It has been 36 years since Bob Marley passed away, but his band The Wailers is still going strong. In fact, it was Marley’s dying request that the band keep the music alive.
The lineup today looks a little different than it did since Bob died in 1981, but many current members have familial ties to the original members. Aston Barrett Jr., the band’s musical director and drummer, is the son of original Wailers bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Familyman or “Fams” continues to slap da bass for The Wailers when available. Back-up singer Shema McGregor is the daughter of Judy Mowatt, who was an original member of the I Threes, Marley’s trio of female backup singers (which also included his wife Rita).
Rounding out the blood ties is Wailers lead singer Josh Barrett, who is a distant cousin of Fams. Originally from New Jersey (his great-grandfather was born in Jamaica), Josh didn’t learn of his relation to the storied bass player until he heard Bob Marley and the Wailers music for first time at the age of 14.
“I would say it was an inward knowing. When my brother first played Wailers music for me, we looked on the credits and saw Barrett,” Josh remembers.
His instincts, as it turned out, were true. Ironically Josh had learned to play bass two years prior and played in his church’s band. He and his brother would listen to the Bob Marley and the Wailers album “Legend” while driving to and from church.
Josh first met Fams in 2003, and later met Aston Jr. in 2012, when his band Judah Tribe opened for The Wailers. The two young men kept in touch, and in 2014 Josh was asked to join the band as its lead singer.
“It’s very humbling because of what this music means to people around the world. One of the greatest privileges of doing this work is to see the impact and also the need for this message around the world still,” Josh says. “You have a generation, also, that never heard this message. So we’re in a unique position to be able to carry this to a new generation, and we hope and pray and know that this message will continue to carry on.
“One of my favorite ones is a song called ‘Jah Is Mighty.’ Me love classic Wailers [songs] ‘Keep Your Love Lights Burning’ and ‘Who The Cap Fit.’ ‘Rastaman Vibration’ is an anthem forever and ever Amen. Too many to name, but me love those songs because at a time when I was in search, those songs gave me strength and encouragement and guidance until we could get to where we could stand on me own two feet.”
Interest in the band hasn’t waned, with Josh estimating they play around 250 shows a year. Fams and other original members Donald Kinsey and Tyrone Downie still tour with The Wailers when they can.
“Those are our elders,” Josh says. “Just to be able to sit with our elders and learn from them and share our experience, it validates the whole thing for I and I. We’re proud to be a part of and carry this struggle.”
Josh affectionately refers to the younger lineup as “Wailers 2.0.”
For those who haven’t seen The Wailers live, it is an experience to be had, and not just because of the overwhelming aroma of marijuana. As with any classic act, nothing quite compares to a live performance with a room full of people singing every lyric in unison. The Wailers live proves to be an even more spiritual experience, due to the reggae music’s close ties to Rastafarianism.
“It’s (reggae music’s) onset was a propagation of the Rastafarian message, so it’s very much one and the same,” Josh, who is also a practicing Rastafari, says. “Although it has a cultural side that is just dance and feel good, reggae music is — especially The Wailers’ music — is definitely Rastafari.”
Going on three years with the band, Josh has no plans to leave anytime soon.
“Whatever Jah will for I and I. As the great Bob Marley said, ‘Once a Wailer, always a Wailer.’ There’s no retirement from Jah work. As long as Jah give I and I health and strength, anytime Wailers need I and I there.”
Music lovers will want to mark their calendar for this bucket list show.
The Wailers play at Wooly’s Jan. 24. ♦
Photo: John R Widom