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A Thumb Up to a Great Album



Sunday, July 8, 2007.



By Mtume ya Salaam


Is Survival Bob Marley’s best album? I’d probably have to say yes. The only album that I sometimes think of as better is 1974’s Natty Dread. I think it says a lot about Bob’s consistency that his two best albums are separated by six years and probably six or seven other albums.


What makes Survival so good? Kalamu did a good job of sketching out the socio-political importance of the album and I agree with all that he said. But what about the music? On Survival, Bob displayed a new-found density in his sound. By which I mean the music sounds sturdy, hard and unbreakable.


As Kalamu mentioned, Survival came on the heels of Kaya, an album that was probably the softest of Bob’s career. Kaya sounds like an album that a man records when he knows the end is near. It sounds like the wistful humming you might hear from an old musician who knows the glory days are behind him.


If Kaya is a pretty whisper, Survival is a thunderous roar. Even the slower, softer songs are hard. "Babylon System," the song Kalamu is featuring, is a good example. The groove is smooth and mellow. There are nature sounds in the background. It’s a pretty record. But listen to what the man is saying! "Babylon system is the vampire / Sucking the blood of the sufferers / Tell the children the truth / Tell the children the truth right now!"


Did you all know that the original title of the Survival album was Black Survival?


It was. Bob decided to change it because he didn’t want people misunderstanding his point and thinking he was advocating that others not survive. That wasn’t Bob’s point. His point was that the continent of Africa (as well as Pan-Africans everywhere) was under attack and was being destroyed. He was advocating the unity and survival of Black people in Africa and all over the world. That was the meaning of the slave ship and the African flags on the cover. Black survival.


I’ve always been amazed by how many people listen to Bob Marley’s songs without actually listening to his songs. Some folks I know like to listen to a Classic Rock station while we’re on the dock. Every night, the station plays a highly political Bob Marley song back-to-back with a hit record by Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles or somebody. I’m not knocking either Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles—honestly, "Dreams" is the shit—I’m just saying though.


Anyway, the point is, I have never heard that station play a song from Survival and I know I never will. Reason is, Survival made it impossible to listen to Bob Marley without paying attention to what he was saying. There’s something about the tightness of Bob’s focus on this album, something about how relentless he was both musically (there are no ballads) and lyrically (there’s not a single love song) that makes you know you’re listening to some heavyweight political shit.


It was as if Bob had a sudden shift in personality. On "Running Away," a song from Kaya, Bob uses a gentle, metaphorical and self-reflective tone to address the attempt on his life and his subsequent self-imposed exile from Jamaica. Maybe "Running Away" had nothing to do with Bob himself, but given that he had in fact just "run away" from his homeland, it’s hard to see it any other way.


Near the end of the song, Bob is singing so quietly that I imagine he must’ve had his mouth pressed right up against the microphone screen. "Got to protect my life," he sings. "And I don’t want to live with no strife. … I made my decision and I left you. And now you come to tell me that I’m running away. But it’s not true."


One year later, on Survival, Bob revisited the subject on both the title track and more pointedly on "Ambush In The Night." This time, there were no metaphors. The chorus of "Ambush" goes:

Ambush in the night
All guns aiming at me
Ambush in the night
They opened fire on me now
Ambush in the night
Protected by His Majesty


And on "Survival," Bob dropped one of the great double-entendres of his career when he sang: "Some people got the plots and the schemes / Some people got no aim, it seems." In both songs, Bob was striking a defiant, fighting stance. He wasn’t talking about "running" anywhere. He was back in Jamaica (literally and metaphorically), ready to face his enemies.

One last thing and I’ll bring this piece to a close. Kalamu can say whatever he wants about it, but I love the Kaya album. "Easy Skanking," "She’s Gone," "Is This Love," the mystical "Time Will Tell." There’s "Satisfy My Soul," with that wonderful line where Bob says his girl makes him "feel like a sweepstakes winner." "Misty Morning" is another great record.


Hell, there really are no highlights because the whole album is on point. I guess I feel the say way about Kaya as I feel about Charlie Hunter’s Natty Dread. Maybe it’s softer than the ‘real’ thing. Maybe it’s simpler. And maybe I don’t care. It’s great music and I love it.


Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.


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