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One Love: How rebel Bob Marley broke East Africa’s old borders

Thursday August 04 2022
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A mural of Bob Marley at the "Rasta Village" of Port Bouet in Abidjan. Marley's music was unique in that it became more than music. It was a universalizing experience. FILE PHOTO | REUTERS

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Nigerian singer and songwriter Temilade Openiyi, popularly known as Tems, is making waves again with her cover of Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry, which is part of the soundtrack for the forthcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Bob Marley released the hit, one of his most famous, in 1974. There is a long list of covers for No Woman No Cry, but with her status as one of the continent's most popular musical figures, and the Wakanda stardust, this is likely to be a big deal.

It has already started to kick off a new wave of rediscovery for the work of the long-departed reggae genius and original rebel, Marley.

Marley's music was unique in that it became more than music. It was a universalising experience, defying the walls of the Cold War, a revolutionary anthem in a time when the freedom to express dissent was as rare as a hen's tooth in our part of the world.

Because the music of the time was cut on vinyl, the popularity of Marley and the related high sales, like that of other celebrated musicians of the time like Franco, Fela Kuti, and Miriam Makeba, placed it in a position to do the last thing it would have expected to be in East Africa – be a vehicle for cross-border cultural exchange.

You couldn't send a vinyl long play (LP) via WhatsApp, get it on iTunes, download it from Spotify, or play it off YouTube as you could today. You had to get out, go to a store, and buy it. To get it to someone, it had to be carried to them.

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In Uganda in the late 1970s, we were still children, with no hint that we would ever grow beards. Military ruler Field Marshal Idi Amin was in power. He had wrecked the economy, and there were extreme shortages of everything from salt, sugar, and bottled booze to vinyl LPs.

With Tanzania's consumer economy hobbled by Julius Nyerere's bold experiment with socialism, Nairobi was the place where other East Africans went to buy capitalist goods, decadent things, and music.

In university, a select few would return from a trip to Nairobi or Kisumu with a single or LP. It was a prestigious item like you have never seen — big size, dramatic art and photographs on the sleeve.

Marley looked like a creature from another planet: long braids, something illegal sticking out of his mouth with puffs of smoke, he was the ultimate symbol of rebellion and freedom in the dire times.

The military dictatorship censored many things, but not music. People would be arrested for carrying a tube of toothpaste or a kilogramme of sugar, across the border and accused of smuggling. Music was not considered a smuggled item.

Up and down, across the Kenyan-Ugandan border, the LPs flowed in their thousands, connecting East African peoples like an umbilical cord.

The unwrapping would be a ritual. You would gather around for it. Then it would be placed on the turntable, itself a rare item, for the gang to catch the first sound.

Technology has ruined the party. It has democratized things. Thankfully, it hasn't killed the music.

The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". [email protected]

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