Conscious Partier

Stewart Oksenhorn

Nothing seems to faze or impress David Ziggy Marley much. Perhaps thats how it is when you are born into music royalty, discover early on that you have gifts similar to those of your legendary parents, and hold strong to a faith that exalts humility and perseverance. Marleys stance toward most everything his late father, reggae king Bob Marley; his own ascension to musical glory; the current state of the world is one of low-key acceptance.Born in 1968, Ziggy was coming into his age of personal consciousness just as his father was putting reggae music on the world map. By the time Ziggy was 10, his father was being hailed as the musician with the most widespread impact on the world, as popular in Japan and Africa as he was in the States and Europe. (Ziggys mother, Rita Marley, was a backing singer in Bobs band.) In his native Jamaica, Bob Marley was a hero beloved by the masses and courted by politicians. But for his son, life seemed reasonably normal.It was cool, said Marley, speaking over the phone in a thoughtful, quiet voice. It wasnt a big deal, because my father and mother were hard-working musicians at the time. His parents work flowed down to Ziggy and his siblings. But making music was just a natural part of life, along with going to school and playing soccer in his native Kingston, Jamaica.Hed call us to do a sing-along in the studio at rehearsals, said Ziggy. We were in the studio and at concerts. It wasnt a big part of life, just a part. It wasnt like it is now. It wasnt that big and well-known. We were musicians and just lived like musicians. I went to school more than I was around music.Eventually, however, music became a major part of the younger Marleys life. After a few early albums, Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers a band comprising Ziggys brother Stephen, and sisters Cedella and Sharon broke through with 1988s Conscious Party, one of reggaes finest and best-selling albums. It was no fluke; over the next 15 years, the Melody Makers would release a string of albums and play concerts that put them among the reggae greats, regardless of their ancestry. It is, however, a career born not from great ambitions.It wasnt like I had to do that, said Marley, who performs under his own name, without the Melody Makers, on a bill with Spearhead, Sunday, March 21, at the Snowmass Conference Center. Going to school, it wasnt in my mind that I was going to be charging around the world playing music.It was writing, not performing or recording, that pulled Marley toward a career. In 1979, at the age of 11, Marley began writing songs that he and his siblings would perform at home for their aunts. If I wasnt writing songs, I wouldnt be making music, he said. When his career took off with the platinum-selling Conscious Party, Marley was blissfully unaware of his success.I didnt realize what was going on, he said. We didnt talk about it. I was naive about it.Even the larger accomplishments of reggae music have hardly swelled Marleys head. Reggae, a form originated in the tiny island nation of Jamaica that has become a worldwide staple, is a source of pride generally among Jamaicans. Keeping with his placid nature, the music is more accurately described as a source of mild pleasure.I dont feel like Im so proud, he said. I know what the music has done, but Im not a proud person. Im a humble person. I dont have that pride thing going on. I dont make a big deal about it. I dont look and say, Wow, look at that, lovely, lovely. Music with a messageMarley seems to save his passion for his music. Like his father, Marley has made the message of brotherhood, inspiration, respect and fighting oppression an inextricable part of the music. There is nothing low-key in the way Marley points a finger at the downfallen state of humanity (Fallen Is Babylon), rallies the congregation (Born to Be Lively) or praises Jah (Power to Move Ya). (Marley brings a similar power to the stage: the Melody Makers are the only band to win this reporters award for best show of the year twice, with its two Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival performances.)Were similar in our artistic endeavors to play music to feel, said Marley. Not to make music that just sounds good. My father didnt do that and I didnt do that. The message is still strong in both of us.That concern with making music that matters has made Marley a social commentator of sorts. On his recent solo album, Dragonfly, Marley sings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Shalom Salaam, and religious war generally in In the Name of God. But while his songs plead for peace, Marley is at ease with the bellicose state of the world.Its kind of like prophecy coming true, he said. Its not discouraging, its just reality. And I accept reality.I still do my best for being positive. Some part of us believes we can make the world better. We still have our destiny in our hands. We can still change things before its too late.Writing his own wayThe thing that seems to worry Marley least of all is filling the shoes of his father. Though the similarities between the two are abundant and the comparisons inevitable, Ziggy says measuring up to his fathers legacy is not a concern. If there is one similarity between father and son that Ziggy finds significant, it is the desire to tread a unique musical path. For Ziggy, that has meant making music distinct from both his fathers and from that of his own contemporaries.Its different. Im taking a different road, he said. Just as my father had a different musical style from his peers, I have a different style from my peers in my time. My music is of a different time, with different musical elements.Bob Marley had an immense charisma, one that makes him still, two decades after his death, the musician with probably the most widespread significance around the world. But his greatest gift was the ability to turn his views and feelings into songs. While reggae musicians have not, by and large, been known for their songwriting craft, Bob created an unfathomable collection of classics, ranging from love songs (Is This Love) and spirituals (One Love) to protest anthems (War) and historical explorations (No Woman, No Cry).Ziggy has shown the same ambition to write lasting songs. His material reflects a desire to be free of the rhythmic and lyrical bounds that often confine reggae. Marley has incorporated hip-hop, blues, folk and rock into his sound.It doesnt follow the traditions, said Marley of his music. It uses the tradition, but is not beholden to it.Marleys songwriting talents were evident on Conscious Party (produced by Chris Frantz and Tine Weymouth of Talking Heads). Tomorrow People echoed familiar reggae themes and rhythms. But the song also had a melody and lyrics catchy enough to land the song in the Top 40. Jahmekya saw Ziggy & the Melody Makers adding hip-hop to the mix, a bold artistic move in 1991. Spirit of Music, from 1999, found its influences in acoustic blues and folk.Marleys insistence on keeping the music meaningful and spiritual has put him somewhat out of step with the mainstream. Since the deaths of Bob Marley and his bandmate in the Wailers, Peter Tosh, reggae has moved closer to pop music, more about catchy sounds than provocative ideas. Marley is not dispirited by the changes in reggae.It hasnt changed much, he said. There are different elements of reggae music. There are bands that do what I do, which is revolutionary type of music. I find myself singing about more spiritual things, a universal kind of vibe. Its a different kind of view the same topics, but from a different perspective.Marley wants to spread that view, those thoughts, the vibe far and wide. He may be humble. But if the sounds and words can create more unity in the world, a little more respect for the planet and each other, he wants as many people as possible to hear it.The more people hear it, the more influence it will have, he said. Music is a powerful tool. Music is one of the strongest influences on people on the Earth.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is