Remembering the One Love Concert for Peace

Garry Steckles remembers the legendery Bob Marley Concert that was a defining moment in the history of Jamaica

  • The famous moment: Michael Manley (left) and Edward Seaga (right) join hands at Bob Marley's insistence. Photograph by Urbanimagetv/ 56 Hope Rd. Music

It seems like just yesterday. But the most famous concert in the history of reggae music — probably in the history of Caribbean music in general, come to think of it — took place a quarter of a century ago. Twenty-five years after the event, the One Love Concert for Peace has attained almost mythical status in the reggae world, and it remains my single most vivid memory in a lifetime of concert going.

Not only was I at Kingston’s National Stadium on April 22, 1978, but I was sitting front row centre. Yes, I had the best seat in the house for reggae’s most celebrated single event. I was only a few feet away when Bob Marley, in a dramatic finale to an evening that was never short on drama, practically forced political arch-foes Michael Manley and Edward Seaga — respectively prime minister and leader of the opposition in Jamaica at the time — to reluctantly join him on stage and even more reluctantly join hands in a gesture of peace.

Not, I hasten to add, that my superb seat had anything to do with my status as a journalist visiting Jamaica to cover the show. Anything but. In protocol-conscious Jamaica, there’s normally no way members of the press would be seated in the row in front of the prime minister and other assorted luminaries.

But these weren’t normal times. Jamaica was in the throes of deadly political violence, and the concert was a noble — and, sadly, unsuccessful — attempt to bring about peace.

In the week leading up to the big show, the atmosphere in Kingston, was, to put it mildly, tense. So was the atmosphere in the National Stadium on April 22, with gun-toting and decidedly edgy cops and soldiers just about outnumbering the spectators.

Initially, reporters were seated about 20 rows from the front — excellent seats, and we had no complaints whatsoever. Then, about half an hour before the scheduled start, we were told we were in the wrong seats and that we should come forward. A few minutes later, the entire front row was filled with press, and I found myself seated centre-right of the stage, with its huge Lion of Judah backdrop. After we’d finished congratulating ourselves on our good fortune, I was astonished to see Michael Manley and practically his entire cabinet troop into the row behind us.

Then the penny dropped. There were a lot of police and soldiers with guns around the front and sides of the stage. If — heaven forbid — things did get out of hand, better to have a row of eminently dispensable foreign journalists in the most vulnerable seats than the prime minister and his entourage.

But we weren’t going to allow such mundane concerns to distract us from the greatest lineup of roots reggae performers ever gathered for a single evening, and I quickly decided that nothing — not food, not drink, not the call of nature — was going
to make me budge and risk losing my precious seat before the last note had been played. And I didn’t.

I’d first heard of the big concert a couple months earlier, when a short report on the news wires announced that the original Wailers — Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer — were going to reunite for a show to help promote peace between Jamaica’s warring political gangs. The Wailers had split up a few years previously, with Peter and Bunny embarking on solo careers, and their reunion, for reggae fans, would have been the equivalent of the Beatles getting back together.

I’d seen Bob and Peter frequently, but I’d never seen the original Wailers together on stage, and I quickly decided it was something I couldn’t miss. Even better, the concert was going to mark Bob Marley’s return to Jamaica after 14 months living in exile, following a failed assassination attempt.

I arrived in Kingston on April 16, and quickly found myself hanging out at 56 Hope Road, Marley’s now legendary headquarters, where my good friend, the late Valerie Cowan, was masterminding the organisation of the concert. Marley himself seemed to be
everywhere — playing soccer in the front yard, catching up with Rasta brethren, fielding the often-inane questions of visiting journalists, and just enjoying being back on his home turf.

The week flew by, and before we knew it the big evening was upon us. By now, we’d realised the concert wasn’t going to bring about a reunion of the Wailers, but it was still a reggae fan’s dream come true, with a who’s who of roots stars volunteering their time and talent in the cause of peace.

To our collective astonishment, the concert, which had been advertised to start at 5 p.m., started at 5 p.m. It was still daylight, and the huge stadium was barely a third full when the Meditations took to the stage. They were followed by Althea and Donna, singing their number-one international hit Uptown Top Ranking; the powerful dub poet Oku Onouru; and, with the crowd growing and the sun by now giving way to a brilliant full moon, the livewire DJ Dillinger, the first performer of the evening to get more than a lukewarm response from the hard-to-please Jamaicans.

Junior Tucker delivered a best-forgotten couple of numbers, followed by some classic roots by Joseph Hill and Culture, an oh-so-young Dennis Brown, Trinity, the Mighty Diamonds, and Leroy Smart. Inner Circle, fronted by the charismatic Jacob Miller, raised the bar with an inspired set, then it was time for Big Youth and an aspiring young singer called Beres
Hammond, best known in those days as the lead vocalist of a group called Zap Pow.

Then came the really big guns of that era — and the serious drama.

With the island’s leading politicians seated only a few feet away and virtually a captive audience, Peter Tosh decided to use the occasion to deliver some pointed social and political messages, and harangued them not once, not twice, but three times in the course of a high-octane set that resulted, a few months later, in Peter being arrested and beaten almost to
death in the course of a brutal police “interrogation”.

At one stage, it seemed — at least to those of us in those high-profile seats — that Peter was inciting the crowd to riot. This was only my third visit to Jamaica, and much of Peter’s deep patois was lost on me, but there was no mistaking his angry
denunciation of what he regarded as the colonial political system.

Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus were considerably more soothing. The charismatic singer/songwriter/hand-drummer and his crack band transformed the by-now crammed National Stadium into what amounted to a gigantic Rastafarian Grounation.

There was a lengthy break after Ras Michael, and the tension mounted again as the stage was set up and the Wailers band picked up their instruments and started to play. From backstage, a disembodied, almost ethereal voice, began to chant The Lion of Judah. Then, from the right side of the stage, Bob Marley walked, ever so slowly, into the spotlight.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Bob’s performance that night was to be one of his last live appearances in Jamaica. And Bob Marley in Jamaica was very, very different from Bob Marley on tour. The reggae he played at home was slower, heavier and generally more intense than when he was on the road.

Natural Mystic, Trenchtown Rock, Natty Dread, Positive Vibration and War were the songs he chose for the occasion, and it quickly became clear that for Bob Marley and those of us privileged to be present, this was more than a mere concert. It was history in the making.

With the full moon high above, and with thunder crackling ominously in the distance, Marley finally launched into an inspired version of Jamming, during which he exhorted Manley and Seaga to join him on stage. At first, neither budged — but mere politicians couldn’t stand up to the compelling, majestic force of Robert Nesta Marley.

Seaga was the first to make a move, and he was quickly pulled to the stage. A few seconds later, Manley followed, and I vividly recall the two politicians looking distinctly uncomfortable as Marley made them join hands above him.

Then, almost before we knew it, it was all over. With the sun by now rising, we headed back to our guesthouse for much-needed refreshments and lengthy post-mortems.

Twenty-five years later, I still get goosebumps whenever I see video footage of Bob performing Jamming that evening. And I continue to count myself one of the luckiest reggae fans in the world to have been in Kingston’s National Stadium on April 22, 1978.