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Global Beat: Ziggy Marley

by Bill Murphy on April 21, 2014

If David Nesta “Ziggy” Marley has ever found the weight of his famous father’s legacy imposing, then you wouldn’t know it from speaking with him—nor would you get that impression from the string of albums that he’s made since he was a teenager. Now a youthful 45, Marley has arrived at his own artistic vision and philosophy, even if the unmistakable rasp of his singing voice still conjures up eerily familiar echoes of the original Tuff Gong himself.

“That is my father’s nickname, but the idea is independence,” Ziggy says, referring to the family-run label, Tuff Gong Worldwide, that has been home to his most recent grip of recordings, including this year’s Grammy-nominated Ziggy Marley in Concert, and an all-new studio album called Fly Rasta, due in April. “The idea is you create your own destiny or pave your own road that will take you to where you have to go. Before he passed away, my father had his own studio and he was on the verge of becoming an independent artist, business-wise. I wanted to use that same banner to fulfill his dream—that here I am now, under Tuff Gong, the way my father wanted it to be. I am independent and free, but under his banner, fulfilling his vision and taking it to the next step.”

Fly Rasta overflows with assertions of Marley’s freewheeling outlook, both lyrically and musically. The politically and socially conscious ethos of his earlier albums has given way to more universal sentiments like “Moving Forward,” where he sings about overcoming personal obstacles, or “So Many Rising,” a head-nodding acoustic-guitar-and- djembe vamp that’s right at home next to slices of working class Americana by John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. “I Don’t Wanna Live on Mars” is really a love song that offhandedly references Marley’s not-so-secret sci-fi obsession, while at the same time folds rock and pop riffage into the overall delivery. Meanwhile, the title song, which Marley refers to as “the people single,” ripples with the roots vibes (complete with a ragga-toasting U-Roy) that made his dad an international icon.

“Before I started working on this album, I kinda made a list of what I wanted to happen,” Marley says. “And that list was like, pushing the envelope, yunno, within my own genre—not just the present, but trying to push it into the future. So for me, I think this album is just me wanting to get out dere into the universe, and not just stay in one place and one space—just explore the universe, but keeping a strong respect and memory of where I’m coming from and where my foundation is.”

Marley has never thought of reggae music as something locked in a time warp; he’s always willing to try new directions, while never straying too far from what he knows. Fly Rasta features the original Melody Makers— sisters Sharon and Cedella, with Erica Newell—on backing vocals, but also brings some heavyweight guests into the picture, including keyboardist Zac Rae (Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, Macy Gray) and session drummer James Gadson, whose track record with Bill Withers, Quincy Jones and many more is hall-of-fame worthy. Marley also co-produced the album with Dave Cooley—known for his work with Madlib, the late J Dilla and the indie hip-hop Stones Throw label. Cooley brings a distinctive spark of raw, unmitigated basement soul to Fly Rasta, making it one of Marley’s most groove-oriented slabs in years.

“It’s an eclectic bunch of guys on some tings,” he laughs. “For this record, I wanted to get guys who wouldn’t normally play my music. That’s how I get my sound, and get that different feel. And then, I got a lotta help from Dave Cooley. When I gave him my little list of what I envisioned the record to be, we started to deconstruct the songs and reconstruct them again. The idea was in some ways to paint a picture—not just listening with your ears, but actually visualizing the song, so you could see the song. We talked a lot about that, just the idea of songwriting and how to put a song together.”

With his “band of vagabonds”— featuring the one-two punch of drummer Santa Davis and bassist Pablo Stennett—Marley will take to the road this spring with a sage and spiritual message which, while not always overtly embracing the “rebel music” that he grew up with, still cuts to the heart quickly in true Tuff Gong fashion.

“Back in the day, I would usually sing about what was going on in politics or in social circumstances, and I still do every now and again,” he explains, reminiscing about the volatile political times that shaped his childhood in Jamaica. “But generally, now, I came to a conclusion, an enlightening eureka moment, where I said to myself that my songs need to be more connected to the emotional aspect of humanity—the spiritual aspect of humanity. I still have my political ting, but I don’t see myself as a political artist. Music is spiritual, and within that some politics still live, but it’s not the main force anymore.”

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