Mystic Inspiration: Bob Marley And The Herb
When Bob Marley was honored with a lifetime achievement Grammy award, Recording Academy president Michael Greene took the opportunity to put some formal perspective to Marley’s legacy: "The recipients of these awards are among the most important architects and builders of many of the most distinctive and seminal recordings of this century. Their outstanding achievements have left a timeless legacy of innovative and powerful music that has changed the world socially, politically and given voice to our cultural condition. They exemplify the highest creative and technical standards by which we all must measure our own personal and professional contributions."
While it may be difficult to overstate his cultural impact, Bob’s humble journey as an artist had many stages and struggles. The praise by Michael Greene may be lofty, but in fact captures the level of artistic ambition driving Bob Marley and his band mates. Over the course of his career, Marley found his creative mission demanded the ultimate degree of inspiration, inventiveness and soul to reach its goals.
Bob cut his teeth in the Jamaican popular music scene of the early 60s, when island sensibilities were heavily influenced by American pop styles such as doo-wop. By the 1970s, the roots rock reggae Marley was pioneering was revolutionary, infusing mesmerizing new rhythms with deep wisdom and cultural commentary. He felt that Jamaican music was held back by a lack of freshness. "They tend to lean on other musicians’ material, and that sometimes turns original ideas into mediocrity." He and his band were determined to reach for something vital, open-minded and uncompromising. Bob’s mode was "to really sit down to create some music."
The poetic genius of Marley found creative inspiration in many forms. Nine Mile, the rural community where he grew up, proved to be a wellspring of inspiration. "Occasionally Marley would climb into his battered old station wagon and go visit his family in St. Ann’s, where he’d write songs, smoke herb and meditate," writes biographer John Masouri. Or as Marley put it, he would find inspiration by "going to the hills to be at peace with himself and his God."
Bob and wife Rita briefly lived and farmed in Nine Miles in the late 1960s. It was a period of creative development that some credit as a turning point in Marley’s approach to songwriting. He emerged from the country with an overwhelming desire to write a new kind of song, bringing together his daily thoughts with folk wisdom and deep truths. For Bob, "the message" was becoming the driving force of his artistic vision.
Marley’s ode to the herb, "Kaya" was written out in the country, evoking a rainy morning in the hills of Jamaica.
When asked about things she’d like to clear up about Bob, his wife Rita debunks the myth that Bob smoked "a pound of herb a day." She says, "we weren’t just ‘getting high,’ we used the herb to do things." Beyond their sacramental use, she says Bob would, "take a little spliff, if we’re going to do a rehearsal or going to the studio." The band was known to smoke herb and recite a psalm before recording sessions. "Good vibes," said one player, "to get a good sound."
Few question the goodness of the vibes that Marley and band captured in those sessions. In the studio, he liked to "strike when the iron was hot," tuned-in for the right moment to record an inspired performance. His band pushed the creative frontiers of reggae’s one-drop rhythm far ahead of what anyone else was doing, as brilliant in notes played as those notes not played, launching epic, mile-wide grooves for Bob’s soul-rending performances.
"It’s the closest thing I ever got to a religious experience," says filmmaker Don Letts on seeing Marley perform in London in 1975. The band was breaking barriers show after show, intent to connect with listeners on a whole deeper level. Another reviewer said Marley and band "cast a spell on the audience and after that it was like magic." This was the band’s hope, to entrance the audience, to uplift and joyfully release them to find the deeper message in the music.
Cedella Marley explains that the herb made her father "more creative and to look deeper into what was happening. Whether it’s his own life or other people’s lives or Jamaica or the world." Bob favored the effects of Lambsbread, Blue Mountian and other thought-provoking strains of fine ganga growing in Jamaica’s perfect conditions. "I feel ya ‘ave thousands of different types of herb. . . if ya meditation not high, it don’t come like the right type of herb."
“MUSIC AND HERB GO TOGETHER. IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME NOW, I SMOKE HERB FROM THE 1960'S, WHEN I FIRST START SINGING.”
In describing how Bob would become inspired to write, friend and art director Neville Garrick reports, "Bob would smoke a spliff and run around (playing soccer) to make the words come out." Garrick and others tell of Bob’s amazing ability to "hear a line or phrase, turn it around and make it his own or come up with a verse and melody out of the air." Bob was constantly working on music in some way, with recollections of songs written on the roof of 56 Hope Road at night, in the back seat of a car driving to Negril and inspired by conversations with friends.
But Garrick also points out that some songs might take years for Marley to work to completion, with many versions along the way. Rita tells of all night writing sessions in the little cellar studio they built in their home near Bull Bay, "those were some of the times he would really go into his soul." Cedella observes, "I think in his own space he was able to just express himself. And then just to have everything right there, where he can put on a guitar just walk in and, you know, lay it down.
Looking ahead, Marley felt his music would spread until "it reaches the right people." Today Garrick smiles and says, "that would be everybody." When asked how he was handling his hard earned fame, Bob answered with characteristic humility, "I’m not famous to me." But the pride he felt in the groundbreaking music he and his band were making couldn't be denied, once beaming to the others in the studio "we’re the most bumbaclaat creative musicians in the world." We at Marley Natural, while perhaps a little biased, couldn’t agree more with Bob’s candid words of artistic elation. His profound message and masterful art still reach us. As a brand of ideas, we join him in championing original thought, finding fresh connections and really tuning-in to our experience of world as a way to liberate greater truth, beauty and happiness.