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Can Marley’s music melt away tensions?

Many Ethiopians view Rastafarians with suspicion
/ Source: The Associated Press

Throughout his life, Bob Marley looked to Ethiopia as the spiritual home of his Rastafarian faith.

But as Ethiopia welcomes hundreds of thousands of revelers for a month of festivities starting Tuesday in honor of the Jamaican reggae legend, many here view Rastafarians — some of whom settled in Ethiopia because they could worship the nation’s last emperor — with deep suspicion.

At best, the tiny Rastafarian community is tolerated as an oddity in the deeply traditional and overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian country on the Horn of Africa. At worst, they are accused of spreading drugs and crime — claims they dismiss as springing from prejudice.

Organizers of this month’s celebrations hope music will melt away tensions.

Marley’s widow, Rita, together with the African Union and UNICEF, is organizing the $1 million extravaganza, dubbed “Africa Unite,” in honor of one of his most famous songs.

The festivities began Tuesday with a show in the capital, Addis Ababa. Cedella Marley Booker, the late singer’s elderly mother, sang a tune that she described as a “song for the children of Ethiopia.” Drummers from the small central African nation of Burundi performed on massive cowhide drums.

The highlight is Ethiopia’s largest-ever concert on Marley’s birthday — Feb. 6 — in the capital, Addis Ababa.

“I have dreamed about doing this for years,” said Marcia Griffiths, one of Marley’s former backup singers, as she arrived in Ethiopia for the first time Monday. “All my life I wanted to come here with Bob in the flesh. Now I’m here, and I know he is here in the spirit.”

It is the first time the annual commemoration has been held outside Jamaica. Ethiopian officials estimate 500,000 people will attend the festivities. After the concert in Addis, celebrations will move to Shashemene, where the Rastafarians have built their community.

Marley’s music has always been popular here, and Ethiopians welcome the many visitors — and money — the event could bring their impoverished country. The capital’s cassette and CD stalls, which normally blare Ethiopian pop, have switched to Marley classics like “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff.”

“I think the Bob Marley concert will be very good for the country,” said Yared Kebede, a teacher. “With thousands of people coming here and spending money, that can’t be a bad thing.”

Rastafarians refused citizenshipRastafarians worshipped Ethiopia’s last emperor — Haile Selassie, who died in 1975 — as their living god, a belief based on a 1920 prophecy by Jamaican civil rights leader Marcus Garvey that a black man would be crowned king in Africa.

Selassie in turn granted Rastafarians land in 1963 at Shashemene, 155 miles south of Addis Ababa, where several hundred continue to live. But successive governments have refused to give Rastafarians citizenship in their adopted country.

“In any other country in the world, if you stay in the country a number of years and have children, those children would have citizenship — but not here,” lamented Ambrose King, deputy head of the Rastafarians’ Ethiopian World Federation.

On Friday, Rita Marley said she was determined to honor her husband’s wish for burial in Ethiopia, but she did not say when the body might be moved from Jamaica.

She first announced the reburial plans earlier this month — to the chagrin of many in Jamaica who feared losing their cultural heritage.

Historian Richard Pankhurst said Selassie never held a particular affinity for Rastafarians. The late emperor, who ruled from 1930 until he was overthrown in a 1974 military coup that abolished the monarchy, also granted land to Armenian refugees, Pankhurst notes.

Regular drug busts in Shashemene — a dusty, wind-swept town of seedy bars and prostitutes — have also fueled local prejudices against Rastafarians.

“The problem with the Jamaicans is that they smoke drugs,” said Kebede, the teacher, using the local expression for Rastafarians, regardless of their origin.

For Rastafarians, who preach a oneness with nature, smoking marijuana is a sacrament.