World News

Remembering the Bush Doctor

12 September 2017 at 20:00 | 3161 views

By Dr. Zubairu Wai, Canada.

Remembering the Bush Doctor
‘It’s words, sound and power that break down the barriers of oppression and drive away transgression and rule equality among humble black people.’
—Peter Tosh, 19 October 1944 - September 11, 1987!

In its guide to Peter Tosh’s music, Rolling Stone magazine says the following: ‘For each of the Rastamen who made up reggae’s holy trinity – Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh – music was The Message. All three sang for ‘equal rights and justice,’ as defined by the Jamaican-bred blend of Marcus Garvey’s worldview and Old Testament fire and brimstone known as Rastafari. But Tosh, a.k.a. reggae’s Stepping Razor, came the hardest. Once the world heard ‘The Bush Doctor,’ Jamaica transformed from a vacation paradise for the wealthy into a Mecca for the disenfranchised. His urgent baritone voice bore a threat of danger, sharpening Bunny’s and Bob’s sufferahs’ dreams and Rastafarian complaints into lessons for heathens and militant demands aimed at ‘downpressors’” [Rolling Stone Album Guide 2004].

Born Winston Hubert McIntosh in Westmoreland, Jamaica, on 19 October 1944, Tosh made his way to Kingston at age fifteen, where he met Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) in Trench Town. Together, they formed what, after many mutations, would become The Wailers, a vocal trio, of politically charged and Rastafarian inflected revolutionary band concerned with the human condition, especially poor and racialized people not only in Jamaica but all over the world. After having moved through several producers, the band signed a recording contract with Chris Blackwell and Island Records and released their first international album, Catch a Fire in 1973. This was followed by Burnin’, with the iconic Get Up, Stand Up, later that same year. On the cusp of international breakthrough, the band broke up, and each pursued their individual solo careers as major artists in their own right. At this point, The Wailers band should have been disbanded with the departure of Bunny and Peter since it was a vocal trio with three equal members.

However, Bob, on the bidding of Chris Blackwell (whom Tosh unflatteringly referred to as Whiteworst, since he was neither black nor did he mean well) kept The Wailers as the name for his backing band, and this became a source of discord between him and especially Peter. John Masouri, Peter Tosh’s biographer puts it this way: ‘You have the situation where Bob Marley calls his backing band The Wailers. It was an outrageous thing to do—as if Mick Jagger had formed a new band, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Peter and Bunny both blamed Bob because he agreed to it. To them, Bob betrayed them.’ The significance of this, in part, is that by keeping the name The Wailers, Bob Marley would get to claim credit for everything they created together as a trio. For example, Catch a Fire would later be re-issued not as a record by The Wailers, as it had originally been released, but under Bob Marley and the Wailers. To this day, those unfamiliar with the history of The Wailers believe that it was Bob Marley’s band, and give him credit for everything they created together. People even credit Bob Marley for some of Tosh’s own compositions: 400 Years, Stop that Train, Get Up, Stand Up or even Legalise It, which was a post-Wailers release by Tosh.

Tosh’s number one cause after leaving The Wailers, was the legalization of marijuana. This for him was not merely a Rastafarian sacrament (or a religious rights) issue, but a political and human rights issue. As he explained in his famous speech at the One Love concert, the under-privileged, the poor and sufferers in the ghetto are hassled and brutalised by the police and thrown in prison ‘for a likkle draw of herb.’ Legalising marijuana would over-turn the colonial imperialistic shituation and its draconian drug laws used to victimise the poor and ‘to keep the under-privileged under-privileged.’ Legalising marijuana thus is a decolonial move and an act of self determination that would allow Jamaica to free itself from the shackles of its colonial past and use its natural God-given resource which would help, as he explained in the song, Bush Doctor, to not only ‘rebuild its failing economy’, but more importantly restore the rights of the people: ‘there’ll be no more police brutality/ No more disrespect for humanity.’ His debut album as a solo artist was therefore aptly labelled ‘Legalise It’. Released in 1976 to much critical acclaim, it won Tosh international recognition, and with the release of ‘Equal Rights’ the following year, solidified his reputation as a take no-prisoner revolutionary figure, ‘a Malcolm X or Che Guevara with a band,’ as reggae historian Roger Steffens once described him.

These two major themes, legalisation of marijuana and equal rights for the sufferes in the ghetto, formed, together with the celebration of Jah Rastafari and Pan-Africanism among others the political and ethical themes that Tosh pursued in his compositions and albums, even while being at the forefront of the development of reggae music. Indeed, Tosh was always at the cutting edge of some of the most important innovations in reggae music; for example, he incorporated the wah-wah sound in reggae rhythm, (listen to his set during the One Love concert), the use of two lead guitars (heard on the live version of Rastafari Is on Captured Live performed and recorded at the Greek Theatre in 1983), and the choppy rhythmic sound accenting the immediacy of the feel of the music (listen to his solo version of Get Up Stand Up on the Equal Rights album), while allowing other budding musicians to horn their skills and experiment with the music. With a cracking backing band called Word, Sound and Power, the rhythm section of which was initially controlled by the legendary Sly and Robbie (who made their musical bones while playing with Tosh), later replaced by Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis (on drums) and George ‘Fully’ Fullwood (on bass), Tosh ‘came in hot’, spreading his uncompromising political message of revolution, legalization of marijuana, Jah Rastafari, black liberation, human dignity and equal rights while levelling his most scathing attack on the shitstem and downpressors of the world.

It is unfair to compare Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, for each is a legendary and gifted artist in his own right. I however have always preferred Tosh’s uncompromising, direct and take-no-prisoner style to the others. In The Wailers, he was the political conscience of the band, as Bunny was the embodiment of its spiritualism and Bob its rock star and showman (Indeed they all shared these qualities, but edged each other out slightly in the elements highlight). Since they cut their teeth on the same musical cloth, the songs of Bob, Bunny and Peter, the themes they sang about, the political causes they championed, and the metaphors they used, are all very similar. Compare for example, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds to Tosh’s Pick Myself Up; or Bob’s Africa Unite to Tosh’s Not Gonna Give It Up; or Who the Cap Fit to That’s What They Will Do, or Bob’s Iron, Lion, Zion with Tosh’s Zion and so forth. The similarities in terms of themes and metaphors are staggering. However, the differences between them couldn’t also be more stark: Bob is mostly optimistic and upbeat and sings in generalities that at times tend to hide his intentions in metaphors, which means that he could be interpreted in multiple, even contradictory ways, and appropriated to suit multiple agendas, even those he disapproved of, and this is partially the reason for his commercial success and mainstream appeal; Tosh on the other hand, eschewed such generalities, settling instead for a very direct and poignant political style that is compelling, difficult to appropriate, misinterpret or escape. As well, he had a somewhat pessimistic view of the world, precisely why he advocated revolution to overturn it. As the complete and consummate musician—he was not just a lyricist but a multiple instrumentalist who taught both Bob and Bunny how to play the guitar—his songs tend to be sometimes over-produced, which combined with his uncompromising and direct style—the political message in his songs could be overwhelming for some (take Equal Rights for example, in which he signs: ‘I don’t want no peace, I need Equal rights and justice; or ‘everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die’; or ‘everybody is talking about crime, but tell me who are the criminals’ and so forth)—tended to limit his commercial appeal.

But this is precisely why I prefer Tosh’s style, for in the cause of anti-oppression and the struggle for justice, clarity of purpose should be paramount, and equivocality should be damned. Tosh never minced his words, neither did he hide his true feelings to make anybody feel comfortable. He called things as he saw them, and did not care who it offended. For him, some things were more important than money, and as such he did not really care about the financial consequences of his actions or utterances. As he once said ‘I am not here to give praise to material things or unto the gods of material things.’ He had a moral integrity that was unimpeachable and always lived by the injunctions of his ethical, political and ideological beliefs and choices, which always came at great cost. This was what Michael Manley, former Prime Minister of Jamaica, respected about Tosh. As he once said in praise of Tosh, ‘there is a moral integrity to Tosh’s anger’, for no amount of success could change him.

Guided by his Rastafarian belief, Tosh’s wardrobe, his lifestyle, his views of reality or political message never really changed. He was frugal and generous, witty and funny, outspoken and fearless. His play on words is remarkable: grudge for judge; crime minister for prime minister; damager for manager; shitty for city; fry-in-the-end for friend and so forth. He was brutalised on several occasions by the Jamaican policy for speaking out against police brutality, and was even badly beaten to within an inch of his life, six months after his incendiary speech at the One Love Concert. And those scars, he wore proudly as a badge of honour. He fought with his recording company to stop the distribution of his music in apartheid South Africa, though without his reaching South Africa, we would never have had had the emergence of Lucky Dube as an international reggae star; Dube credited Tosh for inspiring his own career—as an aside, the physical resemblance between Luck Dube and Peter Tosh is staggering: he looked like Tosh, sang like him; and even departed this world in a similar fashion as Tosh: Tosh was murdered during a home invasion, Dube was murdered during a carjacking; both were about 43—and once cancelled a concert in Israel to protest both the treatment of Palestinians as well as Israel’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Peter Tosh died with the intensity with which he lived. His life was cowardly cut short in a hail of assassins’ bullets during a home invasion on this day 29 years ago on September 11, 1987, about a month before his 43rd birthday. The official version of events is that a three-man gang, led by a certain Dennis ‘Leppo’ Lobban, a man Tosh had befriended and helped after a long jail sentence, came to his home to demand money. In the ensuing confusion, Tosh and two others, including DJ Jeff ‘Free I’ Dixon, were killed, while three others, including Tosh’s partner Marlene Brown and drummer Santa Davis were wounded. Unofficial versions however blame the political establishment for putting a hit on him, as he was becoming more difficult to control. Whatever the version, this was one of the most senseless assassinations in Jamaica’s history, and it deprived the world a musical genius and an uncompromising champion of the rights and dignity of the sufferahs and downpressed of the world. He was a towering figure in life and has remained so even in death. He must be turning in his grave as his dream and prophecy about the legalization of marijuana (foretold in Nah Goa Jail) is becoming a reality around the world, and as the political establishment in Jamaica embraces his legacy! Tosh was posthumously awarded Jamaica’s third highest honour the Order of Merit, in 2012. A museum, the Peter Tosh museum was recently opened in his honour.

Peter Tosh lives!