It’s easy to look at the modern version of the Wailers, the band that backed Bob Marley on some of the most beloved and popular reggae music ever created, and be cynical about them. It’s easy to look at the lineup, and note that only two of the members, bassist Aston “Familyman” Barrett and guitarist Donald Kinsey, actually played with Marley while he was creating masterpieces like Uprising, Catch a Fire, Natty Dread, and Rastaman Vibration.
It’s easy to think of this group as merely a live version of a greatest hits album, pumping out “One Love,” “No Woman, No Cry,” and “Redemption Song” to a pleasantly stoned, nostalgic audience.
Those are easy things to think. And they’re also complete bullshit.
That superficial thinking ignores the decades that this version of the band (which re-formed in 1981 after Marley’s death) have put into their brand of socially conscious reggae. It ignores the fact that this version of the band has actually put out three albums of their own original material and they’re working on a fourth. And it ignores how this has become much more than a band for those who have followed in Familyman’s footsteps, most notably his son, Aston Barrett Jr., who serves as the drummer and musical director for the modern-day Wailers.
“I started with my father in 2009,” Barrett says. “I used to tour with Julian Marley (Bob’s son), and I thought I was going to stay there but my father called me in 2009, and said, ‘I need you, because I have no one around me that I can really trust.’ Being the son of a Wailer, I just couldn’t see that music dying, knowing that my father and the rest of them were getting older and starting to have health problems. So I came back, and I’ve been with him ever since.”
Barrett Sr. wasn’t around a lot during Aston Jr.’s childhood, but the son always had a strong feeling of respect for the father, both because of Familyman’s musical legacy with the Wailers and because Aston Jr.’s mother instilled it in him.
“My mother was a huge fan of my dad’s,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if they had any problems. She always told us, ‘At the end of the day, he is your father and your king, and you must respect him, even if he’s not there all the time. He makes sure you guys are taken care of.’ It was an honor to have a mother like that who could teach me.”
The other reason the Wailers are still relevant is the time we live in. It’s about as dark, politically and societally speaking, as it’s been in America in a long time, and the band’s messages of peace, awareness, and positivity, whether in old songs or new, are sorely needed right now. And Aston Jr. is entirely aware of it.
“I feel very strong about that,” he says. “I tell you how I am; I’m the kind of guy who believes in unity and believes that you must do good to people and believe in karma. But I don’t believe in condemning people, controlling people, or telling people what to do. We represent something positive. And no one can change me from staying positive, because I have seen what positive things do.”
But he’s also aware that the music, and the message, have evolved, something else that his father and Bob Marley taught him.
“Our new message today is to stand firm in Babylon,” Barrett says. “Back in the day it used to be ‘Beat down Babylon,’ but there are so many people today who are trying to get in the system and make a difference, so we want to enlighten the good people, and the people who have a heart. When you take antibiotics, you kill the good and the bad bacteria, you know? We don’t want to kill the good bacteria. We don’t want to be like an antibiotic. We want to make sure that we save the good ones, the good cells!”
That’s the message part. The music part is ever-changing, as well, but as the Wailers work in the studio on their first new album since 1994, Barrett, an experienced player who’s worked with Lauryn Hill and Stephen Marley in addition to his time with Julian, is thrilled that the thick, bottom-heavy analog sound that graced the band’s 1970s work has come back in style in the digital age.
“One thing my father told me is that Bob and him, they always moved with technology,” he says. “They were always moving with the times. My father said that when the ’80s came and into the ’90s, something felt different about the sound. It started to get a little thin, especially for reggae. But they had to go with the times. They had to decrease some of their levels to go along with whatever was going on in the digital world, until now. The industry found a way to bring back that beefy analog sound. It’s gonna be back closer to the sound they had back then, just with no noise. Now with Pro Tools, you can get the same sound without a tape machine. It’s like it was back in the day, when music gave you goosebumps.”
But regardless of whether Barrett is playing the old songs onstage, or new songs in the studio, for him, being in the Wailers isn’t a job as much as it is being part of a tradition.
“Whatever legacy my father didn’t get to fulfill, it’s my job to fulfill,” he says. “I would never compare myself to my father; my father is mighty. But I would never decrease my level. I am not him, but I still have to be on the standard that he is on, or higher. He’s already made the albums of the century, and I would never compare to that, but what my father taught me is priceless, and I honor him.”