The Amandla Festival of Unity was a world music festival held at Harvard Stadium in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 21, 1979. The festival was held in an effort to support and celebrate the liberation of South Africa and the on-going efforts of people in Boston to address racism in their families, schools, workplaces and communities. According to Wikipedia, the word ‘Amandla’ is from the South-African Zulu language and means ‘power’, ‘strength’ or ‘energy’.
Bob Marley is touring and playing songs from his forthcoming “Survival” album when he is asked to perform at the Amandla Festival. The forthcoming album has many politically charged songs including “Zimbabwe“, which is about the liberation of the African country of the same name. Marley makes several short speeches during his encore when he powerfully blames the system and urgently claims Africa’s unity and freedom. “Free Africa now cuz Africa nah free!” he shouts with defiance. The onstage speeches are unusual for Marley, as he normally is threatened with censorship for speaking openly about many social issues like apartheid and marijuana.
Performers include soul legend Patti LaBelle, jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri, drummer Babatunde Olatunji, the South African band Jabula and comedian Dick Gregory, who gives a 15-minute racially-charged speech before Marley’s performance.
I spoke with Mr. Mark Miller, Bob Marley’s stage manager from 1978-1980, regarding this historic show:
“In regards to the Amandla show.. yea, you are pretty correct. At the time we knew something was happening as the places we began playing in 1979 were all big venues, and the crowds kept getting bigger. When we arrived at Harvard Stadium, to be honest it was just a big empty stadium. The grounds people were still putting sections of plywood on the ground to help save the grass I guess. We did a rehearsal that afternoon, but from memory there was no ‘special feeling’ going on. We all had a job to do so we got on with it.
Bob was always fairly laid back, except when something did not go right with the music. I think he heard what he wanted in his head long before anyone picked up an instrument, so he sometimes got pretty stern when the playing or the girls’ singing was not right.
Amandla was kinda’ strange for me now. When I see the video, every time Bob moved off center, there I was standing in the viewfinder of the camera which filmed the show!”
Neville Garrick can be seen playing percussion throughout the show. Mr. Garrick was Bob’s art director, and he did all of the lighting during the shows, however, whenever there was a daytime show in the late ‘70s, Neville had nothing to light, so he moonlighted on percussion on stage with the Wailers.
“Neville got into the percussion thing, as the show was in the day time and he did not have any lights to fiddle with. He did all the lighting on the tours you know…”
With regard to the crowd that day at the Amandla Festival, Mark had this to say, “When the gates opened, it was like a stampede. The audience all ran from the entrances toward the stage but luckily it was fairly high up so they could not climb on it.
It was a great show, but then there were so many.. I did 124 shows with Bob and the Wailers, and all of them are burnin’ in my memories..”
With the help of my friend, noted journalist, and reggae archivist Roger Steffens, I scheduled an interview with Mr. Reebee Garofalo, one of six members of the collective Amandla Production Group that organized the Amandla Festival. Making this connection through Roger was crucial. Garofalo, along with the other collective members, worked for more than a year to put this festival together. He also worked with other collective members to negotiate the sale of the official concert recordings to the Marley estate.
“There was a collective of about 6-7 of us who worked full-time for more than a year to put this thing together” said Garofalo during our recent interview. According to Garofalo, all of the performers had been signed and the performance was set to take place on July 21, 1979 – the only holdout was Marley.
“About 3 weeks before the show, the festival promoter Chester English, who owned Lulu White’s here in Boston, flew down to Jamaica and camped out at Marley’s house.”
Chester English arrives in Jamaica and takes a cab to 56 Hope Road where he sets up camp outside the gates. It isn’t long before he is acosted by Bob’s entourage, who begin hassling and jostling English. Once he finally convinces them that he is representing Amandla they usher him in.
He comes back a few days later with a signed contract.
© Sharon Donohue
“We wanted Marley because he was a black international superstar with progressive politics.” The collective’s goal for the festival is to bring awareness to apartheid in southern Africa, while at the same time bringing Boston’s race issues to light. “We wanted to make a connection between the race issues in southern Africa and those here in Boston at the time” says Garofalo. If anyone could shine a light on the issues of racial injustice and oppression in 1979, it was Marley. However, it is a tough get.
“Actually, Marley wasn’t the biggest obstacle to putting on the festival. It was the groundskeeper at the stadium. He was a major stumbling block because he was so worried about the grass being destroyed by the people attending the concert.”
With the musical acts signed, the stadium booked, and the groundskeeper worried sick, the collective decides to bring in Boston residents from all over town to act as security. The event is promoted as a multi-racial festival of unity and there are concerns that a police force will send the wrong message to festival goers, and that it would be better to staff the stadium with Boston residents trained to respond to different situations that may arise. So over the next 6 months, the collective has these residents trained as security officers. No paid municipal police officers are allowed inside the stadium during the festival.
July 21, 1979 is hot and muggy. The air is heavy and thick as 15,000 festival goers enter Harvard Stadium right after noon. The large stage is set up at the 30-yard line just inside of the mouth of the horseshoe-shaped stadium. Most, if not all, of the attendees are there to see the headlining act: Bob Marley and the Wailers. Fresh out of the studio from the Survival recording sessions, Marley and his band of ‘Wailing Wailers’ are going to “chant down Babylon” and set everything right. Little do they know that Marley’s manager Don Taylor had just informed Garofalo that Marley and the Wailers will be unable to perform.
“So Marley’s manager comes to me just a few minutes before he is scheduled to go onstage, and he tells me that the lead guitarist had broken the neck of his guitar and the band could not perform. This is just minutes before he was slated to go onstage!”
As one of the primary festival organizers, Garofalo could not allow this to happen. He promptly approaches Bob, who is sitting backstage with his entourage of fierce-looking Jamaicans and says, “Bob, what’s going on man, what can we do to fix this?”
“Al guitah broke mon. We nah play” says Bob in his heaviest Jamaican patois.
“No worries. We’ll fix this”, replies Garofalo.
He jumps in his car and speeds off toward Harvard Square where there is a small music shop called “The Instrument Exchange.”
“I hand the guy at the shop $600 and grab a guitar from the rack. I told him that if I brought the guitar back intact, I would expect a full refund.” Well, this guitar was going to grace the stage at Amandla with Bob Marley, so the shop keeper agreed to refund the $600 upon the guitar’s safe return.
The show goes on and Marley delivers one of the greatest live performances he would ever give. “The performance was just magic. People in Boston come up to me even today and tell me that witnessing that performance was life-changing for them. This is not a joke. It was just magical. The people around him knew it, and we knew it.”
One fan’s personal experience:
“I was a freshman at BU and didn’t know the concert was happening til I literally was walking across the street from Harvard Stadium and saw the crowds. I had a knapsack with my drawing pad, pastels and pencils, and a bag of potato chips and thought really fast…why don’t I approach the press entrance table assembled behind the iron bar gate, and tell them I’m doing an art piece on Bob Marley for Boston University’s “Free Press” – don’t know if the paper really existed, but I gave it a shot, and miracle be – they gave me a press pass and I was FREE to enter – I went below the stadium where all the rastas, the band and MANY beautiful people were, kept walking and found a staircase to the stage where I took a seat at the far left front of the stage and watched the entire concert, drawing of course most of the time, attended the press conference in the back of the stadium and was completely in awe of everything I felt, saw, heard and breathed.”
Although Marley is billed as the headliner for the show, he refuses to go on last. Instead, Eddie Palmieri closes the show and Bob Marley and the Wailers perform just before Palmieri.
“Bob’s people were worried that if they closed the show, people would start to leave the stadium when it got dark. Crazy, right?” says Garofalo during our discussion.
According to Garofalo, the collective agree to allow Babatunde Olatunji‘s son Kwame to film the performance. He, in turn, hires a man named Ted Miles to oversee filming of the show. The show is filmed with 3 cameras positioned at different angles around the stage. In the end, only 2 cameras provide footage worthy of being archived. The audio and video recordings of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ performance are held in a climate-controlled room in the library at the University of Massachussetts (UMASS) for the next 33 years. The only persons with access to the recordings are the library staff and members of the Amandla Publishing Group. During the 33-year period, the recordings are upgraded several times. The film, which was originally captured on 3/4-inch film reel, is transferred to 1-inch film and later digitized. The negotiations with the Marley estate begin shortly after the festival and continue over the next 33 years.
“Blackwell would drop out, or switch companies, Polygram bought Island, then there was Universal, the family would lose interest, we just couldn’t seem to settle it.”
Finally, on December 15, 2008, the official recordings of the Amandla Festival are sold to the Marley family for an undisclosed amount. The family has made no official statement to date regarding their intent to officially release the recordings.
Toward the end of our conversation, I tell Garafolo that I have in my possession a copy of the Amandla Festival video that is digitized, DVD-quality, and includes the 15-minute speech and introduction by Dick Gregory. He asks to take a look at the video, so I email him a link to the video on YouTube.
“This appears to be the digitized video that we turned over to the Marley family. They own the rights to this. I don’t know how this could have happened. This is a surprise to me.”
The official video recording of the Amandla Festival performance, which was sold to the Marley family in December 2008, has been in circulation for some time. The recording was posted to YouTube on July 24, 2011. It has been viewed 27,000 times. The Amandla Publishing Group is not aware that the Amandla video had been leaked after it is sold to the Marley family.
“I hope the Marley family releases the video officially, because it will be better than the one that is out there now. The leaked version is a complete surprise to me”, said Garofalo.
Bob Marley and the Wailers’ performance at the Amandla Festival is a favorite among fans. Chris Blackwell stated that the performance is, without a doubt, Marley’s best performance ever captured on film. Reebee Garafolo says that it was not just the greatest performance of the festival, but Marley’s greatest performance ever. This performance is special. Bob Marley and the Wailers are at the height of their performing careers. The band is tighter than it had ever been. They are performing music from their most militant album, Survival, now a fan favorite. Everything is just the way it is supposed to be that day in Boston.
Bob is quoted as saying “I don’t come to bow, I come to conquer.”
That hot July day in Boston, he conquers and, thanks to the Amandla Production Group, it is documented and preserved beautifully for all to witness.
You can read a review of the concert from the Harvard Crimson July 20, 1979 here.
Amandla Press Conference
Boston Globe Amandla Press Archives
A big thank you to my friend and noted reggae historian and journalist Roger Steffens for his contributions, and for making this story possible. Please visit Roger’s archives here.
Give thanks to Mark Miller for sharing his personal account of the Amandla Festival. Please visit Mark here.
I would also like to give thanks to my friend Reebee Garofalo for his insight and stories. He made a huge contribution to the archive. Please visit his blog here.
I must also give credit to Marco Virgona and everyone at Bob Marley Magazine for sharing their knowledge of the show. I would like to thank Marco Virgona in particular for sending me the Harvard Crimson concert review.