RIP Jah ManTRA, Thomas Robert Anderson

 

This past week, one of my oldest friends and earliest musical compatriots left his body behind and journeyed deeper into the Great Mystery. It’s always impossible to sum up a life in words, but at least I will add my reflections into the mix. Thomas Robert Anderson was known in recent years as ManTRA—but I knew him as a teenager as Rob. Rob was my next door neighbor in Cambridge, where we were both part of what was my very first healing community, the first group of people with whom I shared an explicit spiritual world view and way of life. What a blessing that time was, and Rob was right in the middle of it with me. We lived in the same building as the Western Front, an iconic jazz and reggae club a couple blocks off the Charles River at the corner of Putnam and Western Aves in Cambridgeport. “Free reggae on Friday and Saturday nights” we used to joke, as the thunderous rhythms would shake the whole building, and at 4am the bands would load out via the metal fire escape stairs that ran behind both our adjacent apartments. 

What a time we shared! Our crew was deep in it: doing massage work on each other every day—when it seemed totally normal that we would all give and receive healing touch on the daily, before we re-entered America and realized how unusual and precious, and difficult to embody, what we shared in those years really was.

My time there was 1980-1985—first hanging out, later living in that small apartment that was a hub for so much deep work, great conversations, and social connection. We were young, and idealistic, and passionate, and finding our way—it was among the very best times of my incredibly blessed life. I often reflect that I would not be the man I am today without that early templating in that first conscious community—and I’m pretty sure most of us who were deep in that scene feel the same, at least to some degree. 

We were swimming in deep waters, Rob and I. Working with plants and herbal medicine, the I Ching, bodywork, praying in the ways that felt so natural to us—feeling and connecting with our roots. The late 70s and early 80s were a time when Jamaican reggae and culture were reaching deep into the Boston landscape, and we were all deeply touched by the reverence, the music, the devotion, and natural mystic way of life that reggae gave voice and life to at that time. Rob-I was deeply inspired by that and remained so for the duration of his life. 

Shortly after I left our community and moved to the hills of Western Mass, I picked up the bass guitar and with the help of one of Rob’s other closest friends, Anthony Beckwith, I began learning the way of making music with my brethren—a profound path I am deeply grateful to still be walking today. I’m mostly singing devotional mantra in a practice known as kirtan now, but my first devotional music practice was reggae—as roots as we could feel it and make it, in my case also extruded through the psychedelic atmosphere of the Grateful Dead’s approach to improvisational music and community which also deeply informed my life at that time.

When the band that began as the Roots Penetrators and later renamed ourselves The Equalites was first starting out—before we joined up with David Boatwright from Loose Caboose who was a proper guitarist, vocalist and songwriter—Rob would come out from Cambridge, often with Brian Murphy and Conrad Hauck who also sang and played and joined in our emerging madness, and together they would sing at many of our early gigs, singing, toasting and vibing on the mic while we explored the roots of rhythm and irie vibes together. 

Our lives would never be the same.

As life sometimes has it, Rob and I fell out of touch over the decades—until a couple years back we reconnected when I was heading out to Kauai where I knew he had relocated some decades ago. He invited me to come out and stay with him and his wife Stacey, and so after many many years—maybe 30? 35?—we linked up again and enjoyed a sweet week at his island paradise home: a few pretty flat acres of grassy yard with gardens and coconut palms about a mile off the ocean breeze. We chilled, we reasoned, we made and ate food, we gathered with friends, we dropped back in. I had a chance to be his guest on the weekly reggae radio show he offered for years on KKCR, the local community radio station there, diving deep into the music we loved and that helped bond us when we were youths, way back in the Cambridge crucible.

It was a beautiful thing to reconnect in that way, and I’ll always be grateful for that time. 

Not too many months later he received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which is a pretty unforgiving path to walk. We called each other a number of times in the last few months, but somehow always missed each other, sometimes just by minutes. It’s funny, how we rarely recognize the moment when we have seen or spoken our last with people who have been so important in our lives. You never know. 

At around 430 on Sunday morning April 14, ManTRA breathed his last, and re-entered the Great Mystery. I didn’t know it at the time, but it happened in between a couple of programs I did that weekend; I had just spent the previous evening in Saratoga Springs, teaching the I Ching and singing mantra with some of my community there. I had brought him into the circle there, sending love his way from our sacred gathering. 

As the Rastas sing: One bright morning when my work is over I-man will fly away home.

Bless you Thomas Robert Anderson: Jah ManTRA Unlimited, as you used to say. Fly away home, my brethren, fly away home. 

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