[Monday’s Notes No.138] For his personal history and for what he has been able to represent, Bob Marley stands alongside other rock legends such as Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Jimy Hendrix. To better understand the reggae music of which he is the most important exponent, let us analyse Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) from his album Natty Dread.
In its relentless wave-like propagation, in Jamaica rock met some popular culture – the yoroba drums, the popular poem called mento. This gave birth in the 1960s to ska music, which was played by street DJs in pick-up trucks equipped with powerful amplifiers.
This music reached full maturity in a musical genre, reggae, which is almost entirely identified with its greatest performer: Bob Marley. Like other rock legends, Bob Marley was not so much a musician as a charismatic figure capable of interpreting his era and the demands of his people.
His lyrics, minimal and often filled with slang expressions, express the discomfort of the ghetto but also the fatalism of a people resigned not to expect much from life.
The influence of the Jamaican Rastafari movement, named after the emperor of Ethiopia Ras Tafari, can also be heard in his songs. The Rastafari philosophy was very popular in the 1970s and preached the emancipation of black people and a return to Africa, combining philosophical, political and mystical elements.
The son of a British officer and a Jamaican woman, belonging neither to one community nor the other, Bob Marley suffered severe discrimination since childhood. He found himself living on the streets when he was still a boy, and he relied only on the support of his friends.
Because of this, the theme of friendship is central to his songs and partly explains why so many young people from different generations have found themselves in Bob Marley’s music.
Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) is a classic reggae song and allows us to detect the typical elements of this music. The lyrics are short and somewhat contradictory. While protesting against the hunger that the people have to suffer while `them’ have their bellies full, the song invites people to dance and forget the troubles of life.
Reggae is therefore music of strong social criticism, but which rarely calls for revolution. In some ways this makes the songs even more powerful, there is indeed an implicit pacifism in them that puts positive values such as equality and friendship first. Here is the beginning of Them Belly Full (But We Hungry).
From the musical point of view, reggae is based on the accent of the second and fourth movements of the measure, with a syncopated and uniform rhythm.
Another typical element is the use of the bass as a melodic instrument. We observe that in the first part of the piece [A] the bass exactly doubles the sung melody, while in the second part [B] it performs a completely independent and free line.
Despite the simplicity of the harmony and the rather uniform and monotonous rhythm, reggae is characterised by a very interesting polyphonic concept that is in some respects more sophisticated than most rock.
Record producer Chris Blackwell said of Bob Marley:
“His songs were good, but what he believed in had a far greater force and power. (…) Anyone who talked to him, anyone who met him, was blown away, even when they didn’t understand what he was saying.”
Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) seems to confirm this description: the song is simple, the lyrics sometimes cryptic, concealed behind Bob Marley’s slang. Yet we can’t help but be enthralled by it. These notes, repetitive like a mantra, suggest something else, fascinating and mysterious.
Until next Monday
Download the lead sheet of Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)