Richard Williams was at Bob Marley’s funeral 40 years ago in Jamaica. He recalls an extraordinary carnival of music, prayer and full Rasta pageantry.
They buried Bob Marley on 21 May 1981 at Nine Mile, the village where, 40 years earlier, he had been born. His heavy bronze coffin was carried to the top of the highest hill in the village and placed in a temporary mausoleum painted in the colours of red, green and gold. Alongside Marley’s embalmed corpse, the casket contained his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja placed there by his widow, Rita, at the end of the funeral ceremony earlier in the day.
On the night of his death, on 11 May, I had gone to the Island Records studios in an old church in Notting Hill, west London, where Aswad had been cutting tracks in the very basement studio where Bob had completed Catch A Fire, his breakthrough album, nine years earlier. But it was long after midnight, and the musicians had gone home after watching the tributes to the dead man hurriedly assembled by the British TV networks. The only people left were a caretaker and one of Aswad’s roadcrew, both Jamaicans.
“A sad day,” I said, unable to think of anything more profound or perceptive.
They raised their eyes, and the roadie paused in the middle of rolling his spliff.
“Jah give,” he replied, “and Jah take away.”
That was the mood in Kingston when Marley’s body arrived on a flight from Miami a few days later. There was no reason to grieve, the Rastas told anyone who expressed sorrow. Death meant nothing. Bob hadn’t gone anywhere. He was still among us.
The announcement of the country’s national budget was postponed by several days to accommodate Marley’s state funeral. Invitations had to be sent out, the mausoleum had to be constructed, and security had to be organised at the National Arena, where the main ceremony would be held. And the prime minister, Edward Seaga, had to prepare his eulogy.
On the day before the funeral, the coffin was placed in the arena, a large, gymnasium-like building. The lid was open and the public – an estimated 100,000 of them – were allowed to file past to take a final look. Marley’s head was once more covered with dreadlocks; but this was a wig which covered his bald skull, his own hair having been lost during his treatment for cancer in New York, Miami, Mexico, and finally the Bavarian clinic of Dr Josef Issels, following the diagnosis of a malignant melanoma four years earlier.
In Jamaica, everyone claimed to be Bob’s friend. “Sure I knew him,” the cab driver who picked me up at Norman Manley Airport said. “He smoked the herb of life.” And he passed his spliff over his shoulder to his friend in the back seat, a uniformed policeman.
The day of the funeral began with an hour-long service for family and close friends at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Maxfield Avenue, presided over by His Eminence Abuna Yesehaq, the church’s archbishop in the western hemisphere, who had baptised Marley in New York the previous November, just after his last triumphal concerts at Madison Square Garden. Bob’s baptismal name was Berhane Selassie – “Light of the Trinity”.
At the end of the short service the coffin was transported to the National Arena, where the 6,000-strong congregation were assembling under the eyes of cameras and reporters from around the world. Above the entrance, a huge banner proclaimed: “Funeral Service of the Honourable Robert Nesta Marley, OM”. The Order of Merit had been conferred a few weeks before his death.
The casket was carried into the hall on the shoulders of a score of white-jacketed guards of the Jamaica Defence Force. Inside and out in the street, a powerful public address system blasted out Bob’s records, while in the surrounding avenues the hawkers of badges, posters, soft drinks and ganja worked the large numbers of people who had arrived without invitations and were prepared, if they could not get in, to listen to the ceremony as it was relayed by the loudspeakers.
“Babylon system is a vampire,” Bob’s voice wailed as the coffin was deposited on a trestle table in the middle of the broad stage and covered with two flags, the green, gold and black of Jamaica and the red, green and gold of Ethiopia. The decorations were the work of Neville Garrick, the creator of all the Wailers’ album cover art from 1976’s Rastaman Vibration to 1980’s Uprising. The balconies were open to the public, and filled up quickly, but on the floor the rows of chairs were marked with signs: Family, Government, Press, Twelve Tribes of Israel, Musicians.
Photographers swiftly surrounded Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, in whose Miami home he had died, as she took her place. She was followed by his widow and some of his children, including his sons Ziggy, aged 12, the nine-year-olds Steve and Robert Junior, born to different mothers, and Julian, aged five, and his daughters Cedella, 13, and Stephanie, six. Applause saluted the entry of Michael Manley, the former prime minister, whose pro-Cuban policies had provoked the disastrous enmity of the US government and the International Monetary Fund, and who had been deposed by Seaga at an election six months earlier.
The Rastafarians, in particular, still saw Manley as a friend of the oppressed, and there was an obvious contrast with the polite but tepid response accorded to Seaga, who hurried to his seat surrounded by uniformed guards. The governor-general of Jamaica, Sir Florizel Glasspole, ON, GCMG, CD, the Queen of England’s official representative, arrived from his residence, the palatial Devon House, to provide an appropriate symbol of the island’s colonial history, a living reminder that the ancestors of most of those present had been brought from Africa four centuries earlier to form the world’s only entirely slave-based economy.
The formal guard of the Ethiopian church, elderly men and women in white robes, took their places around the coffin and the centre of the stage was soon filled with the church’s elders, in robes of varied and vivid design. On the right of the platform a riser had been built for the choir and for the United Africa Band, a group consisting of several percussionists, a bass guitarist and organist, directed by Brother Cedric Brooks. To the left, another riser was covered with amplifiers, keyboards and drums, all stencilled with the legend “Bob Marley and the Wailers”.
A voice came over the loudspeakers. “Brothers and sisters, this is a funeral service for the late Bob Marley. Please don’t forget that. The selling of all merchandise must stop now.” In the row in front of me, the producer Harry J, accompanied by his latest protegee, the singer Sheila Hilton, was in conversation with a Rasta wearing a red, green and gold tam o’shanter. “There has to be a revolution to get a solution,” the Rasta proclaimed. Harry J didn’t seem to be entirely in agreement. I wondered if, under the armpit of his glossy silk suit, he was still packing the silver Smith & Wesson revolver I’d seen him remove from the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile as he took Chris Blackwell and me to a Catch A Fire session in his studio nine years earlier, the day after Marley and Blackwell had signed the deal that would set the whole phenomenon in motion.
A little while after the scheduled hour of 11 o’clock, the service began with an Anglican hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, accompanied by the drummers of the United Africa Band. As the familiar 18th-century melody – written by William Croft, an Oxford scholar and composer to Queen Anne, whose remains lie in Westminster Abbey – died away, the archbishop, standing beneath a parasol held by an acolyte, began to read passages from the Anaphora of John, Son of Thunder and the Anaphora of St Mary, rendered in Ge’ez, the ancient tongue of Ethiopia, and Amharic.
The governor-general stepped forward, a small, portly figure, to read the first lesson, taken from 1 Corinthians: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” The congregation sang another hymn, coincidentally a favourite of Elvis Presley: “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee/ How great Thou art, how great Thou art.” Manley read from 1 Thessalonians: “Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith/ For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.”
Then, to the delight of the Rastas in the balcony, it was the turn of the dreadlocked Allan “Skill” Cole, Jamaica’s finest footballer and one of the dead man’s closest friends. Cole was wearing the raiment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a popular sub-sect of Rastafari founded in Jamaica in the late 1960s and with whom Marley had long been associated; his inclusion in the proceedings had been tolerated by the Ethiopian elders, to whom the Rasta doctrines represented a form of heresy, only under protest. He had been scheduled to read from Psalm 68, which bears the subtitle “To the chief musician, a psalm or song of David”.
Instead he announced that he proposed to deliver passages from Corinthians and Isaiah particularly dear to Rastafarian hearts. Mutterings and shufflings among the church dignitaries on the platform were answered by sounds of delighted approval from the congregation. Their mood turned to boisterous glee as the footballer refused to heed urgent requests to leave the platform, continuing with his reading before returning to his seat amid the sounds of triumph.
The archbishop, clearly annoyed, recovered his composure in time to read the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – and to lead the Lord’s Prayer before Seaga delivered a eulogy memorable only for its closing benediction: “May his soul,” intoned the man in the dark business suit, “rest in the arms of Jah Rastafari.” Even the Twelve Tribes could scarce forbear to cheer this explicit recognition of their usually ignored presence within Jamaican society.
The archbishop’s address contained an implicit rebuke of Skill Cole in a direct address to the Rastas in the hall. Why advocate repatriation to Africa, he demanded, when it would profit them more to work together for a better life in Jamaica? “Jah!” they shouted in defiance as he spoke. “Rastafari!”
The most extraordinary moment of the ceremony, the most beautiful and un-European, came after the members of Marley’s old band mounted the stage. The I-Threes – Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths – sang “Rastaman Chant” to a ponderous and mournful rhythm before the Wailers, directed by the guitarist Junior Murvin, struck up “Natural Mystic”.
It was during this song, while the crowd was getting to its feet and moving towards the stage to join what had suddenly been transformed from an obsequy to a celebration, that Ziggy and Stevie Marley could be seen dancing among the musicians. Identically dressed in maroon suits and white shoes, they performed joyous imitations of their late father’s distinctive stage choreography, and the resemblance was such that the congregation gasped at the sight. When the engineer at the mixing desk superimposed a recording of Bob’s voice above the band’s heavyweight rhythm, the effect was hallucinatory.
Cedella Booker closed the service. Accompanied by two other women, she delivered “Amen” – written by Curtis Mayfield, whose music had inspired Marley’s earliest efforts – in a powerful voice as her listeners swayed to the rhythm.
Then the musicians put down their instruments, lifted the coffin on to their shoulders and carried it through the hall and out into the roadway, where it was placed in a hearse, ready for the 50-mile journey to the place where Marley’s life had begun.
As the cortege left Kingston, it passed by the house at 56 Hope Road whose walls still bore the scars from the bullets that narrowly failed to kill Marley in a politically motivated attack in 1976. On South Camp Road, outside the Alpha Boys School, where many of Jamaica’s finest musicians had been taught to play by an inspiring teacher named Ruben Delgado, pupils sang “No Woman, No Cry” as the procession headed towards Marcus Garvey Drive and out of the city on the road towards Spanish Town .
Crossing the parish of St Catherine to the town of Bog Walk, where the road splits right to Port Maria and left to Ocho Rios, the cars turned north-east through Moneague and past the 2,000ft peak of the mountain called Friendship, taking the left fork past Claremont and into the parish of St Ann, skirting the foothills of the Dry Harbour Mountains and on through Brown’s Town. All along the route, people came out of houses, schools, farms and workshops to stand by the roadside. Finally, in mid-afternoon, the dead man and his companions arrived at Nine Mile, a hamlet set at the end of a single-track road among gentle, verdant red-clay hills.
A helicopter buzzed overhead, carrying a film crew, their cameras trained on slopes covered with white-robed figures. Rastas from all over the island had set off early to be in place when the cortege arrived. Policemen fingered machine guns but disorder was minimal, despite the crush as the coffin was removed from the hearse and carried by many willing hands up to the small temporary mausoleum.
Nine Mile turned out to be no more than a scattering of shanties, with one or two bars and a small single-storey stone building consecrated, according to a handwritten sign, to the use of the Holy Baptist Church of the Fire of God of the Americas. This was a place where workers in the sugar plantations set in the flatlands towards the sea had built their homes and quietly cultivated their modest crops. It was here, on 6 February 1945, that Cedella Booker had brought Bob Marley into the world, and it was here, only a few paces away from the mausoleum, in a tiny two-room shack, that Bob and Rita had returned for a year at the end of the 1960s, to nurture their first child.
After a brief ceremony of interment, the convoy departed, followed by the police. Only the Rastas remained. For the last time, Junior Murvin and Neville Garrick climbed the low mound to the mausoleum, picking their way through empty Red Stripe cans, the music they helped to send around the globe throbbing from cassette players.
As the light began to fail, the vendors of ice creams and soft drinks packed their goods away. The thump of the helicopter’s rotors receded. The white-robed members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel melted into the dusk. Bob had come home.