Waving red, green and gold flags, thousands of Ethiopians surged towards the stage in the city's main square when the concert burst into life with mesmeric rhythms from Burundian drummers, Jamaican reggae beats and Ethiopian dancers.

Fans from the United States to South Africa made the trip for the concert to honour reggae icon Marley, who considered Ethiopia the spiritual home of his Rastafarian faith and whose music married revolutionary lyrics with a belief in "One Love".

For dreadlocked Rastafarians the concert was an affirmation of their faith, which considers smoking marijuana a sacrament sanctioned by the Bible and worships Ethiopia's late emperor Haile Selassie, who died in 1975, as a living messiah.

Rastafarian icon

Marley's songs crossed racial
barriers and had global appeal

"This is Zion, man, God is black," Yohannes, who was born in Trinidad and lived in Britain before moving to Ethiopia, said.

"Bob Marley, all of his songs are fire to Satan, the dragon quake. Bob Marley is still alive, vibrant style, Rastafari," he said, dressed in white robes and clutching a wooden pole flying Ethiopia's flag.

With police dressed in blue camouflage uniforms frisking people entering the Meskel square for the concert, there was no sign of the kind of pall of marijuana smoke that sometimes accompanied Marley's shows.

Reburial controversy

The acts were due to run all day, featuring performances by Marley's widow Rita Marley, and his sons Damian, Ziggy and Stephen, as well as Benin's Angelique Kidjo and Ethiopian singer Teddy Afro.

"He struggled through music for all Africa, for freedom, for one love"

Bob Marley fan Daniel Yrade

Rita Marley provoked controversy last month when she said Marley would be reburied in Ethiopia as part of the celebrations, but she has since distanced herself from the remarks, saying the reburial would happen in due course.

Raised in one of Jamaica's toughest ghettos, Marley became the developing world's first global star by bringing reggae music to the world with hits like "No Woman, No Cry" and "I Shot the Sheriff". He died of cancer in 1981, aged 36.

Some Ethiopians, many of whom are Orthodox Christians, have reservations about the Rastafarian fondness for marijuana and reverence for their late emperor.

Universal appeal

Such difference were set aside by the crowd gathered for the tribute to Marley, whose songs of African unity and personal and political emancipation crossed racial barriers and musical genres to resonate across the world.

"He struggled through music for all Africa, for freedom, for one love," said Daniel Yrade, 31, resting in the shade.

For Ethiopians, many of whom regret the indelible images of starvation broadcast around the world during a 1984 famine in which a million people died, the concert was a chance to present the vibrant side of their society.

"It's the first time I have seen this kind of ceremony in Ethiopia in my life," said Mesele Woldgiorgis, 41, a satellite technician. "The image of Ethiopia has completely changed."