Bob Marley gets the orchestral treatment
A daring musical adventure gave a classic feel to 10 timeless songs from the catalog of the world’s most popular reggae musician.
When Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder of Chineke! Orchestra, the UK’s first and only majority black orchestra, received a call from Island Records saying they wanted to make a new recording of Bob Marley’s greatest hits, she was stunned.
“I was like ‘how can you do that, isn’t it sacrilege, the music is already perfect'”, she recalled while sharing the story of Bob Marley’s new album with the Chineke! Orchestra.
“Similar recordings of songs by icons like Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, have been made with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,” she told the Comics Life.
“But they said when it came to giving Bob Marley the same treatment, everyone agreed that it had to be with the Chineke! Orchestra.”
The orchestra whose name translates from the Ibo language, as “great creator of all good things”, was created by Chi-chi, the daughter of a Nigerian father and an Irish mother. In a career spanning more than three decades, the bassist has established herself as the only black person not only on stage, but in the huge halls where she has performed.
“I got to a stage in my career where I had a lot of credibility and was convinced that something could be done to create diversity in classical music,” she says. And that’s how Chineke! Orchestra was born in 2015 and is today one of the most sought after ensembles in Europe as evidenced by Bob Marley’s album.
After several meetings with Island Records, Chi-chi was convinced that the project was not going to spoil Bob Marley’s music. The recording was made at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London, where the Beatles recorded their greatest hits in the 1960s.
“Once the musicians got over the excitement, having Bob Marley and the Wailers in our headphones while we played along to the click track was just uplifting. Everyone had a smile on their face throughout the recording,” she says. “We played from the heart; we weren’t just playing the notes.
“Some classical musicians may feel snobby about playing reggae. It’s ridiculous. It’s the highest form of music and we’ve joined forces with the music of Bob Marley and elevated both forms of music. even higher.
Even though the album was released two weeks ago, the recording was done three years ago. The original plan to release the album on Bob Marley’s 75th birthday in 2020 was delayed to sort out any contractual issues between the Marley family and his estate, and then the pandemic pushed the release even further.
The album was met with a rousing welcome from the Marley family with Bob’s grandson, Skip Marley, performing with the Orchestra at a special concert in Birmingham last week in the presence of his Cedella mother.
The concert, which marked Skip Marley’s UK debut, marked the 50th anniversary of Bob Marley’s first show in the city, the 60th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, and celebrated the host city of the Commonwealth Games of 2022.
Chi-chi, who received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth in 2017 for her services to music, insists Marley’s music remains in its original form on the album.
“It’s an arrangement for strings around the music, it’s like an accompaniment to the recording. We haven’t changed the music. I wouldn’t think of it.
“What it has done is enhance Bob Marley’s message, it elevates his music, but we haven’t changed anything. His message is out there loud and clear, nothing has changed. It’s just one dimension wider because there is a string orchestra around.
It’s enchanting to hear the strings at the opening of Exodus before the familiar, punchy bass settles in, or the lilting instrumentation that accompanies the gentle rhythm of Stir It Up. Other favorites that received a similar boost are One Love/People Get Ready, Is This Love and Redemption Song.
“People who love Bob Marley will suddenly hear a string quartet with it and think ‘wow! I play viola, maybe I could join Chineke! Orchestra,” Chi-chi says.
“I want people to enjoy it with open hearts and minds, dance and think about this great prophet; Bob Marley was a prophet. Just listen to the lyrics of each track. The words are still relevant today.
She says it’s sad that some of the lyrics Bob wrote while he was alive are still true, which shows that we haven’t made much social and political progress since then.
“When you listen to this new album, bring all your positive thoughts, all your positive vibes because he wanted to make the world a better place and us in this troubled world too.”