This is part one in a two-part series.
Nearly 32 years after his death, crowds are still packing concert venues to hear the music of Bob Marley. For Aston “Family Man” Barrett, bandleader and bassist for Bob Marley & The Wailers, the band’s lyrical messages are just as significant as they were in the Marley days.
“It’s revelation time. Things [are] difficult at home and abroad, near and far,” Family Man, 66, said in his thick Jamaican accent after a recent show in Washington, D.C. “The world is in trouble.”
Family Man, the godfather of reggae bass and the only original member still touring with The Wailers, came to The Howard Theatre in Washington on January 13 to perform Survival, one of the most poignant records in the Bob Marley & The Wailers catalog.
“It’s really the most important album of Bob’s career because it was the album after he was shot, when he is reconsidering everything,” said Roger Steffens, a reggae archivist who spent time on the road with the band in the late 70s. “…He recognized his place in the world and the importance of his public statements in a way that he never had before.” Marley, who would have turned 68 on Wednesday, survived an assassination attempt in 1976.
Steffens, who gave a presentation on 1979’s Survival before The Wailers took the stage, sat down for an interview before speaking at The Howard Theatre. He said Marley was looking towards Africa more than ever at that point in his life, having recently visited the continent, Ethiopia specifically, for the first time. The record’s album cover featured the flags of 48 African nations.
Marley was shocked by what he saw there, Steffens said. A military group, the Derg, had recently taken over after overthrowing Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian Emperor who members of the Rastafari movement believe to be God incarnate. The Derg would imprison people for simply carrying a photo of Selassie, Steffens said.
He believes Marley’s eye was on the continent, noting a bedroom tape of Marley speaking with his assistant and a female companion about building a studio.
“He was saying, ‘Our duty is to build a blood clot studio in Africa, have hit after blood clot hit. Then we number one. Then we laugh,’” Steffens said. “So, his mind was geared very much toward a return forward to Africa.” Blood clot is a word akin to profanity for Rastas.
Survival’s lyrical content couples Marley’s pleas for peace and unity with a strong assertion of African and Rasta identity.
In “Africa Unite,” Marley sings of his hopes for repatriation with lyrics like “we’re moving right out of Bablyon, and we’re going to our father’s land.” In “So Much Trouble in the World,” he paints a picture of those in power being out of touch with the suffering of their people. “Ambush in the Night” became his statement about the assassination attempt on his life. “Ride Natty Ride” proudly proclaims the resilience of the Rastafari people.
“What Bob did, no one else did,” Family Man said. “I said, ‘You know what Bob? You are the greatest expressionist who expressed lyrics within meditation in music.’ No one does that.”
Did Family Man think he’d be playing the album in its entirety more than 33 years after its release?
“It’s good music, and music will inspire you with wisdom, knowledge and overstandings,” he said. “And it is for all ages and all times, about [the] past, present and future.”