Nasio: Keeping Marley's spirit alive



Keeping Marley's spirit alive

Aphelion Productions
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Review by Norm Dixon

Whenever a bright new reggae star appears on the horizon — especially someone prepared to put a commitment to social justice before cheap popularity based on bubble gum lyrics — music journalists (egged on by helpful publicists with cliché-rich promotion material) rush to ask: "Is this the new Bob Marley?". The emergence of Nasio Fontaine onto the international reggae stage in 1996-97 was greeted with this predictable refrain.

Certainly, Nasio's latest album, Revolution, reveals that his music and voice (and even his boyish looks) resemble the late superstar's. It has the great roots vibe of classic '70s reggae — inventive melodies, heavy bass, great guitar riffs. The heartfelt themes — opposition to racism, persecution and injustice, the true history of the African experience in the West, peace and tolerance, justice for Africa — are those of the greatest Marley anthems.

Nasio's clear-sighted views are no doubt influenced by his own experiences. His mother, a Carib Indian — the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands who were all but wiped out by the Spanish invaders — lived on a tiny reservation in the small Caribbean island of Dominica until she left it with Nasio's poor African-Caribbean father.

"I come from two original peoples, the African and the Indian ... The Indians have 74 or 84 acres [in Dominica] but that is just crap because the whole country belongs to them. They should respect the Carib Indians more", Nasio told Caribbean Pulse magazine in 1996.

His parents moved to a tiny fishing village with 30 houses, one church and no electricity or running water. One of seven children, Nasio was forced to leave school at 14 to work to feed the family.

He grew up listening to local calypso and, when the family finally could afford to buy a transistor radio, African-American soul music by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield and many others.

Nasio moved to Dutch-controlled St Maarten in 1981 and worked odd jobs and saved his money. He embraced the Rastafarian religion and discovered Marley's music. "Growing up, I never knew about Bob. The same year I came to St Maarten is the year Bob died.

"Then I heard Bob say things — things I would have said like 'Africa Unite', 'Rastaman Vibration' and 'Get Up and Fight For Your Rights' ... Bob Marley is a great voice to humanity. Nesta [Marley] is the king of reggae music. He is an inspiration to me, like he is to billions."

In 1986, Nasio used his savings to pay to have his first single, "Born to be Free" — a protest against apartheid in South Africa — recorded. "Everybody in the ghetto loved that song", Nasio explained. "In the ghettos of the world, there are so many people who would like to voice an opinion, but are unable.

"It came to me that music was the medium to reach the people. The people of the ghetto listen to the radio as others would read a newspaper or watch television ... Remember at that time apartheid was in full fledge. Then my song came out and said: 'For the people: freedom. Let us go. We must be free!'. The song spoke for itself and the people listened."

It was not until 1990 that he could again afford to record. In 1994, he released his first full album — also self-financed from the wages he made working on the docks — and was surprised that it sold well throughout the region.

Through no fault of his own, Nasio cannot be another Bob Marley because Marley was much more than just a very talented, very popular, politically radical pop star. He personified a period in history when a radicalisation in the Third World was reaching a peak with revolutionary struggles in southern Africa, and revolutions in Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. This anti-imperialist wave intersected with and fuelled a youth radicalisation in the recession-troubled West.

Reggae in the late 1970s began to reflect the growing influence of the persecuted Rastafarian religious sect in Jamaica. Rastas combined a fundamentalist Afro-centric Christianity with utopian rural socialism and pacifism. In the ghettos of Kingston, Rastafarianism took on a distinct class bias towards the poor and unemployed youth and developed into the Caribbean's liberation theology.

The overtly political reggae stars — the most prominent being Marley, Peter Tosh, Winston Rodney (aka Burning Spear), and later Jimmy Cliff and, in London's Brixton, Linton Kwesi Johnson — were deeply influenced and radicalised by the victories of the anti-colonial struggles that swept Africa through the 1960s and the anti-apartheid struggles in southern Africa in the 1970s and '80s. The radicalisation was also felt in the Caribbean, culminating in the revolution in Grenada in 1979.

The radical, class conscious, pro-liberation nature of reggae in the 1970s and early '80s was in sync with the mood of the times and led to its sudden popularity throughout the world, especially amongst the world's black populations and young people.

As the political gains that went hand in hand with reggae's rise were quelled by Reaganism (the US invaded Grenada in 1983) and Thatcherism, political reggae's popularity took a tumble. Its next rise must await a similar set of circumstances. Luckily, there are committed artists like Nasio ready to step forward in such a set of events.

Nasio's decision to persist with reggae in the tradition of Marley and Tosh is all the more commendable considering that it is unlikely to turn him into a superstar. His music deserves attention from those fighting to create a better world.