When Bob Marley came to Allston

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A report by James Sullivan for The Boston Globe.

At first, they wanted Stevie Wonder. Who wouldn’t want Stevie Wonder? Then they proposed a triple bill of some of the era’s most formidable female singers — Patti LaBelle, Roberta Flack, and Nina Simone — to share the stage as “Three Ladies of the Night.”

In the end, however, the historic anti-apartheid concert that took place at Harvard Stadium 40 years ago Sunday featured a Jamaican artist named Bob Marley and his backing band, the Wailers.

“It turns out, Marley was the right guy,” says Reebee Garofalo, one of a team of organizers who planned and hosted the ambitious, globally conscious Amandla Festival in the horseshoe-shaped coliseum on the banks of the Charles River on July 21, 1979. “He was the first black international superstar. He was the appropriate voice for that issue at that time.”

That issue was South African apartheid, the institutionalized racial segregation that for decades relegated black South Africans to second-class citizenship. The concert promoters felt that a big-name, multicultural fund-raising event named Amandla — the indigenous South African word for power — would make an international statement that would also speak volumes to the racial tension in Boston, at the tail end of the decade that had introduced desegregation and busing to the city’s schools.

By 1979, Marley was a reggae superstar and an increasingly political figure, survivor of an assassination attempt over his involvement in Jamaica’s bitter partisanship and a vocal proponent of self-rule for the people of Africa. “How good and how pleasant it would be . . . to see the unification of all Africans,” he sang on “Africa Unite,” which would be released on his “Survival” album later in the year.

The Amandla Festival was destined for posterity from the beginning, says Shelley Neill, who conceived of the show with a half-dozen colleagues who were involved with the Haymarket People’s Fund, the long-running social justice foundation.

“Other concerts on a large scale are put together to make money,” says Neill, who has been executive director of the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center for more than 20 years. Amandla, she says, “was really about [delivering] the message through the music. We did know we were doing something amazing. We absolutely knew.”

The project coordinators, including Neill, Garofalo, Janine Fay, Janet Axelrod, Felipe Noguera, George Pillsbury, and Kazi Toure, were idealistic and brash, she says. But they were also exceptionally naive, a word she uses repeatedly, and fondly.

They asked permission to use Harvard Stadium and got it for $8,000, plus an insurance policy for the grass. They trained a group of about 200 security personnel, volunteers from the community, who patrolled the event, incredibly, with no police presence.

To make a payment to Marley and his band on the day of the show, Neill carried a paper bag onstage filled with $10,000 in cash. As soon as she handed the bag to Marley’s manager, he was stopped by a couple of undercover IRS agents, she says.

When Marley’s guitarist, the Berklee College of Music alumnus Al Anderson, broke the neck of his Gibson SG before the Wailers’ set, the band decided they couldn’t go on. With minutes to spare, Garofalo raced into Harvard Square with $600, grabbing a similar model at the old Instrument Exchange. After the show, Garofalo returned the guitar and got the money back.

“My biggest regret is we didn’t keep that guitar,” he says.

The group Olatunji performed at Harvard Stadium for the Amandla Festival.
The group Olatunji performed at Harvard Stadium for the Amandla Festival.

Some of Boston’s city elders — Harvard Stadium is in the Allston neighborhood — were critical of the event, expressing the usual fears about large groups of young music fans.

“Busing had been incredibly violent,” Neill remembers. “And this was an event that was going to bring together white people, people of color, old people, grandmas, babies in backpacks. The entire community was welcome, and the entire community showed up.”

Raw footage of the event shows the “crowd control” specialists helping take down temporary fencing to let fans get closer to the stage, Neill notes.

“Hilarious,” she says.

Other than a brief phoned-in bomb scare (the response was “Nah, we’re not buying that,” as Neill recalls), the show went off without a hitch.

“One of the catchphrases of that period was, ‘Think globally, act locally.’ That’s exactly what we were doing.”

Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist who lived in Plymouth, and Boston community organizer Mel King, who would soon run for mayor, addressed the crowd. Gregory spoke about the organizing principles of the event — “respect, unity and love. And I say, when you leave here, take it with you.”

Patti LaBelle, the Nigerian drum master Babatunde Olatunji, and the London-based South African band Jabula all played, and DeAma Battle’s Art of Black Dance and Music performed. Marley, believe it or not, did not close the show. That honor went to Latin jazz legend Eddie Palmieri.

Palmieri, 82, was in Cambridge last fall for the dedication of a room in his honor at La Fabrica in Central Square. He was thrilled when Garofalo surprised him with unseen footage of his performance at the Amandla Festival.

For Palmieri, the festival was a summit meeting of two descendants of “the most exciting rhythmical patterns in the world” — the polyrhythms of Marley’s reggae and his own salsa.

“Those patterns came out of Mother Africa,” says Palmieri, on the phone from his home in New Jersey.

Like Marley, Palmieri was socially engaged. A year before the Harvard Stadium festival, he played a benefit concert for the Young Lords, the activists arrested in 1977 for occupying the Statue of Liberty and hanging a Puerto Rican flag from her crown.

He and Marley “were complementary to each other in our views, what we witnessed and what we lived with,” says Palmieri. Among the many highlights of his career, he says, playing the Amandla Festival is “one of the most maximum.”

A few years ago the promoters sold the concert footage to the Marley estate for $175,000. The Wailers’ set is now posted in full on the official Bob Marley website. Decades after sending the event’s modest proceeds to non-governmental organizations across southern Africa, the organizers donated the full amount from the sale of the footage.

Besides the camera’s obvious fixation on Marley, the film is full of shots of the I Threes — backing singers Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths — swaying in unison in matching red, gold, and green skirts and headwraps.

“That was what the day was, just totally beautiful,” says Neill. “It was all about people and music, and folks realizing the connection.”

For Garofalo, 1979 would prove to be a big year. It also marked the foundation of the Boston chapter of Rock Against Racism, which he led.

“The thought of a mass movement powered by music has always been the thing that made the most sense to me,” says Garofalo, professor emeritus at UMass Boston. “I try to keep those two things together as I go through life.”

The organizers of the Amandla Festival will likely get together for a low-key dinner to mark the anniversary, they say. “We talk about it every 10-year anniversary, and then the day comes and goes before we have a chance to do anything more,” says Garofalo. “Everybody is still busy doing the same sort of work.”

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