Ziggy Marley on MARLEY and the Shaolin Rasta
by Gene Ching
There's a scene in MARLEY, the 2012 documentary on Bob Marley, where you can see a poster of Bruce Lee prominently displayed on the wall of Lee 'Scratch' Perry's studio. It's not surprising to anyone who knows both kung fu and reggae. Perry, who produced Bob Marley and the Wailers in their early years, also produced an influential album titled Kung Fu Meets the Dragon in 1975. There is a unique confluence between the kung fu and reggae that has been bubbling up for some four decades now.
For years, I thought this mutual admiration was something I shared with only a few kung fu brothers. I must confess that my view on reggae is skewed because I love reggae. What's more, I've worked in the music scene since 1987 for an organization called Rock Med and helped establish a parallel org called JAH Med in 1996. Consequently, I've been to a lot of reggae shows, including both Sunsplash and Sumfest in Jamaica.
As a lifelong martial artist, I spot martial arts people everywhere, even in reggae circles. But after I made two passing comments about Bob Marley in my book, Shaolin Trips, other kung fu reggae enthusiasts began contacting me. A grassroots kung fu reggae community has emerged, one that blends Mandarin and, Cantonese with Jamaican patois. Today, the Shaolin Rasta keep in contact via facebook, email and crossing paths at martial arts events. Someone tell Colbie Caillat that Marley and martial arts go together even better than peanuts and paydays.
The Shaolin Rasta is not to be confused with a 'Kung Fu Bob Marley.' Ironically, that's a derogatory slang, used in reference to a particular type of poseur, a fashion dread or faux hippie. It's the type of person typified in the Grammy-award winning Welcome to Jamrock by Bob's youngest son, Damian 'Junior Gong' Marley: "Some boy nuh know dis, them only come around like tourist, on the beach with a few club sodas, bedtime stories, and pose like them name Chuck Norris, and don't know the real hardcore." Marley appreciation isn't limited to kung fu - it's not uncommon to hear Marley's War played as march-in music at full-contact fights, and even around the cages of MMA, any DJ worth his salt will today will drop Jamrock. However, there's a more prominent connection rooted within kung fu. Within the ranks of the Shaolin Rasta are some authentic natty dreads as well as a few Shaolin disciples.
Also ironic, when it comes to the Shaolin Rasta, are the different hairstyles. Rastafarians wear dreadlocks, a religious affectation attributed to Indian sadhus along with terms like chillum and ganga. At Shaolin, the fashion is the opposite, a shaven pate. But the cornerstone connection is the underlying meaning, not the outside appearance. Both are spiritual coiffures, albeit on opposite ends of the spectrum. Hair, like anything else to the spiritually minded, can be an expression of devotion. And while dreadlocks are not very popular with Chinese, there's been a few kung fu dreads. Jet Li dreaded in 2001 for The ONE and Jackie Chan wore dreads, albeit loose ones, in The Forbidden Kingdom. As for baldhead rasta, well, Bob did sing 'Crazy Baldheads' but that was directed to racist skinheads, not Buddhist monks. Tragically, as explained in unflinching detail in MARLEY, Bob lost his dreads in the end from his battle with cancer.
However, the Shaolin Rasta isn't about hairdos. It's about reggae and kung fu. When most people think about music and kung fu, they don't make the reggae connection. Kung fu musical crossovers are more prominent in other genres. In 1974, Carl Douglas cursed us with his inescapable funky disco chart topper Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting and now it's impossible to reference kung fu in pop culture without citing that song. The following year, Douglas tried to follow it up with Dance the Kung Fu, which thankfully vanished into obscurity quickly. In 90s, RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan created an influential hip hop homage to kung fu that is still going strong. We're eagerly anticipating RZA's payback, as he's now directing a kung fu movie called MAN WITH THE IRON FIST. And Tan Dun has scored so many kung fu films, including his Academy Award winning soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that he presented a special series of traditional concertos for cello, violin and piano titled appropriately The Martial Trilogy last year.
Reggae has offered up several kung fu tributes as well beyond the aforementioned work of Scratch. Just this April, Stereo Kyng Records made its debut with the Shaolin riddem. There already is a Shaolin Temple riddem, produced by Drop Di Bass Ent., in 2007. A riddem is the rhythm and base line in reggae dancehall music over which singers will chant or 'toast'. This style of music is often credited as the progenitor of rap. There's also a characteristic patois pun in the slang. Such patois word play is common. Beyond being a patois version of rhythm, riddem can be understood as a contraction of 'rid them' implying getting rid of the oppressors.
This underlying fight against oppression is one of the many aspects of Marley's music that resonates with kung fu. So many classic kung fu films center on the resistance of the Shaolin underground against the tyranny of the Manchus. The title of Bob Marley's 86 album, Rebel Music, says it all, but what most don't realize is that Marley's music actually inspired revolution. In MARLEY, rare footage and interviews discuss Bob's involvement with the revolution in Zimbabwe. His song Zimbabwe was the anthem of their rebellion and he played a historic victory concert in Zimbabwe celebrating their Independence Day that ended in disaster. There's so much about Bob that most people don't know - how he took a bullet in a political war and how he risked his life uniting those warring factions in a concert later. Reporters at the time just didn't understand him back then. Many still don't.
The media often views Bob Marley with the same iconic spotlight as Bruce Lee. They were both maverick pioneers from the seventies, prevailing minority figures who were both pop stars and underground leaders. Both were innovators, guided by unique philosophies, and reshaped the world with their influence. Both have had statues erected in their honor in Serbia of all places. You can go almost anywhere in the world - Africa, India, South America, Asia - and you'll find images of Bob and Bruce. And they both died tragically young, only in their thirties, while at the top of their game. Arguably, they were both still rising when died, and it staggers the imagination to ponder what they might have become if they had lived longer.
Today, over three decades since they died, they are still as relevant as ever. Both Bruce and Bob have new documentaries this year. These films are the only two biographical documentaries released theatrically this year so far as biographies are uncommon fare in theaters nowadays. I AM BRUCE LEE was released in special screenings in January. It featured interviews from several noted celebrities, many of whom had never even met Bruce. MARLEY goes the other direction. It interviews the people who were close to him - his family, his friends and his associates - revealing a penetrating look at the man behind the myth. Bunny Wailer, the lone surviving member of the original Wailers threesome, is Associate Producer. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, and Ziggy Marley, Bob's oldest son are both executive producers. Director Kevin Macdonald went in with a conventional approach saying, "A problem with a lot of the big stars - in particular Bob because he's almost got this image of a prophet - is that people forget to ask the personal questions - what was his family like? His father? Why was he like he was? Why was he so driven?"
Marley's life was inspirational, so if you don't know his story, this documentary is an excellent introduction. And if you do know his story, MARLEY contains several choice tidbits of rare footage (Marley and Stevie Wonder!) and some great interviews. It has a sense of humor that is very Rasta. MARLEY engages all the high points, and also the dark side - his illness, his womanizing, and some rough perspectives on him as a father from Ziggy and his daughter Cedella. Nine Mile, Trenchtown, 56 Hope Road, all places I've visited on Rasta pilgrimages, are captured well. Jamaica has two sides, that tourist version for the Kung Fu Bob Marleys which lies in deluxe hotels behind razor wire, and Trenchtown, one of the roughest ghettos in the world. Macdonald takes the audience deep into Trenchtown to show Bob's hardcore roots.
I caught up with Ziggy Marley just before the premiere of MARLEY on 4/20.
GC: Did you know that there's a huge following of martial artists that are into reggae?
Ziggy: We are huge fans of martial arts as my father is a huge fan of martial arts. And so am I.
GC: Really? Was there a lot of martial arts in Jamaica when your father was alive?
Ziggy: We had a lot of martial arts movies in Jamaica, yeah. All those Shaolin, all of dem kinda movie. There was lots of kung fu and snake fist and eagle claw and tiger claw. (makes kung fu gestures and laughs) My father was a physical fitness man, yah nuh, so karate and dem ting and boxing, yah, get into martial arts. We grew up 'round that.
GC: But he never really trained formally.
Ziggy: Not school. No, no.
GC: They say he was a street fighter. Was that true?
Ziggy: Well, him had a side kick and a front kick. (laughs)
GC: Growing up in Trenchtown, I'm sure was rough.
Ziggy: Yea, you have to know something.
GC: There's an international group of fans now called the Shaolin Rasta.
Ziggy: Yea? True? I'll check it out. Love that.
GC: Why might you think your father resonates so strongly with martial artists?
Ziggy: I don't know. I never thought about it. Let me think about. Well, martial artists are human beings, right?
GC: Sure, we like to think of ourselves as such.
Ziggy: (laughs) So it's that thing, that connective thing. Martial artists, whatever you are, this music is going to have some connection because it's spiritual. Martial arts have a spiritual thing in it too, yah nuh what I seh? I think it's that qi. Qi energy. Music have that qi in it, yah nuh. Reggae music have that qi energy, that spiritual element. A lot of other music don't put out. But we put that out up front.
GC: Your father's music has some of the greatest songs of peace, love and unity, but also some of the greatest battle songs, songs of war and rebellion. How is that reconciled?
Ziggy: Reconcile it with truth and rights, yah nuh what I seh? Love is the foundation, but we have to have what is true and we have to have what is right. And justice. Yah nuh, fair, everything balance out. Yin yang , yah nuh what I seh? So everything have a balance. There's no such thing as just love without having some justice and human rights and all these things. There has to be a balance.
GC: Did you ever practice martial arts? You seem to know a lot about it.
Ziggy: (laughs) Sometimes. No, we are enthusiasts. Martial arts enthusiasts.
GC: Is there much of a martial arts scene in Jamaica today?
Ziggy: We have some taekwondo schools. There used to be one right down the road where I used to live. But you know, Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is like my father. We love Bruce Lee. We LOVE Bruce Lee. He remind me - the same kind of aura as my father - in martial arts as my father is in music.
GC: They are often compared.
Ziggy: Yea. So we find a connection there - find a real strong connection. I don't know why Bruce was so special, yah nuh what I seh? There's something. My father loved Bruce Lee. He loved Bruce Lee because Bruce was into that element of martial arts that goes beyond the walls. Be the one thing, but uniting all things, yah nuh what I mean I seh? It's the same with Bob's music. It goes beyond just being in this one likkle space. It breaks down the walls. It's a uniting force.
GC: They were contemporaries, but I never heard that they ever met.
Ziggy: Yea, I don't think he met him, but...
GC: He saw his movies.
Ziggy: Yea mon! Bruce was big with him, especially fitness. Fitness was a big deal. That's where we really love martial arts, because of the fitness element. We all live up to be fit. Bob always loved to be fit. I learned to be fit, so we loved doing those practices that make us fit, yah nuh?
GC: In MARLEY, you share how competitive your father was.
Ziggy: Oh yea, seen? (laughs) As a father, he not giving an inch, yah know? Not giving an inch.
GC: That must have been tough on you.
Ziggy: Nah, really, I mean, this is what we knew. We never knew anything different than that. This is our father. I mean he grew up in a tough setting, and I think he wanted us to be tough too, because if he's playing soccer... his friends tell me this story. The ball hit me and I'm crying. He doesn't want me to cry. He wants me to be tough. I think that's what he was trying to do, you know? Be tough and realistic about this thing. It's not a crybaby thing. You have to be tough, yah nuh?
GC: Maybe that's what resonates with us martial artists so much.
Ziggy: Yea, alright. Because Bob's name was Tuff Gong. Gong, you know the gong, right? The gong. And he was militant. His stature, even his movements on stage, you had to have real good footwork to be moving like Bob moved, yah nuh what I seh? You didn't have good footwork, you couldn't be doing all of dem type of spinning and all that. And balance. In soccer too, yah nuh? So all of dem ting, they connected in some way.
GC: Shaolin soccer!
Ziggy: Yea! (laughs) Yea.
GC: You know there's actually a school at Shaolin Temple that teaches soccer now.
Ziggy: That teaches soccer now? Oh my. (laughs)
GC: What goes around comes around.
Ziggy: That's great. That's great.
GC: So there's a lot of kung fu influences in reggae now. Of course, there's Scratch's Kung Fu Meets the Dragon.
Ziggy: Yea, yea.
GC: I just heard a new riddem called 'Shaolin'.
Ziggy: Oh yea? I haven't hear that. Well, there's Kung Fu Fighting.
GC: But that wasn't reggae.
Ziggy: But that was done by a Jamaican. That was Jamaican.
GC: Carl Douglas was Jamaican? How did I miss that?
Ziggy: Yea! As far I as know. Yea, yea.
GC: Well, we're kind of cursed by that song actually. We can't get rid of it.
Ziggy: Yea? (laughs)
GC: We're waiting for a new reggae kung fu anthem.
Ziggy: Now that we talk, it's going to come. Now that I know, it's going to come. It's going to come! (laughs)
GC: That sounds great! Don't keep me waiting in vain. What do you think the take home message of MARLEY might be?
Ziggy: I don't think that there's one specific message of the movie. I think what we're trying to do is, as Bruce seh, 'emotional content', yah nuh? You have to have emotional content! That's what the movie is. The movie strives to bring emotional content to the people that love Bob. Not just idolize him as an icon or see him as whatever, but bring you emotionally connected to Bob, by showing the full spectrum of his life, everything he's been through from the early days of being ridiculed because he was of mixed race and moving from the country. He was of mixed race and he was a country boy, living in the city, which at the time, he was different. A lot of the times, when you come to the city, a country boy, they don't respect you. They think 'Oh you're from the country', yah nuh? In society basically, if you're from the country, city folks, they can think you're kind of backwards so he had to face that and he had to face being the only mixed race person in his neighborhood, which also give him some ridicule. And to the latter days when he was sick, even when he was ill, he still, as the nurse tells in the movie, he still was the person he always was. He never changed. Nothing ever changed him. Nothing ever changed him from being who he was. Whether moving to the town, or being ill, it never changed him. So the message is: This is Bob. This is Bob. This is Bob, your brother. This is Bob, your family. We want people to feel as close to Bob as we do by this movie because this is his family telling the story, godfamily, and all the good friends that he had, yah nuh?
GC: Well, I'm requiring all Shaolin Rasta to watch MARLEY or they are kicked out of the club.
Ziggy: (laughs) Thank you very much.
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