Bob Marley needs no introduction.
He remains to this day one of the most idolised figures in the history of music across the planet, and arguably the most famous Caribbean man in the world.
He is also a political icon across Africa, Europe and of course in his birthplace Jamaica. He is Reggae's biggest star by a massive margin. And for me, he was even more a lyrical prophet and a fascinating enigma.
A new documentary film successfully making the rounds of festivals around the globe, charts the early rise of Bob Marley before all the stardom.
Bob Marley The Making of a Legend is co-produced by Marley's former girlfriend Esther Anderson and her partner Gian Godoy.
The previously unseen footage and photographs shot by Anderson who, more than being Bob Marley's former girlfriend, was instrumental in launching his career with Chris Blackwell had been lost for 30 years. They capture a young, cheeky and mischievous Marley on the cusp of stardom and very much in love with Anderson, an up-and-coming Jamaican film actress and pioneer who was already turning things upside down in the UK and Hollywood, determined to leave her Caribbean mark on London's history.
With Marley's music poised to explode on the international scene, the film features Esther's iconic photos and footage of Marley before dreadlocks and that legendary shot of him smoking a big spliff, a photograph still used today to sell his image all over the world.
Esther Anderson met Bob Marley in 1972, as his star was just beginning to rise.
By then she had revolutionised 1960s London with her Jamaican friend Martine Beswick, her sister Tiffany and her then boyfriend Chris Blackwell, injecting Jamaican music and Caribbean life in to a dreary, grey London.
Together with Blackwell, Anderson gave birth to Island Records turning it into a legendary independent label launching talented artists like Millie Small and Jimmy Cliff on to the world. A Jamaican beauty queen, Anderson became the first model to successfully break the colour barrier when she appeared on television advertisements in England. She would later study drama at the Actor's Studio Workshop in London. BBC plays and film work soon follow with small parts in big Hollywood movies and Anderson would later be voted one of the 12 most promising actors of 1973. She starred in A Warm December with Sidney Poitier and with Sammy Davis Junior in One more Time, and then the Jamaican beauty caught the eye of Hollywood heartthrob Marlon Brando during a film test at Pinewood Studios. The two fell in love and stayed together for many years.
In this no-holds-barred talk with Trinidad Express writer Natalie Williams, Esther Anderson talks candidly about Marley's early beginnings, their love, and the film she is sure will make people fall in love with this Jamaican icon all over again.
Esther, thank you for sharing your time with Trinidad Express readers and lovers of Bob Marley's music all over the Caribbean. The film has been shown at dozens of festivals around the world so far to sell-out crowds...but all this very nearly didn't happen at all. The footage was missing for 30 years. Was it stolen?
I had just finished filming A Warm December and wanted to do my own films. I had bought a 35mm Arriflex camera and shot a 30 minute film in London. At that point I met Bob in New York and Chris (Blackwell) asked me to help him launch Bob's international career. I photographed Bob with my Nikon in Trinidad, Haiti and Jamaica. Eventually some of those shots were sent to Island Records in London for the launch of Bob Marley and the Wailers second album, Burnin, and the relaunch of their first album Catch a Fire. It was during that period in Jamaica with Bob and the Wailers that I decided to make a film on The Wailers, and where their music comes from, i.e. the Rastafarian culture. I used an 8mm camera and a Sony video camera, a prototype camera given by Sony to rock stars and record companies. John Lennon had one too. Very detailed and extensive footage was shot during that time we all stayed at Island House at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, now the Bob Marley Museum. Back then, we Bob and I and the Wailers left Jamaica for the UK and US tours promoting Catch a Fire and the new songs they had written for Burnin'. I left the tapes, both 8mm and video tapes, and 35mm transparencies in the care of an Island Records publicist, who was at 56 Hope Road. When the tour ended, and we returned to Jamaica, the tapes and film had disappeared.
What came next?
Gian adds: I wanted Esther to recover her collection of photographs and films. The hardest part was to establish the facts surrounding the use of her photographs by a clique of agents who had used them for decades without permission to promote their own careers while preventing Esther from gaining control over her intellectual copyright and ownership. In 2000, a documentary filmmaker called Jeremy Marre got in touch with Esther for an interview on Bob Marley. We met with him to find out what was he intending to do and to ensure his views on Bob Marley and the Caribbean were not exploitative. We discovered he had made an earlier television programme with Esther's photograph of Bob Marley smoking the spliff again without her permission. Not only that, they had edited in some clips from Esther's original black and white footage from 1973. The filmmaker said he had found the footage in Canada and had baked it, (a technical process that enables the video tape to be transferred to a new support in this case Betacam). The original tapes were many long hours of the Wailers and the Rastafarian culture, not just in Kingston but travelling all around Jamaica. We registered the film at the Library of Congress in the US.
Esther: The journey to regain control of my photographs has been long, where the remnants of Colonial exploitation and piracy are clearly displayed. It is obvious that I had been prevented from having control of my collection of photographs. I was not an artist for hire, but an artist who decided to invest in the culture of my own country. Through a lengthy and obstacle-laden road, Gian and I were able to regain control of copyright of the photographs appearing on the two albums, and register them again with the Library of Congress in Washington. To this day, Universal Music, who bought Island Records, continues to exploit my photographs without permission.
This film represents many years of research and development, including regaining control of my own creative works. The old tradition of exploitation, piracy and abuse of the Caribbean by the Metropolis is still alive in many forms. I have seen over and over again these people (names called) associated with Caribbean music, calling themselves experts, making a living from associating themselves to the Caribbean, to further their wealth and their hold on little powers, little plantation-mentality control. And while they keep portraying the Caribbean like a ghetto and a white-sand beach idiotic heaven, they keep building up their metropolis and their own heritage in the bank. And the Caribbean communities abandoned to their own depleted selves, exploited to the bone, when in fact, the copyright of the Rastafarian community, the Jamaicans in towns and country, should have been the beneficiaries of all those rights. Instead, they are owned by the record companies and the pirates who took all those goods away in modern pirate ships.
Do you still talk to the Island Records publicist and shadows who stole the footage and in a way this story of Marley's early beginnings, for 30 years?
No. Natalie, it is a matter of clarifying the point of the massive theft of intellectual property from the Caribbean. In a similar way they stole the bodies of the African people in the plantations. There is nothing to forgive. What is necessary is for the people of the Caribbean to learn that Reggae was stolen from the people by sharp-eyed pirates, not dissimilar to Captain Morgan, who was made Governor of Jamaica in his time.
How did you feel that day in London when you realised the photos and old film still existed? And what was your first move?
Island Records never returned a call or our registered letters. Several photographers associated to Island Records had claimed authorship of my photographs until we made them aware of their errors. And then, instead of being helpful, they destroyed their originals. The lack of consideration, respect towards my great contribution was nil at Island Records and other companies associated to Island Records. A clear representation of modern-day insidious slave-plantation mentality. And we have to keep in mind that the power of this record company is so great that the British society even up to today, grant them almost exclusive rights to speak on behalf of Caribbean music and culture. Natalie, I don't agree with it, and I try to stay away from them. I can't stand the slave plantation mentality and their abusive off springs.
Did you see the potential in the raw material straight away?
Some of our acquaintances and some friends didn't see how we could present the footage as film given the condition of the material. Until we decided to make the film the way we wanted, most people thought the sound was no good, the images were too damaged, etc, etc. But we saw them as beautiful engravings in movement, historical pieces of cinematic poetry in themselves. Fragments of an archaeology of Jamaican artistic life. Little by little we painted the canvas as if it were a French film from the 60s, knowing that my narration will bring a film-diary quality, in the space of poetics, above all, getting away from the traditional format of documentaries toward a space of contemporary art.
Let's digress for a minute. How does Gian the co-producer/editor of the film feel seeing you and Marley loving-up on screen?
Gian pipes up: Natalie, I have not looked at the love story with Bob at all. I felt it was there in a very subtle way, and that was enough. The writing of "I Shot The Sheriff" is a clear example. And it raises the issue of birth control -which is not a bad thing after all. If you go any deeper in the love story, there is bound to be a disappointment. And the film was not designed to get too close to love controversies. Our objective with this film is to plant a seed of a female artist that was several women at the same time: the artist, the muse, the love and the storyteller as an artist. Esther Anderson as a renaissance woman. I feel it could be of great inspiration to women. Her understanding of light and life are a great source of inspiration for many, particularly women. And for that reason, her work merits major encouragement. I see her as a Frida Kahlo of Jamaica.
Has it been an emotional journey working on this film together? Do you two ever bicker about Marley? Does Gian ask for intimate details about your love affair with Marley?
I have told Gian all sorts of things about my relationship with Bob. We have consciously put aside the love relationship for the time being to first establish myself as an author, a voice, not a girlfriend. I am sure that we will include the love relationship at some point. But I feel the British are too keen to portray that side. My view is that they should see the community, the personal, the artist first. And then we will talk about other things more intimate.
I feel that in the new world, the world colonised by the Europeans and Americans, we need strong female voices, strong personal narratives that go against the grain of mainstream entertainment media. And use modern technology to make the production side of things simple, almost minimalist. We cannot rely on the book publishing world to do the work for us because they will always say that it is so competitive, or there is no market for such a story. The greatest obstacle in telling this story has been to overcome the emotional difficulties associated with the mess left over by the record company. That is, their lack of due care towards the artists as a whole and not really interested in developing Caribbean arts and culture but rather in running away with the greatest amount of shares or publishing rights. Real pirates, ruthless behaviour similar to the one associated today to Rupert Murdoch's News International. And sadly Marley is part of it, because he did not put order to his affairs before he passed away.
The film is an entertaining, almost historical collage of Marley's life and your time together and it has been so well received at the film festivals. What are you hoping to achieve with the film?
Gian and I have carefully designed this film as a modern self-portrait of a woman as an artist
.me. That is it. The black and white footage of the Wailers, particularly of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh are the equivalent of private conversations between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. This footage is world film heritage for everyone in the world to know, and to better understand Caribbean culture, beyond the commercialisation of our culture. The film also portrays the importance of being close to nature, marking a departure from city-obsessed narratives of music history.
We have noticed that the portrayal of Jamaica as a gangster, ghetto and hedonism and this is wrong. Jamaica is much more than that. And that portrayal is causing great damage to communities. We need to uplift the level of communication, and by me being the narrator, and the artists who portray the period, we are making a call to the audience to do the same, to turn around and look at their island through the eyes of an artist, and protect its heritage, language and communities.
In these early photographs of Bob Marley and The Wailers, we see endless use of the Rastafarian colours and images. When was the defining moment?
Some years earlier the photographer and filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg had told me about the Rastafarian community. He told me go back to Jamaica and find out more about them. So when I met Bob and he started telling me about Rasta philosophy and Haile Selassie, I was very intrigued and wanted to know more. Bob was deep into it, but from a point of view of a Kingstonian. I was introduced to Countryman, by Dicky Jobson, who had originally lent me the video camera he was the unsung hero of Island Records, full of ideas, totally original, and who knew the hidden Jamaica. When I met Countryman he lived at Hellshire Beach with an Indian Rastafarian community. I brought Bob to meet him. He told me everything about Selassie and the Rastafarian philosophy. I loved the colours, the whole iconography of Ethiopia and the Emperor. So I went back to 56 Hope Road and with the help of the gardener, Rennie, they painted the whole house with Rasta graffiti and red green and gold. It was a total revolution. It was my idea to release the album with those colours, including the lyrics.
Why was it import for you to arrange that much written about picnic with Ras Daniel Hartman? Why was it so important to you that Bob meet true Rastafarians?
Ras Daniel Hartman was someone I fell in love with when I saw him as Pedro, a fisherman, in the movie The Harder They Come a film I had helped make. I asked Bob to meet Ras Daniel, and we all went to a picnic together. After that day I realised that Bob was a messenger and Ras Daniel the image. Combining the two together you had, in fact, the making of a legend. You cannot disassociate Bob from his dreadlocks today as a world figure. So, that picnic was very important, very symbolic of how I was going to put Bob across to the world. And the album Burnin shows all that.
Tell us about Bob and that mango tree? It has such significance to so many Caribbean childhoods, my own included.
Bob used to say if anyone wanted to meet him, they had to meet him under the mango tree. That was his office. In colonial times the desk is the very representation of colonial control. By eliminating the desk, Bob created a new liberating mechanism to communicate with the new Jamaica.
In Part two next week, Esther highlights a
destructive mentality toward Caribbean culture she says still pervades today and read about which song Bob Marley wrote to honour Esther.
Natalie Williams is a former
head of CCN TV6 News