Root of Roots: Colin Grant’s ‘The Natural Mystics’ (Book Review)

May 23, 2011

Words by Rishi Bonneville


In the imagination of many, the history of Jamaica begins with Bob Marley and the Wailers—musical priests who appear magically out of a foggy, forgotten Isle. With Chris Blackwell’s business acumen and guidance, the story goes, Marley’s native wisdom and lyrics spread like ganja smoke through the Caribbean and the world. The Natural Mystics, a well-written new book (due out next month) by Colin Grant, a BBC writer with Jamaican ancestry, challenges this narrative. Grant zooms in on the personal origins of Bob, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, providing nuance and political, economic and psychological context to their development. He reroutes the rise of the Wailers and redistributes the weight of their success to their earlier struggles and interactions.

Grant begins with the Frome sugar workers rebellion of 1938, the first major worker uprising in modern Jamaica and the opposing forces it exposed: a new consciousness of the inflamed black peasantry and a corresponding ruthlessness of the moneyed elites in suppressing it. In the decades that follow, Jamaica obtained independence from England, the PNP and JLP—founded by cousins Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley—moved apart and the slums of Kingston become the destination for the jobless and destitute flushed from the countryside. Fierce-looking Rastas dispersed from the hilly stronghold Pinnacle took refuge in shanty communities with telling names like Trench Town and Dungle, competing with revivalists and obeah-men for the spiritual attention of the socially redundant. It was into this world that the three natural mystics of the title–two from the village of Nine Miles and the other from Savannah-La-Mar–came.

While details of Marley’s youth will be familiar to readers of Timothy White’s bio Catch A Fire, Grant digs deeper, shining a light on the struggles, setbacks and the hope that characterized the early life of all three Wailers in impoverished Kingston: Cedella Marley, answering an ad to tend bar at Toddy Livingston’s rum shop, eventually fathers a half-brother of Bob and Bunny; a young Bob, virtually homeless, slips nightly into Rita’s bedroom, escaping at daylight; a displaced Tosh sells flavored syrup for shaved ice vendors, and carries a guitar borrowed from his church. It was under these conditions, Grant convincingly argues, the Wailers were made by hard work and a series of key mentors. Joe Higgs worked throughout the night with them on harmonizing. Mortimer Planno provided them with lectures and pamphlets on pan-African and Rastafarian worldview during ganja-fueled sessions. Chinese-businessman Leslie Kong, studio owner Clement Dodd and musician Lee Perry supported (and at times, inhibited) their studio recordings. (As an aside, Grant describes in detail the position of Chinese in Jamaica as the distrusted, successful descendents of indentured workers who became essential to numerous areas of commerce, including music). During these times, it was Peter, not Bob, who was the strongest musical presence in the group.

Grant’s combination of history and sociological context works best when it is tethered to familiar songs. To read of the heated exchanges between Dodd, Higgs and the destitute Wailers regarding the release of “Simmer Down,” is to understand the song not simply as a sweet, sexy mix of harmony and melody, but as a wicked shot inna dance, one that would be blasted over and over loudly in the wee mornings; it could make or break a career. The revelation that Tosh suffered from sleep paralysis (he thought he was being attacked by duppies) from which he could only escape by screaming “bumbo claat” (the title of a later song) reveals how psychological and spiritual conflicts were played out in otherwise seemingly innocuous songs.

Grant falls short in several areas. His analysis of murder and fatherlessness as dysfunctions which find their psychological origin in African slavery is too simple given the massive body of literature on these subjects. The chapters on the origins of Rastafarian philosophy and the visit to Jamaica of Haile Selassie, while relevant to his story, are familiar to those who have read Helene Lee’s The First Rasta, released in 2003. He frames his search for the lost history of the Wailers by attempts to contact the only living member, Bunny, whose forced exit from Sting 1990, he suggests, was the end of the Wailers hold on Jamaican music. However he doesn’t adequately treat the cultural dancehall artists of the 90s– Luciano, Garnett Silk, Buju Banton and Sizzla–who unabashedly exalt the Wailers legacy. And their eventual meeting is anticlimactic, conducted at the back of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, Natural Mystics offers a comprehensive map of the forces at work in Jamaica for the decades around the rise of the Wailers. It contains numerous gems, telling details that bring texture to his picture. The title is apt, in fact, since Grant reveals that the undying poignancy, intensity and quality of the art produced by Marley, Tosh and Livingston is natural, not in an ontological sense, but natural in the sense that the environment in which they grew provided them with the ingredients to create it.