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No Reggae, No Cry

Ziggy Marley is listening to his own muse, even as his father's sound beats on in his heart.

August 24, 1999|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's just another day on the road, another rehearsal, this one on the near-empty set of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in Burbank. The disinterested keyboardist is staring at the ceiling and the backup singers halfheartedly sway to the beat. The image would be that of complete show-biz drudgery, except for the man in the middle of it all.

Ziggy Marley's head is back, his eyes are shut serenely and his face is seemingly lit from within. "It's just a beautiful day," he sings with a grin that makes it difficult to doubt the claim. "It's just a beautiful daaaay."

A short time later, the 30-year-old scion of reggae's most famed family flops down on a threadbare couch in a dressing room. He flashes that smile again and says that, finally, he is learning to find warmth from the spotlight's glare.

"Right now, today, I love making the music," says Marley, whose band will play three nights at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip beginning Thursday. "Last year, I was thinking of leaving the music business and just . . . just going up into the mountains."

Marley says he was at a crossroads last year, frustrated with the pressures and direction of his career as the leader of the Melody Makers, a reggae troupe that includes three of his siblings, Stephen, Cedella and Sharon. And, as always, he was bearing the burden of legend--it's not always easy to be the most recognized son of Bob Marley, the late, great reggae titan and social icon.

So what did the young Marley do? Last fall he bolted to a Los Angeles hotel room for two weeks to--for the first time--write music by himself. The product of those labors would eventually become the new Melody Makers album, "Spirit of Music," a collection that is startling in its un-reggae sound. Pop with tinges of blues and rock alongside acoustic songs? From a Marley?

"When I went back to Jamaica and played the songs for my sisters, they were kind of worried," he says laughing at the memory. " 'How will this play on stage?' they asked me. But then they began to understand and like it."

Outsiders, however, may be less understanding. The Marley family is an active keeper of its patriarch's musical flame, and the Melody Makers have already weathered purist criticism for past projects that were far more in line with reggae traditions.

To Roger Steffans, a recognized reggae authority and longtime Marley family confidant, the new collection is intriguing but also somewhat puzzling.

"In many ways, it's a radical departure; it's almost like an album of folk music," Steffans says. "Really, they have had an almost impossible burden. They must be reverent but at the same time new. . . . With this new album, it's very difficult to know whom it was directed at, but it isn't a reggae audience."

Remaining True, Yet Being Himself

The album features a guest appearance by R&B legend Taj Mahal and was produced by industry veteran Don Was, who has worked with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Garth Brooks. It's telling of the Marley family's tightknit operation that Was is the first outsider to produce any of the Melody Makers' eight albums. More fodder for the critics.

"We were always different--people always said that, and some people don't like that," Marley says. "I don't like doing what's been done. Some will say we are selling out. You can only make music to please yourself, there's nothing else you can do."

The singer says the pressure to please others--or perhaps just the influence of his surroundings--may have subconsciously affected his music-making in the past. His muse has often led in other directions, but in the studio he would force the tunes into a reggae template.

"It had to have thwuck! in it; it had to have that, you know, reggae sound," he says. "In my head, the music sounded one way, but then, when we went to record it, I was putting all of that in. I was reggae-ing it."

None of this is to say the son is turning his back on the father's legacy, he says. Nor should anyone assume that Marley is now like the automatons described in his biggest U.S. hit, "Tomorrow People," unaware of the past and its lessons. Far from it, he says. He was 12 in 1981 when cancer claimed his father, but the elder singer's voice has never faded.

"I don't even need to play the CDs," he says. "I have the music in my head, all the time. My father's music. It's the music I love."

'We Are Our Father, And Our Father Is Us'

The music of Bob Marley is acknowledged on the new Melody Makers album with new versions of "High Tide or Low Tide" and "All Day All Night" featuring vocals by Stephen Marley. Stephen is also the family member guiding an upcoming album featuring "duets" between his father and some of today's hip-hop and R&B stars, such as Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu that were created with old tracks and new studio technology.

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