“The music is the message.”
Such were the words of Glen Da Costa, acclaimed saxophonist and one of the many talented musicians to have played with that mighty trio of Nesta Robert Marley, Peter Mackintosh and Neville Livingston. He is lounging on a tattered leather couch in a small, smoky dressing room backstage at the Shepherds Bush Empire.
“The music is the message…and we are here to provide a positive mood, to break down barriers and prejudices, to give hope.”
“We” are the Wailers – but not in the form of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. On this cold, wet London evening, it is Aston ‘Familyman’ Barrett, Julian “Junior” Marvin and Nigel “Nesta” Pine who will be preaching the word of ‘roots, culture and reality.’
Familyman is contentedly dining on rice and peas. One of the founding members of the unparalleled Upsetters, Familyman joined the original Wailers in 1969. When Bob, Peter and Bunny parted ways in 1973, Familyman stayed on and became the core of the reconstituted “Bob Marley & the Wailers.” His driving bass lines power all of the 11 albums released on the Island label, and he is the song-writer behind such classics as the anthemic “Rebel Music” as well as the profound “Who the Cap Fit”, which he co-wrote with his brother and fellow Wailer, Carlton.
Junior Marvin, lanky and resplendently outfitted in the Rastafarian colours of red gold and green, enters accompanied by two stunning women ” Marie-Do Luce and Cali Kamga. The one a native of Martinique, the other from Cameroon, these are the songbirds who will provide the backing vocals once sung by Marcia Griffiths, Rita Anderson (later Marley) and Judy Mowatt. Living reggae legends and contemporary talent mingle easily in this room.
I walk over to Junior “Chico” Chin of the Abyssinians. The quiet, self-contained trumpeter has worked with such luminaries as Luciano and Burning Spear, and of course, Bob Marley himself. He starts telling me about the time that he worked as a session musician for the Bob and the Wailers, providing the horn accompaniment on the spectacularly political 1979 “Survival” album, and I am unexpectedly treated to an anecdote about Bob”s famous generosity. At that time, the session fee for musicians was $100 JA per track. Bob paid Chico and his fellow brass greats, Dean Frazer and Ronald “Nambo” Robinson, $500 JA each for every track they played on. He also asked them to accompany the Wailers on the “Survival” tour. Citing other commitments, they were forced to refuse. Robert Nesta Marley died of cancer shortly thereafter. “Great people don”t live long. Ernest “Drummie Zeb” Williams, the Wailers” drummer for the past seven years, nods his assent. “But as Bob say,” he smiles, “the music will live on forever.”
It is an hour before show time. The lead singer still has not arrived ” it is unclear whether his flight, delayed in New York, has even arrived in Heathrow. Nonetheless, the vibe in the dressing room is relaxed. “Play I some music!” Junior Marvin”s voice warbles out of the other room, where he and the “I-Twos” are warming up. Familyman is pacing silently. Suddenly he looks at me and says, with quiet authority, “time fi put down the camera now.” His gravely voice leaves no room for protest, but he is not the sort of person whom one would ever find reason to contradict. He is truly, as others in the group will express repeatedly throughout the night, a figure who commands and deserves respect.
But if the Wailers are relaxed, I am tense with anticipation. Could the Wailers, circa 2005, live up to the expectations I had in my head? I keep half-hoping that the dressing room door would fly open, and Bob would enter, as electric as ever, screw-faced and dreads flying, to exclaim, “Jah! Rastafari!” Instead, it is Familyman who speaks. It is a quarter after ten. “We”re about ready fi start the show.” Instruments to hand, the Wailers Band troops out the door and down to the stage. I ask Drummy Zeb about his choice of ensemble ” he is wearing green army fatigues. “Is because we are Jah army!” he offers, laughing. Familyman, Junior and the two songbirds linger behind. Kamga leads them in a prayer, which ends, “let”s touch people”s hearts.”
I am the last to leave the dressing room, loath to go downstairs, afraid that I will be disappointed. I do not tarry long, however ” the cry of Marvin”s guitar is irresistible. The crowd at the Empire is small but excited ” “Rastaman Vibration” sends the assembled reggaephiles into a frenzy of applause. Luce and Kamga are excellent, and Marvin”s vocals are commendable, but it is musically that the Wailers really shine. “Roots rock reggae” segues seamlessly into “Crazy Baldheads”; trumpets, saxophones, drums, keyboards, guitars and Fams” relentless bass merging into one perfect positive vibration.
Or almost perfect. Something is missing, though I am at a loss to explain what that absent element is. Suddenly, head bowed as I scribble my unease into my little black notebook, I hear “RASTA!” Stunned, I look up to see the commanding figure of Nigel Pine, all dreadlocks and Haile Selassie t-shirt, exuding power and strength and charisma. “Rasta!” he exclaims again, before leaning over to help someone on stage ” it is the other Drummie Zeb, Angus Gaye of Aswad. They rip into “Waiting in Vain,” and all my reservations vanish.
Pine is a man on fire. He owns the stage, skanting as he chants “London”s calling”never give up the fight!” Little did I know that this was just the calm before the storm.
There is an instant of utter silence, and then the “I-Twos” whisper into their mics: “de heathen back dey pon the wall.”
That rendition of one of the Wailers” most powerful songs, on the night of February 17 2005, left me speechless. Etched in my mind is the image of Marvin on his knees, wailing away on his guitar as if his life ” all our lives ” depended on those soaring, stirring notes, notes which reached up into the stratosphere from whence Bob looked down and surely marvelled. Yet, not even this epic guitar solo, which swept you up and away, could distract from the sheer magnificence of the whole ” music and vocals swirling together into an epic climax that downshifted suddenly, flawlessly and wholly unexpectedly into “No Woman No Cry.”
Pine”s voice is uncannily like Marley”s, and it worked especially well with the remarkably mellifluous harmonising of Luce and Kamga. “One love”Rastafari feel alright!” into “Three Little Birds”, Pine salutes the crowd and bang! The music stops and the show is over. The ensuing cacophony of catcalls and cries of “encore! encore!” stirs me from my reverie. For just over an hour I had been transported, taken on an epic emotional and musical journey, and now I was facing the inevitable comedown. The lights go on and I make my way through the dispersing crowd, back up to the dressing room where a throng of journalists and well-wishers have assembled.
“So you”re the Trinidadian?” I realise that I am being spoken to, and that it is Pine posing this question. I nod, still somewhat stunned, and I hear myself asking that he describe himself in one word. He laughs ” a big, infectious laugh ” and taps his chin exaggeratedly. “Strong!” he booms. He regales the room with the story of how he finally made it to London, coming straight from the airport to the stage via ‘a beautiful woman’ in Customs. Someone, perhaps it is me, opines that when he arrived the whole atmosphere changed. Pine laughs again. “The soup was cooking, but the pumpkin was missing! And it is the pumpkin that gives the soup the flavour.”
It is after midnight, and everyone is tired. Not so Pine, who seems infused with an ethereal energy. “What does reggae mean to you?” I ask, finally, as the Wailers get ready to make their long journey back to their hotel in Blackheath. Pine considers this for a long moment.
“Reggae is roots,” he says, at last. “Roots that wrap around the world, and you can”t dig them out.” He does not know it, but he is echoing another. In response to Zeb”s comment on the longevity of the of the appeal of the Wailers’ music, Familyman had quietly murmured, “the roots forever remain.”