More than just the thick mane of natural dreadlocks, the reggae music he plays and Rastafarian beliefs he ascribes to, the mention of Natty Dread’s name invokes one thing among people that know him in Rwanda.
The man that knows legendary Jamaican reggae music icon Bob Marley intimately and at close quarters, having met and actually lived with him a while in the late 1970’s.
Started as a joke:
Natty (real names Mitali Narcisse Raphael) first visited Kingston, Jamaica where Marley hails from at the end of 1977, on a chance vacation. Little did he know that a short while later, he would meet a man that has since become the biggest inspiration in his life.
He describes his trip to Jamaica as ‘a con-incidence’.
“I was staying in Nairobi with my family, and I had a couple of British friends who were diplomats. I used to be with them and their sons and one time they had a vacation in the Caribbean and asked if I wanted to join them since it was holiday time. They bought tickets and we went.”
Once in Jamaica, they soon found they were staying about 300 m away from Bob Marley’s home.
He recalls that though Marley had moved to an affluent neighborhood, he still spent most of his time in the ‘ghetto’.
“When I found rasta people I found where I belong to so the family with which I had travelled lost me. I went with these people but I forgot myself. One day they went to pick me and Bob Marley sent someone to tell them that ‘the African man will come back home at his own time’. Then he told me ‘eat man. Stay man. Forget them.”
He was just sixteen at the time, and so impressed he was with the newfound life, he stayed in Jamaica a total of two years. Occasionally he would communicate home through mail.
On Bob Marley the man:
Before meeting Marley, Natty Dread admits that his greatest influence was America.
“We used to listen to the nice black American music of the time. The Americans of that time were really great artistes so I wonder why they changed from good music to bad music. Bob Marley changed me from Michael Jackson-centric to Rasta-centric, where I now felt I’m African and it’s good to be African,” he explains, hastening to add that;
“America is responsible for the destruction of genuine music. Europeans are still a little bit more serious about their music than Americans.”
When he eventually starts to talk about his role model, Natty Dread does not just narrate –he paints, and vividly so. It’s as though he is giving a biographical account of the man whose name came to be synonymous with reggae music and the ideals of equal rights and justice for all.
“When I met him in 1978 I had a chance to go to his studio and his yard. When he heard that I was from Rwanda he was very happy and interested because he loved Africa very much,” he explains.
“He is one of the artistes that I know who loved Africa so much. If he was still alive today I’m sure he would be living in Africa because that was his plan.”
Although of mixed race, Marley was a passionate pan-Africanist whose Rastafarian beliefs advocated the unification of the continent as signified by many of his songs. H penned numerous songs condemning European imperialism and spoke out in support of the movement for Zimbabwean independence and against South African apartheid.
He first came to Africa in 1978, visiting Ethiopia and Kenya.
In 1980, he performed at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations.
“He was actually the guest of honor when the British colonial flag went down in Zimbabwe,” Natty reveals.
“He spent his own money to bring in people on a plane, set up the equipment and performed all for free. He just rented a plane and there was no Visa requirement for these people and he gained a lot of respect for that.”
“Bob wanted real African patriots who loved Africa and defended it because he did it himself in theory and in practice. He actually even sponsored the Zimbabweans when they were fighting for their freedom. He used to give them some cheques.”
“Bob loved Africa and freedom for all. He spoke about fighting for Africa because Africa was the only victim at the time. Other continents had gained their independence. But he was not racist. He loved everybody who came close and was genuine.”
He remembers that life around him was always energizing.
“He loved agriculture and was close to nature. As a boy he grew up planting his own corn and using a donkey as transport. He loved to eat natural, drink natural and communicate with nature. He loved trees, fruits, vegetables and peace. He loved table tennis and sometimes we played together. He also played football and boxing full time and dominoes, cards, and children’s games. Sometimes he acted like a child but in a positive way because he loved children.
We used to go jogging at 6:00 am and we’d run 3,4,5 km, sometimes ten. Once back we’d take a shower and go for some nice soup, fresh fish and potatoes and rice and lots of juices.”
‘The Gong’ also loved bible study conducted by rasta elders and Natty Dread remembers that “Bob was always the last person to go to bed”.
“After the last person had dozed off he’d wait for about 20 minutes then he’d go to bed and he would be the first one to wake up before others.”
The natty dreadlocks:
“Natty Dread is a name that I share with Bob himself. He used to be called Natty Dread. The meaning of natty is from the British. When they saw rastas with dreadlocks they used to call them naughty instead of respecting what’s inside. So it became naughty dreadlocks. But then the Jamaican brethren they don’t say naughty they say natty and I liked it. Natty dread also means a man who fights for his rights, a man who is positive, who fights and wins all battles, a man who is spiritual.”
Marley actually has a song called Ride natty ride, off the 1979 album, Survival.
“One time we were seated listening to him (Marley) . He looked at me and asked me how I liked the song and I said I like it. That man was prophetic. He looked at me and told me I was going to sing that song because it’s my song. I looked at him and said me? Do you think I could ever sing like you?
He said yea man. Why not? Everyman can sing and everyone is a star. Then he said;
“Every time you do a live concert you should play it because it’s about your life.”
After he did the song it felt like I had written it because it talked about me, but it’s his of course. Sometimes I would want to write a song and then I would find Bob Marley already did it better.”
Just like his idol Bob Marley, Natty Dread holds strong views about many things –religion, race relations, history, the internet Rastafarianism, reggae, even sexuality. Sometimes during the interview he would say “I’m telling you this from Bob Marley understanding and from my own understanding.
“Reggae is roots and roots can create discipline and if we don’t keep roots the trees will die. When this happens there’ll be no water and the trees will die. Then there’ll be no food, and death.”
Today, Natty Dread lives in Uganda with his wife, although he describes himself as a globe-trotter, ever on the move. If he is not touring around the world with his Germany-based band, he is on touristic travel and visitation, a fact that has seen him cover all corners of the world.
On these tours, one thing is always certain; he will sing Ride, natty ride by Bob Marley.
In Rwanda he used to be found at such venues as the former Cadillac Nightclub, and the Mulindi Japan One Love Project, where he held a string of gigs.
Today, he is not affiliated to any local entertainment venue, and this is what is on his mind for next year –a place that can act as his home and address in his musical endeavors.
I ask him for any parting remarks about his idol:
“He (Marley) was persistent and resilient. Sometimes he would lose temper but he was kind and had a big heart.
He helped lots of poor people on a daily basis. He’d just take a piece of paper and sign on it and write amount of money and ask the recipient to take it to a woman called Diane Jobson his lawyer and problem solved!”
Some people lied to him, but if you had a good project he always found a way to help. There was never hunger in his home. People came to his home to eat.
Sometimes he was a little mystical. He would just say ‘soon come’ to mean that he would be back soon.
He never moved with pocket money on him. Sometimes he would just walk up to somebody and ask for two dollars when he wanted to buy something like chewing gum.