Rastaman vibrations

Fans marked Bob Marley's 60th birthday with a festival in Addis Ababa. Ian Burrell saw the family and met the faithful
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The Independent Culture

"Wow, it's amazing. We dream of things like this," says a dreadlocked Teddy Dan Miller as he gazes across Addis Ababa's Meskel Square and struggles to come to terms with the vast crowds that have gathered. Having spent most of his life in Oxford and Manchester as a struggling musician, the Jamaica-born Miller, dressed in blue robes with a red, gold and green bonnet and scarf, came to Ethiopia four years ago in search of a simple existence on a Rastafarian commune.

It is late Sunday morning, and seemingly the entire population of the Ethiopian capital is packing itself into the East African nation's equivalent of Trafalgar Square to witness an extraordinary event: a birthday celebration concert for the late king of reggae, Bob Marley, featuring his wife Rita and five of his sons, Ziggy, Kymani, Julian, Stephen and Damian. Nothing like this has occurred outside Marley's native Jamaica, and the extraordinary level of interest from local people is compelling testimony to his lasting relevance on the continent that he considered his spiritual home.

The sense of anticipation has been building for weeks. Lamp-posts in the city are wrapped in a red, gold and green poster and taxis carry flyers for the concert. Excitement has grown since the first contingents from the Bob Marley Foundation - the charity set up in the late singer's name "to empower the oppressed" - rolled into town from Jamaica and the United States, three weeks earlier. It is not doing this by halves.

The Africa Unite concert is the centrepiece of a month of events ranging from ceremonial tree plantings by Rita to soccer clinics and photographic exhibitions. A series of worthy symposiums have been organised at the United Nations building to discuss the future of Africa, and the actor Danny Glover has flown in to add Hollywood sparkle to a gala banquet, in the Sheraton hotel, intended to raise funds for a youth centre.

But these sideshows are of little interest to the Addis public, which has come to party, and has been gathering from early morning on the grassy terraces that form an amphitheatre around a square that would normally be pulsating with traffic. Teddy Dan Miller arrived after a 250km minibus journey from Shashemene, the land given to Rastafarians by the former Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie.

Selassie may have ruled his people with a rod of iron - to the point where they overthrew him in the late Seventies in favour of a Marxist regime - but he was and is the figure revered by Rastafarians, including Marley, as the embodiment of God on earth. For 30 years, Ethiopia has had an uneasy relationship with Rastafarianism - at best tolerating the largely Jamaican community of a few hundred souls who exist at Shashemene - but it seems things are changing: the Ethiopian government and its tourism commission are among the concert's sponsors.

Then again, it's not every day that Ethiopia gets to stage an event that is covered by 400 journalists and broadcast by CNN and the BBC and draws foreign visitors on US$100 tickets. Coca-Cola is present too, naturally. A giant inflatable Coke bottle and a huge banner ("Celebrating African Unity", in corporate red and white) are its contributions. Directly opposite the Coke banner and overlooking the stage are two sky-scraping concrete relics of the Marxist regime; the Bank of Abyssinia and the Ethiopian Insurance Corporation, ugly examples of the communist love for brutalism.

But Teddy Dan Miller is not thinking of them as he observes: "I could never have imagined this but now it is here and in this magnitude. We dream of things like this." Having endured what he describes as a "rough time" as one of only seven black children in his school, Miller says his life in England was a "mix of good and bad". A highlight was when he went to Switzerland to record a reggae album, United States of Africa. He expects the Africa Unite concert to have lasting ramifications. "This shows the Ethiopians love Rastafarians and not just Bob Marley. Even in death Bob Marley is doing his work for I and I restoration - he's bigger now than he ever was when he was alive."

To many in England, Marley - who died from cancer in 1981 at the age of 36 - might be an artist of diminishing importance, as memories fade of his momentous performance at the London Lyceum in 1975 and the historic One Love concert in Jamaica in 1978 (when he achieved what had seemed impossible and brought together on stage Jamaica's warring political leaders).

But in Africa, Marley remains undeniably vital. A short walk from Meskel Square, through an arch in the city wall and past two 15ft-high communist statues of workers bearing torches, stands an exhibition hall. It is temporarily housing portrait photographs of Marley, including iconic shots by Dennis Morris, Adrian Boot and Neville Garrick. Among the visitors is Abel Demsew, 18, an Addis-Ababan student. "Bob Marley for me was a teacher. An academic. He changed the world smoothly and attractively," he says. For Demsew, Marley's links to Ethiopia are a matter of fierce national pride. "I love so much His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I because he teaches Bob Marley and his nationality is Ethiopian," he says. "Haile Selassie tried to unite Africa. Bob Marley wanted the same thing."

Back in Meskel Square, this reverence for a fallen dictator is in evidence everywhere among crowds who stampede to the front railings to get the best vantage points, in spite of the lack of protection from the searing sun. The facilities, with only a handful of portable toilets, make the Glastonbury festival look like the VIP lounge at Heathrow. The Ethiopian government - apparently conscious of the presence of senior state officials - has insisted on keeping the public 100yds from the stage, to the annoyance of the Marley family. In the crowd many are holding portraits of Selassie and waving Rasta flags, though almost none of them appear to be Rastafarians.

One exception is the extravagantly-named Rasta Kabengwa Dreadman, who wears a sign around his neck: "From Uganda By Road." He has travelled for four days from his home in Kampala, through Kenya, to reach the concert. "I have been trying to unite African people all my life," he says. Dreadman has even attended the UN symposiums. ""I've come here to get more knowledge," he says. "Unicef brought children from different parts of Africa and some were HIV-positive. We sat together, ate together and had a reasoning with them. It was a good experience and that's a message I have to take back home." He then sets up a stall out of sight of the stage and spends the day selling clothes.

Just after midday, the concert begins, traditional Nyabinghi drummers followed on stage by Jamaica's finest sound system, Stone Love, which gives the audience - estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000 - instruction in Jamaican patois and the latest dancehall moves.

The crowd, under the close eye of armed police officers in blue camouflage tunics - who periodically use long straps to beat back the front rows of revellers - bounces in a frenzy to reggae anthems from Buju Banton and Dennis Brown, chosen because of their references to Ethiopia. The massive police presence and the tendency of Ethiopians to frown upon marijuana usage is the most likely explanation of an almost total absence of the "holy herb" (except backstage).

Among the dignitaries in the posh seats (actually white plastic chairs) are various Rastafarian elders - one dressed in full Selassie-style military garb, including a pith helmet. They are joined by Ethiopian government ministers, who arrive in a cavalcade of limousines flanked by motorcycle outriders. Brightly coloured umbrellas are distributed as parasols, and for a moment this patch of Ethiopia resembles the Mound Stand at Lord's cricket ground on a wet day.

The local boy Teddy Afro takes the stage to a rapturous reception, serenading the crowd with his Marley-inspired reggae and lyrics in Amharic. He takes off his Ethiopia tracksuit top to reveal, inevitably, a picture of Haile Selassie on his yellow T-shirt. Down in the crowd the Japanese anthropology student Chikiro Nakamori, 25, is loving it. He has been in Ethiopia for a year, and the past five months at the Shashemene commune. "Ethiopia wasn't colonised, so I hope it has kept its culture," is how he explains his current domicile. Backstage, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and the man who arguably made Marley a global music star, is also impressed. He stares out at the multitude bouncing rhythmically to the music. "Brilliant. It's amazing, absolutely amazing," he says.

The success of the event comes in spite of no-shows from the African artists Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal, and the Americans Quincy Jones and India Arie. But a surprise guest is the ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill - the wife of Bob's son Rohan - who is persuaded to break years of artistic silence and perform three new tracks to acoustic guitar.

Yet the highlight of the early evening is the appearance of Bob's mother, Cedella Booker, who is 78 and moves around in a wheelchair. She reads a self-composed poem in tribute to her son, which includes the lines: "Long after Babylon has fallen down/ The house that Bob built will be on solid ground."

Then Rita takes charge. For days she has been the star of the show, an almost regal presence in her bright African robes, going about the city unveiling foundation stones for a statue of Bob, relaunching her autobiography and planting commemorative trees. On arrival in Addis, she prompted an international row by suggesting that Marley's remains should be re-interred in Africa. As Jamaica reacted with indignation, Rita's spokespeople tried to play down the dispute. But Rita will later reiterate her wish, as will Marley's son Julian.

The Africa Unite concert, nevertheless, is not the time for arguments. "I think it's about time we sing 'Happy Birthday Bob Marley'," says Rita, before leading the crowd in song. She then attempts to release dozens of birds from cardboard boxes. But the boxes won't open. Rita and a stage-hand get down on bended knees to pull out the creatures - which to the British eye look more like everyday pigeons than doves. Emerging in a flurry of feathers, the birds promptly perch on the lighting gantry. Never mind. Rita is then joined by Marcia Griffiths, a fellow former member of Bob's backing group The I-Threes, and they perform while the Marley children look on, admiringly, from the wings.

Then it is the climax. The brothers collectively run through their father's classics, from "Crazy Baldheads" and "Get Up, Stand Up" to "I Shot the Sheriff" (with Rita and Marcia on backing vocals) and "War" (which was based on a notable anti-discrimination speech by Haile Selassie). In extraordinary scenes at the finale, including, inevitably, a rendition of "Africa Unite", the stage is swamped by artists (Lauryn Hill takes a turn on vocals) and crowd members. Against high odds, cultural and language differences have been overcome, the organisational nightmares of the previous three weeks have been forgotten, and the event has been a triumph. "We did it," says a clearly relieved Garrick, one of the chief organisers and Marley's former art director.

Next day, the Bob Marley Foundation calls a press conference at the Sheraton. Asked by one dreadlocked questioner about the commercial elements of the event, Desta Meghoo-Peddie, the foundation's MD, says that the plan is to "challenge the consciences" of big business and officialdom by linking them to such a noble cause. Proceeds have been raised to increase awareness of HIV in Africa and to support tsunami victims. Plans are already being made for an Africa Unite 2006 elsewhere on the continent.

It has emerged that, despite the Selassie euphoria of the night before, some more radical members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have taken exception to foreign Rastas promoting the idea that Haile Selassie is a god. Meghoo-Peddie is unrepentant. "We are tired of the image of a poor, begging, dry Ethiopia. If we are guilty of bringing a positive voice here... then we plead guilty as charged."

At that moment Rita turns up, in white robes and sunglasses. "There has been lots of hard work, lots of energy, lots of faith, lots of tears, lots of happiness," is her verdict. "But it has been a dream come true." On his way home to Shashemene, Teddy Dan Miller would surely concur.

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