At last, Peter Tosh gets a museum of his own

Peter Tosh

The opening of the Peter Tosh Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, is a timely boon for reggae fans planning pilgrimages to the island.

At last, there is something other than the Bob Marley Museum, opened to the public in 1987 on the site of Marley’s former home. Tosh worked closely with Marley in the Wailers and went on to record some of the most influential reggae protest songs of all time as a solo singer, so the creation of a Peter Tosh Museum feels long overdue – especially since the Jamaican capital was recently named a Creative City of Music by Unesco.

Tosh has been unjustly neglected in his homelandever since his tragic murder in September 1987. He was born Winston Hubert McIntosh in rural Westmoreland in 1944, and came to prominence in the Wailers during the mid-1960s, where his rich baritone was the perfect counterbalance to Marley’s expressive tenor and Bunny Wailer’s lilting falsetto. Yet Tosh’s generally uncompromising stance and personal prickliness made it inevitable that he would go solo. The rupture with the Wailers took place in late 1973, following early tours of Britain conducted under miserable conditions, and although his 1976 debut album, Legalize It, was earmarked for Island Records, Tosh’s insistence on referring to Chris Blackwell as “Chris Whiteworst” saw the album relegated to Virgin in the UK.

Watch Peter Tosh playing Rastafari Is – video

Signing to the Rolling Stones’ label after publicly lambasting the leaders of Jamaica’s two main political parties at the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 helped Tosh reach new audiences, and an extensive international touring schedule cemented his status as a top-ranking reggae performer. But Tosh never kowtowed to the machinations of the music industry. He often deployed a combative attitude with journalists, and his criticism and symbolic utterances were misconstrued. He also delighted in offending the sensibilities of polite Jamaican society and thought nothing of castigating the authorities, even when doing so endangered his life. Where Marley cultivated an aura of mystique, Tosh preferred an in-your-face approach, with the inevitable alienation that caused stunting his career growth. There were a few misplaced moves in the artistic sphere, too, with certain releases suffering from overproduction in a vain aim to appeal to a rock audience.

Nevertheless, a survey of Tosh’s repertoire reminds us that his best works were distinctive and impactful. When the Wailers were first starting their careers at Studio One, Tosh voiced boastful classics such as I Am the Toughest and the more radical Rasta Shook Them Up, which celebrated the gathering of thousands of Rastas at the airport for the arrival of Haile Selassie during his official state visit to Jamaica in 1966. When the Wailers launched their own label in 1968, Tosh became the Stepping Razor, adapting a song written by the Wailers’ harmony coach, Joe Higgs, and when the trio began working with visionary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, he recorded 400 Years, one of the most moving explorations of the historical injustices of slavery and its lingering aftermath. The Wailers’ anthem Get Up, Stand Up from the Burnin’album was co-written by Tosh, with the stinging line “Sick and tired of your ism-schism game / Dying to go to heaven in Jesus’ name” delivered as a full-pronged attack; early solo singles such as Can’t Blame the Youth deplored the failings of Jamaica’s educational system and The Mark of the Beast decried police brutality in biblical terms. His Legalize It album was far ahead of its time in demanding the decriminalisation of marijuana in 1975, while Equal Rights reminded that peace will never come without justice.

As his career progressed, Tosh liked to broaden the reggae palette, too: Nothing But Love, a duet with Gwen Guthrie, was a pioneering slice of reggae disco, and Mama Africa drew on township jive to salute the African Motherland. Such achievements did not go unnoticed by the rising reggae stars of the early 1990s, with Luciano, Bushman and Anthony B among the most prominent to draw from Tosh’s work; a wide range of performers active in other genres have also covered his songs, from Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia to the Specials, Cypress Hill and Sinead O’Connor. Barack Obama even referenced Tosh’s lyrics in a speech during his college days, all of which suggests a Peter Tosh Museum is a very good idea.

Watch Peter Tosh play Bush Doctor live – video

The project was spearheaded by entrepreneur Kingsley Cooper, the man behind the esteemed Jamaican music awards, and owner of the Pulse modelling agency: the museum is housed at his Pulse complex, located on Trafalgar Road in the bustling business district of New Kingston. At the official launch on 19 October (on what would have been Tosh’s 72nd birthday), Cooper explained that he bonded with the singer while promoting what turned out to be Tosh’s final performance in 1987. The idea for a Peter Tosh Museum has preoccupied him for a long time, but it has taken 15 years of concerted effort to realise the dream. Funding, of course, was the main obstacle, but Cooper is the kind of well-connected and charismatic figure who knows how to get the local business community on board. And it seems entirely appropriate that the museum has been created with the full involvement of the Peter Tosh estate.

Although the museum is relatively small, its contents are tastefully presented, covering a surprising amount of ground. As you enter, there is an overview of Tosh’s turbulent youth, his membership of the Wailers, his subsequent gravitation to the Rastafari faith, and the life-changing car accident that resulted in the death of his girlfriend Evonne in 1973. The fruitful solo years are then amply explored, with memorabilia to illustrate them, such as the golden microphones given to Tosh by Mick Jagger. Tosh’s coveted Grammy, received for his final studio album No Nuclear War, is given pride of place (it was reportedly retrieved from a Massachusetts pawn shop following its unauthorised sale), and the fabled M16 guitar that Tosh used to wield as a musical weapon on stage looks fittingly militant. The final section, which covers Tosh’s senseless murder, relays the information of the tragedy with appropriate sensitivity.

Watch Peter Tosh playing Steppin’ Razor live – video

The museum’s launch was not without its ironies. Politicians on both sides of the fence attended the event, despite Tosh’s own castigation of professional politicians. Nevertheless, it was important that the prime minister, Andrew Holness, opened the space, showing that the Jamaican government is finally taking the legacy of Peter Tosh seriously. A related symposium held at the University of the West Indies explored various aspects of Tosh’s life and work. There was the joyous live concert that reunited Tosh’s Word, Sound and Power band for the first time in decades, with his work revisited by some of Jamaica’s most prominent contemporary singers, including Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Tarrus Riley and Etana, along with Luciano and Marcia Griffiths. Tosh’s son Andrew significantly featured throughout the night, his intonation echoing that of his father.

Cooper has said his intention is to expand the museum. But even if it remains as it is, the Peter Tosh Museum is already a testament to one of reggae’s most fiery and controversial performers, whose work remains relevant.

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