If you attend church or been to a dance party or a night club, there is a very good chance you have rocked to the rhythm of reggae. In that case you owe some obeisance to Bunny Wailer, who died early this month, just eight days before his 74th birthday. He was one of the reggae trio, The Wailers, that took reggae to its international stature. He was the only one of the trio that lived to witness UNESCO proclaim reggae a World Cultural Heritage in November 2018.
The other members of the trio, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, were much more famous. Yet, in many ways, Bunny Wailer was the soul of The Wailers, and he remained a musical icon in his native Jamaica and the global reggae fandom until his death. His mellow tenor was the distinctive voice of the early Wailers. In fact, the man who changed his name from Neville Livingston to Bunny Wailer when they formed the group was the smoothest vocalist of the three.
Like Marley and Tosh, Bunny Wailer was also a prolific and gifted songwriter. He wrote some of the group’s classic tunes, including “I Stand Predominate,” and “Dreamland.” After the trio parted ways, he enjoyed the least commercial success mostly because that was not his driving force. Where Marley became the trailblazer for the music and Tosh the firebrand stepping razor, Bunny Wailer remained the spiritual anchor. Still, he made the most credible foray into reggae’s dancehall genre with tunes such as “Ballroom Dance,” “Walk the Proud Land” and a radical rearrangement of “Mellow Mood.” In general, his music remains the yardstick for reggae authenticity.
Reggae is, of course, most closely associated with Rastafarians, along with dreadlocks and ganja-smoking. What is not as widely known is that Rastafarianism is all about spirituality, cultural authenticity, and pride in one’s identity. Rastafarians are naturalists, which explains why they let their hair grow wild, or into dreadlocks, as they call it. It’s the dreadlocks that characterise them in many a mind, not the Rastafarian ethos that Bunny Wailer embodied.
In April 2002, I presented a paper on reggae at a conference on the relationship between Africans and people of African descent. The paper titled “Roots Lyrics and Connectedness: Learning About the Caribbean in Nigerian Media” drew considerably from my secondary school days. To my puzzlement, it remains my most searched-for paper online, at least according to Academia.com. I can only guess that it has to do with intense interest in reggae.
More to the point, after my presentation, a young man in the audience commented that I didn’t discuss the dimension of reggae as an alternative music. My answer was unintentionally curt: I never knew reggae as an alternative music. To me and my cohorts, it has always been front and centre. In any case the angle of alternative music was outside the focus of the paper.
Yet, the young man had a point. In the U.S. and Europe, reggae has been most enthusiastically embraced by people in the cultural outlier. That’s understandable, of course. After all reggae and Rastafarianism emerged from rejection of Jamaica’s snooty high society. In values though, Rastafarians are quite conservative. It is this seeming contradiction that ultimately broke up the Wailers.
When the group was invited to perform at what was described as a “seedy” nightclub in an American city, Bunny Wailer refused to go. To him the alternative lifestyle was inconsistent with Rastafarian values. He thus sent notice that commercial success was not as important to him as his values.
Instead, Bunny Wailer delved into his role as a social evangelist in violence-wracked Jamaica. His music addressed the gamut of peace, love, solidarity and especially social justice. His message resonated far across the Caribbean Sea. No song better encapsulates it all than “Boderation.” With a call-and-response pattern between the vocals and the bass guitar, Bunny Wailer sang in Jamaican patois for all the downtrodden of the earth: “A-me say workhouse, almshouse, madhouse. A-wey we do you. Mismanagement, unemployment, imprisonment. A-wey we do you. What a boderation. Slave rocket, empty wallet, broke pocket. A-way we do you…. Wrong policy, ideology, criminology. A-weywe do you.”
That message is furthered in “Blackheart Man,” the title track to what has to be Bunny Wailer’s best album. In it, he encapsulates the experience of the downtrodden as embodied by the Rastas themselves. The song begins with hunting fluterifs, followed by a narrative of trials and tribulations that ended in triumph. Consistent with Rastafarian ethos, the narrative is tinged with scriptural references:
No cross, no crown; no sorrow, no laughter
Trial and crosses In-a-I way
But the hotter the battle is the sweeter Jah Jah victory
Ancient children used to say if you want good
Your nose got to run, run, run
With the wind section blaring triumphantly, the song ends:
Now hear me when I say
It’s the Blackheart Man’s children
Who’ve become the wonder of the city
It’s a declaration that must resonate with the Nigerian masses. It’s the story of Rastafarians, the story of reggae, and especially the story of Bunny Wailer.
Another fallen hero
I would be remiss if I don’t pay tribute to Professor Howells I. Hart, a hometown standout and former deputy vice chancellor of Rivers State University, who also died recently after a brief illness. For my peers and many more, Professor Hart — an engineer — lit the pathway to higher education and remained an inspiration throughout his career. We are all indebted to him and will hold fast to his memory.
As three readers who posted on last Sunday’s Punchwise duly noted, I flunked some basics in Nigerian geography. In the column, “2023: Mathematical way to zone presidency,” I made the case for zoning the presidency to the South-East. Alas, I erred in identifying Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar as being of North-West origin. They are actually from the North-Central. My apologies for the error. In any case, it doesn’t affect the point of the article.
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