Keeping the spirit of Bob Marley alive and the Wailers in line, ASTON ‘FAMILY MAN’ BARRETT tells ANDY HAZEL about taking advice from Stevie Wonder and the discovery of Australian tropical ‘sweet potatoes’.
His voice oozing down the line like spilt molasses, bass legend Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett wastes no time in getting to what he sees as the point of our interview. “Yes I’m comin’, and we’re comin’ - we’re the Wailers! Let them know they must come out early and dance until late,” he booms with a laugh impossible for a skinny man before adopting a hushed tone of mock drama.
“See, I am one of the men who take Jamaican music to the forefront. Me and Bob [Marley], Bunny [Wailer] and Peter [Tosh], we set that standard far and over people before us. Reggae lets everyone know it is the art of the people. It is the universal language and it carries the message of roots, culture and…reality!”
Performing the Bob Marley greatest hits album Legend (“top to bottom, and then some hits!”) to which he provided basslines, Barrett sees Wailers shows as a chance to remind audiences that, despite their global influence, the band are all about roots. “Reggae is always being updated. There is a lot of new kinds of gear in the music stores, those sounds can get wild, but you’re just buying effects. When time goes by, technology always intrudes, but we stick to the roots. We always say that some is leaves, some is branches, but I and I is the roots.”
Naming himself ‘Family Man’ for of his role as a musical ringleader, it’s this inclination, as well as a verbal agreement with Marley over royalties, that saw him unsuccessfully sue Marley’s estate to the tune of £60 million (AUS$110 million) three times. Despite this, Barrett is happy in his current role. “I think of a different term than bandleader, or boss, or foreman,” he explains. “We have to work and live together, but I is the one who is in charge. I label myself ‘Family Man’, and the name…became legend!” He says with another hearty, possibly herbally-assisted, laugh. “I have to keep all the young people in line, so they don’t…walk on the wild side!”
The wild side is a place Barrett clearly knows all about. Earning his nickname another way by fathering “about fifty-two” children, he feels most at home when touring. “I have so many great memories of these songs. When Bob was alive, we once met up with Stevie Wonder, and he was saying to Bob ‘you’ve got to release Jamming as a single!’ We knew it was a good song but we didn’t think it could be a single. Stevie says ‘If you don’t do anything about it, I will!’ so he made the song Master Blaster! I loved playing with Stevie.”
Memories of his first trip to Australia are equally happy. “The first time I came to Australia was with Bob and we played a lot of great shows. I liked the rainforest. Up there, the forest was so fruitful, I was surprised to walk up on a sweet potato that we fried like a ripe mango,” he says still sounding astonished. “I don’t know what it was. It looked like a sweet potato and tasted like a sweet potato but you don’t have to cook it. I thought I was in dreamland! You just break it in two and eat it, it was amazing!”