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Various releases continue to explore Marley legacy

By Ron Wynn

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Bob Marley's stature has become so immense over the years that it's hard to believe he enjoyed limited commercial success during his active career. But like most prophets and visionaries, Marley was far ahead of his time; only one of his albums, 1976's Rastaman Vibration, cracked the Billboard Top 10. Still, from his earliest '60s sessions with the Wailers to his final days in the '80s, Bob Marley's songs expressed the anger and frustration of the oppressed while offering hope of better days ahead.

Marley's popularity has soared since his death from cancer in 1981 at age 36. People around the world celebrate his Feb. 6 birthday, while sales of his albums continue unabated. Turner Network Television recently aired a 55th-birthday tribute featuring stars from both sides of the globe, and the Bob Marley Foundation maintains an impressive archive, constantly updating and revisiting his legacy. In addition, his children have continued the family tradition over two decades via their group Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers.

There's currently a fresh batch of Marley material available; besides the remastered four-disc reissue Songs of Freedom, there's an intriguing, controversial new release Chant Down Babylon (Tuff Gong/Island), on which contemporary rappers match rhymes with Marley's vocals. In addition, Rounder/Heartbeat has released another vintage set of early Wailers tracks, Destiny: Rare Ska Sides From Studio 1 (Rounder/Heartbeat). Meanwhile, the Melody Makers have issued their first date in several years, Spirit of Music (Elektra).

Chant Down Babylon has angered some true believers and surprised others, mostly because it relies so heavily on samples and production trickery. Stephen Marley produced the session and considers it the ultimate fulfillment of his father's wishes to reach more African American fans. The disc's 12 tunes include superb collaborations with Guru on "Johnny Was," Chuck D on "Survival A.K.A. Black Survivors," and Erykah Badu on "No More Trouble." There's also alluring romantic patter from Lauryn Hill on "Turn Your Lights Down," a rollicking version of "Roots, Rock, Reggae" blending Marley's voice with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Rakim's biting rhetoric on "Concrete Jungle," and M.C. Lyte's equally flashy rhymes on "Jammin'."

Chant Down Babylon is that rare vehicle--a "ghost" album with a unique sound. Some critics have disparaged it, claiming that Marley's leads on these tracks pale next to the originals, which is both true and irrelevant. Granted, the versions on Songs of Freedom are definitive, but that collection is designed to give a comprehensive look at Marley's music, mixing alternate cuts, live tracks, remixes, and familiar standards such as "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Lively Up Yourself." If Songs of Freedom is an homage to his past, Chant Down Babylon brings his story into the present.

Among Marley's greatest disappointments was his failure to find success on black radio in America. Though he toured the States in both the mid-'70s and in 1980, he felt an anticipated co-tour with Stevie Wonder in 1981 would be the ticket to broad acceptance among black Americans. Sadly, he never lived to see it happen. But for those interested in just how deep Marley's roots were in African American music, Destiny: Rare Ska Sides From Studio One should be a revelation. It's the fifth reissue of Wailers songs recorded between 1963 and 1966 by Clement Seymour Dodd, a.k.a. Sir Coxsone.

In the mid-'60s, the Wailers were evolving into the unit that became reggae's finest band. Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer were core members, joined on various tracks by other vocalists, among them Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso, Joe Higgs, and Rita Marley. Dodd expertly supervised the dates, at the same time pioneering the use of multi-track recording in Jamaican music.

The original Wailers were a genuine vocal group in the broadest sense: They cut everything from lurching ska tunes to covers of Tom Jones and Irving Berlin. Their backing band included numerous Jamaican luminaries, among them saxophonists Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso, trombonist Don Drummond, guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and organist Jackie Mitoo. Vocal quality on Destiny varies as much as the material; sometimes Marley's potential glimmers, particularly on the cuts "Do You Feel the Same Way Too" and "Your Love." Other times, he fades into the background, since he had not yet emerged as the ensemble's dominant voice. Even so, these early dates affirm that Marley was the group's real master; both Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh were wonderful vocalists, but they just weren't Marley.

Because Bob Marley was so special, inevitable, and unfair, comparisons are often made between his music and that of his children. But Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers simply aren't a roots reggae band. While Ziggy's lyrics frequently reflect his father's zeal for social justice and spiritual fulfillment, the Melody Makers make pop/R&B music with a light reggae influence.

Spirit of Music, the group's latest, offers some worthy nuggets, among them "Keep My Faith," featuring some tart harmonica from Taj Mahal; the playful "One Good Spliff"; and the more lyrically forceful "Many Waters" and "Jah Will Be Done." Ziggy Marley's vocal inflections and tone keep inching closer to his father's, while producer David Was provides 21st-century technical backing. No one should look to the Melody Makers for life-changing music; there are, however, enough enjoyable moments to compensate for those cuts that are recycled hip-hop or folk leftovers.


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