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Letter From Ethiopia

Decades After His Death, Bob Marley's Vision Unites

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page C01

ADDIS ABABA -- Under the Rastafarian yellow, green and red flags unfurled around the city to celebrate what would have been reggae hero Bob Marley's 60th birthday, African Americans from Brooklyn, draped in the continent's colorful dress, came together with Ethiopian royalty returning from exile and dreadlocked Rasta pilgrims from Jamaica, England and Japan (yes, Japan).

After attending a day-long symposium with speeches and tributes honoring Marley's vision of African unity and black pride, the devotees file out of the stately United Nations Conference Center and breathe Ethiopia's cool mountain air. Waiting for them just outside the compound wall is a tiny 10-year-old with a dented box of rags and brushes.

Pope Abune Paulos, head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Rita Marley visit on Tuesday in Addis Ababa, which is hosting a 60th birthday celebration this week for Marley's late husband, Bob. (Boris Heger -- AP)

"Hello, Rastas. You want me to shine your shoes?" asks the boy. Yarid Getachew earns about $2 a day removing the city's dust from the shoes of well-groomed elites sent here to alleviate Africa's poverty. His own shoes are torn and caked with dirt. Ethiopia's capital teems with boys like Yarid.

They are painful reminders for many of the Marley followers at the symposium that there are two versions of Africa: one an idealized Promised Land for many hyphenated Africans scattered around the planet, and the other a continent with much to worry about, including AIDS, poverty, armed conflicts and the siphoning off of Africa's most educated. Both versions were represented in the music of Bob Marley, with his message of political justice, black pride and racial unity.

Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 at age 36, saw much to admire in the resilience of Africans, their respect for elders, their adherence to traditions and their closeness to nature. Like Marley, visitors notice that Africans have it tough. But it's also a place where smiles come easily and without a credit card, antidepressants or a parking space.

For February in Ethiopia -- with Marley's intoxicating anthems booming from cabs, conference centers and coffeehouses -- the problems of Africa seem surmountable. His music brings hope across the continent, his image -- thick dreadlocks bouncing as he sings -- a symbol of Africa's struggle toward freedom.

In the 1970s, when he rose to superstardom, Marley provided an alternative to disco glitz and acid rock. His messages of political justice inspired punk bands like the Clash along with later rockers such as U2. He's perceived as one of the most influential musicians in the past 50 years, his reggae sound heard in every college garage band as well as bush bands playing cowbells and bicycle sprockets in western Kenya.

This is the first time his birthday celebration has been held in Africa -- or outside his Jamaican birthplace, for that matter. In Addis Ababa this week there have been celebrations all over town, although the sacred herb, as Rastas call marijuana, is illegal in Ethiopia. (The U.S. Embassy slipped warnings under the hotel doors of visiting Americans, reminding them of Ethiopia's strict laws against "burning one down.")

In Marley's honor there are cultural events, including art and photo exhibits on African music. There is a reading by Marley's wife, Rita, from her autobiography, "No Woman No Cry -- My Life With Bob Marley." Rita Marley wanted to honor her husband's wish for burial in Ethiopia but backed off the idea after Jamaicans came out strongly against it. But she has been working for years to bring together this celebration.

The highlight of the month-long events will be a free concert on Sunday, Marley's birthday. Senegal's Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour, Benin's Angelique Kidjo, and Jamaican rapper Shaggy will perform with Marley's family during an all-day reggae jam. Organizers said they expect nearly 200,000 Ethiopians to come to the capital for the concert; radio stations have been playing reggae 24 hours a day and TV stations plan to broadcast the celebration events.

With everyone gathered here, Africa seems hopeful.

"As Bob Marley sang, 'These songs of freedom are all I ever had.' Africans who are flung and scattered need to come together to free our own myths and low self-esteem," booms Jacob Ade-Ajayi, a Nigerian history professor who is sitting behind an oval-shaped desk. A huge screen behind him switches to a video of Marley singing "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds."

"Oh, Bob Marley and my grandfather would be so proud," coos the elegantly dressed Mariam Senna Asfa Wossen Haile Selassie. The granddaughter of the former emperor Haile Selassie is in the lobby of the U.N. Conference Center, where groups of Ethiopian Americans buzz near her side.

These returnees are what Ethiopians call "the what's ups," those who left for the United States 10 or 20 years ago and now speak with accents and slang they hear only on MTV.

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