Natural Mystics: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer

On my reading list:


Over one dramatic decade, a trio of Trenchtown R&B crooners, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, swapped their 1960s Brylcreem hairdos and two-tone suits for 1970s battle fatigues and dreadlocks to become the Wailers – one of the most influential groups in popular music. From youth to early adulthood, they had been inseparable; united in their ambition, through musical harmony and financial reward, to escape Jamaica’s Trench Town ghetto. On the cusp of success however, they’d been pulled apart by the elevation of Marley as first among equals and by the razor sharp instincts of Chris Blackwell, the shrewd and charming boss of Island Records. “I & I: The Natural Mystics” examines for the first time the story of the Wailers, arguing that these musicians offered a model for black men in the second half of the twentieth century: accommodate and succeed (Marley), fight and die (Tosh) or retreat and live (Wailer). It charts their complex relationship, their fluctuating fortunes, musical peak, and the politics and ideologies that provoked their split. Following their trail from Jamaica through Europe, America, Africa and back to the vibrant and volatile world of Trench Town, Colin Grant travels in search of the last surviving Wailer. He unravels the roots of their charisma, their adoption of the cult of Rastafari, their suspicion of race pimps and Obeah men (witch doctors), and illuminates why the Wailers were not just extraordinary musicians, but also natural mystics. “I & I” is a remarkable story of creativity, squandered talent and fierce ambitious rivalry – a mix of reportage and revelatory history by one of our best and brightest non-fiction writers.

And from the Guardian U.K.

Fans of the The King’s Speech could gain a different perspective on its pale-hued study of the British monarchy in the 1930s by reading this vivid biography of the Rastafarian reggae artists the Wailers. Colin Grant includes the story of Leonard Howell, imprisoned for two years for sedition in Jamaica in 1933. His crime? As a believer in the divinity of the recently crowned Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, “Ras Tafari”, he had been urging mass meetings to think of Ras Tafari rather than George V when they sang “God Save the King”. Black Jamaicans were already impressed by reports of white European royals such as the Duke of Gloucester kneeling at the feet of the diminutive black emperor. Were they at last, after centuries of oppression, seeing the beginning of “black man time”?

In fact, the society that produced Bunny Livingston (later “Bunny Wailer”), Bob Marley and Peter Tosh took three steps back for every four forwards in its restless search for an indigenous sense of self-worth. Rastafarians risked alienating other black Jamaicans who believed in more orthodox forms of improvement such as paid work, as well as the white settlers who lived in balmy luxury far from the filthy, overcrowded slums where the Wailers grew up. In Grant’s hands, life in Trench Town in the 1960s is energetic and theatrical, rich in comedy and tragic irony.

When Haile Selassie made an official visit to Jamaica in 1966, the airport was so thronged with would-be adherents that the emperor took one look and went back to his plane. The call went out for the charismatic local Rastafarian leader Mortimer Planno, the Wailers’ spiritual mentor, who climbed the plane’s steps and recited the second psalm to the multitudes. Then he stretched out his arms and said: “His Majesty want to come off the plane now.” The crowd miraculously parted, and Haile Selassie began his visit; but later the same day, Planno was turned away from the official reception at Government House.

(click here to continue reading I & I: The Natural Mystics, Marley, Tosh and Wailer by Colin Grant – review | Books | The Guardian.)

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