The Wailers to Perform at the Cascade Theatre
● By Phil Reser
Stir it Up
By Phil Reser
Photos by Aston Barrett, courtesy of the Wailers
Most music scholars agree that the role of the bass guitar in reggae was established by Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the legendary bass guitarist, musical arranger and record producer renowned for his integral role in shaping the musical direction of Bob Marley & The Wailers throughout their career.
“Drums are the first instrument in music,” explains Barrett. “They used to use it a lot in Africa to send messages across the village and valley and city, everywhere. So we in-grafted Nyabinghi communal (Rastafari music and chanting) and mixed it with Jamaica mento (Jamaican folk music) creating that beat which we call the one-drop. A lot of people have a view that reggae bass is built on simplicity, but it’s so hard to actually get the right feel.”
Formed in the late ‘60s in Jamaica and best known as Bob Marley’s legendary backing band, The Wailers remain the world’s most popular reggae act, selling more than 250 million albums and performing for more than 20 million people around the world. The band is best known for hits like “No Woman, No Cry,” “I Shot The Sheriff” and “Buffalo Soldier.”
Barrett is a self-taught musician, having created his very own bass, a one-stringer, at an early age. He played with his brother Carlton, who would play drums on empty paint cans. Recalling how he built the instrument, he says, “The neck was made out of 2-by-4 wood, and the body was made out of ply. And so I draw the body and let them guys cut it out from there on a band saw. And I nailed it together. I never even screw it. It was a board ashtray I got on to the bottom of it, like abridge, to have the string come off of it. And the string was one curtain rod string. I put it on there and stretch it around the neck and put the wood ashtray as a bridge to leave it off of the frets. When I play it, it go ping, ping, ping, ping. When I took it to the cellar and a wooden floor and I play it, it go louder boom, boom, boom, boom, like a bass.”
Like other would-be reggae musicians, he launched his career in the Kingston nightclubs, playing guitar in a group called The Hippy Boys that he shared with his brother. By 1969, the Barrett brothers were recording with music producer Lee “Scratch” Perry as part of his band, the Upsetters. The high point of the group was its instrumental single, "Return of Django," which became an international hit.
The original Wailers had formed as a vocal harmony group in the Trench Town slum in 1963 as a quintet, but later slimmed down to a trio, composed of Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston. Percussionist Alvin ‘Seeco’ Patterson brought the The Wailers to an audition at Studio One, resulting in their first hit recordings, which were recorded and performed with session musicians.
In 1970, the Wailers signed on to record with Perry, and that’s when they met up with his in-house rhythm section: the Barrett brothers. Impressed with their thick and heavy bass sound, Marley convinced the two to become his rhythm section, and soon afterwards they broke away from Perry and established their own Tuff Gong Label.
From that point on, the brothers provided the essential rhythmic foundation for the recordings and performances by Bob Marley until Marley's death in 1981.
In addition to co-writing the tune, "Rebel Music (3 O'clock Roadblock),” Barrett co-produced 11 albums with Marley. He also became one of the first to incorporate a drum machine on a reggae tune when he and The Wailers recorded "No Woman, No Cry," "So Jah Seh" and "Johnny Was.”
After Marley's death, Barrett helped to put The Wailers band back together, releasing several albums including "I.D.," "Majestic Warriors" and "Jah Message," as well as continuing to tour the world over, while furthering the message of Bob Marley & The Wailers.
"It was my last promise to Bob. We were friends and partners in this music; we worked side by side in the studio and on stage. The music is what brought us together. Bob came looking for me. After we discovered each other, we never left each other, until he left us. And I’m still here doing it. I’d been on the road before Bob, you know. Before Bob, with Bob, and after Bob.”
Sunday, Sept. 17
Cascade Theatre, Redding