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Marley's 60th Birthday Tribute Brings Thousands to Ethiopia

With hit songs like "Get Up, Stand Up," "No Woman, No Cry" and "I Shot The Sheriff," Bob Marley rose to fame in the 1970s with his reggae band, The Wailers. In his relatively short career, Marley became the inspiration for a wide range of bands in the 1980s, including The Police, The Clash and UB40. His overt political themes influenced bands like U2. Marley is widely perceived as one of the most important musicians of the last 50 years.

Nearly a quarter century after his death from cancer in 1981, his lyrics still resonate deeply for millions of fans, from university campuses in the United States to remote villages in Africa.

Chihiro Nakamori is one of those fans. He is a Japanese Rastafarian, his long, somewhat dreadlocked hair is bundled into a black-, yellow- and green-striped knit hat. Nakamori's presence in Addis Ababa attests to the reach of Marley's upbeat music and his messages of political justice, racial harmony and freedom.

Marley's "Redemption Song," Nakamori says, also speaks to the pressures - cultural and otherwise - young people face in Japan. He says he identifies with the lyrics: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds." "It's not only for Africa, but also for all over the world, I think - - in Japan, in Asia, especially in Asia. In Japan, the social system is totally Europeanized, Americanized, something like this. I mean it's too capitalized [capitalistic]. Just accepting the given reality is like mental slavery, I think," he says.

This is the first time the annual Marley tribute has been held in Africa, or even outside Marley's Jamaican birthplace. Having it in Addis Ababa underscores Marley's love of Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular.

The country's last emperor, Haile Selassie, became a kind of god for Marley and the Rastafarian movement, inspired by Jamaican-born pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, who saw Haile Selassie's 1930 coronation as the start of a mass back-to-Africa movement and a precursor to the continent's long-awaited renaissance. The term Rastafarian comes from Haile Selassie's name before he was crowned, Ras Tafari Makonnen, who claimed to be a descendent of the biblical King David and the Queen of Sheba.

Haile Selassie's granddaughter, Mariam Senna Asfa Wossen Haile Selassie, who recently moved to Addis Ababa from the United States, says she was slightly embarrassed by such devotion from the Rastafarians. "He was modest about this adulation. He wanted to be known as a human being all the time. From their perspective, I think, why they see him in that way is from the League of Nations, when he gave the speech: 'Today it's us, tomorrow it's you.' That made him, to them, a prophet," she says.

As a gesture of thanks to the Rastafarian movement, Halie Selassie set aside for them about 500 acres of his own land south of Addis Ababa. Nearly three-thousand Jamaicans and blacks from the West Indies settled there in the 1970s, in a dusty town called Shashemene. Today, no more than 400 remain. Most were driven away by persistent droughts, poverty, discrimination and the oppressive Marxist regime that toppled Haile Selassie.

Still, the return to Africa movement appears to be gaining momentum in many parts of the continent, especially in Ethiopia, where its capital is in the midst of a renaissance. The city's skyline is a jumble of construction cranes and new high-rise buildings, as well as neon-lit, Western style cafes and restaurants.

The highlight of Marley's 60th birthday tribute is a free concert in Addis' Meskel Square, featuring top Caribbean and African performers, including Marley's wife, Rita, and their son, Ziggy. Also performing is Afro-jazz legend Angelique Kidjo, as well as Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal.

The month-long festival in Addis to honor Bob Marley includes several youth forums, art exhibits, dozens of reggae concerts, and soccer matches, a sport Marley loved.