Legacy With A Future

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THE BOTTOM LINE: This is a Jamaican bumper crop of the last great soul music -- and some of the best ever.

IF THIS WERE JUST A 78-SONG GREATest-hits package, it would be fine enough. If it were only an intense musical biography, it would be one of the most magical and darkly lyrical stories in the whole mythology of contemporary music. But beyond packaging, beyond biography, Songs of Freedom is a legacy -- of a past that still permeates the musical present and points at the same time toward the future. It is also a memory of a time when music could be soulful, political, brutally honest, never divisive, and could still keep the beat.

In many ways, Bob Marley was the beat. He was the first superstar from the Third World. He popularized, even personified, the rhythm of reggae and its roots in the pitiless poverty and mystical spiritual aspirations of the black Jamaican underclass. His voice sounded like sugarcane but cut like a switchblade. His love songs, like Guava Jelly, Stir It Up and Three Little Birds (included here in a previously unreleased and altogether ravishing alternate version), were lighted with a sexual fervor suggesting that passion itself is a kind of temporary redemption. His political songs, whether metaphorical (I Shot the Sheriff) or straight-out and out-front (War, with its lyric from a speech by Haile Selassie, and still one of the most devastating assaults on racism in all of rock), were sung with pride, without compromise, but from a musical spirit he was proud to share. His music could challenge the conscience, soothe the spirit and stir the soul all at once. Stir it right up.

Stir It Up, written to his wife during an eight-month separation, was typical Marley: seductive, soulful and coolly intemperate. The rhythm is easy but the lyrics insinuate, cajole, insist: sexual congress as hip sacrament. It was Marley's unbridled and unapologetic partaking of this and other devotions, in fact, that gave him a kind of enigmatic, outlaw cast. In Jamaica he was not only a star, he was a political hero, a status that was confirmed by a medal from the U.N. and by the Jamaican Order of Merit, which he received in 1981. But long before that, back in 1966, his wife Rita had had a vision of stigmata on the palms of Haile Selassie and had begun to tutor Bob in Rastafari.

This religion had a deep impact on his music. For those outside its mysteries, Rastafari seemed to combine Old Testament mysticism and a kind of pan-African call to arms with a liberal indulgence in sacramental ganja, or pot. Ganja has a fearful potency, but it isn't as strong as Marley's music. Rastafari remained arcane to most off-islanders, but Marley's devotion to it produced the last great soul music.

This definitive introduction to -- or reaffirmation of -- Marley's greatness ends with a live recording from his last concert in 1980, made a little more than a year before he died of cancer at 36. Redemption Song is about betrayal and forgiveness, repression and rebirth; it is a hymn of hope. That commodity may appear to be in short supply just now, but Songs of Freedom offers something close to a lifetime supply. And it doesn't stint on the rhythm either.