Features October 11, 2023
Stephen Marley: Old Soul and Bob Marley: Africa Unite

Bob Marley is an enduring icon of popular music. But even icons need refreshing from time to time, and two recent releases add depth and luster to the ongoing Marley legacy. Stephen Marley, the second eldest son of Bob and Rita, has had a spectacular career in the decades since his father’s death, garnering eight Grammy Awards, three for his solo projects. His latest release, Old Soul, is a beguiling set of spare, acoustic interpretations of classic songs and tuneful, sensitive originals bringing in an assortment of collaborators from Buju Banton to Bob Weir

Meanwhile, Bob Marley gets a powerful shoutout from the African genre currently dominating global popular culture, as reggae once did: Afrobeats. Bob Marley’s Africa Unite, from Island Records, features reworkings of Wailers tracks in the aesthetic of 21st century African pop, with singers like Nigerian diva Tiwa Savage and Ghanaian dancehall star Stonebwoy evoking and accompanying Bob in new ways.

As a producer, Stephen Marley has ranged from hip-hop and rock to mainstream pop, but the style is more like reggae-infused acoustic rock here. Hand drums and strummed acoustic guitars are mainstays in the music, giving Marley’s voice center stage. He inherits his father’s gift for inhabiting a melody, giving it his all, whether cooing or, as it were, wailing. Among those vocal colors are some that are heart-stoppingly reminiscent of Bob. This is a deeply personal album, showcased in the soulfully autobiographical title song. Four other songwriters share the credit with Marley on “Old Soul,” and they’ve done their job well. The refrain. “I’m an old soul, living in the body of a nine-year-old” punches straight to the heart. Marley’s tribute to “the ones who made it all possible” is sweet and strong, perhaps the most affecting song I’ve heard this year.

The album is a mix of originals and covers, and not covers you’d expect. “There’s a Reward” is Joe Higgs number rendered here with Stephen’s older brother Ziggy, his long-ago bandmate in The Melody Makers. “Thanks We Get (Do Fi Dem)” is a Junior Byles/Lee Perry cover, rendered as buoyant acoustic reggae with Buju Banton tossing in some scratchy toasting. There’s a beautiful rock-steady cover of The Beatles' “Don’t Let Me Down,” appropriately aching but delightfully leavened by the new beat. Marley follows that with a swinging take on “Georgia On My Mind,” and later, we get “These Foolish Things” evoking the Tin Pan Alley influence that sometimes crept into Bob’s songs. In every case, the instrumentation is light and airy, letting the vocals seal the deal with confidence and style.

A rearrangement of “I Shot the Sheriff” is the only Bob cover here. In a brilliant touch, the track features tasty guitar riffs from none other than Eric Clapton, the man who popularized this song with his 1974 cover, fueling the rise of Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Coming to originals, the album opener “Don’t You Believe,” co-written with Mark Myrie, builds around a catchy, querulous three-note vocal hook. “Cast the First Stone” is a ballad co-composed with Stephen’s half-brother Damian “Jr Gong” Marley. Stephen’s “Cool as a Breeze” is a shuffling love song of sorts that hints at the niyabinghi drumming style of Wailer’s songs like “Hallelujah Time.” That rootsy vibe is even stronger on “Let The Children Play,” by Glenroy Smith. This feels like an album that will last, evoking nostalgia and reflection in surprising ways, without ever veering into sentimentality.

Africa Unite was probably inevitable. In the decade-plus that Afrobeats has been on the rise worldwide, outreach and collaboration with established genres, mostly hip-hop and R&B, have been key to the success formula. One thing Afrobeats shares with Stephen Marley’s approach is a dedication to a spare soundscape, though here it is mostly drum- and keyboard-oriented. This collection could never have happened without Island’s participation, as it seems artists have been given access to the original Bob tracks to use, discard, accompany and substitute at will.

The opener, “So Much Trouble in the World,” is not in fact Afrobeats, but Zimbabwe’s Zim-dancehall style, in the hands of genre stars Winky D and Nutty O. The two singers take turns toasting, singing and harmonizing with Bob. This intermingling might be jarring to some, but it gives this timeless lament a welcome freshness. Nigerian sensation Rema gets together with Bob and Rita’s grandson Skip Marley to reimagine “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” as a psychedelic dancehall number, laced with ambient voices in turmoil. Third up is “Redemption Song” lifted to a slinky dance reggae feel with the smokey voice of South African singer Ami Faku interweaving vocals in English and what sounds to me like Xhosa.

I appreciate the fact that the set starts with three of Bob’s most hard-hitting numbers. But this being largely an Afrobeats project, new takes on the singer’s lighter fare were sure to follow. No shade on that, though. Tiwa Savage owns “Waiting in Vain” with sexy swagger, backed by brassy interventions and a slip-sliding electric guitar solo. British DJ and singer/songwriter Afro B easily morphs “Turn Your Lights Down Low” into the Afrobeats groove with its ubiquitous 2/3 clave. Teni and Oxlade—from the so-called “alte” side of the Nigerian scene—take on “Three Little Birds,” keeping to the original reggae feel, but adding lots of cheery, seductive vocals to the mix.

To me, the standout track is Stonebwoy’s brassy take on “Buffalo Soldier.” Stonebwoy’s added words hit home. “Buffalo Soldier, we gotta make another plan.” Hard to know whether the prominent brass in this arrangement was added or rescued from the original version’s cutting room floor, but it lends this version welcome muscle and sass. Ghana’s fastest rapper Sarkodie lulls us into an airy, easy vibe on “Stir it Up” before unleashing his signature spitfire flow. We wrap up with more Nigerians, Ayra Starr’s take on “Jamming” and Patoranking’s “One Love.”

Time will tell whether this collection winds up a novelty or a landmark, but it’s certainly a noteworthy handshake through time between two earth-shaking musical movements from the African diaspora.

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