, got to have kaya now”, registering a pre-hip-hop take on “puff, puff, pass” etiquette. Marley is equally lighthearted on the spookish “Sun is Shining” where he sings “Sun is shining, the weather is sweet / Make you want to move, your dancing feet / To the rescue, here I am”. Marley’s cavalier attitude (how do you say carpe-diem in Jamaican patois?) ever so evident towards the end of the song as he warbles “scoo-be-doop-scoop-scoop”. The song is built around the seven-day week and Marley pleads his case, singing “When the morning gathers the rainbow / Want you to know, I am a rainbow too” and proving that even the crown-prince of “reggaemusic” (think about how Marley himself used to say the phrase) ain’t above getting’ on his knees and doin’ a Keith Sweat like mack.
And plead he does. About half of Kaya centers around that “lil brown gal”. Two of the most memorable tracks from Kaya are the tracks that sing her praises. On “Satisfy My Soul”, Marley flirtingly sings “When I meet you around the corner / You make me feel like a sweepstakes winna (winner)” later changing up the lyrics with a much more urgent and lustful “when I met you around the corner / Oh I said baby, never let me be a loner”. On the brilliantly simplistic “Is This Love?” (to this day still my favorite Marley song of all time) Marley can barely contain himself as he yelps in the opening lyric “I wanna love ya, and treat you right”. Marley sings about making a life with lyrics like “we’ll share the shelter, of my single bed / We’ll share the same room, JAH provide the bread” recalling DJ Rogers’ oh so underrated soul classic “Say You Love Me”.
Given the Marley canon, which includes so many lyrical firebombs aimed at the great global “isms” of the modern era neocolonialism, imperialism, racism and capitalism (modern men didn’t seem, much interested in sexism), both “Satisfy My Soul” and “Is This Love?” are so powerful because Marley allowed himself to be “caught up” in such an unguarded mood, leaving himself vulnerable to the inconsistent rhythms of love. Marley vulnerability is made more apparent on tracks such as “She’s Gone”, “Misty Morning” and the haunting “Running Away”. On the latter track speaks from the position of a man in flight (“You running and you running / But you can’t run from yourself.”) The last two minutes of the song is brilliant as Marley sings in a growly whisper—no doubt a ganga induced stream of improvisation—repeating several times the line “I’m not running away”. The moment is every bit as striking as the gospel-induced drives that close so many classic gospel recordings.
The most blatantly political track on Kaya, the acoustically sparse “Time Will Time”, features one of Marley’s most moving post-Bunny/Peter performances as Marley defiantly sings “JAH would never give the power to a baldhead / run come crucify the dred”. Nearly 25 years after its initial release in March of 1978, Kaya remains a sweet satisfying surprise from Marley.