Wailer, Nourishing The Roots Of Reggae

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006

Recently, a bit of reggae history was made in Las Vegas at the close of the Bob Marley Roots Rock Reggae Festival when Ziggy and Stephen Marley, his only sons with Rita Marley, joined Bunny Wailer in an emotional, show-closing "Get Up Stand Up."

Wailer (born Neville Livingston) was a founding member of the Wailers and, with the passing of Marley from cancer in 1981 and the slaying of Peter Tosh in 1987, is the legendary trio's only surviving member. As for Ziggy, he was 5 years old -- and Stephen 1 -- when "Get Up Stand Up" appeared on the Wailers' 1973's "Burnin' " album, the last to feature all three founding members.

Amazingly, this is the first tour featuring Marley partner and progeny on the same bill. (The show comes to Wolf Trap on Sunday.) When the tour was announced, Wailer called it "something that was destined to be."

"These were babies coming up," Wailer said of the Marley siblings from a West Coast tour stop. "When all of that with Bob was happening, some of them weren't even born yet."

In fact, Wailer left the Wailers in 1974, just as the group was on the verge of worldwide success; Tosh left a year later. Though Wailer went on to a solo recording career that established him as one of the strongest and most compelling voices in reggae, he made only sporadic live appearances, and it wasn't until 1986 that he undertook his first tour outside Jamaica. As a result, he has always been more of a cult figure than a commercial star, as well as one of reggae's most enigmatic figures in the bargain.

Though Wailer includes Marley's classic "One Love" in his own set, there were once conflicts with the Marley estate over royalties and the merchandising of Tuff Gong, the label Wailer started with Marley and Tosh, notably the broad licensing of its iconic logo depicting three raised fists -- belonging to Marley, Tosh and Wailer. According to Billboard, the parties reached a $2 million settlement in 1999.

Now, the man who has become the respected elder statesmen of Jamaican music seems happy to be participating in a legacy tour that celebrates him and his departed Wailer mates and solidifies familial connections. "I'm their uncle," Wailer says.

"As far as family is concerned, I'm satisfied about what's happening and very proud to be part of this next generation of musicians. Everything is good.

"I'm satisfied with knowing that I'm serving the purpose of getting reggae music to be where it's at, and I'm proud to be part of that," he adds. "I'm just here trying to do my best in the completion of that journey and be thankful for the strength that I do have at this time to be working along with the next generation just the same. I'm feeling good to know that I'm still here doing the things that's appropriate of Bunny Wailer."

It's doubly appropriate in that Wailer was Bob Marley's oldest friend. The two grew up in the rural village of Nine Miles in Saint Ann Parish, separated by only two years. (Marley was born in 1945; Livingston in 1947.) In the early '50s, their families moved to the same Kingston tenement, Trenchtown, where the youngsters took informal singing lessons from veteran Joe Higgs. It was at Higgs's Third Street "conservatory" that they met Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh) and Junior Braithwaite, forming the Teenagers and working their way through emerging styles of Jamaican music, from ska and rocksteady to roots reggae. Their name evolved as well, from the Teenagers to the Wailing Rudeboys to the Wailing Wailers and, finally, the Wailers.

The first island hit came in 1964, with "Simmer Down," which urged "rude boys" to curtail their violent ways; it would take almost a decade for the world to warm up to the music.

"We having a dream, having a vision," Wailer recalls, "but as to the magnitude of what the dream might grow to, that is something that you cannot determine. At the same time, we believed in the music, we loved the music. We knew there was a lot of people that would have loved it just the same if they got the chance to hear it. We knew that it had a place in all of the other music cultures that it has now been fit into."

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