Two Saturdays ago, Jamaicans of all social classes converged in west Kingston for the 12th staging of the Bob Marley Tribute Concert, ‘Trench Town Rock’. It was the largest crowd ever. With an entrance fee of $300, the concert was clearly designed to be inclusive. Bad as things may be for so many people in Jamaica right now, JEEP or no JEEP, most could probably afford to come to the show. No need to jump the fence.
The Trench Town concert, sponsored by LIME, was the first of two in honour of Bob Marley that were supported by our warring telecommunications companies. Digicel’s free concert was held in Emancipation Park the next day. In a clash worthy of Sting, LIME and Digicel waged a noisy battle for dominance using popular music as the weapon of choice. The clear winner of the concerted war was certainly the audience, which was very well entertained at little or no cost.
The police locked down the lengthy Trench Town tribute at about 4 a.m. I asked the senior officer on duty if anyone had complained about noise and wondered why he couldn’t have exercised discretion and allowed the show to go on. He admitted that nobody had made a complaint. It was a matter of principle. The cut-off time on the permit was 2 a.m., and he had given almost two hours’ grace. I could see his point. The organisers ought to have known that with the large number of ‘and many more’ performers on the show, they couldn’t possibly have ended at the approved hour.
Coming around like tourists
Still for all, given the extraordinary nature of the celebratory event, common sense ought to have prevailed over principle. The Bob Marley Tribute concert pays respect not only to the singer, but also to Trench Town. It brings into the legendary community visitors who would ordinarily steer clear of what they see as a dangerous place.
Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley mocks these outsiders in Welcome to Jamrock:
Dem only come around like tourist
On the beach with a few club sodas
Bedtime stories, and pose
Like dem name Chuck Norris
And don’t know the real hard core
The ‘tourist’/’Norris’ rhyme underscores the DJ’s disdain for tourists of all stripes – whether domestic or international – who claim to know the real hard core. Instead, they betray their ignorance. They are just posing, playing a role in a television drama. Living in a world of bedtime stories, they assume that they can always retreat to the security of their ‘safe’ homes.
Residents of Trench Town have no such illusions. They know intimately the prison of alienation in which they are forced to live. As Bob Marley puts it in Trench Town:
Up a cane river to wash my dread?
Upon a rock I rest my head?
There I vision through the seas of oppression?
Don’t make my life a prison
The visionary Bob Marley ‘sighted’ the power of music to free the people from imprisoning stereotypes: “They feel so strong to say we’re weak.” But Marley is definitely ambivalent. He knows all too well the very real economic and political power that ‘they’ wield with great authority. So he turns his statement into a question: “Can we free the people with music?”
Drawing on his knowledge of the Bible, Marley does not give in to despair. He declares: “In desolate places we’ll find our bread.” This is a reference to the story of the retreat of Jesus after he learns about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is told in Matthew 14, verse 13, English Standard Version: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the town.”
And this is how the bread comes into the story: “Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ But Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘We have only five loaves here and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’
“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up 12 baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
In the patriarchal mathematics of biblical times, only men count. If each man came with his wife and two children, the number of people fed would rise to a whopping 20,000. Add a concubine or two and that’s at least another 5,000: a grand total of 25,000, by my irreverent calculation. And there were even leftovers!
If only Sista P could look up to heaven, say a blessing and break bread that magically multiplies to satisfy the hungry crowds! She wouldn’t even need to fix the JEEP. Of course, the real miracle would be turning “another page in history”, as Marley says, and emancipating ourselves from slavish dependence on politicians to feed us.
The reggae industry, with its roots in Kingston’s concrete jungle, has unquestionably demonstrated that creativity can both free and feed the people. Cynics ask, “Can anything good come out of Trench Town?” Paying tribute to his adopted yard, Bob Marley responds with a liberating “yes!” that resonates across the globe.