The last original Wailer steers his ship to Dubai, writes Maya Khourchid.
Aston Barrett has been playing bass for the Wailers (best known by an older name, Bob Marley and the Wailers) since the late 1960s. "I've been playing before Bob, with Bob and after Bob," Barrett tells me after the Wailers finish their set at the Desert Rhythm Festival in Dubai Festival City last Friday. The event saw a mildly Jamaican side of Dubai emerge: blankets spread on the floor, lighters swaying to the rhythm and audience members of all ages grooving to hits like Is This Love and Jamming.
Barrett speaks lyrically, with a thick Jamaican accent, and dresses the Rastafarian part by donning a round knit hat striped with the colours of the Jamaican flag. He acts the part too: "We give thanks to Jamaica, and we are here to spread the message globally, we are all earth people," he notes. But Barrett is less a cliché and more the original on which contemporary Rasta stereotypes are based. Marley and the Wailers were central to the popularisation of reggae, and Barrett is the sole remaining member of the group's original line-up.
He's "the captain of the ship", says Elan Atias, the band's current lead vocalist. Barrett's friends and fans know him by another nickname: Family Man. "The family thing doesn't go over with a lot of people," says Michael Hernandez, the Wailers's current production manager. "But to him family is the most important thing." Family Man certainly lives up to his name - he has over 50 children (Hernandez emphasises that he takes care of all of them). Tan Miller, age 16, is one of the seven children Barrett has with his current wife, and he's along for the current leg of the Wailers' tour. In Dubai, he was selling Wailers memorabilia at a stand inside the arena.
A group of 10 or so boys in their very early teenagers crowd around Miller's stand, checking out T-shirts and bracelets. Half an hour previously they had been waiting anxiously outside the concert's "meet and greet" area, desperate for a chance to meet Family Man or Elan. They don't realise they are bargaining over the price of T-shirts with one of their idol's sons, and Miller doesn't seem like the type to broadcast the fact. He says it is "pretty cool" to have a famous father, but he is far more interested in playing with his cell phone than talking about it further.
Atias is a different story. He's a relatively recent addition to the Wailers (he first performed with them in 1997), and is clearly enthralled at being a part of the iconic group. He also obviously reveres Family Man. While Barrett quietly sips his beer, breaking silence now and then with brief comments on "spreading the love" and "the message", Atias eagerly sings his captain's praises. "Family Man is the only man in the world, the only bass player where you can tell its him just from the bass-line, there's no other artist in the world," he says. He runs this by Hernandez, who agrees. "A lot of hip-hop wouldn't be here, you wouldn't hear those rhythms if it wasn't for this guy, it's unbelievable how hip-hop developed out of Jamaica..."
As did the Rasta reggae scene, which tends to include smoking substances slightly stronger than cigarettes and highly illegal in the UAE. But neither Attias, Barrett nor Hernandez take issue with the local laws. "We think everywhere should be like Amsterdam," Atias says. "But to each their own... Obviously we don't want people to be crackheads." "Our goal is to keep kids in line so they don't walk on the wild side," Barrett adds in his relaxed Jamaican drawl.
Besides, points out Hernandez, the comparatively strict laws have their upside. "It gives some of us the time to dry out for a little bit."