Book reviews (January/February 2009)

Reviews of some new Caribbean Books

  • Bob Marley and the Wailers. Photograph by Hope Road Music/Adrian Boot
  • Stuart Hall. Photograph by Clinton Hutton
  • bookreviews_95_3
  • Jamaican-American writer and academic Thomas Glave

The Wailers: a Family Man affair

Books on Bob Marley are a dime a dozen, but here comes one with a difference. Wailin’ Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers is based largely on testimony from bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett. “Fams” and his brother Carly backed Marley longer than anyone else: they were catalysts in the Wailers’ sound from 1970 up to Marley’s untimely death in 1981, and as Fams was bandleader during the fruitful Island era, he can rightly be seen as chief architect of the group’s best-known works. Fams is uniquely placed to tell a different version of the Wailers’ evolution than that espoused by Rita Marley or biographers of Bob.

I found Wailin’ Blues compelling reading, as it is packed with previously unknown information, and in addition to Family Man’s testimony, there are strong additional contributions from keyboardist Glen Adams, guitarists Al Anderson and Junior Marvin, and legendary non-Wailers such as Alton Ellis, Dennis Alcapone and Bunny Lee, all of whom shed new light on the world in which the Wailers emerged, giving badly needed context to their rise to fame within an uncaring, sycophantic music industry that abused them. There is no doubting the staggering amount of effort it has taken John Masouri to research this book over the better part of a decade in conversation with Fams and dozens more, and it must have been a truly daunting task to try to sift fact from fiction.

In the introduction, Masouri makes numerous astute points about the universal appeal of the Wailers, noting how the band’s roots drew not only on Caribbean rhythms, but also on “the sounds of black and hillbilly America and England’s gospel and music hall tradition”; their music made him understand that “categories are meaningless and that music is an undying spirit which can never be confined by time, place or genre.” He narrates much of the text in the same vein, noting the links between the Wailers’ reggae and the soul of the civil rights struggle in the USA, homing in on the influence of key figures such as James Brown and the Impressions. Although such territory has been covered in other books, Masouri writes about it with the care, respect and diligence this music deserves, and his reading of Marley’s lyrics is equally perceptive. For me, the author really reaches his stride with the 1970s, tracing the band’s slow crawl towards Island Records and subsequent international acclaim.

On the other hand, I felt the 1960s chapters were at times overloaded with the particulars of recording sessions and live appearances (many of which do not involve the Wailers), while occasional music venues or other Kingston addresses are referred to but not properly explained (for instance, Glen Adams mentions playing at the Golden Club, but we never learn where it was or what clientele attended it). Such problems are minor, but this portion can feel difficult to navigate, especially with conflicting information provided by various parties throughout.

There is also an overriding tension in the book’s early chapters, which relate the experiences of Family Man and his brother, rather than Marley, Tosh and Livingston or the backing bands they used during their years at Studio One, Beverley’s and JAD; indeed, it is only after the Barrett brothers join the Wailers in chapter six that the book’s title feels accurate. Other minor gripes take the form of factual errors and the numerous times when multiple musicians claim to have played the same songs. Additionally, Lee Perry gets short shrift, due largely to the lack of proper payment when Fams and Carly worked for him as the Upsetters, but Scratch was undoubtedly a very important figure in their evolution, and not “peripheral,” as is suggested in Chapter Seven.

After covering Marley’s physical decline and intestate death with considerable skill and taste, the book delivers harrowing tales of violence and terror, in the horrific murders of Carlton Barrett, King Tubby and Peter Tosh in quick succession during the late 1980s. Then comes the terrible treatment accorded the Barretts and other Wailers in the aftermath of Marley’s death: there are the documents signed by Rita in Bob’s hand on the advice of her lawyers, all manner of dubious accounting by various industry scum and the very complicated series of agreements between the Wailers and Island. As Masouri relates in plain language the intricacies of these dealings, he notes that Marley “the brand” became an increasingly huge financial concern through commercial products that would have the singer rolling in his grave—a truly sad state of affairs.

Wailin’ Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers John Masouri
(Omnibus Press, ISBN 1-84609-689-8, 582pp)

David Katz


Hall of fame

Recently the art critic for Time magazine asked Stuart Hall what he did. “I’m an academic,” Hall replied, “but I’ve given up the day job.”

Hall, who turned 75 last year, was born in Jamaica and migrated to England in the early 1950s. He went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, where he read English and played drums in his college jazz ensemble. After abandoning a doctorate on Henry James, he worked on a number of political journals and co-wrote a book, The Popular Arts, before joining Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, of which he became director.

Hall went on to write a number of other books, including the influential Policing the Crisis and Questions of Cultural Identity. He was named an emeritus professor of the Open University and most recently, was instrumental in the establishment of the International Institute for the Visual Arts in London. Regarded as one of Britain’s leading cultural and social theorists, Hall even had an impact on the policies of Tony Blair’s New Labour Order (much as he might balk at that idea). Last year the UK Observer averred, “If he were a less modest man Hall might lay claim to having invented the idea of multiculturalism in Britain.”

As if in delayed response to Hall’s successes in his adopted home, a conference was held in honour of the native son at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies in 2004. Much of this resulting festschrift—a dozen essays by various scholars, plus a “prologue” by Rex Nettleford—seeks therefore to lay claim to Hall as a Jamaican and Caribbean intellectual as much as a British one, by examining a number of topics, from slavery to gang violence to dancehall music, in the context of his thinking and methodology.

The premise is an intriguing one that can’t be defeated even by the stodgy academese that most of these essays are inevitably written in. To what degree the premise succeeds is another matter.

Nevertheless, this collection should prove useful to those familiar with Hall’s work. The uninitiated are best advised to start with that work and see for themselves if Hall’s thinking, as the man himself claims in a revealing response to the essays, has always been done through “the prism of my Caribbean formation.”

Caribbean Reasonings—Culture, Politics, Race and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall ed Brian Meeks
(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-272-9/Lawrence & Wishart, ISBN 978-190-500-761-5, 316pp)

Jonathan Ali

Shades of gay

Thomas Glave is a brave man. Last year, at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, Glave, a Jamaican-American writer and academic, publicly denounced prime minister Bruce Golding, who had declared a few days earlier on international television that homosexuals—often the victims of extreme physical violence in Jamaica—would never hold a place in his cabinet.

“As a gay man of Jamaican background I am appalled and outraged,” said Glave, who has something of the fervour of a charismatic preacher to his style, both spoken and written. “It is exactly this kind of bigotry and narrow-mindedness that Jamaica does not need any more of.”

And it is exactly this kind of forthrightness, this desire to take on an issue that is perpetually ignored or derided in the Caribbean, that led Glave to spearhead this landmark anthology. With 37 contributors from 14 territories encompassing the English, Spanish, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean, through fiction, essays, poetry and letters, this book seeks to seine the archipelago (in poet Eric Roach’s phrase) as never before.

Many, if not most of the writers featured no longer live in the Caribbean. That this is so can be seen as unfortunate, though obviously understandable. Yet this adds another dimension to much of the collection, making it in many ways as much about that evergreen theme, the Caribbean immigrant experience, as it is about the Caribbean gay experience.

A number of the writers, some of the best-known names, are dead. There’s the Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas, represented by an extract from his candid memoir Before Night Falls. Jamaica’s Andrew Salkey finds himself in these pages with a rather odd short story, while Audre Lorde, the American poet and activist of Grenadian and Barbadian parentage, is honoured with two selections, an autobiographical piece and an essay about her experiences in St Croix in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.

The rest varies greatly in subject, form and tone: Trinidadian-Guyanese poet Faizal Deen’s erotically charged poems; Bahamian Helen Klonaris’s open and impassioned letter to her compatriots on the eve of an anti-gay rally; the ambitious, funny and poignant story We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? by the Cuban Achy Obejas; Glave’s own contribution, part allegory, part searching critique of Jamaican homophobia.

The quality is also diverse, though that’s not surprising in a volume as inclusive, as embracing, as this one almost has to be. Above all else, what unites Our Caribbean is the simple, palpable need of the authors to let their voices be heard, as they write about and often against their experiences as gay women and men in a region that is a long, long way from getting to grips with what continues to be a taboo subject. This is a groundbreaking work, one whose mere existence should be celebrated. It is also the beginning of a conversation one can only hope will widen and grow louder.

Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles ed Thomas Glave
(Duke University Press, ISBN 978-0-8223-4226-7, 416pp)


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