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Trenchtown tradition: The Wailers keep reggae’s signature sound and legacy alive

by Rachel Reeves

More than half a century after Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers signed with Island Records and more than 40 years since Marley’s untimely death, the Wailers remain one of the world’s most popular reggae bands. Their compilation album, Legend, which features such tracks as “No Woman, No Cry” and “Redemption Song,” is still the best-selling reggae album of all time.

The original Wailers, who were The Teenagers before they were The Wailers, have passed away – Marley died in 1981, Peter Tosh died in 1987, and Bunny Wailer died in 2021 at 73 years old – but the band is still touring and still winning awards. It’s composed of the original members’ relatives and students, who have been musically trained by Wailers and personally steeped in the Wailers’ Rastafarian ethos.

Marley and the original members saw music as a tool of revolution that could lead people into greater spiritual and social consciousness.

“When I say ‘Wailers,’ I take it very, very seriously,” Aston Barrett Jr, the current bandleader, told an interviewer. “The Wailers’ name means so much to everyone around the world. It’s not something you can play around with.”

Barrett Jr. is the son of Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who was recruited to The Wailers, along with his brother, drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett, in the early 1970s. UB40 frontman Ali Campbell once said the Barrett brothers invented “reggae as we know it.”

After Marley died, Family Man led the Wailers through the recording of three studio albums and many world tours. When he retired in 2019 – he’s 76 now – he passed the torch to his son.

Barrett Jr., who plays the drums, told an interviewer that while he didn’t grow up in the poverty that inspired the reggae of his forebears, his parents were intentional about exposing him to it. They’d take him to Trenchtown, where he’d bathe in the river – an experience he described as “like a totally different thing man.”

“They never let me forget my roots,” he said. “And that is how I was still able to keep the Wailers sound. If they didn’t bring me back to the roots I wouldn’t have understood it.”

In August 2020, the Wailers released a long-awaited LP with Sony Music Latin. Produced by Emilio Estefan, One World features Cuban and urban Afro-Latin rhythms and a host of eclectic features, including French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet, rapper Paul Anthony, Puerto Rican reggaeton singer Farruko, and cameos from members of the I Threes, which featured Marley’s wife Rita and often provided backup vocals for Marley, as well as three of Marley’s children. In 2021, the album was nominated for a Grammy in the best reggae album category.

There have been other Wailers – the Original Wailers, The Legendary Wailers – formed by other musicians who worked with the Wailers at one point. But the original Wailers have maintained both the integrity of the sound and the ethos of the Rastafarians who popularized reggae on a global scale. Barrett Jr. described the Wailers philosophy simply and succinctly: “Wailers music,” he said, “brings you closer to the Almighty.”

The Wailers play Sunday May 7 at Beachlife Festival.


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