The following is the fourth part of Owen Thompson’s recall of that unforgettable summer in 1976 which ushered in the West Indies cricket team’s glory years:
From the very first snippets we heard of the Rastaman Vibration album, the Queen’s Royal College Sixth Form, Upper and Lower, launched into fervent debate about those vibes. Seriously, passionately, rabidly. A most sensitive nerve had been touched.
Robert Nesta Marley embodied something of a paradox. He seemed to run counter to what had always been sold to us as essential, educationally and academically valid. We were being called upon to sift and ingest without endangering our health; to apportion him space and weight within the contours of our mental, psychological and emotional make-up.
Our brain cells were also being pressed very hard to come to grips with something so powerful, leagues away from the direct and immediate demands of school and the Cambridge ‘A-level’ syllabus. Indeed, much of it seemed prejudicial to what was academically and educationally recommended.
Marley spoke in terms far removed from linguistic purity—indeed using words and employing syntactical devices that constituted powerful subversion of much of the former.
Listening to Marley, seriously engaging with The Master Rasta, fell into the category of capricious indulgence, harmful to progress, something that could lead to derailment. Allowing Rastaman Vibration to occupy much of our time and mental reserves, even outside of formal school parameters, could engender hazards of which we were made acutely aware by many of those ‘in the know’.
Such indulgence could steer us away from the focus required for the ‘proper’ education we were pursuing at one of the country’s best academic institutions. With his potently vibratious vibrations, Marley shone through to us as something of a peril, quaint and slinky, but certainly present, soulfully tangible.
All of that notwithstanding, very much in the way Viv Richards, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding made us—by their sheer skill, ruthlessness and rapacious energy—stand up and take notice of the birth of a new order, Marley now exerted upon us a similar degree of force. In full adolescent bloom. Within the hallowed 1904 halls of Sixth Form officialdom.
As the Trinidad and Tobago General Elections came and went and we continued to hammer away at ‘A-level’ French and Spanish, at ‘A-level’ History and Geography, at Pure Maths and Applied Maths, at Advanced Maths and Physics, at Chemistry and Biology, at Botany and Zoology, Marley continued to resonate in our mid-teenage souls.
Throughout that Michaelmas Term of 1976, fresh from the triumphs of Viv, Andy, ‘Mikey’, Hasely Crawford and Donald Quarry, we heard more and more about Trinidad’s oil wealth and the travails of the less wealthy Caricom territories.
And we began to study Economics and, inevitably, to ask ourselves what Marley really was talking about in all his extremely charged rhetoric about Babylon, rat races, gun violence, war, crazy baldheads; what the charms of the musical universe he was now bringing to us really synthesised.
I can see more clearly now what a watershed moment 1976 proved to be for us all—personally, societally, culturally and civilisationally.
While our teachers were coming hard at us with French Language and Literature, Spanish Language and Literature, English Literature and General Paper, with British and European History, with the intricacies of the Sciences, (in short, with the full force of the heavy-duty academic artillery at their disposal), we were, no more gently, goading them at every turn with: ‘Play I some music,/dis here reggae music’, with ‘Woman hold her head and cried/because her son had been shot down in the street and died/Just because of the system!’, with ‘Rastaman Vibration, yeah-ah, Positive,/I an’ I iration, yeah-ah, Irie Iites’.
The romantics, revolutionaries and purists in our midst all had a most fruitful Michaelmas term, constantly at intellectual odds with each other over Marley’s poetry. In the classrooms and corridors on the upper floor of the southernmost of Maraval Road’s Magnificent Seven, the debates raged, vigorous, virulent even but never violent.
‘The wages of sin is death/Gift of Jah is life!’ were perhaps the two lines that most engaged us in the course of those boisterous but pithy exchanges. In one corner, the hopeless Marley Romantics, in the other, the unflinching Marley Revolutionaries.
In the midst of it all, Oxford-trained, English-as-English-can-be College vice-principal, Patrick White, often doing his best to mediate, pour oil on troubled West Indian waters or himself make some measure of sense of ‘I-an-I’, ‘Jah have dem in the region/in the valley of decision/Go down, back-biter, go down!’ and other such mellifluous Marleyan metaphors.
It was a daily delight, made all the more delectable if History teacher Rudy Piggott was ever within earshot of the passionate debaters. He would always identify some abstruse link between the Marley-driven polemic before us and Egypt, the Pharaohs, The Fountainhead, George Bailey, Ellie Mannette, Walter Rodney, Frank Worrell or Dr Eric Williams.
What a year that was in between those hallowed early 20th century walls of the Main Building of my beloved QRC!
The memory of Mikey hitting English stumps at the Oval that August, of Crawfie returning to a hero’s welcome and being assured by Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams that money was ‘no problem’ and of the captivating lyricism of The Master Rasta as we battled with the books almost as intensely as we did with the sap of adolescence, comes flooding back now, four and a half decades later, making me even more wistfully aware of what a year of awakening that was for country and civilisation.
The year Marley truly conquered the globe. The year Clive Lloyd’s team gave notice it was going to take on the world on its own terms, conquer it, and go on to rule it for decades. The year the West Indian Nation likely realised it could stand up and be counted when and where it mattered.
That was the key signal to us all, during that year of contumacious senior schoolboy engagement.
At the beginning of it, with our collective tails between our legs, it was all about dealing with the humiliation received in Australia. With the spring months came gradual recovery of self-respect and dignity as WI made it through trial by spin on home soil.
In the summer, the all-conquering tour of England brought unbridled euphoria.
To round off the year, greater understanding of the magisterial musicality of a Jamaican mulatto with dreadlocks speaking of injustice, reparation and idealistic activism.
Twas truly a year of enormous awakening.