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Ghost of Marley is no threat

"Lemme put it dis way, mon," Ziggy Marley says in heavy Jamaican patois. "My fahda was much much much much much bettah dan me." Everywhere Ziggy goes, people want to know about his late father Bob Marley, the charismatic artist who put reggae music on the world map. They want to know how Ziggy feels about carrying on the legacy, living up to the standard, toting the banner for Bob. It could make a lesser 22-year-old wilt. But not Zig. He's cool. He's not his father, he's Ziggy (real name: David).

He also has an ace in the hole: his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, where Ziggy can come down from the family estate atop exclusive Jack's Hill, hit the streets and hang with the locals in the Trench Town slums. They don't treat him like a god, just like theydidn't treat Bob like a god.

"Me and them down there keep in touch," Ziggy said by phone recently. "We down there kickin' (a soccer) ball, smokin'. People get used to it. We live close by. Sometimes we have our friends comin' up to our house. I never did feel any pressure in Jamaica. You just someone, not nobody big. All the times these things come into my mind is when I come to America."

Ziggy was in the States recently, New York to be precise, doing a round of interviews to promote his third album on Virgin Records, Jahmekya. Like it or not, he finds himself at the forefront of a movement to bring reggae back to international prominence. With its languid, loping rhythms and unhurried pace, reggae is perfect tropical music, but it is sometimes anathema in frenzied urban environs. Who better to resuscitate reggae than the legend's son? Ziggy says he pays such expectations no mind, but one suspects the constant comparisons to Bob creep into his thoughts now and then.

When Ziggy leaves his laid-back enclave to tour these days, it's a family affair. His band, the Melody Makers, includes siblings Stephen, Cedella and Sharon Marley Prendergast. "I never wanted it to be just Ziggy Marley," he says. "It's all family. Everybody contribute. With all the different elements, everything is more interesting and the music is wider."

Jahmekya bears testimony to that. Ziggy and the Melody Makers do not follow any blueprint from the reggae purist handbook, nor do they simply rework the style of their legendary father. Although the album brims with the spiritualism and social commentary that is a reggae staple, the group has taken liberties with rhythms and production. The disc incorporates funk beats, drum machines, rap, rock and sonic touches from the world of hip-hop. The songs come on more taut and edgy than the dreamy sway of much reggae. It could be this nudge toward urban-style intensity that enables reggae to compete with other pop styles.

"We're in our 20s and we like to keep things interesting," Ziggy says. "When we rehearse for the album we look for things that are not familiar, invent things. We don't want the music to get boring. We wanted the mix to be tougher-soundin'."

Yet at its core, Ziggy's new album comes from the reggae muse. "Reggae music is our culture," he says. "Pop music is more like trend. This have roots in our past. The music have somethin' to say 'bout life, about makin' things better for people. It didn't start with my father. And it won't end with me."

There was a time in the late '70s and early '80s when it looked as if reggae, with its exotic air, would become a major player on the commercial pop scene. It seemed it wouldn't be held back even by being a product of Jamaica's Rastafarian subculture, which embraced a "back to Africa" ideal, used marijuana as a sort of sacrament and whose adherents wore dreadlock hairstyles.

At the forefront of the movement was Bob Marley, whose classic songs (Stir It Up, I Shot the Sheriff, Exodus), soulful voice and animated stage presence made him an international star. Then he died of brain cancer in May 1981, and the reggae torch dimmed. Although plenty of talent remained on the scene _ from Dennis Brown to Peter Tosh _ no artist came forward to fill Marley's role as reggae ambassador.

A decade later, Ziggy is not surprised by reggae's setback. "Reggae music is not an easy music to like when it comes to the power in society," he says. "

'Cause it talk about changin' society. You won't find it readily accepted. We're not sayin' what the system say, not doin' what it want us to do. We want to change people and make them aware of things. Society and the system and politicians don't want people to be aware of things. They want people to believe what they have to show 'em."

Ziggy and the Melody Makers have not become the ultimate saviors of reggae as many of the music's aficionados had hoped, but their two strong-selling, Grammy-winning albums _ Conscious Party ('87) and One Bright Day ('89) _ have contributed to the genre's resurgence. There's ample reason to expect Jahmekya to continue the momentum. Reggae bands have cropped up around the world, from England to the United States to Africa. And Ziggy gives them his blessing. "It's people music," he says. "I wouldn't be prejudiced against anybody who plays it."

Even though Ziggy's ample bank book would be the envy of everyone in the Trench Town ghetto, he still does not like all that he sees with the musicians in reggae's birthplace.

"Musicians in Jamaica, everybody not into the music for the same reason," he says. "Many want to make money and live a good life and have a gold chain and have a Benz. Everyone is not into the music for social change like in the '70s. We don't have enough artists now in reggae music who is really dealin' with the problems of the people."