Got to fulfill the book

Jerusalem celebrates Bob Marley’s birthday

Bob Marley statue in Kingston. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Bob Marley statue in Kingston.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
If the King of Reggae were alive today, he’d be 69 years old, and to mark the occasion, Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine hosted a tribute concert earlier this month, featuring the 10-piece Waka Chaka Live Band, which wailed through Bob Marley’s repertoire.
Those who think reggae is past its prime should have a look around Jerusalem. It is not uncommon for young people to wear their hair tied up in dreadlocks, a style that traditionally comes from the Caribbean Rastafarian culture. You can spot Jamaican flags in the Rehavia neighborhood, and on Hanevi’im Street windows are draped with Bob Marley pics. Israelis seem to love Marley. Besides the Yellow Submarine, Jerusalem bars celebrating the reggae icon included the Abraham Hostel, Pinkas Bar, Paparazzi Dance Bar and The Toy Bar. Die-hard reggae fans were singing and dancing almost every night in the two weeks surrounding Marley’s birthday, February 7.
Waka Chaka lead singer Netanel Lesser says, “Reggae music is still very popular around the world and also in Israel.” In addition, he explains, “the Rastafarian movement is connected to Judaism in many ways.”
Marley’s songs refer to “Jah,” Lesser says, which is similar to the Jewish name for God. Some song lyrics discuss “going to Zion” – including “Zion Train” and “Iron Lion Zion.”
While for Jews Zion is another word for Jerusalem, Rastafarians believe Zion stands for a utopian place of unity, peace and freedom, as opposed to Babylon, the symbol of the materialistic modern world.
“The Rastafarians are the greatest Zionists,” Lesser says.
The Rastafarian movement is an African-based spiritual ideology that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica. Members hold that all people are equal, regardless of race, because all people are children of Jah.
Marley’s most-quoted lines include the advice “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”
According to producer Haggai Hirshman – who organized the Yellow Submarine’s tribute – “in Israel, Rastafarianism is more a culture than a religion.”
It’s about equality, peace, love, vegetarianism and, of course, the music. Reggae music is inspired by traditional African music that spread in Jamaica and across the world in the ’70s. The songs transcend social classes, generations and cultures.
“What I like about the philosophy is the positive message that it brings, the message of peace and community,” says Lesser. “We are all one: one love, one heart, one soul.”
Marley recorded his first singles in 1962 and had his first international hit with The Wailers’ album Catch A Fire in 1973. His first solo hit outside Jamaica was “No Woman, No Cry” in 1975.
Lesser, who studies composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, waxes enthusiastic when it comes to the messages of reggae songs, asserting that “Bob’s message of peace and love was so universal that everybody can connect to it.”
The Waka Chaka singer says he grew up with Marley’s songs and started to write his own music when he was nine years old.
“I’ve felt a deep connection to his music since I was little,” he explains. Today he also finds inspiration in Arabic and Turkish music and plays the oud, a traditional Arabic stringed instrument used in Middle Eastern music.
So far, he and Waka Chaka focus on covering songs by Marley and other reggae artists like The Abyssinians and The Gladiators, music that represents the original roots reggae sound. This subgenre of reggae identifies with ghetto life and the rural poor, as well as resistance to oppression.
“Even great bands like Led Zeppelin covered only blues songs in the beginning, and then later played their own songs,” notes Lesser.
However, there are plans for him and Waka Chaka to record their own music soon: “In one month, we are going [into] this six-month period of recording songs. We want to make this mix of Balkan, Arabic and roots reggae and try to create our own sound.”
His band started with only three members; today there are 10. “We have been through a lot, just in the process of searching for our sound. We first added a vocalist, and then percussions and so on.”
He dreams of taking the band to play shows abroad as well, in Istanbul, Berlin and cities in France.
Marley’s message carries on today, not only in contemporary reggae acts, but across genres like funk, dub step, Dance Hall, Ragamuffin and Jungle beat, Lesser explains. All these music styles are based on strong African percussion, particularly on the beating of the heart.
Marley, who died in 1981 at the age of 36, was inspired by his beliefs proclaiming the divinity of Jah Rastafari at almost every performance. As a musician playing Marley’s songs, though, one apparently doesn’t have to feel the same.
“I am not a religious person,” says Lesser. “I really try not to be. But I appreciate the message and the spirit, and I can connect to it. I respect all religions, but I believe in what I want.”
Some people connect Marley’s music to drugs, but his drug of choice was marijuana, which today is used to treat many illnesses. Marley himself was against the consumption of alcohol, “Herb is the healing of a nation, alcohol is the destruction.”
Next year, Jerusalem will celebrate Marley’s 70th birthday. But the parties will stay simple as they have been until now, Hirshman says.
“It was great how it was this year; events lose their charm when they become too big.”