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|January 8-14, 2009
The Wailers honor the memory of Bob Marley by continuing their social revolution
by Ben Corbett
The music will live forever,” says Wailers frontman Elan Atias. “But I don’t think the band can be called The Wailers without Family Man [aka Fams]. There are members that came in afterwards, guitarists like Al (Anderson) and Junior Marvin and all these guys who played with Bob for a few years, but never with that original group that first came out with Catch a Fire and Burnin’, which was Family Man, Carlie (Barrett), Bob, Bunny and Peter, and then Wya (Lindo). Right now there’s only three of them that are still alive. And of course the music lives with Bob’s kids. But The Wailers name itself, it stays with Fams.”
Like most reggae bands, The Wailers seems like an acronym for its changing personnel over the years. But the core of what has become a family tree of musicians began in 1963, when Bob Marley, Bunny Livingston, Peter McIntosh, Beverley Kelso, Junior Braithwaite and Cherry Smith united as a ska band known as The Teenagers. Eventually they changed their name to The Wailing Wailers, and then just The Wailers. By 1966, Livingston (known as Bunny Wailer) and McIntosh (shortened to Peter Tosh) were the last three members, soon taking the spiritual road after being drawn into the Rastafarian movement. The Wailers’ new dreadlocks didn’t jibe with the marketing ideas of their then-current producer, which opened the doorway for The Wailers to hook up with Jamaican music production genius Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Enter the brothers, Aston “Family Man” Barrett and Carlton “Carlie” Barrett. In 1969, Perry’s rotating studio band, known as The Upsetters, recorded one of the hottest reggae hits of the day, “Return of Django.” When the tune made the top-ten chart in Britain, Perry and The Upsetters were asked to do a club tour in England. With the current string of musicians in The Upsetters unable to attend, Perry picked up an act called The Hippy Boys to join him for the tour. Consisting of Glen Adams on keyboard and Reggie Lewis on guitar, the highlight of The Hippy Boys were Family Man and Carlie Barrett, then (and still) known as the meanest rhythm section in Kingston. As Family Man puts it, “You know the drum is the heartbeat and the bass is the backbone. So if the drum is not right, the music has a bad heart, and if the bass is not right, it’s gonna have a bad back. So the music will be crippled.”
The Barretts’ rhythm was centrifugal to the new directions reggae was taking, as Family Man’s distinct bass sound would forever define modern reggae. Referred to these days as the “elder statesman of reggae bass,” Fams’ got his start in the ghettos of Kingston, fabricating guitars from anything he could get his hands on to cultivate his talents.
“I made myself two pieces of wood,” he says about his first bass guitar. “A 2x4 and some 5/8’s plywood. I drew the body on the 5/8’s plywood. I took it to a wood shop and they cut it out for me on a band saw. Then I nailed the neck to the body, and it was one string, and I used a wood ashtray at the bottom for my bridge, ya know, to keep the strings up off the frets. And a nail at the top, which I stretched and wrapped it around. And that was my first bass.
“I borrowed a couple along the way,” he adds, talking about his first factory-made bass guitar. The music produced by those guitars in the 1969/’70 sessions with Perry would revolutionize the music as the high-strung rebellious reggae beat of the time matured with more depth, creating a more spatial sound. Between the Barretts’ rhythm, The Wailers genius, and Perry’s ear, reggae changed overnight. And although the relationship between Perry and The Wailers was short-lived (due to Perry’s infamous and scandalous theft of rights and royalties), the songs cut during that time — such as “Duppy Conqueror” and “Soul Rebel” — would rewrite the rules. On their way out of Perry’s studio, The Wailers grabbed up the Barretts, naming the new rhythm section “The Wailers Band.”
Throughout various incarnations of The Wailers, the Barrett brothers sustained the band until 1987, when, after Carlie’s death, Family Man became the last surviving member from the original tree. Atias, now 33, and having sung with The Wailers for more than 10 years, attributes his life in music to coming from mixed American and North African descent and being raised in a worldly way.
“I just fell in love with reggae at an early age,” he says with a laugh, “but I never thought I’d be doing this. I was 19. I’d never even sang with a band. I never did a sound check or a rehearsal. Never been on stage before. And I was thrown on stage in front of 6,000 people. I was very fortunate and blessed to be able to do what I love, and I still feel that way right now.”
Atias’ invitation to join the band follows The Wailers’ tradition of ups and downs. Since he signed on, it’s been mostly ups, as The Wailers are enjoying a new surge in popularity, recently recording with country singer Kenny Chesney in his song “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”
“Everybody wants to go to heaven, and nobody wants to go down,” Family Man sings into the phone, followed by that deep gut laugh. “That’s what I like about country music, and it’s the same with reggae music. We tell it straight up, the problem. It’s uncut. Without commercials.”
At the moment, The Wailers are much sought-after icons in the industry, and the renewed interest feels a little like the early ’70s when they were just coming out of the underground. It began in 1972, when Marley walked into the studios of Island Records to meet with the company’s founder, Chris Blackwell. The result was The Wailers’ first commercial studio album, Catch a Fire. In 1973 the band released Burnin’, including reworked cuts from the Perry days, like “Duppy Conqueror” and “Small Axe,” along with “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sherriff” (which reached #1 on the American charts the following year after Eric Clapton remade it).
Despite the success, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh quit in 1975, and the band was renamed Bob Marley & the Wailers, featuring Marley, Family Man and Carlie Barrett, and the I-Threes, a female backup trio including Marley’s wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.
With the 1976 release of Rastaman Vibration, Marley and The Wailers continued engaging fans around the globe, moving far beyond the Jamaican coastline. Songs like “Crazy Baldhead” and “Who The Cap Fit” only gelled their religious and political beliefs through music for an ever-expanding international audience. Staying with tradition, The Wailers have recently launched the “I Went Hungry” campaign in hopes of helping to end world hunger. During concerts, bands have “riders” written into their contracts for food and refreshments. After seeing much of their provisions go to waste, they decided to make a change.
“It’s really important to Fams,” says Atias of the foundation. “We basically were on tour, and we were looking around and going, ‘Holy shit, we’re wasting so much food with our riders!’ About 80 percent of it was going to waste. So we decided to give the money allocated to us to the World Food Program. We recruited other bands like Slightly Stoopid and a few others to do the same and give up their riders as well.
“We’re asking other bands and actors and actresses, whoever, to give up their riders, even for a day,” says Family Man. “Nobody eats and drinks all of their food. It’s a waste.”
“And we got the fans involved,” says Atias. “We sell these rubber wrist bands for a couple dollars at our shows.”
“It costs 25 cents to feed one kid,” says Family Man. “If you buy a wristband, you can feed eight kids. They’re dying, and we’re trying to save lives. Life is important.”
In December of 1975, the night before a festival The Wailers were hosting to end the violence in the Kingston ghettos, assailants unknown to this day tried to assassinate Marley, and managed to wound him. The next day, Marley played the show anyway, then fled Jamaica for a year and a half. While in exile in London in 1977, Bob Marley & the Wailers recorded Exodus. With a slightly more polished sound, including a mix of love songs, yet echoing the earlier political themes, the album held the British charts for 56 weeks straight with its singles “Waiting in Vain,” “Exodus” and Jammin’.” On the current Wailers’ tour, the band is doing Exodus in it’s entirety.
“In my opinion it’s even more important today than when it came out,” says Atias of the masterpiece that Time magazine named Album of the Century in 1998. “Wailers means to wail. It’s the voice of the people. We have more travesties, more wars and more problems, from the economies to the environment. The music is so important because everybody can relate to it. The lyrics are very deep but easy to understand. It’s positive music.”
Aside from the ExodusTour, The Wailers are recording an album of new material using all the members that have been Wailers throughout the years. The project also includes special guests who are writing original lyrics. A brainchild of both Atias and Family Man, the band has been plugging away at the as-of-yet untitled effort for a year and a half. Working from unreleased two-inch tapes of original drum tracks made in the 1970s by Family Man’s brother, the band is laying music on top of this rhythmic foundation.
“It’s a collaboration between as many of the original members that are alive today and some dead,” says Atias.
“We’re working on original drum tracks from my brother,” says Family Man. “I’m building a new rhythm around them, a new concept and bass line.”
“There’s Family Man on bass,” says Atias, “Tyrone (Downey) on the keyboards and Wya (Lindo, keyboard) and Seeco (Patterson, percussionist), and the original horn section that plays on all the sessions. And we brought in other A-list artists from different genres — who have been inspired and who have loved The Wailers over the years — to write new songs to these tracks. It’s all new material, but with that trademark Wailers sound.”
On the Bill
The Wailers will perform with Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.
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