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11/9, Tosh and weakness of personality

Published:Wednesday | September 9, 2015 | 1:45 PMMel Cooke
Peter Tosh

Tomorrow is yet another anniversary of 11/9 (the month and day out in the order to which I am accustomed, not because the English of our major colonisers is superior to America's, but because the date has significance outside of the Trade Centre attacks in the United States). For me, along with those who died in the US, it is the date that Peter Tosh was murdered in Barbican, St Andrew.

Tosh, who had a way of rearranging words to give new meaning, often opposed to one in the original word which had not obvious - or even intended - in the first place, had a thing for America. For him, it was A-sad-a-ca, for there was nothing merry about it. And the city of LA (Los Angeles) became Hell A.

He seemed to be a very humorous man, despite a serious demeanour and reputation for stern action, shall we say. As much as I have regard for Tosh (his Creation was the first song played at our marriage ceremony in 1999, long before it became a part of the Anglican repertoire), I am aware that there are weaknesses to personality being privileged over content in an artiste's work.

There can be a tendency to focus on strong, on and off-stage personalities and striking - even outlandish - behaviour and not focus on the music at all. The temptation is especially strong in an age where music is as much seen as it is heard. With Tosh, it happened before the intense visual transmission of music, although his instruction to not videotape his famed performance at the One Love Peace Concert, led to only an audio recording being available to us.

His theatrical side

So, unfortunately, Tosh seems to be more generally known for lighting a spliff on stage in a genuinely rebellious act (forget Miley Cyrus) than the playful love song Ketchy Shubby. He is remembered more for letting a couple pieces of Jamaican fabric fly before then Prime Minister Michael Manley and Opposition Leader Edward Seaga, than the introspective I Am That I Am.

Apart from Creation and occasionally Buk-in-hamm Palace at retro sessions in the segment with songs like Third World's Now That We've Found Love and Jimmy Cliff's Reggae Night, I have heard abysmally little of Tosh's music on sound systems outside of events dedicated (or livicated) to him.

With Tosh, it is an unfortunate consequence of a naturally strong personality. These days, though, it seems that, in many instances, there is this deliberate strategy of attracting attention through the construction of a striking visual. This extends from the many go-go girls parading as vocalists (and, let us be clear, I have great regard for and appreciation of go-gos or exotic dancers, but not the simpering twits who can't sing, deejay or write, but writhe on stage in little clothing that they put on and then spend a lot of time pretending to protect their privates while the peek show distracts from their God-awful off-key delivery of banality) to ludicrous tattoo tales and caps pierced to accommodate horns.

And then we are amused at people carrying gas cylinders to dancehalls and women attempting to stick bottle necks halfway down the inside of their necks.

In all of this, the song recedes in importance. Isn't it strange, that, so many times for popular Jamaican artistes, there is so little focus on the songs they actually sing? I would have thought that was the whole purpose of their popularity in the first place.

Good music still exists

There are, of course, exceptions. While I have taken issue with the name Reggae Revival (a label which seems to be much less used now than previously), give artistes like Kabaka Pyramid, Chronixx, Jah9 and Jesse Royal their due. They have attracted attention and entertained audiences with their music. And while their beliefs are clear, neither have they relied on frenetic representation of Rastafari.

It is the song that counts. For me, it is always the song which counts, with the personality as a side serving which adds to the experience.

Those who invest in a constructed personality to attract attention are on a slippery slope of always having to come up with something new and jarring, always pushing further and further. They should take an example from Sizzla, one of the persons with a strong personality but, especially between his album debut with Praise Ye Jah and Black Woman and Child in 1997 to Da Real Thing in 2003, a superb catalogue of songs.

In the middle of all the inevitable 9/11 focus on tomorrow, let us take time to recall Peter Tosh's music. While I hope radio gives him some rotation (and it normally does), we can go to YouTube and play a few tracks for ourselves.