COLUMN | Reggae and consciousness: a tribute to album art genius Neville Garrick

By Chris Kabwato

Once upon a time, the buying of a vinyl long-play record was a ritual of sorts. Whether one was in a Spinalong, a TM (yes, that supermarket) or a downtown record bar, the experience of flipping through racks of albums was like attending some sacred ceremony.

The real joy was in holding the LP in your hands, feeling it, studying the art cover, reading the liner notes and even taking a peek at the colour of the disc itself. Was it the traditional boring black vinyl? Was it green? Green – that means imported! We had developed enough experience to feel the weight of the vinyl and know if it had been pressed locally under licence or was the real deal – straight from London Town.

When it came to album covers, there was only one graphic artist I knew and admired. Neville Garrick, who passed away on 14 November 2023 at the age of 73, was for many years Bob Marley’s art director – handling both the design of the album covers as well as the lighting and backdrops for the Wailers concerts. He was also co-founder of the Bob Marley Museum. Garrick’s cover art for Bob Marley’s 1976 LP Rastaman Vibration was ranked 22 in Billboard’s 2023 list of the best album covers of all time. For me, the joy was holding this album that seemed to have superimposed graphics on sack material. Although it was a single album the cover was double with the lyrics written out – a real great help in the pre-internet era where we regularly misheard phrases and created our own Shonalised ones. War was my favourite song on the LP with Johnny Was and Cry to Me a close second.

Garrick also did the album artwork for Exodus (1976), Survival (1979), Uprising (1980) and the post-humous Confrontation (1983). In a fascinating interview, Garrick outlined how he conceptualised the design of African flags for the Survival album cover art:

Bob used to come up with the titles for the albums, but I would always suggest that he used strong word like ‘Survival’, ‘Uprising’, and ‘Confrontation’ […] Survival was a very political album. I was immediately drawn to the new African flags and their green-yellow-red colours. I didn’t know all the countries, so I contacted the United Nations to make sure I wouldn’t forget any! Of course, I didn’t include the apartheid-run South Africa. And then I also included shots of the holds of the slave ships where the slaves were crammed into. This drawing was supposed to represent the Black diaspora outside of Africa, otherwise, I would have had to wonder if I should include a flag of Jamaica or the United States! My issue was that Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia and had a colonial flag. I finally included the flags of the two parties fighting for the country’s independence, ZANU and ZAPU.

Buying the record, listening with the Idren

I remember in 1983 when my friend, Kevin ‘The Kitten’ Masamvu, bought Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse. Paul ‘Poda’ Nyamunda, Nyasha Gweredza and I could not wait to listen to the album together. In that year we had decided we would cycle to school with me crazily riding from Dangamvura, meeting up with my buddies in Sakubva and then riding on into the city. Having bicycles made bunking a little easier. Ah to be young…

Anyway, looking at the Night Nurse LP, I read the band lineup repeatedly. I came to know about the Roots Radics Band as if they lived on Musikavanhu Drive in Dangamvura. Bass player, Errol “Flabba” Holt, drummer Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont and drummer Lincoln “Style” Scott. I could close my eyes, play Material Man and actually see Flabba strumming the bass wires. Saving an average of ZW$10 a month from our school pocket money, we were able to buy ourselves a wide range of albums. Kevin added a Clint Eastwood and General Saint LP called Stop That Train. Poda bought Burning Spear’s Farover. I went for Rastaman Vibration, Survival, Uprising, Confrontation and Scientist Dub Landing. Confrontation nearly drove us mad. We discussed the drumming by one Santa on Chant Down Babylon and how he had outdone Carlton Barrett. But it was the lyrics of that album that had us in a tease – each week we were onto a different song. Stiff Necked Fools. Jump Nyabinghi. Trench Town.

We branched into all sorts of reggae – lover’s rock (Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs), dub (King Tubby Meets Roots Radics – Dangerous Dub; Negrea Love Dub; Black Ark in Dub), ‘toasting’ (I-Roy, U-Roy, Yellowman, Charlie Chaplin, Trinity, Prince Far I), roots/classic (Black Uhuru, Black Slate, Mighty Diamonds, Twinkle Brothers, I Jah Man Levi). We loved the live albums too – Black Uhuru’s Tear It Up, Bob Marley’s Babylon By Bus, and Eddie Grant’s Live at Notting Hill. But all were trumped by Misty in Roots’ 1979 Live at the Counter Eurovision – a sound engineering marvel and, of course, a frenetic call to arms.

When the British reggae band Musical Youth exploded on the scene in 1982 with their version of Pass the Dutchie, we were ready to cast school aside and form our own group. The charismatic and irrepressible Steven Mahachi set up a band called The Young Wailers comprising Tendai Sauramba (lead singer), Patrick Thodhlana (drums), Steven Mahachi (rhythm guitar) and, hahaha, Chris Kabwato (bass). A veteran band called Sound Power offered to teach us and we were invited to their weekly rehearsals at Murapa Tavern in Sakubva. It is probable the project could have taken off but one person (who could be the author) failed to play a single note correctly despite the valiant efforts of his mentor.

When did the reggaemylitis hit us?

The elders amongst us have different accounts of how reggae came to be a Zimbabwean staple diet. Bob Markley’s 1980 Independence Day concert at Rufaro Stadium is cited as the seminal moment that catapulted reggae into the imagination of the wider nation. But for the older Dangamvura folks, Toots and the Maytals were the first big reggae band. I recall the 1980 Maytals live album in which Frederick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert chanted songs like 54-46 That’s My Number like the spirits had taken over. Jimmy Cliff’s live concert at Orlando Stadium in Soweto in 1980 had us enjoying his version of No Woman No Cry more than Marley’s for several years. However, for many who became teenagers just after independence, Bob Marley was the gateway into the wider reggae realm. Trenchtown Rock on Bob Marley’s Live at the Lyceum was one of the songs I would play repeatedly on cassette in my father’s car as I took my precious time scrubbing the vehicle, doors wide open, radio at full blast and irritating our neighbours:

One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain
One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain
So hit me with music, hit me with music now, yeah
Hit me with music, hit me with music now, got to say.

In December 2010 Capleton, King Shango, came to play in Harare. I had never seen the Rasta community come out in full force as they did on the day the Jamaican dancehall star arrived. Monomotapa Hotel was surrounded by sistren and bredren in their red, gold and green regalia. The most striking bredren was a Haile Selassie-looking man wearing the emperor’s signature olive green suit. When I spoke to Capleton’s manager the day after King Shango’s show, she said she could not decide between Zimbabwe and The Gambia who was the “rootsiest” when it came to reggae and dancehall. I could not blame her – the Capleton and Jah Thunder show was a blast as the dreads sang along to all songs and the main man did not seem to believe it.

The hair, the look and the concert

Once upon a time, I had hair. Long hair knotted and pushed back. My brother Rex had also designed a t-shirt emblazoned Dub Master. With the legs of my tight jeans stuffed in my long socks, that t-shirt on, I was ready for the night. Our Rasta dressing was heavily influenced by the album covers. It was probably Steele Pulse’s True Democracy album cover photograph that made us wear long socks, dress in waistcoats, and even add a tie. Sneakers with coloured stripes complemented the look.

My best musical experience ever was the Jimmy Cliff concert in 1983 at Sakubva Stadium. We had never heard a sound output like we heard that night. The Ministry of Youth and Culture or something like that had invested in a PA system that packed watts. We could hear the Channel One song from Negrea Love Dub blasting on repeat as we impatiently prepared a couple of kilometres away in Dangamvura. I am sure the mountain rocks did move a bit. Getting into the stadium took some supreme effort as the whole of Sakubva had turned up. Some had climbed up the nearby trees. Our ever-overzealous black boots turned up in full force with their German shepherds to cause the usual “boderation”. As they threw teargas like it was the proverbial Chihuri perfume, Jimmy Cliff tried to reason with them in song:

Peace officer, are you a warrior?
Peace officer, are you a warrior?
Why yuh carrying so much ammunition?
More than an aircraft carrier
Peace officer, are you a warri-warrior?
Peace officer, are you a war man man?
Why yuh carrying so much ammunition?
More than an aircraft carrier.

Got your knife, got your gun
Got some, tear gas bomb
Got your dog (Yo), got your baton
Got your whip, got your whistle.

It was an apt plea, but we know very well that please do not work with the 1980 DNA gang.

Smoking the chalice, the international herb

Long before Peter Tosh challenged the Jamaican authorities and Babylon elsewhere to Legalise It, in the 1970s Dangamvura there was Mudhara Shakey “Gloria Flour” Masamusa selling his twists of dagga rolled in Lobels Bread khaki paper. In the early 1980s some Dangamvura youths decided to take the Rasta route seriously. One of them Witty Dread (Witness Musa) would go with his fellow brethren to some secluded area of the banks of Sakubva River (which they renamed River Jordan) and conduct “chantings”. One thing I remember vividly was how much sugar cane the budding Rastafarians ate in between the inhaling of “tuda”.  Do not ask much, I was an observer.

The richness of the language of pain

Whilst Marcus Garvey had preached going back to Africa – repatriation – we, on the other hand, wanted to be in Jamaica. It took a little pictorial book called Babylon on a Thin Wire to wake me up to the realities of grinding poverty, inequality, crime and violence that beset our dream island nation. But if we could not be in St Ann’s Parish, we could travel via the music and the patois:

“Cool runnings, Idren.”

“What agwaan, Breddah.”

“Every ting cook and curry.”

“Seen. More time.”

Jamaican patois is so rich that some proverbs could as well be in any African language such the Gladiators singing on Looks Is Deceiving:

Goat never know the use of him tail till the butcher cut it off

Going to a Transit Crew concert at the Book Café with Thomas Deve (Jah Black to me), I could never get my head around the fact that at that time Mic Inity had never stepped on Jamaican soil. He owned Patois the way my brother Arnold (in photo) does now.

Farewell to Neville Garrick

Anyway, I wanted to convey a simple message but in typical style took a detour. To borrow Takura Zhangazha’s favourite phrase, thank you for the consciousness, Brother Neville Garrick.