NINE MILES, JAMAICA -- Diane Jobson isn't like any lawyer you've ever seen. She's barefoot. Her feet are callused, dirty. She's smoking a hand-rolled marijuana cigar. Her brown hair, just going gray, is matted into dreadlocks, tucked beneath a black tam. She's a Rasta lawyer.

For many years, Diane Jobson was legal counsel and close friend to Bob Marley, the great reggae musician and proponent of flack liberation. Now she advises his mother, Cedella Marley Booker -- who, like everyone connected to the Marley estate, needs good legal advice.

And like every lawyer, Jobson knows a lawyer joke. Standing outside the Bob Marley crypt in the mountain village where he was born, about 30 miles west of Ocho Rios, she tells this one, her summation of 10 years of legal wrangling since Marley died of cancer:

"Two guys are walking on the beach and they see an oyster. One picks it up and says, 'Look at dis nice oyster.' The other says, 'Let me see,' and takes it and opens it and finds a pearl. Then there's an argument over who the pearl belongs to: the one who found the oyster or the one who discovered the pearl. They go to a lawyer, who says, 'Okay, I'll help you settle it. You know what my fees are -- '

"And he takes the pearl!"

Bob Marley's mother, who hasn't heard this one before, chimes in excitedly: "That's what's going on with this estate. Yah, mon!"

Cedella Booker, 65, regal in flowing black robes and yellow headdress, is known in Jamaica as "Mother B." She is matriarch of the sometimes contentious musical family that survived Marley; he had at least 11 children by eight different women. But he left no will, sparking endless claims for his fortune, suits and counter-suits. Marley had little tangible property, but his recordings generate $2.5 million a year in royalties. His estate may never have the earning potential of, say, Elvis Presley's (still bringing in $15 million a year), but it's an unbelievable bonanza in a dirt-poor country like Jamaica (where the minimum wage is the equivalent of $14 a week).

Mother B and other Marley family members are attempting to reclaim the reggae king's legacy before it is lost completely to legal fees or auctioned to foreign investors. The estate is administered by Jamaica's largest bank, with courts intervening when necessary -- which is often. Some heirs are furious that estate administrators and lawyers in Kingston, Miami and New York have reaped $4 million in fees while supposedly acting in the heirs' best interests.

The family was delivered a unifying focus for its outrage when lawyers, working on the estate's behalf, sued to take away the house Bob had bought for his mother in Miami. These lawyers were paid up to $250 a hour, while Mother B's grandchildren were getting from $100 to $800 a month as their inheritances.

"He was a simple Rastaman," Mother B says of her son. "Because he was so humble, because we are so humble, they think they can just trample over us."

Certainly Marley was humble -- he lived as a devout Rastafarian, communally, eating fruits and vegetables, smoking marijuana, sharing his fortune with thousands in need. He sang sweet songs about love, sun and rain. But a simple man, hardly: He also sang of uprising and African destiny and political violence, and thus constituted a threat to the Jamaican elite. And he kept so many lovers and side deals going that the list of those who can claim they were "exclusively involved" with Bob, privy to his thoughts, is extensive, says one estate lawyer.

It's too easy and tidy to claim that the estate mess is the fault of rapacious litigators. It is a far more complicated affair, involving a class struggle and a clan struggle. "Family" here is an exceedingly fluid term: Settlement of the estate has been hopelessly delayed because of feuding, particularly among the women who bore Bob's children. It hasn't helped that Rita Marley, Bob's lawful widow, has admitted to signing backdated documents and forging Bob's signature, leading to a lawsuit charging that $14 million in assets were "fraudulently diverted" when she had control of the estate from 1981 to '86. Alliances shift constantly. Meanwhile, several backup musicians who played in Bob's band, the Wailers, also are suing for a share of the estate.

All of the usual human failings -- greed, jealousy, hypocrisy -- are on view in the squabble, but there's another complicating factor: This is also about God, or at least a prophet of God, in the form of Bob Marley. The musician has reached such revered stature that the battle has moved to a spiritual plane: To some in the Marley clan, the lawyers who snatched the peavl are the incarnate forces of "Babylon," as Marley called the spiritually wicked material world.

He has risen above Babylon. His heirs still live in Babylon, ever struggling, ever tempted.

Where Bob Lives

Robert Nesta Marley was raised by his mother in a one-room stone hut on a hill overlooking lands planted with coffee, citrus, bananas, coconuts. The fammly was comfortable by local standards -- Cedella's father was a farmer and village elder -- but Nine Miles is a far cry from the opulent tourist hotels of the coast; it still relies on a rain catchment for its drinking water and had no electricity until 10 years ago.

Bob's father, Norville Marley, a white superintendent of British crown lands, abandoned his young, pregnant wife soon after marrying her. She later found work as a maid in Kingston, and Bob spent his youth in that city's violent ghettos, the inspiration for his militant support of the "sufferahs."

Though Marley became a superstar, reportedly worth $30 million when he died at age 36, his memorial here bears no trappings of wealth. Mother B wants to build "more appropriate and more inviting" facilities for visitors -- a museum, villas, an entertainment center -- but says there's no money available. Under Jamaican law, Mother B is not entitled to any of Bob's fortune. However, she is a director of the nonprofit Bob Marley Foundation, which might be able to spend estate money once the legal mess is settled.

Perhaps 50 reggae pilgrims a week make their way to Nine Miles. At the foot of a dirt driveway leading to the tomb, a run-down snack bar sells tepid sodas, and one of the barefoot dreads hanging around might split a coconut with his machete, but otherwise there are no refreshments.

Mother B also would like to see "a better place for Bob to live in," meaning his tomb.

A whitewashed chapel has been built next to the original hut. The chapel is much bigger than the home Bob grew up in. Inside, the musican's sarcophagus is draped with a tapestry woven in black, red, gold and green, African colors. Marley devotees have left odd, personal mementos: a small can of maple syrup, a Cayman Islands dollar, stuffed animals. A CD boombox plays the songs that made Marley a hero in the Third World and a worldwide star: "Rebel Music," "War," "Buffalo Soldier," "No Woman No Cry," "I Shot the Sheriff" (a No. 1 hit when it was covered by Eric Clapton).

Mother B is more easily moved to song than to anger, but sitting on the stoop of the chapel, she derides the suggestion that her son should have left a will, that things would have been so much simpler. "This will business is a big insult," she declares. "To make a will is to make {a man} small. God never limit nobody! Jah never make no will!"

Marley left no will because he was a worshiper of Jah, a believer in the divinmty of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia -- a deity that even many Ethiopians find improbable. The Rastas, however, have traced Selassie's lineage through the Old Testament to declare him the consecrated heir of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Elsewhere, Marley may represent an asset, a bankable name, a commodity. But to many in the Caribbean and Africa he is a symbol of endurance, of hope. And to the Rastas, he is no less than a prophet of Jah.

After all, Bob Marley was entombed wearing Selassie's ring, which contained pieces of the ring once worn by King Solomon himself. This holy relic, mysteriously received, cemented the prophecy. And didn't Bob, like Christ, foretell that he would die young, at 36? He had refused the amputation of his cancerous big toe, saying it violated Jah's law. The cancer spread to his brain and killed him.

"Bob was a chosen person," says Diane Jobson, who was working for a Kingston law firm when she met Marley and embarked on the Rasta path. "Bob's communication with God was that of a father and son."

Protecting the Pearl The voice of revelation, the voice of revolution: It seems inconceivable that Bob Marley's music could be used to sell, say, beer. But just as the Beatles sell snack chips and Buddy Holly pitches Japanese cars, anything is possible in Babylon.

Recently, the Miller Brewing Co. approached Island Records, Marley's chief label, about licensing a Marley tune for a commercial. It offered $150,000, according to Island Records founder and head Chris Blackwell. The selection couldn't have been more crass -- Miller wanted "Jamming," which has the lyrics: "No bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor will we bow, neither can be bought nor sold. We all defend the right, Jah Jah children must unite, your life is worth much more than gold."

There was another irony: Marley's religion did not permit him to drink alcoholic beverages. Blackwell says he and the family told Miller no.

At the moment, Blackwell, the wealthy British Jamaican who signed Marley and the original Wailers to a recording contract in 1972, is able to exercise control over certain copyrights; he formed the Bob Marley Foundation (including Cedella Booker, Rita Marley and Neville Garrick, Bob's art director) as part of a bid he made for the Marley estate in 1988. A Kingston court approved the sale of the estate to Island for $8.2 million. Though the estate sale has since been put on hold by various suits, Blackwell says he still controls the assets. Final resolution of who owns what should come in October, when Jamaica's Supreme Court will weigh all new bids for the estate.

In connection with Blackwell, Rita and six adult Marley children are now offering to buy the estate for $15.2 million. They want to ensure that the pearl does not pass to the Japanese-owned MCA, which is bidding slightly more, or to other outsiders. (Barbados-based musician Eddy Grant also put in a bid, but withdrew it last week.) Key to any sale, though, is sufficient appeasement of the various "baby mothers," as the women who bore Marley's children are sometimes called. These five minor children would get lump-sum payments, held in trust, while adult beneficiaries would get continuing payments. The current Blackwell offer is $1 million to each of the five minors.

But some mothers are balking because the package also would provide Rita with a hefty $3 million up front, and some think Rita actually owes the estate money. "We'll think we have 100 percent agreement, and within five minutes of a meeting it will all unravel," says J. Reid Bingham, a Miami-based lawyer for the estate.

Blackwell, who was the first producer to give Marley a contract that provided royalties, says the danger of MCA or any other corporation buying the Marley estate "is that they're not involved in the emotional aspects of this. They'd buy an asset which they can exercise as they see fit. They could put Bob Marley's name to selling Toyota cars, all kinds of things."

"It's going to be hard for the administrators not to let the family buy their assets," Blackwell says. "What Bob Marley stood for was that a ghetto youth could start with nothing and build something tremendous with his life. And if all that were for naught because of all this legal infighting over what he left, it's going to make people wonder: What's the point?" It would be a triumph, he says, of Bablon.

Shadow Over Sunsplash Reggae Sunsplash, held annually in midsummer in Montego Bay, is the world's largest reggae event, four nights of open-air concerts till dawn, attracting more than 125,000 fans this year. Sunsplash draws Japanese kids with cornrows and WASPafarians from the United States and Europe, a tremendous economic boon for the tourism-dependent island.

But the crowd is principally Jamaicans who come from the small towns in the hills to camp out in the Bob Marley Entertainment Centre. The whites, browns, dreads and baldheads share the music and "culture." The Rastas sell their Lion of Judah rolling papers with glue guaranteed to be "gum Arabic from Ethiopia."

Today, as reggae's popularity booms, Sunsplash performers tour year round: 52 cities in five countries this past year, the largest international tour ever, bigger than even Bob Marley's glory days. Marley himself played Sunsplash once, in 1979, and it turned out to be his last performance ever in his homeland. He closed the set with "Redemption Song," a simple solo acoustic number that urges: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery ... "

That lyric backed many of the Marley T-shirts worn at the concert last month, particularly on the last night of the festival, a special 10-years-after tribute featuring performances by seven of Marley's children, his wife and the I-Threes, former backup singers. Mother B, who has released her own reggae album, didn't perform, but had a VIP view of the show.

"United we stand," Rita Marley said backstage, noting with pride the profusion of musical Marleys on hand. But conflict murmured beneath the surface.

Rita said she didn't want to discuss the estate, except to confirm that righteousness was indeed on her side: "We'll be forever loving Jah, no matter what the crisis is," she declared.

Rita once took a bullet in the scalp during a politically motivated assassination attempt against Bob. They were married in 1966, and she bore four of his children; she patiently mothered him through the difficult ghetto years and tolerated his endless philandering. Though she's bearing the blame for the missing $14 million, and has been criticized for living royally during her five years as the estate's executor, Rita recently was quoted as telling Newsweek, "How could I steal from myself?"

Damian Marley is the youngest performing Marley; he opened the tribute. He wears braces and turned 13 that night. He sang schoolboy raps and a few of his father's songs. His mother is a former Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare, who dated Bob during her reign in 1976. She joined her son onstage for a chorus of Bob's "One Love," a song recently licensed by the estate to the government of Jamaica for use in tourist promotions.

Breakspeare, now married to a lawyer, comes from the island's elite class and created scandal when she took up with Bob at his Rasta commune. She talked of the estate guardedly: The Blackwell-backed family offer looks good, she said, "but we'll have to see if they can match the best offer coming from MCA."

Does she share the family's resentment over $4 million in legal fees? Not at all. She praised the estate lawyers for their "very constructive investigations into where monies {went}." Meaning, those Rita Marley millions.

David "Ziggy" Marley and his siblings, the Melody Makers (Stephen, Cedella and Sharon Marley), are adult beneficiaries of the estate. Ziggy -- Rita and Bob's eldest son -- clearly wears his father's spiritual and political mantle. He kicked off his 4:30 a.m. set with "Jah Is True and Perfect," from his new "Jahmekya" album, and covered his father's searing "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)." To the "oppressors of the world" Ziggy dedicated "Drastic," in which he foments revolution and declares: "I've become a slave to my purpose."

Ziggy has said in the past that he doesn't care what becomes of his share of the estate -- "Me can go out and make me own money" -- but estate lawyers say he has not legally removed himself from any proceedings. He declines to talk about legalities, but it's entirely likely he'd give his inheritance money away or invest it in the Bob Marley Foundation. Ziggy is known for his generous donations to ghetto youth.

Meanwhile, as Jamaica continues its slide into desperate poverty, lorded over by political dynasties that have demonstrated their incompetence no matter which party is in power, the wealthy are sending a clear message to Marley's followers: This year might be the last Sunsplash. Although the government hallowed the festival site in the eternal name of Bob Marley seven years ago, the property is extremely valuable, and it's only really used once a year.

The government says it's going to sell the land to condo developers.

The View From Miami A world away in Miami, on the 20th floor of an office tower overlooking Biscayne Bay, J. Reid Bingham, who has a silky Southern accent and silvery hair, drinks iced coffee from a Vanderbilt Law School cup and confesses he's no expert on Rastafarianism and doesn't have much of an ear for reggae. He likes jazz and classical music best; he wears solid-gold coin cuff links and starched white shirts. He knows all about international banking and international corporate law. And all the vast details in the stacks and stacks of legal filings related to the Bob Marley estate, of which he is the American administrator.

He knows he is often painted as a villain by the Marley family, but he wants to make clear that he's doing a fine job, empowered by the law to look after Bob's best interests.

Rita Marley, more than anyone, is to blame for the $4 million in legal and administrative fees racked up by estate lawyers in the past five years, Bingham says. "Yes, it's too high" and "it shouldn't have gone on this long," he acknowledges. But "it took a lot of money to go out and find what had been stolen and get it back."

The estate administrators have filed suit accusing Rita's advisers of diverting at least $14 million in assets through forgeries of stock transfers after Marley died. The money was shuffled among bank accounts and corporations in the United States, British Virgin Islands, the Netherlands Antilles and the Bahamas, Bingham says. Rita, for her part, says she was not a good businesswoman and was only following the advice of her former accountant and lawyer. The estate has been able to reclaim only $2 million of the missing money, and it has brought a civil lawsuit in New York seeking triple damages under the RICO Act governing fraud and conspiracy -- a major complication to settling the estate. A trial is set for October.

"She claims, 'I did what Bob wanted me to do,' which is what everybody in this estate always says," Bingham continues. "She spent a lot of it on herself... . She built a home for herself up in the hills, with a recording studio for herself... . She set up Rita Marley Music, she used it to underwrite tours of her and her children. She paid money to the Wailers {Bob's former backup musicians}, paid money to Mrs. Booker, gave a lot of money away... .

"Rita signed away the rights to 'Buffalo Soldier' -- she signed a document saying Bob never wrote it. That's one of the better songs he's got! It took me three years to get that song back!"

(Rita Marley's lawyer, Kaare Phillips, contends that Rita isn't even the object of the New York action, only her former advisers, and adds: "Mrs. Marley certainly does not agree with the {estate} administrator's statements about her behavior."))

Sounding now like a lawyer in the lather of final arguments, Bingham explains that other suits have cost the estate money. A half-dozen Marley backup band members are seeking a share of the royelties. Bingham estimates that 28 studio musicians now claim to have been Wailers; the original Wailers, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh, left the band in 1974.

And there was, of course, the need to remove Bob's mother, Cedella Booker, from her home in Miami.

"She couldn't prove the house belonged to her," Bingham says matter-of-factly. Had no title. "Whether Bob ever intended to give her the house, I can't say. He died with it in his name. I certainly can't make a gift of estate property to someone who's not a beneficiary."

No matter that seven of Bob's children signed affidavits saying they didn't want their grandmother to lose her home and had no interest in the property, valued at $425,000. "That action against Mrs. Booker was clearly churning up fees to put more money in the estate pot, so that attorneys could further spend money," says Kathy Hamilton, Mother B's lawyer in Miami.

As a lawyer with fiduciary responsibility, Bingham says, one of his principal goals is to make money for the estate. He says he is doing all he can to pursue that. He even licensed to a Florida company the rights to sell a "Bob Marley Cologne," which earned the estate $10,000.

He licensed Bob Marley souvenirs and umbrellas too: "I think it was a Rasta-colored umbrella."

The View from the Mountain Mother Booker eventually got to keep her house. Chris Blackwell bought it for her. For the family, the house affair demonstrated how horribly mired in Babylon this had all become. They started to close ranks, bringing an opportunity to end a decade of feuds.

There isn't much to do now but wait, see if the Blackwell bid succeeds. Mother B carries on the Marley message at Nine Miles, her original home, where she frequently visits.

Though baptized a Christian while Bob was in her belly, Mother B, like Diane Jobson, is a Rasta now too. And she considers her son a "direct prophet, direct, sent from Jah himself, by God himself. Bob is the last prophet gonna walk the Earth."

When Bob was a boy, Cedella's father grew and traded coffee, and the family is bringing back the tradition. Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee is among the most coveted and expensive on Earth, and while Nine Miles isn't in the Blue Mountain range, it's high enough in the mountains to benefit from the association.

"We have a lot of land, land back in the mountains, and I just bought some more," she says. "We have a couple of thousand plants."

And what to call this coffee?

"Marley Mount Coffee," suggests Diane Jobson.

"Marley Mountain Coffee," says Cedella Booker.

Either way. It's the name that sells.