If he were still alive, Bob Marley would be turning 69 today. It is difficult to imagine those iconic dreadlocks completely grey—about as hard as it was to deal with the image of him facing the cancer of his death without any hair left on that phenomenal head.
In an interview years before, he had fingered the locks, saying almost defiantly,
“This is my identity.”
Cancer can strip so many things away.
The 2012 documentary, “Marley” closes on the final months of his life at a clinic in Germany, where he had come down to 77 pounds and had lost his locks. Although he looked shrunken, his demeanour was childlike rather than feeble, and the youthfulness that softened his features was a stark reminder that he was only 36.
It made me wonder—as I have often done—about whether there has been any value to us to have lost some of our Caribbean figures so early in their lives. Frank Worrell, Walter Rodney and Malcolm Marshall were men in their prime and they remain frozen that way in memory: forever young, forever strong.
Three decades after his death Marley is still the world’s most iconic rasta; how would we have dealt with an aged Bob Marley tossing all-grey dreadlocks? I would like to think that the principles and wisdom that informed his music from so early on would have endured and further enriched it. There was narrative; there was melody and a sharply distinct philosophy. It carried intelligence. It is so with David Rudder; it was alive in Andre Tanker. A whole genre of regional musicians was part of this tradition. Such was the social commentary of calypso.
It was the same in cricket. Just as musicians could produce a standard that could hold its own on diverse stages, so our cricketers were intelligent beings. They could assess an environment, evaluate pitch conditions, work out bowler’s strengths and batsmen’s weaknesses and adjust. It wasn’t all about technical competence; it was the limber mind.
While Jamaica and Barbados give nuff respect to their national heroes, Trinidad and Tobago take ours to notoriously shabby pastures.
The Mighty Sparrow, epitome of the macho performer, faces astronomical medical bills and the State feels no responsibility to support this national icon. Better to spend millions resurrecting fallen fire trucks. It was distressing to witness the frailty of Sparrow’s last local performance. Despite reassurances that he was doing what he loved to do, in the shadows is the feeling that he is doing what he has to do to earn an income.
Were we always like this? Oil money really spoiled us, oui.
The circumstances of our time have pushed our writers to dwell on responding to the minutiae of pranks generated mostly by politicians, without attending to the broader issues which are their genesis. We’ve whittled down our focus to a needle’s eye and no longer have the capacity to see the big picture. Yet there was a time when intelligence and erudition were commonly expressed in newspapers. Wayne Brown and Keith Smith were voices that encouraged us to contemplate the forces shaping our landscape. Ian McDonald, at 80, still writes in that beautiful tradition in his Guyana columns.
One of his recent ones, called “The Examined Life,” begins this way: “When I was no more than twelve or thirteen the feeling grew in me that it was important not simply to live life day by day but somehow to give greater meaning to it by recording what was happening every one of those days and by planning how I should shape and what I should make of my life in the future.”
It is an essay ruminating on the life of the writer, questioning choices, and as it culls from poetic references and the musings they engendered, it coaxes the reader to ponder the quality of life.
It transported me to an introspective mood. Life is sometimes so exquisitely balanced, so arbitrarily brutish, how do we make enough sense of it to keep going? The arts have always provided the most compassionate compass for that journey. In music, paintings and drawings, in literature and sport, we find redemption songs that bring purpose and meaning.
So sad that this landscape has become such an intellectual La Basse that it will not give space and air for the arts to shine some cleansing light.
I think of Marley and the heroes who fell so early, and I wonder, what more might they have given? It seems unfair to hope for more when they have already filled our cups to overflowing. But such is the nature of humankind. We always want more.
And what more would Marley have wanted of us? What would he have made of the world we continue to inhabit? Would he have felt the music has grown? Think of your favourite soca songs over the past decade and try to imagine Bob Marley performing them. If you find it impossible, then you understand why it might be better to grieve for his absence than to have to see him wining on a soca stage.