Bob Marley: an icon who has also become an industry. (Courtesy photo)

Not long ago, rock critic David Wild noted that his travels had convinced him that the most popular musical artist in the world is Bob Marley. Regardless of whether you're in Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Caribbean, you're likely to find people cranking up one of Marley's classic albums with the Wailers.

During his own lifetime, Marley struggled - with gradual success - to spread reggae rhythms and Rasta messages to an international audience, but since his 1981 death, he's become something of a common denominator for musical listeners across the demographic board.

In the United States, Marley's best-of compilation, Legend, has been certified deca-platinum (10 million units shifted), spent an astonishing 730 weeks on the Billboard charts and dominates the Top Pop Catalog Album category, leaving even such AOR warhorses as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and AC/DC's Back in Black in the dust. With Marley's appeal apparently so inexhaustible, it's hardly surprising that Universal is gearing up deluxe reissues of Marley's 1973 Burnin' and 1975's Live, as well as putting together a new live box set, and there's even talk that Marley family members might polish up some of his raw demos and sanction their release.

An inevitable byproduct of the reggae icon's popularity has been the rampant growth of Marley tribute festivals, often featuring second-rate, dreadlocked wannabes stumbling through odious versions of "Redemption Song" and "Get Up Stand Up."

This weekend's Marley fest at Sunken Gardens bills itself as the "official" deal, and it should benefit from the fact that it's not merely a local showcase, but a touring package with at least a few international reggae performers. Dr. King Coba hails from Nigeria, both Michael Black and Major Riley have roots in Jamaica and Inner Visions are from the Virgin Islands. The lineup also includes Tempe, Arizona's Kindread and a host of acts from Texas.

The Bob Marley Festival takes place at Sunken Gardens Amphitheater (3875 N. St. Mary's) from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, October 11 and Sunday, October 12. Tickets are $10 at the front gate, and children 12 and under get in free. Call 260-9934 for more information. •

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