By Roger Steffens
Roger Steffens is the author of So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley which Rolling Stone headlined “Might Be the Best Bob Marley Book Ever.”
[note: the following is a synopsis of references to marijuana throughout reggae music’s history. Spellings of ganja’s nicknames are eccentric, and the variations are as printed on the original record labels.]
Back in the fall of 1990, my writing partner Leroy Jodie Pierson and I were enlisted by the co-founder of the Wailers, Bunny Livingston, to co-write his autobiography with him. Summoned to Jamaica for three weeks of intensive interviews, we were taken on our second day to the remote eastern end of the island of Jamaica, where he had a couple of hundred wild acres of land he had dubbed his “Dreamland.”
Leroy and I, both longtime weedheads, were trying our best to act cool around the legendary Wailer as we settled into the grass surrounding a cement house he was building (you can see it in a picture I shot that became the cover of his CD, “Crucial! Roots Classics”).
“Bunny,” I asked, “do you know anywhere we can buy some herb for our time here?” Bunny was incensed and replied loudly, “BUY…Herb?! When you are the guest of Bunny…WAILER?!” He drew a deep breath, spacing out the words – “I…Am…Herb!!”
He disappeared into the woods and returned as darkness descended with an armload of freshly cut sensemilla and placed it on the hood of his car, which was festooned with a large lion hood ornament. He flourished a machete and began cutting up the stalks for us to smoke. The result was hypnotic.
During the weeks we spent locked in a hotel room in Kingston with him, he unspooled incredible stories of his youth being raised as Bob Marley’s brother. He would bring a different kind of weed every couple of days, which Leroy and I rapidly consumed. One afternoon, as I smoked my fourth joint of the day, Bunny looked at me and declared, “Bwoi, Roger-mon, me never see a white man could smoke like you.” (A high compliment indeed!)
On our final night together, after compiling 64 hours of the Wailers history, Bunny showed up to say goodbye and, with a broad smile, handed us some dank-looking weed, and Leroy said, “So you ran out of the good stuff, huh?” Bunny leered and said, “I saved the best for last. This is short-bud goat shit.”
I smoked two or three before going to sleep, Leroy just one. We had to be at the airport the next morning at 6 a.m., and when we arrived at customs, the guards took one look at Leroy, still under the near-paralyzing effects of the goat-shit weed, and hustled him into a room, stripped him naked, and vigorously inspected his nether regions. Thankfully they found nothing, although Leroy felt the aftermath all the way back to St. Louis.
Jamaican weed, and its various names, have become world famous through the work of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and a myriad of world-class musical artists who have been spreading the word since the early 1960s, often in coded language. Marley’s “Kaya” immediately comes to mind. The word originally referred to the straw from which primitive mattresses were made, although those in the know were aware of its cannabinoid connection.
The Skatalites, the great purveyors of the ska sound in the early sixties, were Rastamen and noted weed lovers. They recorded an instrumental under the name of Don Drummond, their world-class trombonist, called “Collie Boy,” in tribute to him as the band’s chief supplier. He was said to always have the best and cheapest herb
Jamaica was ruled for over 300 years by the British. They were harshly critical of marijuana and imprisoned untold numbers of people caught smoking it. After Independence in 1962, artists began to include its virtues in their songs. Toaster/rapper U. Brown referred to it as “Jamaican tobacco.”
Numerous troubles vexed the users, from theft to imprisonment. The rootical trio, the Itals, lamented on “Herbs Pirate” that their caretaker couldn’t afford their education, “So I turned to do some cultivation/Herb Pirate dem take away all that I cultivate/ disappointment is my only friend/me plant sensimilla dem come and take it too.”
Bunny and Ricky observed the mid-70s “They are cutting down all of the young trees/’Cause I can’t find a good smoke of callie weed/I man no drink rum, I no take wine/A smoke of calllie weed do I man fine/[but] Instead I get ‘Bushweed Corntrash’.”
In 1967 Bunny Wailer was busted on false charges of possession and put in prison for 14 months. Years later, he released a single to protest his frameup by the police, whom Rasta refer to as “Babylon.”
“Fighting against conviction/Skillful as I am the jailer man is bound to find me/ I pray the day will come when I will be free from ‘Battering Down Sentence.’”
Photo by Roger Steffens, taken November 24, 1979, in the San Diego Sports Arena on the “Survival” tour.
Bob Marley himself, on 1974’s “Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Road Block”) recounts a dead-of-night bust, which he beat by hiding a spliff in his copious dreadlocks. “I’ve got to throw away my little herb stalk.” And telling the arresting officer, in an example of his delicious wordplay, that “Hey Mr. Cop, got no birth surfer-tificate on me now.”
And let’s not forget their partner, “Bush Doctor” Peter Tosh, whose signature song and international rallying cry, “Legalize It,” gave its name to his first solo album in 1975, observing that some call it tampi, the weed, marijuana, and ganja, and suggesting “Legalize it and I will advertise it/ singers smoke it and players of instruments too/doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it, judges smoke it/even the lawyer too.”
Tosh was often beaten by the police in Jamaica, once mercilessly attacked by seven baton-wielding cops in a jail cell for 90 minutes, splitting open his skull and leaving him for dead. He also sang an instantly prophetic song about one such bust called “Mark of the Beast.”
As the ‘70s came to a close, with Socialist Prime Minister Michael Manley’s empty promises to legalize herb still unfulfilled, Desi Roots sang in “Weed Fields”: “Once there were weed fields kissed by the sun/…weed fields are gone now, raided by soldiers” admitting “I have been smoking illy since time begun.”
British group Capital Letters, around the same time, released ”Smoking My Ganja” claiming as they ran away from the police, “They want to charge I for smoking ganja/ [but] dem a use LSD and PCP/ganja fe I.”
Many rock steady (1966-1968) and reggae (1969-forward) songs extolled the virtues of its conscious use as a healer of the spirit and entrance to higher wisdom, but often added cautions.
Lee Perry, the madcap producer whose goal was to hijack the earth, called himself “Scratch,” because he said, “All things start from Scratch, so check it out, who am I?” He produced Jah Lloyd’s “Columbia Colly, which encouraged “Come mek we smoke the chalice/come make me pick up the ishense/Columbia colly,” with a soaring choir behind him.
But, reminded Clancy Eccles in “Ganja Free,” one must be careful not to mix any seeds in the chalice because “If you smoke all the collie seed/you will kill out the collie breed.” Adds Junior Murvin, over the dub version of his massive hit “Police and Thieves,” “Too much ‘Bad Weed’ is in the garden/I&I go weed them out.”
Sambo Jim, his UK colleague, takes us to a she-been in London with multi-tracked party sounds a la Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” His tune, “Collie Burning” describes a house party with “Windows rockin’ sounds reggaematically shocking/Saturday night London town a red dread.”
Perhaps they were listening to The Light of Saba, an offshoot of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, playing “Lamb’s Bread Collie,” with its mournful trombone-rich intro feeling the soul inna deep-rooted meditation.
Grammy winners, Steel Pulse, from the Midlands of England, praised Jah’s holy herb in “Macka Splaff” as the ‘70s wound down. Over slide whistles and organ pumping, lead singer David Hinds, with his Abe Lincoln high hat dreads scraping the ceiling, chants “Mr. Collie, collie, collie man/want some ganja smoke tonight/…feeling high high high/…feeling irie in Iself.”
Master of the emetic groan, Gregory Isaacs on “Soon Forward” awaits his herbsman’s delivery: “Come turn me on/turn me on now, now.” While Jr. Byles, his ‘70s contemporary, in a shrill high piercing voice expresses his love for the weed: “Callie spliff keep me nice/like a pound of rice/callie makes you irie.”
In his alternate version, “Better Callie,” he urges, “Brother go and plant the seed/don’t destroy the plantation/callie is right for everyone.” Black Uhuru, in their early ‘80s prime, admitted they too had a “Stalk of Sensimilia” that was “blooming in my backyard.”
Horace Andy describes his reaction to a good spliff’s effects: “It’s the gorgon, the greatest, it will get you red,” another term used in patois phrases such as Marley singing “If a egg, natty inna de red,” meaning stoned out of your gourd.
“Bring the Kutchie Come” demands Niney the Observer, and “Mek we lick it till it burn.” Kutchie, regardless of irregular spellings, is another word for a bong. The Mighty Diamonds, one of the finest trios ever in the Caribbean, recorded their own composition, “Pass the Kouchie” which directs that action “on the left hand side.” Its pro-grass lyrics were cleaned up for a brief but spectacularly successful kids group, Musical Youth, in the early ‘80s, retitled “Pass the Dutchie,” meaning a “Dutch oven” cooking pot.
Others insist that the kouchie be forwarded to the right, the so-called “heartical” side. Niney the Observer’s “Pass the Pipe” agrees: “My pipe is your pipe/and your pipe, honey, is my pipe/so you better pass the pipe on the right hand side/more weed, collie weed.”
And none other than Grammy-winning superstar Toots Hibbert and his group, the Maytals, claim one should “Pass the Pipe on the Right.” As this happens, one might take a “head rest” with the melodica strains of Augustus Pablo on the “Rizzla Special,” perfect for those who are not paying too close attention to words. Its title comes from a favorite rolling paper in Yard.
On “Collieman,” released the year after Marley passed in 1981, Bunny Wailer recalls “Riding with the Idren with the good good sensimilla” and speaks of the dutch pot and which side it should be passed along: “Pass the chalice and the chalice go round/a likkle on the night will never do no harm./and if the chalice is nowhere around/bring the dutchie come/and make we lick it till it burn/…/Pass the dutchie on the heartical side” – (which seems to me the left side in which the heart rests).
North Coast group, the Twinkle Brothers, provide the soundtrack for a “Collie Festival” admitting that the medicament gives them “A deep meditation/keep the natty dreadlocks jumping/rocking/swinging/…the white man love to smoke marguana/the black man love to cultivate it,” and insists that their gathering is “nuh baldhead festival.”
The biggest hit of Rita Marley’s long career as a ground-breaking female artist in Jamaica came in the immediate aftermath of Marley’s transition in 1981. It was called “One Draw,” and its 12” version was a massive international smash. In it, she portrays a teacher whose pupils persuade her to try some sensie. Rita croons, “Hey Rastaman, give me some of your sensie/it’s going straight to my head/I’m feeling high, so high.” Then she instructs her students to “roll a lickle spliff and take a lift.”
Whatever the side, ganja is a way of life for a great many Jamaicans, among them the eloquent Pablo Moses, who describes himself thusly: “I Man A Grasshopper.” “I man I love collie weed/I man a grasshopper/so why should you disturb I man/just let I be the fullness of the land/I love to keep I right in I-self.” Regardless of direction, the Gladiators admit “This spliff give I a rockin’ vibration/happy moments and irie feeling/…lick I spliff and sing reggae music.”
Dr. Alimantado, a toaster who pressed his “Best Dressed Chicken in Town” on yellow vinyl in the mid-’70s, is a big fan who “Lick mi chalice till the chalice blaze/you rub it and a scrub it and you dig it!” Adds Dillinger, one of many Jamaican artists who adopt the names of notorious North American criminals, says “Bring the Kutchie Come” and directs “Mek me load up the chalice/illy ites” and records a huge sucking sound on the song’s bridge as he condemns the “weakhearts” who aren’t up to the challenge.
Growth and distribution are often topics of herb songs. The first album cut at Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio was by the Congos. Their “Row Fisherman Row” tells the story of fisher folk who distribute herb, singing “Have you any herb? Two crocus bag full,” and instructing them to row more quickly: “We’ve got to reach a higher ground/sell the best collie in seaport town.”
The weed’s reach is truly outer-national, as we hear on Jah Woosh’s “Marijuana World Tour,” a ‘70s planet-circling heady trod: “Said me go inna Pakistan/then me meet a lickle Paki man/He give me Paki black/,,,A cool cool marijuana inna Holland I would say/Mi go inna Columbia/anedda bredda give me Columbia Collie/nearly send me down the alley/I man forward down inna Thailand and meet anedda little man/he give me some Thai Sticks/A real real high stick/…Jamaican iley get you irie.”
In “Free Mi Ganja” Woosh observes, “Free up ganja, legalize Ganja/the Babylon a sell it/the Natty dem a smoke it/and everyone a love it/society abide it.”
Sylford Walker’s conga-rich echoey Nyahbinghi mix of “Lambs Bread” extolls one of the strongest strains of Jamaican herb: “Me go a Africa/and me smoke it in a chalwa/smoke lamb’s bread and then forward ahead.”
Peter Tosh had even higher goals, as he revealed in “Buk-in-Hamm Palace,”a late ‘70s track, hoping to breach the walls of the Oppressor: “Light up your spliff light your chalice/ mek we smoke it in Buk-in-Hamm Palace/Lend me a Rizzla lend me a pipe/Mek we chase all dem vampires.”
This is an echo of a toast a few years earlier, in one of the first international albums by the rapping pioneer artist U. Roy. The title track was called “Chalice in the Palace” with these immortal words: “Queen Majesty, really want to have a chat with you/wanna come down the palace and lick down my chalice/gonna dub it with Your Majesty/….trodding through the palace with my chalice.”
Freddie McGregor, a former child star who is one of the most notable survivors of Coxson Dodd’s Studio One reign in the ‘60s and ‘70s, wrote “Natural Collie,” speaking of his wish to tell the people all about it, “Deep down in the valley, smoking natural collie, getting inspiration, spreading it to the nation, spreading it cuz that’s my work.”
In “Ganja Crop” Jah Lloyd and dub-creator King Tubby tell the story of a man who’s been planting herb for ten years, and sees four birds representing “White mon, black mon, Syrian and Coolie” – all of whom smoke it.
“Ganja Farmer” has been covered by many international artists. Perhaps the best-selling version is by J. Boog, a Samoan American. At the end of this century’s first decade he came to prominence, chanting these most serious lyrics, which struck a chord with growers worldwide:
“Yes I’m a ganja planter/Call me di ganja farmer/Deep down inna di earth where me put di ganja/Babylon come and light it pon fire/… Big stinkin’ helicopter flow through di air/What dem call it dem call it weedeater/Dem never did there when me was totin’ water/Or when me did applying fertilizer/Yet outta di sky dem spittin’ fire/And I’m a little youth man with a hot temper/Me dig up me stinkin’ rocket launcher/And in a di air dispense the helicopter/
… And true mi a di artist with di ganja inna di land/Make doctors get nuff medication/And so dem coulda give it to dem sick patients.”
Mercifully, the Jamaican government finally legalized herb in recent years, giving rise to centers in which magic mushrooms as palliatives for mental disorders are dispensed, and the casual harassment of anyone caught possessing even a small amount of marijuana has ended.
Bob’s British son Julian Marley commented on this momentous development in 2015 with his astute “Lemme Go” (Let Me Go):
Looking for a belly full, got kids to feed
Grow some marijuana, to fulfill the need
Dem would a lock we up, and throw away the key
When they use to pull us over
Now they’ve got to set me free
Peter Tosh used to sing legalize it
Now the herb free at last realize it
Roll a big ganja spliff and light it
Or pass the chillum to your sidekick
Hypocrite a play like dem nuh like it
But how long could they continue fight it
Road block use to be a big crisis
Now when mi sight the police dem a niceness
To which his brother Ziggy added, “I see marijuana trees growing ‘Wild and Free’/Corporate thief can’t own this seed/small farmer will survive by planting a weed/you see hemp fields forever grown wild and free.”
The prophecies that Jah Holy Herb would someday be freed included this prescient rap from the ska-master Prince Buster In 1979 when he began a track with a speech: “I as Minister of Science and Space Exploration is very very proud to announce that our financial headache is over on account of our same ganja plant. Announce to several ministries that we can supply the world with 300 billion pounds of ganja plants!”
As we see, ganja offers inspiration for a multitude of creative activities, inviting you to headrest with Jah. Go deh!
Let This Reggae Playlist Inspire Your Next Sungrown Session
See more of Roger’s incredible photography @thefamilyacid.