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The Wailers On Their History, Evolution And How Much Malta Has Changed

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Prior to his tragic passing in 1981, Bob Marley humbly, said:

“People want to listen to a message, word from Jah. This could be passed through me, or anybody. I am not a leader. Just a messenger. The words of the songs, not the person, is what attracts people.”

Since that fateful day in ’81, The Wailers have carried their torch of peace, love, and unity throughout the world, with an unyielding determination to reach people from all different backgrounds with Bob’s words, The Wailers’ rhythms, and His Majesty Haile Selassie I’s spirit – the message of Rastafari.

Lovin Malta caught up with Junior Marvin, Josh Barrett, Aston Barrett Jr., and Shema McGregor of The Wailers, ahead of their World-Tour stop at the Aria complex in San Gwann.

“I was here the first time The Wailers came to Malta, twenty-some odd years ago…and the island was certainly different. It wasn’t so built up. It wasn’t so modern. Yeah, it’s changed…”
Junior Marvin said, while Josh and Aston Jr. peered through the Hotel Excelsior’s window overlooking the Marsamxett Harbour, exchanging words of longing for the natural salt water. The Wailers’ rigorous and ambitious world tour hasn’t granted them much spare time to swim. It was clearly nice for them to be back on an island after so many days on the road.

“When I first came, I remember it being very family orientated here. Young kids took us to their parents, the parents took us to the grandparents, and we’d sit down and talk – then we’d have a meal…You can’t leave their houses in Malta until you eat something!” Junior said, with a dash of nostalgia, and a Maltese cross twinkling from his neck.

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Junior Marvin performing in San Gwann, clutching a Maltese Cross

The previous visit Junior referred to was the ’92 Wailers show at Golden Bay.  He would later clarify – he wasn’t with The Wailers during their 2007 show in Valletta.

“Some of those people I met in Malta back then have grown up and adopted the Rasta culture. Some of them live in Jamaica now. For example – Nicki. You know Nicki?” 

There’s only one Nicki which Junior Marvin could have been referring to: Nicki Sultana, founder of the legendary Juuls Reggae Bar in St Julians – homebase to all reggae fans in Malta.

Junior explains how he first met Nicki when the Juuls owner was only a child, and proceeded to emphatically describe all of Juuls’ ital items to Josh, Aston Jr., and Shema McGregor – praising the high standards their chefs keep. Junior then produced a physical copy of the menu.

“Take a look at that.” Junior said, handing the menu to Wailers’ vocalist Shema McGregor, who instantly burst into a radiant and highly contagious smile. Proper ital and vegan food sounds appealing, Shema admits, but it’s not what catches her eye.

Her mother is depicted on the Juuls menu-cover, just beside Bob Marley.

Nicky And Junior Marvin
Nicki Sultana and Junior Marvin outside Juuls Reggae Bar, St Julians

Like Wailers’ drummer Aston Barrett Jr., vocalist Shema McGregor has reggae in her DNA. Her mother is former Wailers’ I-Three vocalist Judy Mowatt, and her father is none other than reggae legend Freddie McGregor.

Shema described what is was like growing up surrounded by such a legacy.

“When you have parents – especially both parents – that are on that level, entertainment-wise, it’s really hard. Growing up, I somewhat disliked the music because it kept my parents from me.” She admits. “But there was also this admiration..I would be in awe of them. I would want to experience what they were experiencing.”

“Being in The Wailers right now is an honour for me, because I feel like I’ve connected more with my mother, and who she was back then. It’s a heartwarming feeling knowing that I can share this with her, she being a former Wailer, and now I’m here – with The Wailers!” Shema laughs.

“It’s something that we can talk about now, and when we talk now, she’s more along the lines of: ‘Oh so you’re doing which dance movement? And which outfit are you wearing?’” Shema smiles again, causing a chain-reaction around the table.

Shema explains how she never really studied Bob’s music before, but now that she’s singing his words – there’s a newfound respect for the music she grew up surrounded by.

“Learning it now…I pay more attention to the words, and the meaning of the words. I learned songs that I’ve never heard before, and it’s like – I understand now where the revolutionary aspect of it came from. And how important it is for the people; how important encouragement is for them, with life’s struggles today.” 

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Shema McGregor and Hassanah of The Wailers

“The Wailers are like a therapy for the people.” Wailers’ drummer Aston Barrett Jr. said. “We preach to the world ‘One Love’ – and we have to live in unity ourselves, as a band. We sacrifice even our own family to do this work. But many are called, few are chosen. We are chosen to do this, no matter how many times we try to leave – we always come right back.” Aston says, addressing the complexity of the Wailers’ history, and the spiritual adhesive which inevitably binds. “It’s what we’re supposed to do.”

“We really want the people to know: peace, love, and unity. No matter what you go through in life just try your best to find some way of therapy. But know that our music – Bob Marley and The Wailers’ music – will always be there for you. We’re here – strong. Same way, moving forwards.”

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Aston Barrett Jr. on the drums

“The Wailers have been there since Bob was here, and when Bob passed – some left, some came back, some left – there was a whole bunch of confusion, honestly. Last year was the last hope, ‘cos it was about to just break.” Aston said, dropping his arms to his lap. “I noticed that my father wasn’t as strong due to difficulties – he’s better now though.”

“I looked all my life upon my father (original bassist Aston “Familyman” Barrett) and uncle (original drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett) so highly, I can’t see all of this hard work that they’ve been doing over the years just…die like that. Never.” Aston said. “My thing was to bring peace to The Wailers members, and the Marley family. I didn’t do it alone though – my uncle Carlton was right beside me, God, and other members of The Wailers as well.”

Wailers fans will be delighted to know the band isn’t only touring the world once more – they’re also hitting the studio again.

That’s right. A new Wailers album is finally going to drop, Aston reveals, with tons of fresh, authentic, Roots-Reggae material. New songs, like: “Stand Firm Inna Babylon”, “It’s Alright”, “Walk And Talk”, and “My Friends” – a track including original members and brothers Familyman and the late Carlton Barrett, as well as Earl ‘Wyo’ Lindo, and Junior Marvin on lead vocals. The band informed us an abundance of material is already recorded, and the album is in the final touch-up stages, with the aim of dropping by December 2017.

“I’m so proud, and confident in our music now, that I’m not just looking at it on a human level. I’m looking at in on a spiritual level, a higher level. Music that lasts us forever. ‘Cos if you’re saying Wailers, you can’t think small, you have to look ahead.” Aston says. “Exodus was named album of the century! It has to have that quality. It has to have that structure. There’s no other way.”

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Josh Barrett channels Bob Marley’s spirit in Malta

Josh Barrett has been humbly, and masterfully, filling the daunting void as Wailers’ front man, and lead vocalist since 2014. In a sense, Josh is similar to Bob in every way imaginable; appearance, sound, stage presence, spiritual beliefs – even interview-styles (comparable through clips, of course). Sitting in a calm, meditative state, Josh delivers short-bursts of deeply spiritual, and profoundly philosophical insights; occasional and concentrated pieces of wisdom.

Haile Selassie I, Rastafari, once said, “The quest for knowledge doesn’t end until the grave.” I asked Josh where he sought out knowledge on an everyday basis. He replied:

“Knowledge is a thing, where you can get from anywhere. So if his majesty said, ‘the quest for knowledge doesn’t stop until the grave’ he also later said, ‘and even beyond that.’ Because we are living souls. His majesty make a statement saying ‘everyone have to meet their creator and give an account for their deeds and actions upon earth.’ So at that point, you’re still learning, because you’re learning about the life in which you lived, in hopes that maybe for eternal life; a chance at rebirth through one of your children, one of your ascendants.” Josh said.

“The impetus for knowledge is in any and all things. To live life is to experience it. If one’s heart and mind is open, then you can receive knowledge. Everything has a balance, and a duality, so in order to find the balance you must look ‘pon both sides. Study and examine all, but choose the good – as his Majesty said.”

I asked Josh where in particular he sought inspiration for his new songs.

“Well…we get caught up in our spaceship, and go up, yunno? We beam-up!” Josh laughs. “Well for Rasta, you know where Rasta stay. Herb is our meditation, so we draw from heaven and earth. Through life experience, and again we use the utterances of His Majesty as our guidelines, and our comforter. We use his majesty’s speech because that is the word of God, and that is universal in its application. In hearing it, it inspires ones-and-ones.”


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Mike Finnegan with Josh Barrett, Junior Marvin, and Aston Barrett Jr.

Junior Marvin has plenty of fond memories from his time playing alongside Bob Marley – but there was one moment in particular we wanted to hear about: the famous One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, Jamaica, 1978.

This was a concert forever etched into the annals of history for many, many reasons. For one – it was held in Kingston, Jamaica during the peak of the  ruthless and unrelenting political violence which plagued the nation throughout the 1970’s. Two – it was Bob Marley and The Wailers’ first return to Jamaica after the failed assassination attempt of Bob and his band at their Kingston studio in 1976. And three – Bob Marley would famously call up to the stage the two opposing politicians Michael Manley and Edward Seaga – the faces of each violent political gang – and join their hands together as a sign of unity; a call for peace on the streets.

Junior Marvin reflected on this show:

“I met Bob in England, and my first concert back home in Jamaica was the One Love Peace Concert. You can imagine how my mind was blown! I mean, to go back to the land of your birth and this concert – about 100,000 people – this is your first concert in your own country…Just…the magnitude of it. 

All these people who grew up with guns, who would kill for nothing, put their guns away and was listening to Bob. And Bob was bringing them together through Rastafari, with peace. And they were listening to him. Normally they wouldn’t listen to anyone, but they listened to Bob.”

Junior Marvin noted one key element which helped keep him confident at the show was that his guitar tech, Roger Mayer (the legendary former music technician for Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and currently Coldplay) had come along to the show to make sure everyone was in tune.

“So, for me, not really knowing much about Jamaican politics – I was in la-la land. Like ‘Wow man I’m playing my first show here! I got Roger Mayer with me, Bob Marley over there, the I-Three’s, Tyrone Downey…’ I’m like – wow! Just, not even thinking about politics. 

And then I see Tyrone playing like this” Junior crouches down beneath an air-keyboard, fingers pressing keys above his head. “And I said, ‘Tyrone why are you doing that?’ and he said ‘You want those guys to shoot me?’” Junior laughs. “‘ They tried once already!’”

“So, even when Michael Manley and Seaga came on stage… I wasn’t even paying attention to them. I swear I was not paying attention to them. I was looking out at the people, all dancing together… It was only many years later that I caught the magnitude of it.”

And earlier in the song “Jamming”, I had made a mistake. I played three notes in a different key, and of course Bob heard it. And he wanted to tell me, ‘Hey don’t get carried away. Come back to Earth.’ And he says at one point –“Ay – watch-watch-watch-watch what you’re doooooing!” as if he were talking to the people.” Junior laughs. “But he was really talking to me.”

“At that particular moment I was in Jamaica, playing my first big concert of my life. My dream became a reality, with the biggest platform I could have ever— nah, I couldn’t even imagine that platform! And the fact that I had played the wrong note! Man, I felt like I wanted to bury myself in a hole. So I said ‘I’m gonna make up for it! I’m gonna play, and I’m gonna make Bob dance…I’m gonna play so hard, and right – it’s gonna make him move.’”

“I learned how sharp Bob’s ears were that night…” Junior said. “And if you watch the clip, and you see where I start soloing and he starts dancing, and we both go into a trance. I told myself I was going to make that happen. And it happened! And I’ve never told anyone that before. Never, ever, ever anyone. Not even these guys.”

Josh and Aston Jr. were leaning in listening as closely as I was, and confirmed simultaneously: “Nah man, I had never heard that.”

For generations people have speculated on, and added to, the mystique surrounding Bob Marley. Josh Barrett added a final note addressing this, which I’m sure the humble and devout Rasta in Bob would appreciate.

“The mystique that you see around him is The Most High. So in our respective fields, as a journalist, as a musician, singer, guitarist – even a politician – whatever you are, you always can access that same divinity within yourself and make it shine bright.” Josh said.

“Sometimes it just takes one to stand up front and do it, so that we can all rise to the occasion.”

Mike With Aston And Josh
Mike Finnegan with Josh Barrett and Aston Barrett Jr. of The Wailers

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