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The Wailers in Colombo: Taking Trenchtown Global

With a packed tour schedule, The Wailers keep Bob Marley’s legacy burning bright

Govind Dhar May 27, 2015
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Frontman Dwayne Anglin Danglin of The Wailers performing in Colombo. Photo: Sandun de Silva

Frontman Dwayne Anglin Danglin of The Wailers performing in Colombo. Photo: Sandun de Silva

Gehan Fernando is a picture of grace-under-fire. The director of Mainstage events has booked The Wailers, Bob Marley’s famous backing band, to play in Colombo on a gusty day and a sound check on the beach of the former governor’s mansion [”˜former’ being 1806, and ”˜mansion’ being the stately Mount Lavinia Hotel] is underway. What is it about beaches and Bob Marley that seems so eternally joined at the hip? “Reggae music is loved by so many. It just works with our island culture,” says Fernando. “The one-love Marley message is particularly relevant for our country.” And he’s not wrong. Across Sri Lanka, two faces tend to dominate the art work on the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw ”“ Che Guevara’s and Bob Marley’s.


 “The young generation who couldn’t come to the concerts when Bob was alive are coming now to listen to the music and the messages are just the same. His message is still relevant. The music lives on,” – Barrett


 

 

Bassist Aston ”˜Family Man’ Barrett with his son Aston Junior on drums. Photo: Sandun de Silva

Bassist Aston ”˜Family Man’ Barrett with his son Aston Junior on drums. Photo: Sandun de Silva

Seventy years have passed since Bob Marley was born, and 34 since he died. Yet, his famous backing band is still touring the globe, belting out the iconic Rastafarian’s songs from New York to Tokyo. For those of us mellowing with age, Marley’s original message is not entirely obscured: the wisdom of the Rastafari; clarion calls against big government and capitalism; and stark reminders of poverty and strife in Trenchtown [Marley’s home town in the 1960s], and wider Jamaica. For kids growing up today, reggae is definitively retro ”“ ”˜dad’s music’ or the well-worn soundtrack to beachshack holidays in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. To wit, a quick search of the term ”˜reggae’ on some of the leading online music magazines leads to dusty lists a la ”˜the best reggae albums of all time’, or tellingly, obituaries of its pioneers. However, Bob Marley still appears amongst the top stories, and the Wailers aren’t far behind. If you look up the stats, Marley’s records still sell at up to 5000 a week in the US, which explains the blistering number of venues the Wailers play State-side. Legend, Marley’s posthumous greatest hits collection has sold over 30 million records globally, and this magazine rated it #46 out of the greatest 500 albums of all time. So either there’s a universal appeal to Marley-music, or the growing legion of ”˜urbalists simply can’t see anyone dethroning the patron saint of Rastafari.

Says Barrett, "“I’ve been on the road since 1969. I can’t chill; I have to keep working.” Photo: Sandun de Silva

Says Barrett, “They cover so much of my lines, but I’m still waiting on the revenue.” Photo: Sandun de Silva

“It’s still a thrill to play these songs,” says Aston ”˜Family Man’ Barrett, in a deep Jamaican baritone. The bassist played band leader to Marley’s Wailers from 1974, when Marley split with the original Wailers, Peter McIntosh and Neville ”˜Bunny’ Livingstone. ”˜Fams’, as he is known, has been working his now-legendary setlist for four decades, and is still taking the Trenchtown message worldwide. “The young generation who couldn’t come to the concerts when Bob was alive are coming now to listen to the music and the messages are just the same. His message is still relevant. The music lives on,” he says, before adding, “I am the architect; the mastermind behind the success of the Wailers!”

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The family members and musicians, post-Marley, have gone through several wrangles, splits and incarnations, but this iteration under Family Man’s stewardship is widely seen as the rightful title-bearer of the Wailers mantle. Barrett, who is 69 this year, is credited with putting the basslines to many of Marley’s best-known songs and was featured among LA Weekly’s ”˜Top 20 all-time greatest bassists’ list. I ask him what it’s like being a living legend. “I’ve been working on it over the years,” he says with understatement. “I’ve been on the road since 1969. I can’t chill; I have to keep working.” Foremost on his mind today, is being paid his due. “They cover so much of my lines, but I’m still waiting on the revenue,” he says. Famously, Barrett brought a case against Rita Marley, [the icon’s widow and head of his estate] for 60 million pounds in 2006 for unpaid royalties to him and his brother [Carlton Barrett, who played drums for the Wailers] from their tunes, but was dismissed by the UK courts. “Everywhere I go, I hear my basslines – cover versions of it all the time, on TV, even in cartoons. They must remember my slice of the pie ”“ even the crumbs!”

The Wailers’ present frontman, Dwayne ”˜Danglin’ Anglin was not alive when Bob Marley died but is clear in his purpose. “My job is not to fill Bob Marley’s shoes,” he says. “But I have to sing his songs with the same conviction and sincerity as he did. You have to be a believer – that this is the most conscious height of meditation and music.” I ask him if reggae still holds its own today. “There’s always great talent coming out of Jamaica, but they don’t always have the push to go global. The state of the music is still progressing though.”

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True to his sobriquet, Barrett has managed to keep it in the family, with some of his 42 sons and daughters being part of the latest lineup of the Wailers. His son, Aston Junior plays drums and organ for the band, and bass guitar for Julian Marley and Lauryn Hill [who was once married to one of Bob’s seven sons, Rohan Marley]. Barrett’s other sons Kevin and Ian help behind-the-scenes. “He’s done his time,” says baby-faced Ian who stage manages The Wailers. He lets us in on some of the Wailers’ secrets, including the fact that the preferred choice of libation for warming up the singers’ vocal chords is not coconut water or soft drinks, but Hennessy cognac. “Without it, the show’s not as good,” he says jokingly.

The crowd at Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo, who showed up for The Wailers concert. Photo: Sandun de Silva

The crowd at Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo at  The Wailers concert last week. Photo: Sandun de Silva

Family Man says that he is working on original material all the time including an instrumental album and a reggae-country album. “Country music and reggae music,” he says emphatically. “They are both related; they both tell it uncut, from the heart!”

The Wailers have a blistering line up of tour dates spanning Dubai, Doha, Tokyo, Dublin and over 30 stops in the US in 2015 alone. Family Man’s stamina for such a strenuous world tour is awe-inspiring. But as some two and a half thousand people gather on Colombo’s Mount Lavinia beach to sing every word of Buffalo Soldier and Get Up, Stand Up, with boisterous glee, it is evident that Bob Marley might have been dead some 34 years, but his legend still reigns supreme.

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