Wailers' reggae beat lives on

By Scott Kara

The man with the soothing Jamaican accent won’t take full responsibility for the most important reggae album made, but Wailers’ bass player Aston "Family Man" Barrett accepts a fair chunk of the glory for 1974’s Natty Dread by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Okay, to be fair, let’s rephrase that to say, arguably, Natty Dread is the most important reggae album made.

Whether he is getting royalties from the album is another story - more on Barrett’s bitter dispute with Marley’s wife Rita and family later - but he’ll tell you he is hugely responsible for the album that took reggae to the mainstream, thanks to songs such as Lively Up Yourself, No Woman, No Cry, and the Barrett-penned, Rebel Music (3 o’clock Road Block).

"From 1974, Bob Marley, myself and my brother [Carlton "Carlie" Barrett, the drummer] became partners and that’s where we set the real international standard for reggae music worldwide. Bob has gone to rest now but I am here, I am the colonel, I am the lieutenant," he says, laughing.

Barrett has taken over the Wailers’ name and still tours the world playing gigs. The band, also featuring Wailers’ guitarist Junior Marvin, who played on Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978) and Uprising (1980), play the St James tomorrow night.

The Wailers formed in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963 and were originally a vocal group comprising Bob Marley, Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh), Bunny Livingston (later Bunny Wailer), Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso, and Cherry Smith.

By 1966, Braithwaite, Kelso and Smith had left the group. By the late 60s the remaining trio were playing instruments and had hooked up with the Barrett brothers.

Marley first noticed the Barretts after hearing their band the Hippy Boys and through their work with Lee Scratch Perry and the Upsetters.

"That was what first brought us together. He sent for that bass player, the one they call Family Man. When he discovered me. He was surprised, he couldn’t believe Family Man was a youth, one year younger than them.

"When I play bass I pretend I am singing baritone. That’s why I create that melody climb, to make the music swing and sway, so the singer can flow on top of that."

The Wailers signed to Island Records in the early 70s and released Catch A Fire in 1973 and Burnin’ later that year.

"We came together in the late 60s as singers and players of instruments, and we were able to spread the message to all corners of the Earth," says Barrett.

But when composer/singer/percussionist Bunny Livingston and guitarist Peter Tosh left the band around 1973, it was uncertain whether the Wailers would continue.

"Bob said, ‘What are we going to do, there’s only three of us?’ I said, ‘The three of us can do it man, it’s the power of the trinity’.

"I rearranged our music room and turned it into a demo studio so we could record our new songs and get them ready for the studio, and we did and came [up] with that album called, Natty Dread," he says, pronouncing the name of the album with grinning satisfaction.

Barrett is still involved in a long and bitter dispute with the Marley family - fronted by Rita and Marley’s oldest child Cedella - over publishing royalties and other matters.

Touting himself as the "mastermind of the Bob Marley and the Wailers’ sound", Barrett says if it wasn’t for him the Marley family would still be living in the ghetto of Trenchtown in Jamaica.

"I am the one who made the Marley family so big and happy now. I am the one who created the music, arranged it, the bass player, the band leader.

"I play many other instruments on each album. And, of course, I am the sound engineer. I am the mastermind of the sound."

He and Marley became partners from 1974 onwards but "Rita Marley and Island [Records] pretend it never existed".

Yes, Barrett may come across as a miffed bandmate wanting the recognition and payment he deserves, especially since many of the former Wailers are now dead.

Marley died on May 11, 1981, of cancer, while Tosh and Carlton Barrett were murdered in separate incidents in 1987.

But for Barrett, who divides his time between Kingston, South Florida and Washington DC, the main focus is the music, not the money.

That’s not to say he doesn’t want his share. "Righteousness must exalt over weakness. They have the name Marley but none of them think like Bob."

According to Barrett, the Wailers’ show today is just like the old days. "We keep things the original way, the authentic style of whatever you hear on the recording.

"That’s what we give you, live and direct. And although we don’t have Bob Marley, Bob Nesta Marley with us, we’ve got [singer] Gary "Nesta" Pine.

"When he’s performing if you close your eyes, man, you think Bob Marley is on stage. The music is right and the lyrical message is still the same." 

Performance

* Who: The Wailers, supported by Katchafire

* What: Yes, it is Bob Marley’s band

* When: Tomorrow night

* Where: St James Theatre, Auckland

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