Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Out of the heart of darkness - Bob Marley's 'Exodus'

Yesterday, when I wrote here about Edith Piaf, I talked a little about the way her music seems so eloquently, and so simply, to summons a place, a time and a culture. But surely the real prize for conjuring up the images of a culture – right down to its colours, its smells, its wind, as much as its social and political heritage – must rest with reggae.

Reggae is a music that is tied, perhaps more than any other genre, to the people who create it – not just the people playing the instruments and singing the tunes, but the people who have built the culture that those instruments and tunes express.

And nowhere, of course, do you find reggae more poetically, nor more powerfully, expressed than in the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Bob Marley’s 1977 album, Exodus, was recorded in the wake of an attempt on his life. And yet here is music, not held down with grim internal despair, but rather bursting with the life and energy of resistance, renewal and hope. You hear it in the beat, with those infinitely complex reggae rhythms, crossing over one another, full of energy and diversity; you hear it in those melodies that seem to capture the music of the human voice, of the human narrative, as if this was how they were really meant to be expressed: not with the smoothed-out legato of conventional Western music, but with the jumps and bumps of real life. You hear it in the instruments, that are always ablaze with spirit and soul, at the place where struggle and freedom, where love and oppression, meet. And you hear it, of course, in the voice of Bob Marley himself, as much a part of the music’s pulse as are the beats that dance beneath it. It’s a voice born in the sunlight, but raised in the shadows: cool but with an inner fire; a voice that knows what it is to suffer, but that believes in liberty no less.

The jiving, jaunting beat with which ‘Natural Mystic’ opens sets the pace, and the spirit, for this album, with its message of hope tinged with its hint of melancholy – it is music that finds something to celebrate, something to believe, in the air, even in the face of violence, oppression and death.

This what seems to always lie at the core of the pulse of Exodus – a pulse which, even allowing for the natural vibrancy and energy of reggae, always beats just that little bit harder because you know it has so much more blood to pump through its veins – the blood of a whole history of oppression and a whole future of liberation.

The title song drives forward to a march that you want to be part of – this is a movement not just of determination, but of festivity – festivity in the spirit of its people, and in the liberty that they know together they can achieve.

But not everything is about politics and struggle. There’s time for fun, too – like in the upbeat ‘Jamming’ or the slender, seductive ‘Waiting in Vain’ – music that is laid-back, like Sunday mornings in summer.

But then maybe in a way these moments are just as political as those that march down the streets, or that call upon the people to fight for justice – because here we see the reason for the fight; here we see the life, and the love, that is being reclaimed.

The synthesis of the political with the personal is as vital to this music as it is to the culture from which it springs. Every song here is political, every song is personal. These are songs that proclaim a people’s escape from one life and a return to another – songs that are about what people fight for collectively, for the sake of what they can treasure and cherish individually.

Here, on Exodus, you can begin to understand where that nexus between the political and the personal, the communal and the individual, comes from, and how songs about the celebration of a lover are possible only because they appear on an album alongside the celebration of a culture, and its struggle for emancipation. Here there is a blurring of the boundaries between what is in the heart of a person, and what is in the heart of a people.

It is a good omen that music like this, which seems to grow from the place where hope and hardship intersect into a tree where celebration and struggle entwine, is so optimistic, so full of light, so that when it tells you, as it does in ‘Three Little Birds’: “Singing/Don’t worry about a thing/’Cause every little thing gonna be alright” you really do find it incredibly easy to believe.

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