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Before you make plans to attend the 1999 Bob Marley Festival, please be informed that Bob Marley will not be performing. In fact, he's not playing anywhere anymore, especially considering he's dead and has been since 1981.

"People ask me all the time when Bob will be playing, and I have to gently explain to them that this is a memorial show," says Sirron Kyles, the festival's executive producer.

Now in its 14th year in the Bayou City, the Bob Marley Festival has grown into a comfortable March tradition. More than 30 reggae and worldbeat bands from around the world and dancers and drummers will play on several stages, and booths will sell food, tapes, crafts and T-shirts.

For the ninth year, Houston is the starting point for the tour, which will wind through 22 United States cities and Europe. The show features acts that travel with the tour and local ones from each city stop. Most admission proceeds and food collected will go to local charities, which in the past have included organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, Trinity Life Center and JASA House. This philanthropy drew the approval of the Marley family. Corporate sponsors and performers' record companies are also footing much of the tour's costs, which will ensure wide exposure for both the products and the bands, which are performing in a genre still considered to be on the fringe. Appropriately, the theme of the festival, taken each year from a Marley song, is "Redemption."

Kyles's first shot at producing the festival on his own came in 1990, after four years of Bob Marley Day celebrations. The event was held at the George R. Brown Convention Center and, according to Kyles, attracted 35,000 people. In recent years, given good weather, Kyles estimates that the crowds have ranged from 65,000 to 100,000 throughout the two days of activity.

Despite its size, the Bob Marley Festival is peaceful and has a good vibe. The police, while clearly in view, keep an unobtrusive distance. "This is a very spiritual event, and the officers are very respectful of that," says Kyles. "I use a lot of the same ones, and they're aware of the crowd."

Of course, this being the Bob Marley Festival, there will be what could delicately be termed "smoking accessories" for sale, though Kyles insists that the few vendors which do sell them have to abide by strict rules. "We don't want to infringe on anyone's right to make money, but we insist that the [smoking accessories] cannot be displayed publicly on the table and can only be sold to people over 18," Kyles says. And remember, Texans, just to avoid an uneasy situation, don't go asking for "bongs," "one-hitters" or "roach clips" -- ask to see "pipes," "smoking accessories" or "tobacco enhancement products." Yes, even free speech has its limitations at a festival.

Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945, in the rural parish of St. Ann, Jamaica, the son of a 19-year-old black village girl and a middle-aged white man. Though the pair married to legitimize the child's birth, Marley's ne'er-do-well father by then already had abandoned his family and would see his son only a handful of times.

Growing up in the slums of the tough Trench Town, Marley became fascinated with the area's "Sound Systems," traveling DJs who came armed with large amplification systems and the latest Jamaican and American R&B music to host dances. These events were often marred by an element of the darker and more violent side of Jamaican culture in the form of area toughs or "rude boys," even though they admired the slight, serene young Marley.

Marley and friends Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston began writing, singing and performing at area shows in the early '60s and formed the Wailers soon after. They became area favorites and cut dozens of singles for local music moguls.

Many of these Wailer singles were danceable, ska-based songs (influenced by Caribbean calypso), which featured lyrics (mostly by Marley) that addressed social and political situations familiar to the band's audience. These "sufferahs," though living in abject poverty with little hope that their lots in life would improve, had strong faith in their race and religion.

Later, bands began to slow the beat down drastically and turn up the drums and bass, creating a new music style dubbed rock steady. But the Wailers tinkered with American soul and rock, along with the soundboard mixings of legendary producer Lee "Scratch" Perry in the studio. And with this the band helped create what was now known as "reggae" music, featuring topical lyrics, a ragged and irresistible but steady rhythm, lilting vocal delivery and emphasis on the upbeat rather than the downbeat.

Bob Marley and the Wailers received the proper bombastic introduction through their first three worldwide releases on Island Records, beginning in 1973 with Catch a Fire, followed by Burnin' and Natty Dread, the latter descriptive of the uncombed, uncut hairstyle sported by the growing band lineup, most of whom had converted to Rastafarianism.

Tosh and Livingston exited the Wailers in '74 for solo careers, perhaps inevitable given the dominance of Marley on every aspect of the group. Further recognition came when Eric Clapton had a worldwide hit that year with Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." But on subsequent Wailer albums such as Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya and Survival, Marley's lyrics and songs became very much more spiritual and positive, expressing his beliefs in unity and One World/One Love of all people. Even after a failed assassination attempt on his life in 1976, Marley continued to stay positive.

Soon Marley was more than just a famous and popular musician. He was a genuine third world prophet using music as his media. He even brought together on stage two bitter enemies of Jamaica's warring political parties during a huge 1978 concert. But toward the late '70s, Marley became haunted by visions and thoughts of the future. When doctors suggested that he have a diseased toe amputated, Marley refused on religious grounds, believing that Jah would provide -- or not. That decision more than likely lead to his developing cancer, which spread to his brain, lungs and liver. He eventually did seek treatment, but the disease was too far advanced, and he died soon after.

Oddly, though, reggae music has come under fire for its inherent elitism from those who wish to keep the music's sound in a very strict parameter. And, as in the blues and jazz, there is an even smaller percentage of African-Americans who support and listen to reggae. For the 1978 Marley show in Houston, Kyles recalls giving away 500 tickets to area blacks, only to see them comprise about 50 in a crowd of 1,500.

But as for the man for whom the festival is named, Marley and his legacy cannot be understated. He opened the ears of much of the Western world to Jamaican and African rhythms and is certainly a father of the modern worldbeat music movement. One cannot think of reggae music without envisioning a picture of him and his wild natty dreads.

"I was deeply affected by his music and his strong message," says Alafia Gaidi, of Houston's worldbeat band D.R.U.M., which will play at the festival. "Bob would not only point out a problem, he would suggest possible solutions. And that made him different from a lot of people who were just pointing fingers."

Roots reggae artist Rastafarian Aswah Greggori, one of the show's headliners, says: "I think this festival is a great thing to promote the music of Bob Marley. It's a very positive thing. I don't like the negative message of a lot of music, but that's not what Bob was about. He said you can overcome problems. I think he was called upon by the most high to give the message."

And the members of the second generation of Marleys are making their musical presence known, most prominently with the family group, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, though they have only recently won full rights to Bob's music. (Seems the legend died without a will and was a bit flexible concerning contracts.)

Singer Joshua Salem of a Gen-X "fresh water" reggae band, Third Coast, who will also perform, notes simply, "[Marley's] impact on me was huge. I would hitchhike to Houston to play the Bob Marley Festival for free."

The 1999 Bob Marley Festival will be held March 13 and 14 from noon to 11 p.m. in Buffalo Bayou Park. Admission is a $5 suggested donation, but, in the spirit of Bob Marley, fans can get in for $5 in nonperishable food items from noon to 4 p.m. For more information on the festival, call (713)688-3773 or visit www.bobmarley-festival.com. For more information on the life and music of Bob Marley, see the exhaustive official site at www.bobmarley.com.


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