Sat | Sep 22, 2018

What a day of burning and looting

Published:Saturday | May 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM
From left: Bunny Livingston, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh when they just formed The Wailin' Wailers.
Tanya Stephens

Editor's note: For the few (or many) readers who have taken a liking to the weekly whimsical meandering that is 'Music and More With Mel' since December, 2014, this is the last time that it will appear on a Saturday. Before those of you who are fed up with Mel's firmly anti-establishment bent, roundabout writing style and ham-fisted attempts at humour, hold the horns and put the cork back in the champagne bottle. It has not been ended (yet), just moved to Thursdays. Replacing Music and More in the Saturday slot will be a look at developments in Jamaican popular music outside of the island.

There are movies in which the creators go for a striking contrast between the gentleness of the music being played and the extreme violence of images on screen. It makes for a terrible beauty, this disparity between the aural and the visual, where the ear is being caressed and the eyes simultaneously assaulted.

There are tons of examples of this, but forgive me as I give an old one, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don't watch enough movies, especially of recent release, to come up with a reference which will show just how current I am with the big screen. Can't afford the cinema and don't have (or want) cable.

Enough of my finances and household. Back to the matter at hand.

As I have kept apace with the riots in Baltimore, one of my all-time favourite songs has been playing in my head, its beauty complementing the mayhem on screen to create the movie effect I just spoke about. It is Baltimore by The Tamlins - not an original, as so many classic Jamaican cuts are (listen to Nina Simone's treatment), but absolutely beautiful.

From that starting point, I thought about three songs and one poem that apply to the riots in Baltimore that have followed the death of Freddie Gray after his encounter with the police. And let us make my perspective on the rioting clear - mindless violence breeds mindless violence. The sequence of white police killings of black men in the United States (US) has led to the mayhem in Baltimore. And the explosion of violence is a statement against the inevitably unsatisfactory judicial process.

Call it a statement against the statement that will most likely come out of the courtroom, absolving the police of responsibility. I do not agree with how the rioting has been conducted, but I can understand why it has happened, including the hijacking of the outpouring of wrath to steal chips and soda. I do not agree with the white police mauling and killing of defenseless black youth - and I cannot understand why they do it and continue to get away with it.

Timeless song

Before The Wailers were made into Bob Marley and the Wailers, an album named Burnin' was released in 1973, the last before the most famous split of many in reggae. Bob Marley went on to become the best known of the trio that included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. And his diverse material has also been given very narrow focus, so that One Love, is his signature song, a lets-hug-up-accept-life-as-it-is-and-all-get-along sort of tune.

Not so with the title track for Burnin', which is Burnin' and Lootin', a song which fits the situation in Baltimore wonderfully. With Marley on lead vocals, The Wailers sing:

"This morning I woke up in a curfew

Oh God, I was a prisoner too, yeah

Could not recognise the faces standing over me

They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality

How many rivers do we have to cross

Before we can talk to the boss

All that we've got it seems we have lost

We must have really pay the cost

That's why we gonna be burning and a looting tonight

Say we gonna burn and loot

Burning and a looting tonight

One more thing

Burning all pollution tonight

Burning all illusion tonight"

Strong stuff, but this is also the album that contained Get Up, Stand Up and I Shot The Sheriff.

On his own, Peter Tosh did Cold Blood, which came out on the 1981 album, Wanted Dread and Alive. The song is about a familiar theme for Tosh, marijuana, and there is a courtroom skit and the beginning of the song in which he refuses to swear, "so help me God". Instead, he insists on "so help I Jah". His reaction to the police may be familiar to many black males in the US, at this time of police killings. Tosh sings:

"And everytime I see Babylon, my blood runs cold (I mean cold)

Everytime I see the wicked man, my belly moves"

Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, commonly known as LKJ, did Di Great Insohreckshan about events in England in 1981. He, too, speaks (literally) about burning and looting and the first minute of the recorded poem about events centred around Brixton could have been about Baltimore in 2015. He says:

"It woz in April Nineteen Eighty Wan

Doun inna di ghetto of Brixtan

Dat de Babylon dem cause such a frickshan

Dat it bring about a great insohreckshan

An it spread all ovah de naeshan

It woz truly a historical occayshan

It woz de event ah di year

An I wish I ad been dere

Wen wi run riat all ovah Brixtan

Wen wi mash up plenty police van

Wen wi mash up di wicked wan plan

Wen wi mash up de Swamp Eighty Wan

Fi Wah?

Fi mek de rula dem andastan

Dat wi naw tek no, more a dem oppreshan

An wen mi check out di ghetto grapevine

Fi fine out all I coulda fine

Every rebel jus a revel in dem story

Dem a talk bout di powah an di glory

Dem a talk bout di burnin an di lootin

Dem a talk bout di smashin and di grabbin

Dem a tell mi bout di vanquish an di victri

Dem seh de babylan dem went too far

Soh wha

So wi ad woz fi bun two cyar"

And finally, in What a Day, Tanya Stephens has a line which speaks about the need for a fresh start in beautifully fiery terms. It comes at the end of the second verse:

"I got a vision of a whole other plane

Where the spiritual can flourish again

I'm just waiting for the fire to rain

Bun dung everything and start clean"

Maybe that is what is required for real change.