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Bob Marley (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

Saturday (February 6) would have been Bob Marley‘s 71st birthday, and it’s hard to imagine how much greater his impact on the world of music would have been, were he still around to celebrate. It’s not a case of absence making the heart grow fonder; this is an artist who was venerated during his lifetime, not just a powerful and charismatic songwriter but as a political figure in his home country of Jamaica, so much so that there was even an attempt to assassinate him. He was Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, and Chuck D rolled into one, a man who still single-handedly dominates reggae, the musical genre he helped to create and popularize.

And best of all, his songs continue to live without his presence lighting them from within. So, to celebrate his life, here are some of the less well-known covers of his songs.

There are rules to this game. The songs had to be outside of the normal run of celebrated Marley covers (Eric Clapton, Stiff Little Fingers et cetera) and they had to take the music somewhere fresh. That could be as simple as an arresting voice, or it could mean an entirely challenging new arrangement. Have a listen:

Dionne Bromfield – “Three Little Birds”

Dionne is Amy Winehouse’s goddaughter, a fact that would be hardly worth mentioning if her voice did not contain a good deal of the salt and sass of Amy’s own. And she does one of Bob’s cheerier and most sugary songs justice. It can’t just be a song of mindless bird-filled optimism—a reggae “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”—he was far too self-aware a writer for that. So Dionne’s natural vinegary tones undercut all the sweetness with a sour tone that suggests her optimism is the result of bitter experience.

AHI – “No Woman No Cry”

Every busker has had a crack at this song at some point or another, but Toronto’s AHI beats them all, jamming from the steps of a building in London’s Oxford Circus. This is partly because of that phenomenal voice—made of sand and honey and lark’s warble—but mostly because his daughter is sitting on the steps with him and can’t help but sing along.

Old Crow Medicine Show – “Soul Rebel”

Bob’s songs lend themselves remarkably well to the harmonies and sparkling strings of bluegrass. Possibly because they often have at their core a deep vein of European folk melancholy, the same melodic roots (and the same existential blues) that came across to the Appalachian hills with early settlers from Scotland and the north of England.

The Ending To This Story – “Jammin'”

Lance Eckensweiler (the sole member of The Ending to this Story) is one of many musicians who prefer to work alone, making loops out of hitting various bits on his guitar and then singing and playing over the top. Technically this is as far removed from the telepathic musical idea exchange called jamming as it is possible to imagine—even the prog rock wig-out at the end—but it sure sounds purdy.

Bilal – “Is This Love”

For such a rigidly rhythmic music, reggae doesn’t half lend itself well to interpretation. Bilal takes one of Bob’s reassuring songs of love and transforms it into a soul-jazz exploration with violin, organ and space guitar. It is sometimes quiet and languid, sometimes loud and noodly, but don’t worry, the original song is definitely in there somewhere, hidden in plain sight.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – “I Shot the Sheriff”

This knocks all the other interpretations—from Eric Clapton to the Jackson Five—into a cocked hat. Yes, the backing music may be quite faithful to the original, but no one has come close to matching Screamin’ Jay’s bloodcurdling vocal, which does alter the tone of the song somewhat. The one thing the other versions don’t have is the exceptionally loud voice of a funky Dracula. Or, for that matter, a rundown of the world’s geo-political situation, towards the end.

Matisyahu – “Running Away”

To judge from his voice alone, Bob’s persona was many things, strident, encouraging, chastising and reassuring, but he rarely sounded haunted, as Matisyahu does in the first couple of verses here. It lends an entirely different slant to the chastising Marley lyrics, one suggesting an inescapable personality breakdown, rather than an attack of conscience. And once they embark on the beatbox and dub guitar breakdown, things take on an entirely different hue.

The Chequers – “Get Up, Stand Up”

Although this 1976 cover sounds like what you’d get if you sang a Wailers song over “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” by the Temptations, you may not know that its origins are actually British. The Chequers formed in the mid ’70s from Aylesbury reggae band the Matthias Brothers (so they’d have had a full working knowledge of the Wailers and their work), but they set their stall out as a funk band in the Philly soul style.

Rafael Cardoso – “So Much Things To Say”

The primary musical influence on the generation of musicians who invented ska and reggae in Jamaica were the soul and R&B records coming out of America in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Bob was a huge fan of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, covering their song “Keep on Moving” with the Wailers and citing “People Get Ready” as an influence on his own “One Love.” So it’s lovely to hear Rafael Cardoso (no relation to the Brazilian actor) put a slinky Curtis Mayfield rhythm back into one of Bob’s songs.

Effusion – “Redemption Song”

This is perhaps the farthest distance a Bob Marley song has had to travel from original source material (a relatively low-fi recording of Bob with an acoustic guitar) to cover version. Effusion’s a capella take changes the tone of the song, making a thoughtful essay on political vigilance and community action into something more elegiac, and by definition, defeated. It’s the sort of thing you’d hear at the funeral of a great political leader when all their work was done.

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By Fraser McAlpine