Monday, April 05, 2010

Roger Steffens Invades Mexico

For those who don't know, Roger (Ras Rojah) Steffens is the world's leading authority on the life and work of Bob Marley. For many years he has toured the world showcasing parts of his world renowned archives with fans new and old. He has long been a friend of and our REGGAE crew and we look forward to sharing contributions from him here, on the main website ( and on the new Reggae Mobile. Get the MOBILE Version - text 88704 and enter getreggae.

Now, let me turn you over to Rojah and his tale of the Steffens' Mexican Invasion!

MEXICO CITY, FEB. 18-23, 2010
How to even begin to describe one of the most incredible trips of our lives? Why not the Beginning itself? It came in Calgary, Alberta last August, where we met the Mexican reggae band, Rastrillos, (the Plow, with overtones of stir-it-up radicalism), and its charismatic leader, Xopi Loti. After their well received set, Xopi asked me why I had never done my “Life of Bob Marley” presentation in Mexico. “No one invited me,” I replied. “Well,” he said, with ingratiating assurance, “I’ll organize it for you!”
Six months later, we arrived on a sparkling Thursday evening at Mexico City’s international airport. Meeting us were the two promoters with whom Xopi connected us – a beautiful Portuguese woman named Marta and her partner Guillermo (“Memo”), whose huge smiles made us feel immediately welcome.
We landed about seven p.m., through a clearing storm that colored the tumble of clouds deep orange and…green! A spectacular sight like nothing I’d ever seen before. After clearing customs quickly, we jumped into Memo’s SUV, and headed in heavy traffic into the very heart of the city, the historic Zopolo, filled with five hundred year old churches and public buildings and glorious museums. We were immediately struck by the ubiquitous police presence, one or more seemingly on every street corner, and in cars whose blue and red lights were constantly swirling, emergency or not. It definitely had the feel of a police state, but the upside was that, especially in daytime, the crowded, throbbing avenues were considered safe for everyone. (see attached picture and discover the venue that received the heaviest, most obvious police protection in the entire city!)

Our hotel, the Catedral, was just a couple of minutes from the main plaza, down grey-old narrow streets lined with bookstores and a Museum of Caricature, not to mention the adjoining ancient Aztec ruins, partitioned off by a fence of high iron gratings.
Our first dinner was in a hundred year old, very rococo traditional restaurant, with a six man band in 13th century costumes, complete with tights and poufy knickers in rich burgundy shades, singing like budding Pavarottis beneath huge paintings of Mexican grandees and a convent full of nuns feeding the poor.
Afterwards we were taken to a radio station for a 10 – 11 pm interview with a man who introduced himself as an Ethiopian-Jamaica named Keira, who devoted an hour to promoting our Saturday evening event.
At eight the next morning, Zopi and Marta picked us up and took us to a complex that housed the National Cinematheque and the Public Radio Station for a radio show, a tv taping, and two lengthy press interviews. Mid-afternoon we headed to a popular internet station with a huge Central American audience. At each stop we spoke of the contents of the show, and asked everyone to wear their Marley clothing so I could photograph them for what I hope will be a Great Wall in the reggae museum, where the 3,000 pictures we’ve taken all over the world can be displayed with the names of the locations of each printed on the bottom of each shot.
Our venue was very impressive, the 800 seat Teatro Hildalgo, facing a forest-like park filled with hundreds of vendors, part of an enormous underground economy, with a direct view of Latin America’s tallest building, the Latin America Tower. I felt if we could fill even half of the Hidalgo, I’d consider it a success. Marta said the tickets were going well, however, and not to worry.

The day of the show we returned to the Cinemateque compound to do Zopi’s radio show, “Reggaevolution,” with his posse of heavy reggae lovers. He turned over the whole two hours to me, and prompted me with some probing questions, and we had lots of laughs too. When we offered tickets in a trivia contest, the phones exploded with life. “Zopi is our Moctezuma,” said one of his friends, “He’s the jefe of Mexican Reggae, everybody knows him!” As usual in these opportunities, I played a mixture of unreleased Marley and foreign reggae discoveries, roots amalgams from New Zealand, Tuva and Hawaii among them, to much amused approval. Now, at 2:30 in the afternoon, it took us four times as long to return to the hotel, as it had taken to get to the station that same morning. We saw firsthand the mad gridlock of the city’s infamous streets. People weave in and out but never signal, and horns are a near constant aural presence.

Finally back at the hotel, we had a quick bite, then met Zopi and grabbed a cab to go to the theater. Our driver, a broad faced man named Luis, let me sit up front with him so I could take pictures. Immediately I noticed “Rastaman” decaled upon his dashboard. “Do you like reggae?” I asked. He pushed a button, an up popped that word on his radio. I reached in my bag, where I always carry some copies of an unreleased Marley dub collection, and gave him a copy of it. He reached into his pocket with a secret smile and handed me a scrap of newspaper folded over several times. I opened it and discovered a rich green bud of “Mota,” the slang word here for ganja. And all this within the first two minutes. Nice omen.
We crept slowly toward the Hildalgo, and when we arrived shortly after six, two hours before the show, and an hour before the doors were scheduled to open, the line already filled the courtyard and was spilling out onto the street. About one out of every three persons was wearing a Marley t-shirt, and once I set up my books to sell in the lobby, I ventured outside to take pictures of the folks in the Marley gear.
I was immediately surrounded by hordes of young people who all wanted autographs and a picture with me, to tell me stories of what Bob meant to them, thanking me for coming. There was an endless stream of “shake the hand that shook the hand of Bob Marley. It took me almost an hour to “work the line,” which now was stretching almost to the end of the block with people arriving in droves! The doors opened, and a new line began to buy the books and magazines I had brought along, including, sadly, the final issue of the Beat, out of business after 28 years. And of course, everyone wanted me to sign the things they bought. Within the first ten minutes everything was sold out – some $700 worth of stuff. So then I had to start signing fliers and all sorts of clothing, sometimes in existential places. Dozens of lovely young senoritas asked if they could hug me. When I looked up again, the line seemed to be 200 people long. For two hours, all I did was greet fans and still I didn’t get to everyone when it came time to start the show. Later Mary told me that as she sat mid-house behind the computer on which our show is stored, waiting for things to begin, she had to sign a bunch of autographs too.

When I walked onstage, the house was filled to the brim, with standing room only, and it seemed that virtually everyone was under 30. The tall, dark-haired Zopi served as a most compassionate emcee and translator, with an impressive capacity to remember large chunks of information as he spoke at my side between the film clips. Together we told Bob’s life story in English and Spanish. The audience’s attention was rapt and deeply respectful, enthusiastic in all the right places, and most of my jokes received ripples of laughter, putting my fear of bi-lingual presentations to rest forever (providing one has a sensitive interlocutor, such as the striking Zopi, of course).

Perhaps the biggest laugh of the night came with the Carlos Santana story, just before the final film clip, the tale of how he had returned about six years ago to Mexico City, the first time he had performed there in 18 years. A man gave him two spliffs after his show (which was presented by our promoters), and Carlos pocketed them without a second thought. Returning to the States through Houston, he was busted. When the city cops arrived to bring him to jail in the city, they turned out to Hispanics, and when they saw who was busted, and for what a pathetically tiny amount, they started cussing out the customs guys something terrible. Carlos told me a couple of days later that when the cop put the handcuffs on him, he was crying and apologizing. And when they put him in the police car and began driving, they wanted to make things a little easier for him so they turned on the radio – and on came Bob Marley…singing “I Shot the Sheriff.” I wish you could have heard the roar!

At the conclusion, the applause was prolonged, and ended in a Zopi-encouraged standing ovation. Then it was back to the lobby, and another swell of hundreds of people all wanting my attention, and it took another hour to satisfy them all. “You don’t understand,” Marta told me, “in Mexico you are a superstar.” Immodestly, I have to admit I certainly never felt anything even slightly approaching that status before this unforgettable evening. The love that was made manifest was truly overwhelming. It took me several minutes to collect myself before the show started, and I ended up leaving in a euphoric state of shock. And understood physically for the first time what it must be like for a rock star to be swallowed up whole by besieging fans, and why Elvis and Michael never went out in public. It was fun and flattering and filled with affection, but it was ultimately a little frightening too. It took me a couple of days to come back to earth, and Mary and I shake our heads when we look back on that evening and wonder how something like that could ever happen to us. But as I said on stage that night, I realized fully that this was a measure of the respect and affection that Mexico has for the Reggae King, and I’m merely a vessel to carry that spirit forward to many nations. Jah knows how this ever came to be, I was caught up in the flow, but the sense of mission is now more urgent than ever. A whole new, Hispanic, world is opening to us, and Memo and Marta are talking about arranging tours of Mexico, as well as Portugal and Spain, in the next year. The gigantic festivals that Memo produces annually draw over one million people, and he has incredible connections all over the world, so maybe it’s time for me to learn Spanish and bring the words and works of the Prophet to a part of the world I’ve never known. The whole South American continent beckons to us, and Marta could be a superb translator for Brazil. The possibilities are endless!

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