Frank Gava lights one up with brother Bobster. Respect.
At the birth of Zimbabwe in April 1980 I was a cub reporter on the country’s main newspaper, The Herald, and assigned to trail and learn from a grizzled veteran journalist who had forgotten more than I knew about anything.
Rhodesia, as it was then known, had in 1965 declared unilateral independence from Britain — the only other country to do so was the United States in 1776 — but was struggling to survive because of the dual effects of a Communist-backed insurgency and crippling international sanctions.
When the white-minority government finally saw the writing on the wall, suffrage for the black population was allowed, elections were held and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party won an overwhelming victory. In the months that followed, the country once again became a British colony, and Westminster was scheduled to formally grant independence on April 17 at a massive ceremony at the National Stadium attended by Prince Charles.
The early draft of the ceremony looked pompous and dire: Colonial bigwigs, judges in their robes, soldiers in dress kit and school children singing hymns, but two local businessmen decided to liven up proceedings by trying to get one of the world’s most popular bands to attend — Bob Marley and the Wailers.
The pair had no budget, no access to the equipment and technical expertise needed to stage such a massive outdoor concert and very little hope of succeeding, but they flew to Jamaica anyway to approach the reggae king, figuring that given he had recorded a hit song called “Zimbabwe” about the country’s independence struggle, they might get a sympathetic hearing.
They were right. Not only did Marley agree to perform, he offered to pay for the entire production, renting and flying in equipment from Europe and buying tickets for the vast crew required to stage the concert.
Marley enjoyed a special place in Zimbabwe’s musical canon. Race was so etched into the country’s woodwork that radio stations had two sets of pop charts — one for “black” music — mostly by local artists — and the other, by foreigners, for the whites. Reggae, however, straddled both and was popular among all races.
At midnight on April 16, Prince Charles lowered the old Rhodesian flag and Mugabe raised Zimbabwe’s new pennant, and Marley began to perform. There was immediate chaos.
Thousands of ordinary people who had not been able to gain access to the stadium suddenly surged through the gates, overwhelming authorities and flooding into areas reserved for foreign dignitaries. The police reacted ham-fistedly, firing tear gas and sending VIPs scurrying for the exits.
The band was forced to leave the stage after only one song, but when order was restored they returned to perform four more, ending their set with a rousing performance of “Zimbabwe” that had the entire crowd joining in.
The next day, I accompanied my mentor to interview Marley. As a long-time fan I could scarcely conceal my excitement, but my much older colleague treated the assignment like a chore. He cared little for music in general and reggae in particular.
Marley was smaller and appeared more frail in the flesh than I would have imagined, but the world wasn’t to know at that stage that he had less than a year to live. Cancer was consuming him.
We all shook hands and sat down, and my colleague asked the first question.
“Mr Marley,” he asked somewhat formally, “how significant is being here on this occasion to you?”
Marley held up his hand to hush him and replied:
“First we need to smoke.”
An aid produced one of the biggest spliffs I have ever seen and Marley proceeded to puff furiously on it before passing it to me. I looked nervously at my colleague. He would certainly disapprove, but I couldn’t catch his eye, so I took a puff. And another. And one more.
I then I began coughing. Deep hacking coughs that I couldn’t control, my eyes watering.
Marley started laughing and gestured for the spliff to be given back to him before passing it to my colleague, who demurred.
“Brother,” said Marley. “If you don’t do the herb, you don’t get any words,” and held it out again.
This time my colleague accepted, but like me he immediately broke into a paroxysm of coughing.
Marley cracked up and called to his wife, Rita, who was also in the room.
“Baby, check out these white boys … they don’t know anything about the herb.”
I recall little else about the interview. Before every question, he’d arch his eyebrow and proffer the joint. If we demurred, he’d shake his head and refuse to speak until we took a puff. By the end of it I was stoned out of my mind — as was my colleague.
About half an hour later the interview was over and we headed back to the office. An attack of the munchies forced us to stop for a burger and as we sat eating my colleague looked at me with glazed eyes and spoke.
“You better not tell a soul about this.”
But then again, how could I not? Jah Rastafari. I smoked weed with Bob Marley.