THIRTY-six years on, after his death on May 11, 1981, Robert Nester Marley is still celebrated in Zimbabwe.
BY FRED ZINDI
This week sees the groups Transit Crew, House of Stone, Cello Culture, Sound House and many more coming together in commemoration of this icon’s death at Ambassador Hotel today, something for all to look forward to after the Harare International Festival of the Arts.
Lameck will be present to ensure that there is peace, love and harmony.
Why is Bob Marley so important to Zimbabwe?
On the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in April, 1980, the late Jamaican superstar graced the occasion.
He churned out songs from his Survival album. The show only lasted for 30 minutes in which he sang War/No More Trouble, Chant Down Babylon, A Blackman Redemption, Get Up, Stand Up (for your rights), and, of course, Zimbabwe, and the whole nation went ecstatic as the songs were truly revolutionary and appropriate for this nation at the time.
It was almost inevitable that a man so identified with the struggles against class and racial oppression should be invited to perform at the celebrations of the birth of a new nation, Zimbabwe.
The first contact between the new Zimbabwe government and Marley was in March 1980. It was simply, an invitation for Marley to attend the country’s Independence celebrations.
The intention was not for him to perform, so the invitation was just for him and wife, Rita. However, Marley, being the revolutionary he had become, wrote a song entitled Zimbabwe with assistance from Gibson Mandishona, just before the country celebrated its Independence.
He insisted that his whole band should be invited too and would give a performance at the celebrations.
The Zimbabwean government did not have enough money to ferry such a large group plus equipment to Harare.
Besides, Chris Blackwell, Marley’s manager at the time and chief executive officer of Island Records, was against this tour, but Marley, who had been following events in Zimbabwe, decided he would go.
He hired a public address (PA) system in London and paid for its freight to Zimbabwe at his own expense.
During the years of the Second Chimurenga, when the freedom fighters were in the bush, Marley’s music had been adopted by the guerilla forces of the Patriotic Front.
In the weeks following the initial invitation the idea grew that, maybe, Marley and the Wailers could actually perform at the celebrations.
The ZimbabweAN government put negotiations in the hands of Job Kadengu and Gordon Muchanyuka, two African businessmen with heavy Zanu PF credentials. They flew to Kingston to invite him and his band.
By the time the band had arrived in Zimbabwe, a chartered Boeing 707 was on its way from London to Salisbury (Harare) with 21 tons of equipment, a full 35 000 watt PA system plus backline equipment.
It was one of the most extraordinary logistics operations. Mick Cater, from Alec Leslie Entertainments, who was the sound technician and team leader, flew down the night before with the stage crew and the equipment and then set himself the problem of building a stage in time for the Independence celebrations.
By Wednesday, when the 12-strong road crew had arrived in Zimbabwe, he had six hours in which to construct the stage and find sufficient power for the PA system.
By the time the Independence ceremony had started, the stage was ready.
At Rufaro Stadium, Zimbabwe television found its best camera positions, while the seating arrangements for the world’s dignitaries including Prince Charles and Lord Carrington of Britain, were being decided.
To one side of the stadium a construction crew completed work on a massive stage. This was for Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Now, “massive”, of course, is a relative word. It is the kind of stage accepted as par for the course at most European rock festivals.
In Zimbabwe, it became one of the greatest music stage construction jobs ever seen. And it was built in something like six hours.
The country had never seen such massive musical equipment before. Heaps and heaps of speakers similar to those displayed during the Woodstock Festival were at Rufaro Stadium on April 18, 1980.
Bob Marley and the Wailers, plus cooks and children including Ziggy Marley, aged 10 at the time, who had departed from Jamaica for London on the Sunday evening, were now in Zimbabwe.
At the invitation of Thompson Kachingwe who was running the joint, Bob Marley and the Wailers found themselves at Job’s Night Club, in downtown Salisbury.
They had spent the previous night with the guerillas at Skyline Motel some 20 kilometres outside of town since all hotel space in Salisbury had long been taken by the government’s official guests and, of course, by the international media.
The next day, Marley even had time to visit Mutoko where he witnessed first-hand the ganja planters. True to his Rastafarian beliefs, he sampled some.
At 8.30pm the Wailers found their way into Rufaro Stadium, working their way backstage. The ceremony had already started, with eager young black and white school kids going through gymnastics routines.
Flash back! At 10pm Bob Marley and the Wailers are introduced.
It is a poignant moment, Marley takes a celebratory stance at the front of the stage, calling out “Viva Zimbabwe!” and each time eliciting a greater response from the audience.
It is a moment pregnant with possibilities. Rastafari in our father land. A realisation of the inherent unity in black culture, as emotional for the audience as it is for the band. Homecoming!
The band’s mixing desk is located halfway down the side of the stadium. The concert starts at 10pm and Zimbabwe responds to Bob Marley and the Wailers.
The people, who have all along been listening to speeches from the dignitaries and watching the inauguration of a new prime minister, have now left their seats in the grandstands, finding room to dance and, well, simply express themselves.
It is, indeed, an extraordinary night. Even though the majority of the audience speak Shona — and the cries of “Jah Rastafari” and “re you feeling irie?” find no response as this language is still new to the people.
Indeed, the Haile Selassie backdrop behind the band mystifies at least one person. This is a night of some great significance and enjoyment, undiminished by the police action some 10 minutes into the set when the acid stench of teargas wafts across the stage.
The police, worried by a unit of Zanla troops demanding to be allowed into the stadium, set off a teargas canister.
The audience runs hysterically, while the band stops playing. A moment of chaos is resolved when the Zanla guerillas are allowed in. They run to the side of the stage, acknowledging Bob Marley and the Wailers.
The show continues with War/No More Trouble, Chant Down Babylon, Blackman Redemption, Get Up, Stand Up (for your rights), and, of course, Zimbabwe.
Bob Marley and the Wailers are on stage for half an hour. It is one of the shortest sets the band has ever played but, of course, they are not in Zimbabwe as part of some commercial enterprise.
Tonight Bob Marley and the Wailers have expressed a potent solidarity with the Zimbabwe struggle. All this for free, of course!
How I wish Zimbabwe could re-live that moment once again. Today, it is hoped local reggae bands will bring back that 1980 irie feeling once more!