Amandla: The Festival of Unity, 1979

Amandla Festival of Unity, 1979

Music and curation courtesy of Dubwise Garage

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. 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.

poster
Original concert poster for the festival

Mr. Reebee Garofalo, one of six members of the collective Amandla Production Group that organized the Amandla Festival, worked for more than a year to put the show together.

“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. “All of the performers had been signed and the performance was set to take place on July 21, 1979 – the only holdout was Marley. So 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. He is accosted by Bob’s entourage, who begin hassling and jostling him. But 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.

We wanted Marley because he was a black international superstar with progressive politics. 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. But he was a tough get.”

Original articles from the Boston Globe & Jamaica Gleaner, respectively, announcing the event
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However, Marley was the least of their worries.

“Actually, Marley wasn’t the biggest obstacle to putting on the festival. It was the groundskeepers at the stadium. They were a major stumbling block because they were 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.

Old photos of Harvard Stadium
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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.

According to Marley’s stage manager Mark Miller, the band had an early scare as they entered the vacuous Harvard Stadium that morning to set up and rehearse.

“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!”

Miller described the scene as the gates opened to the field and thousands of fans charged the stage.

“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.”

Photos of the Amandla Festival © John Savignano
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It wasn’t without incident though, as Garofalo explains:

“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” recalls Garofalo. “This is just minutes before he was slated to go onstage!

So I jump in my car and speed 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.”

Amandla Press Conference with The Wailers and comedian Dick Gregory © Sharon Donahue
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After a prolonged introduction by comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, Bob and the Wailers hit the stage and played a blazing set which included many of his most militant songs and several tunes from his brand new album ‘Survival.’

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 would often join the band onstage as an extra percussionist. Mark explains:

“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.”

Live photos of Bob Marley & The Wailers at Amandla © Sharon Donahue and others
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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.

The show goes on and Marley delivers one of the greatest live performances of his career. Garofalo recalls Marley’s brilliance:

“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.”

Story by Michael Watson (midnightraverblog.com)
Music from Dubwise Garage (bobmarleyconcerts.com)
Photo Curation by Manu Morales & Marco Virgona (bobmarleymagazine.com)
Photos by Sharon Donahue, John Savignano & others
Archival Materials Courtesy of Marco Virgona
Concert Video © Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Ltd. (all rights reserved)

The Neville Tapes

In an exclusive interview with Neville Garrick – Bob’s art director and former director of the Bob Marley Foundation in Jamaica – we hear his first-hand account of the event, the background of why it was set up, and his experience being on stage performing with the band. A great listen….

The Archives

Introduction & Full Concert Video of the Amandla Festival