When any great musician dies young, listeners naturally feel cheated; they hunger for the music they never got a chance to hear. This is especially true of Bob Marley, the charismatic leader of Jamaica's reggae movement, who died at 36 in May 1981.
Marley stars in the documentary film "Heartland Reggae," now at the Inner Circle, and tonight will be the subject of a video tribute at the 9:30 club. "Chances Are," a handful of immature, uninteresting demos released five months after his death, was the first Marley posthumous release. The latest album is much better: "Confrontations" (Island 90085-1) contains 10 tracks never before released outside Jamaica, most of them from Marley's great creative burst in 1979-80.
Seven of the songs on "Confrontations" were recorded between "Survival" and "Uprising," Marley's two albums before his death. It was an optimistic period for the singer-songwriter, who felt his fellow Rastafarians would soon achieve a liberating triumph catalyzed by reggae music. His lyrics were filled with promises of redemption and exhortations for the final battle, and the exuberant, anthemic melodies rose above the familiar reggae syncopation. Even the songs' angry sentiments carried a confident rather than bitter tone.
Many of the songs make an explicit connection between music and revolution; Marley claimed that music could provide the original motivation and the sustaining inspiration for a liberation struggle. On "Jump Nyabinghi," he compares reggae dancing to the trumpets outside the walls of Jericho. "Chant Down Babylon" is a prescription for singing down western imperialism. On "Mix Up, Mix Up," he exhorts his fellow musicians to respond to the "people waiting for the message you bring." In "Trench Town," he exclaims joyfully, "We free the people with music, sweet music." His songs seduce with sweet melodies and sprung rhythms, then challenge with descriptions of political conflict and end with a transcendent vision of future harmony.
All the tracks on "Confrontation" are worthy examples of Marley's music, and "Buffalo Soldier" ranks with his best work. Released as a single, it features a sparkling, three-part melody over a loping rhythm. Marley points up the unique position of a black soldier in the U.S. Army: even as this soldier serves those who had him "stolen from Africa," he gains skills for his own "fight for survival."
The pain of difficult beginnings and the pride of hard-won accomplishments are heard in Marley's remarkably eloquent vocal in "Trench Town." In one verse, he describes the inspiration that fueled his career: "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."
Marley's legacy survives, and one of the most important heirs is Guyana singer-songwriter Eddy Grant, who comes to the Wax Museum Aug. 1.
Grant roots his songs in Marley's loping reggae rhythms, and his vocals evoke that peculiar quality of lonely yearning. Grant, who shares Marley's political militancy but not his religious mysticism, has embraced the new musical technology and Anglo-American styles in a way Marley never did. Synthesizers and studio effects give his reggae a booming dance beat and a buzzing edge; a smorgasbord of assimilated influences transforms that reggae into a style very much Grant's own.
Grant has been a star in Europe and Africa for some years now, but has only had his first American hit this summer with the single "Electric Avenue," from the album "Killer on the Rampage" (Portrait/Ice B65-38554).
The single tilts Grant's usual balance of synth-funk and reggae to clearly favor the former. While the compelling microchip dance arrangement grabs attention, it is Grant's fervent, resonant vocal that sustains it. Grant's invitation to rock in the streets has more to do with rebellion than with partying. "Now in the streets there is violence . . . ," he sings. "Can't afford the things on TV. Deep in my heart I abhor you."
Grant sounds most like Marley on "War Party," an antimilitary anthem done as straightforward reggae. More typical of his approach is "Funky Rock 'n' Roll," which celebrates the reggae-rock connection by boosting the Jamaican syncopation with synthesizers and by adding a metallic rock guitar solo over the infectious melody.
His two best numbers are simple love songs: "Too Young to Fall" and "Drop, Baby, Drop." Both have gorgeous melodies sung with romantic intimacy over a lightly skipping reggae beat with swooning harmony vocals in the style of Toots & The Maytals. Anyone who can pull off militant anthems and love ballads on the same album is a worthy successor to Marley.