Easy Skanking

Excuse me while I light my spliff
Good GOD I gotta take a lift
From reality I just can't drift
That's why I am staying with this riff
On the Caribbean island of Jamaica during the late 1960s, the leading local pop stars were a vocal trio comprising Neville 'Bunny' Livingston, Peter MacIntosh and Robert Nesta Marley: The Wailers. They first made their mark dressed as gangsters, or 'rude boys', wearing sharp suits and shades and singing a song called Simmer Down, but found their true style after teaming up with the rhythm section of Jamaica's premier session band, The Upsetters, and defined it in a series of classic recordings made with the legendary producer, Lee Perry. To the lilting strains of crude reggae, Bob Marley brought the sweetest melodies and the most passionate lyrics, which the Wailers rendered in sublime harmony while the Barrett brothers - Curly on drums, Aston on bass - ground out a profound and irresistible rhythm.

The Wailers were among the first musicians to overtly adopt the trappings of Rastafarianism, a religious cult that germinated in the Kingston slums from the teachings of a radical black activist called Marcus Garvey and grew to become the island's most compelling cultural force, representing the spiritual nationality of Jamaica. Garvey believed that former slaves must be repatriated to Africa and establish their own nation state; and he prophesied that a black King would arise to lead them. In 1930, when a tribal warlord called Ras Tafari was crowned the 111th Emperor of Ethiopia in a line of descent traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and took a new name, Haile Selassie - 'Power of the Holy Trinity' - he was acclaimed in Kingston as a living god.

Rastafarianism refers back to the Old Testament, identifying its adherents as the lost tribes of Israel, sold into slavery in Babylon and awaiting their return to Zion, the promised land. Rastas characteristically grow their hair into 'dreadlocks', for no razor shall touch the heads of the righteous; they eschew meat and shellfish for 'I-tal' food (grains, fruit, roots and vegetables). And they revere cannabis as the sacramental herb. It is 'the healing of the nations'.

Herbal cannabis had always played a part in the medicinal and mystical rituals of ancient Africa and was probably well known to the slaves who worked the West Indian sugar plantations, but anthropologists contend that the herb didn't arrive in Jamaica until after slavery was abolished there in 1838, when it was brought by contract workers from the Indian sub-continent who were drafted in to fill the subsequent labour shortage. Certainly, the Jamaican term for herbal cannabis, 'ganja', is a Hindi word meaning 'sweet smelling', but also 'noisy'. Which is not a bad description of roots reggae.

The deep rhythmic bass of reggae, combined with the tendency of ganja to enhance ones' appreciation of tonal resonance and to distort ones' perception of time, when mixed together in primitive recording studios, begat Dub. It was the custom within the Jamaican music industry to fill out the flip-sides of 45rpm singles with instrumental versions of the song featured on the A side. Under the creative influence of sacramental herb, record producers began twiddling their knobs idiosyncratically, dropping out the treble and pumping up the bass, cutting up the vocal track and adding masses of reverb to haunting phrases that echo through the mix. No other music sounds more like the way it feels to be stoned.

Bob Marley summed up the influence of cannabis on emerging Rasta consciousness in an interview with Stephen Davis: "Rastaman sit down and smoke some herb, with good meditation, and a policeman come see him, stick him up, search him, beat him, and put him in prison. Now, what is this guy doing these things for? Herb grows like yams and cabbage. Just grow. Policemen do these things fe evil... System don't agree with herb because herb make ya too solid. Y'see, when ya smoke herb ya conscience come right in front of ya. Ya see it? So the devil see ya not guan fe do fool thing again. Yes, Rasta! Herb is the healing of the nation".

In 1972, The Wailers secured their ticket to Babylon via a deal with Chris Blackwell of Island Records and began to record a series of classic albums that would introduce reggae music to a world-wide audience. Despite this success, or perhaps because of it, The Wailers split up in 1974 when Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh quit, ostensibly because the pair didn't want to go on tour. Bob Marley replaced them with three female backing singers, the I-Threes, who included his wife, Rita, and went on to become a superstar.

Peter Tosh may not have been as musically gifted as Bob Marley, but he was more militant. Soon after breaking with the Wailers, as the title track on his first solo LP, he recorded what was to become the pot smokers' anthem: Legalise It. The song is a litany of ganja's medicinal uses - telling us that it's good for the "flu, for asthma, for tuberculosis and even umara composis" (whatever that might be) - and a roll call of those who use it, including doctors, nurses, judges and lawyers as well as singers and "players of instruments, too." The chorus has became a rallying cry:
"Legalise it, don't criticise it".

In 1976, Tosh told Stephen Davis: "My song about herb, called Legalise It, was played here for a while on the radio, but the herb dealers who live in Beverley Hills don't want the small man to live... I was taught as a boy that herb is a natural drug and medicine... But then I was terribly brutalised by the police and charged with ganja. Can you imagine? Herb? Vegetables? We are the victim of Ras clot circumstances. Them that don't want to legalise it have to do with the business of it... Every time I smoke herb my imagination is burning and I'm writing my best music... Herb is for the ills of man. It's the healing of the nations. But in Jamaica a man can go to prison for one seed. It might as well be one ton of herb. I smoke herb every minute, every hour, every day. Then I lie down and rest and get up and smoke again."