The Binoculars of Jah
By Colin Grant
In my youth, my reggae-loving friends fell into one of three camps: the cult of either Bob Marley, Peter Tosh or Bunny Wailer – the core members of ‘The Wailers’. Most idolised Bob who was charismatic, photogenic and pragmatic or Peter (militant, tall, very black, with eyes permanently shaded by dark glasses) – but for me, Bunny was always the first among equals. Not only did Bunny Wailer have the sweetest voice, a sound of ethereal beauty reminiscent of the most moving hymn or devotional song, he seemed the most profound of the three; mysterious and spiritual. But just at the moment when the band was about to take off in the 1970s, Bunny turned his back on fame and fortune, refusing to go on tour. He retreated to the deep bush of the Jamaican hinterland to commune with his god, and plant and cultivate his crops, particularly his ‘herb yard’.
Bunny Wailer was a prodigious smoker of marijuana. It was said to fuel his music and his mysticism. A decade ago, I was commissioned to write a book on the Wailers. By this time, Bunny was the only surviving member of the original gang of three. He failed to show up for a series of pre-arranged interviews in Jamaica, but, eventually, a year later, I secured a meeting with Jah Bunny at Gatwick airport, where he’d arrived at the start of a European tour.
A customised tour bus awaited him and his acolytes in the carpark. I followed them there. Bunny was agitated and did not even deign to acknowledge me. On the bus his truculence began to recede and his mood lightened when he summoned one of his minions. A briefcase was placed in front of him. He snapped open the case and unwrapped a bundle of marijuana the size of a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I confess a moment of panic, looking for the exit. We were in a public space after all, a regularly patrolled airport carpark. Bunny was unconcerned. He began constructing the most enormous joint, the size of a large carrot. Soon Bunny was the living picture of serenity that I’d observed from his record covers.
I was glad my idol didn’t offer me a draw of his ‘sacred herb’, the better to observe its effect on him. Bunny Wailer’s eyes closed and, a little unnervingly, he started to chant. Smoking ganja was not just recreational for this reggae Rastaman; as for all Rastas, it was a spiritual sacrament. I asked him what it was good for. ‘Mental hygiene,’ he answered. ‘When you smoke herb and meditate, you can channel herb high.’
In this episode of Herb, I’ll focus on Jamaica whose population is among the highest density of cannabis users in the world. I’m particularly interested in marijuana’s relationship to the political and religious movement, Rastafari, which began there in the 1930s and the connection they claim between marijuana, spirituality and creativity.
The genesis of Reggae coincided with Jamaica independence in 1962, with the suggestion that better must come. Uncannily, in the midst of debilitating poverty and suffering in the 1960s and 70s, the Wailers created the most extraordinary, deeply felt protest and love songs. Their Trenchtown home was a ghetto, where, as articulated in one of their most potent songs, cold ground was their bed at night and rock was their pillow too.
But what part did the sacramental herb play in the alchemy of their songs? Did marijuana, which Bunny believed was a gateway to a higher level of consciousness, account for the group’s extraordinary ability to transmit the most profoundly felt emotions?
Photo by Jazz Grant
An extract from Herb, The Essay BBC Radio 3 which starts on 10 Jan