Modern Griots Review: Marley/Ancestral Chants


Last Saturday, I packed my day with watching both the Marley film about reggae singer Bob Marley and Something Positive‘s annual show Ancestral Chants at Long Island University in Brooklyn. Thus, I am doing a combined kind of review of the two since they both were about Afro-Caribbean cultures. First, the Marley film.

As we all know, Bob Marley was and still is a large influential figure in the world. He is considered a legend and almost a mythic man that many, including myself, revere. However, most of us forget that he was still human, and this film revealed the person behind the iconic status- how he became the person he was, his flaws, his struggles, his strengths and his heart. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, one of the best parts of this film is that the people who knew him personally tell the story. All of it – the good, the bad and the ugly. Not only did we hear stories of Marley himself, but also how his story connects to larger themes.

Within it, we see how Marley’s mixed race background (his father was a white plantation company owner) impacted him growing up (he was called “half-caste”) and made him feel like somewhat of an outsider. This eventually led him to the Rastafarian faith and shaped his music and philosophy. It also speaks to the complicated space for biracial or multiracial people in society. His birth has a lot to do with the legacy of slavery, colonialism and racism, mainly due to the situation in which he was born. His father basically came and went and he rarely ever saw him. Also, one time Bob went to ask the white side of his family for help with his career and they turned him away, leading him to write the song “Cornerstone.”

His life also highlights the rise of reggae with his work with the Wailers (including Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh),  Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Studio One. Reggae singer, Bob Andy‘s comment on the development of reggae was due to the technology besides the spirituality, social commentary, consciousness and Afro-Jamaican musical practices. He said, “reggae, to my mind, developed out of an illusion,” in response to the use of the tape delay device used in the studio. Drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis and Aston “Family Man” Barrett spoke about the importance of the riff, drum (the heartbeat) and base (the backbone, spine) in the genre and that the riff possibly came out of an accident. Bunny Wailer said that there are three beats out of four and the next beat is an imagined one, which he calls “heartbeat, feel.”

But, the film also confronts Marley as a man who had his own issues and flaws, which in a sense humanizes him. His over-idealism and naivete may have put him in compromising situations, such as the shooting that was a result of him doing the political concert in Jamaica, and receiving the inadequate medical advice for his cancer. Also, his numerous affairs with other women and denying his marriage to Rita. This was the most wrenching part of the film, especially as his oldest daughter, Cedella, talked about how much it hurt the entire family. The pain could be seen on her face. Still, the expectation of monogamy in a relationship was questioned by Marley’s lawyer, Diane Jobson. I also thought of how his childhood affected his relationships with women; Rita did say he was looking for love. Still, I liked that it showed that people and morals are complex.

Although, I wish they interviewed more of his family and went a little more into depth about certain aspects of his life, Marley is a balanced movie and it reminded me about the dangers of putting people we give icon status to on pedestals. They are human to and we can all learn from them. My respect for Marley has not decreased, but  my understanding of him has grown.

Now onto Ancestral Chants. The Michael Manswell led-production was a tribute to three legendary women, dancer Pearl Primus, singer Nina Simon, and dancer and rapso pioneer Cheryl Byron. This show focused more on Afro-Trinidadian culture in addition to the general spiritual practices of the Black Caribbean and U.S. Black Americans. I was happy to see calypso singer The Mighty Sparrow in person honored with an award by the city council, and he spoke about his experience growing up in the church, setting up the show. With Manswell’s introduction and the percussionists at the side of the stage, the performance started with a ritual invocation in which the dancers come out forming a swirling circle. “Traveling in the land of the spirit,” Manswell said about the spiritual traditions brought from Africa to the Americas. He with the chorus sang familiar songs I heard growing up, like “I Am Under the Rock.”

Then swiftly they went into the “Saracca” performance, including Shango dances, which are part of the Shango sect in Trinidad. The dancers swung their plastic machetes around their heads and bodies so quickly and forcefully that I thought someone would knock someone else out. One of dancers’ machetes actually broke on stage as she swung hers around. Sade, the lead choreographer, almost seemed to be in a spirit possession as she danced with the drummers. In tribute to Cheryl Byron, Manswell and the chorus afterwards came onto the stage to perform “Visions,” a triumphant story and song about a priestess, Mother Francis, who calls for the fall of Babylon.

In the next dance, “The Wedding,” a number choreographed by Pearl Primus, the dancers performed a variation of the universal story of the victory of good over evil. At a wedding ceremony, a bride comes out and dances with members of the community when all of a sudden an man dressed from head to toe in a red outfit comes out to end the celebration knocking everyone out. As he tries to take away the bride, a drummer (I guess he was the groom) uses his instrument and rhythms to beat away the villain and rescue the community.

“The Sweet Nina Suite” paid tribute to the high priestess of soul herself through dramatic and interpretive styling of her songs, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Four Women,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Take Me to the Water,” and “Going Back Home.” The final dance performance, “The Color of Trudgery,” was a stirring portrayal of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the strength Africans in the Americas had to have to survive the turmoil of slavery. One of the dancers danced in a vibrant and flowing gold and yellow outfit as a mother figure and in memory of Cheryl Byron leading the way for the other dancers. As the evening ended, Manswell and all the dancers bid us farewell with a prayer and a chant, part of which was to have “faith to fight for victory.”

And that is the message I received from both of these productions. Despite our issues, flaws, and struggles, we have survived and we are still here. Marley’s music and the music and dances of the women celebrated in Ancestral Chants live on because they were made with spirit. So, I am going to keep fighting for them.

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One thought on “Modern Griots Review: Marley/Ancestral Chants”

  1. The link about Shango dances led me on a fascinating odyssey through the syncretic religions of the African diaspora… of course, scholars have been hyperlinking for centuries, but it’s ever so much faster now. Your posts are a rich trove of pointers to new knowledge, as well as a guarantee of a good time on Friday nights, when I get caught up on my web-reading!

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