Keisha-Gaye Anderson

the door

Esther Anderson on her new film, "Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend"

February 9, 2014

Nonchalance is an innate state of being for Caribbean people. This is not to be confused with lethargy or apathy—quite the opposite.

On any red-herring-and-boiled-green-banana Saturday morning, my father would say, “Keisha, pass me di Pickapeppa Sauce,” followed by, “You know, Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed your Aunt Clara’s cooking.” (My grand aunt was a domestic worker at Round Hill hotel near Montego Bay, which was one of the most exclusive and expensive hotels in the world during the 1950s).

Or, it would be an afternoon of the baseball game blaring from the kitchen radio at the same time as the TV with the busted rabbit ears was watching us, when he would say something like, “That Sidney Poitier, is a good actor, eeh?” after which he’d add, “You know, you have a cousin who is a movie star. Acted in a film with him.”

Just like that. No more, no less. My dad would drop a jewel of an anecdote or some little-known history with subtlety, the way dew quietly encloses blades of grass right before sunrise. His pride was wrapped in humility and animated by humor. That was his default state.

Years later, through the magic of social media, I would happily connect with that movie star cousin from the small town of Highgate, St. Mary, where she and my dad spent their childhoods.

I would learn that Esther Anderson was much more than Poitier’s leading lady in the film A Warm December (1973), for which she received an NAACP Image Award. She was also a multi-talented writer, photographer, and filmmaker, whose career highlights included working as a model, actress, and dancer in the United Kingdom, and helping to develop Island Records with Chris Blackwell, where she would promote and manage artists like Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and the Wailers, and help to write such international hits as "Get Up, Stand Up."

But most of all, she was cool. And humble, like my dad.

In spite of her worldwide success, Esther remains to this day committed to developing and promoting up-and-coming artists, as well as speaking out on issues of social justice.

Esther took time out to talk with me about her latest film, Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend (2011), co-produced with Gian Godoy. The film was an Official Selection at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and UNESCO Honor Award winner at the Jamaica Reggae Film Festival. The film has gone on to receive several other honors and has been screened in several countries.

Incorporating footage Esther shot in the early 1970s--which was lost and then recovered after more than 30 years--the film presents never before seen images of Bob Marley and the Wailers before they were an international musical sensation, and provides a unique insight into the life of the artist and genesis of the music that would eventually take the world by storm.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson:
What stands out most about your formative years in Jamaica?

Esther Anderson:
I was born in a changing world, in a secluded lush valley in the Parish of St. Mary where a deep river provided a refreshing shelter. I learned about a natural way of living from my mother, and about architecture from my father and grandfather who were architects. I grew up talking to all people, old and young, black and white, not afraid of communicating. The whistling farmer, my father's music, my mother's magical knowledge…I grew up strong, athletic and healthy.

KGA: Can you share some of the experiences that sparked your passion for social justice?

EA: It possibly has to do with he legacy of my great, great grandfather William Wymess Anderson, who was a protector of the newly freed enslaved people after Emancipation in 1835. It also has to do with American Folk Music, which spoke to me vividly. Artists like Bob Dylan and Richie Havens. But before the music, I was aware of the Civil Rights movement. Don't forget that when I arrived in London, racism was standard practice, and since then has been swept under the carpet.

KGA: You emigrated to England at quite a young age. How did that impact your connection to your Jamaican culture and influence your world outlook?

EA: It liberated me from the conventions imposed in the colonies. When sugar was king and Jamaica was the gem in the British Empire, the island was solely a source of income for the British slave owners. I grew up in a Jamaica that was forging her freedom from colonial rule, led by the leaders of the two main parties: Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante, inspired by the social and political movements that were shaping the world before the second world war. Social justice for all Jamaicans, the creation of the main workers unions, the layout of a new sustainable economic model based on the principle of democratic rule was changing Jamaica. But the institutions of colonialism and their dominant ideology was still running the country. And still is today. My first years in England exposed me to a new freedom that was about to change the whole world. London became the centre of this Cultural Revolution that could have never happened in Jamaica in my time. Rock and Roll and folk music, the contemporary artists in London and New York, had a great influence on what happened in the rest of the world. I identified with the power of change in the arts and in politics. We chronicled the time where we were living.

KGA: What have you tried to accomplish philosophically and artistically through your film, television, and musical career?

EA: I trained as an actress at the Actors Studio in London and trained as a photographer with Francine Winham, and spent my teenage years in recording studios from the times of mono to stereo. I learned the process of making records when I was very young. Once I looked through Geoff Unsworth viewfinder at the age of 19 on the set of Beckett with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I learned to frame a picture. I wanted to put my country on the map. I wanted to use the medium of filmmaking to do that, to help give my country a voice.

KGA: Clearly, you know how spot talent, and were also instrumental in getting Jamaican music and film out to the wider world. Why do you think Jamaica is such an incubator of exceptional talent?

EA: Jamaican is such a melting pot of different nations that are passionate to express themselves. After the war, cinema and sounds from the outside world became their culture. Their real culture was taken away when their ancestors were taken into slavery. The talent, a poet or storyteller, comes from the injustice that their nation suffered, expressing the injustice they have become aware of. Before that, nobody recognized their talent. This incredible energy needs direction, bursting to come out. I felt it with the Wailers. Our militancy comes from the injustice we Caribbean people suffered.

KGA: Why did you feel moved to work toward building the Jamaican “brand”? How did you think this would benefit Jamaican people and the world at large?

EA: We wanted to show our people as a spiritual nation. You cannot have four hundred years of religion and nothing good coming out of it. Long before the Rastafarians had a voice, Jamaican people were a spiritual nation, although people didn't know about it. It is not strange that a true Rastafarian's philosophy and way of life is peace and love to your neighbor and living a natural life.

KGA: Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend provides a rare look at the artist at work. What can you share about Bob Marley’s work ethic, sense of mission, and dedication to his craft?

EA: He believed in himself and he believed in what he wanted to achieve, therefore he was open and ready to receive. He asked me to help him. He was very serious about rehearsals, being on time, being professional, not wasting time. He was always ready to write songs. The whole time we were together we did not waste time. We were developing ideas and always writing. In the recording studio, he was definitely the boss.

KGA: What do you consider to be the greatest contribution of the Rastafarian movement?

EA: Grounding the people, in the sense that the people who were disenfranchised after slavery could turn to Africa towards a man who had descended from one of the oldest kingdoms going back to King Solomon. To spread to the world the philosophy of peace and love.

KGA: What social issues are you most passionate about these days? Any projects you’d like to mention?

EA: I am passionate about keeping up the resistance against Monsanto, the chemical criminal polluting our Mother Earth. Also to bring to light the European countries who are benefiting from robbing the African wealth for a third time. And the people of Africa cannot get fresh water to feed their babies.

KGA: What will you be working on next?

EA: We are in preproduction of a box set of video poems called BIKO, the works of Ghanaian poet Kwasi Biko, by a group of poets from England and myself.

For more information on the film Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, including upcoming screenings, visit them on Facebook by clicking the photo above.