Saturday, 11 March 2017

Number 7
Bob Marley and the Wailers record "Selassie is the Chapel"

Mortimer Planno

Haile Selassie and Planno 1966
Mortimer Planno was a key figure in developing the rasta faith as a sophisticated response to the situation that the African diaspora, particularly those in Jamaica, found themselves. A preacher, teacher and social activist, he led the establishment of a rasta commune in Kingston separate from that already developed in the hills at Wareika. Planno seems to represent something of an intermediary between the Jamaican establishment and the rasta rebels in the hills. As an outsider himself, originally from Cuba, he may have been better suited to get along with the establishment. Either way, Planno got himself included on an official delegation to visit Ethiopia in 1961 and was part of the reception committee when Emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, helping to calm the huge crowds that had gathered at the airport.

I do wonder whether Planno, an intelligent man, ever thought to himself what this faith needs is a charismatic, young advocate to take the message to a greater audience. Did he recognise such a prospect when Robert Nesta Marley knocked on his door later that year? Or did he think, here's another chancer looking for a distraction. Either way, Planno sent Marley away with the distinct impression that he did not think Marley had what it took to join the faith.

Bob Marley

Bob and Rita 1966
 Bob Marley had begun recording in 1962 before forming a vocal trio
 with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. His early recordings dealt with 
 matters like cups of coffee and not judging others, before having a
 huge hit with "Simmer Down" in 1964. In 1966, Marley moved to the
 United States for a short period to be near his mother. When he
 returned to Jamaica later that year he was searching for a more
 spiritual purpose to his life, one that he could align with the
 revolutionary fervour that was rising up inside of him. The rasta faith seemed to provide that combination of spirituality and revolution.

So it was that in 1966 Marley called upon the Ras Tafari encampment in Trenchtown set up by Mortimer Planno and enquired about learning more about the rasta faith. By all accounts, Planno had his doubts about Marley's commitment. In order to prove otherwise, Marley determined to record a devotional song to demonstrate his seriousness.

Selassie is the Chapel

"Selassie is the Chapel" was written by Mortimer Planno. It is an adaptation of "Crying in the Chapel" recorded originally by Darrell Glenn in 1953 and then covered by a wide range of other artists including the best known version recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960 and released as a single in 1965. Prior to Elvis, one of the biggest selling versions of the song was by The Orioles in 1953 and a rerecorded version in 1959.

Planno's rewrite of the song explicitly affirms the divinity of Haile Selassie. It is a clear challenge to those who would seek to portray Selassie as a representative figure, as standing for the divine. It asserts Selassie's place in the Trinity as the born-again Christ. A more direct affirmation of faith by Marley would be difficult to imagine.

The recording

The recording is very basic. Unlike Marley's previous releases, it eschews a band accompaniment. Just Marley's guitar and some rasta drums accompany the vocals. The echo on Marley's voice indicates that a professional studio was used but otherwise it sounds like it could have been recorded in a church hall or a living room. The arrangement is considerably slower than many other versions giving it a hymn-like quality.

The Wailers' usual harmony vocals are different on this recording. Bunny Wailer was in prison at the time so it is Rita Marley who joins with Peter Tosh on harmonies. This gives a different, higher sound, almost keening, happily in keeping with the subject matter.

Marley's lead vocal follows the path laid out by Sonny Til of the Orioles. He delivers a sweet and tender invocation of the words free from any strident proselytising. There is a deeper quality to some of his notes not replicated in other parts of his work. He engages briefly in some melisma but otherwise appears to be singing within himself. In fact, he is taking care to make sure that the focus is on the beauty of the melody and the meaning of the words rather than on himself as the performer. It is an act of devotion, of supplication, both to Selassie himself and, by implication, to Planno.

"All the world should know". Marley would take the rasta faith around the world, to Europe, Africa and America. This small sect of Jamaican dissenters and contrarians would see their faith acquire widespread adoption and acceptance. But Marley and Planno's challenge remains. Rasta is not just a cultural signifier or a philosophical system but a set of religious beliefs focussed on a black saviour. And as such, it demands devotion and supplication from its followers as Marley and Planno demonstrate here.

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