Joshua David Barrett was in middle school when his older brother showed him Bob Marley and the Wailers for the first time.
“I would say the first one was ‘Is This Love,’ track one off the ‘Legend’ album,” Barrett said recently from New York City. “For me, it was kind of like new and exciting sound. My mother brought me up, even though I was born in ’81, on the ska music that she did love from her generation. So I was kind of late (to reggae). … I was brought up playing jazz. I played hip-hop, but I realized the roots of even hip-hop is reggae music. It was exciting to learn a new swing, you know.”
A budding bassist at the time, New Jersey native Barrett was already on the path that would lead to a successful career as a touring and session musician with such artists as Quincy Jones, Common, Mary J. Blige, Solange Knowles, Q-Tip, Tramaine Hawkins, Kim Burrell and more. But Barrett noticed something else about that Wailers record while perusing the liner notes that would prove more important to his music career much later on.
“At that time, playing bass, the first thing I noticed when I’m listening to the ‘Legend’ album was the drum and bass (players) are both Barrett,” he said.
Barrett would eventually find his way to his great-grandfather’s native Jamaica, where he recorded music with Dax Lion and Biggz General.
He has fronted The Wailers, which today is led by longtime bassist (and yes, Barrett’s distant cousin) Aston “Family Man” Barrett, for the last 2½ years. The band will bring Marley’s music, along with new material, to the Century Center on Saturday.
The reggae institution, formed by Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny “Wailer” Livingston in the early ’60s and evolving into Marley’s backing band in the late ’60s, has experienced numerous ups and downs since Marley’s death from cancer in 1981, including various band member departures and the murder of drummer (and Family Man’s brother) Carlton Barrett in 1987.
But in 2015, Family Man reunited most of the surviving members of the band, including guitarist Junior Marvin (who left in 2008 with Al Anderson to form the Original Wailers, then left that group in 2011); keyboardist Tyrone Downie; guitarist Donald Kinsey; and organist Earl “Wya” Lindo. (Editor’s note: Downie and Lindo are based in Europe, and did not appear in Bend.)
They’re joined by longtime guitarist/bassist Owen “Dreadie” Reid and younger members Josh Barrett; Aston Barrett’s son, drummer Aston Barrett Jr.; keyboardist Javaughn Bond and backing vocalist Shema McGregor.
“For us, we know it was important to Bob Marley for his music to spread throughout the U.S.,” Josh said. “And so we’re glad to be a part of that in this time.”
Josh met Family Man 12 years ago, but his friendship with Aston Jr. led him to join The Wailers. The two cousins met when Josh’s band Judah Tribe opened for The Wailers in 2012.
“From that time, we did keep the link,” Josh said. “It was like a reunion for us, realizing that we are distant cousins. We discussed from that time doing works, which, in 2014, we did our first musical works together — a remake of one of my own originals called ‘Sometimes Love.’ And in 2015, end of January is when I officially joined the band.”
As The Wailers’ new singer, Josh had his work cut out for him. Marley is largely credited with popularizing reggae music outside Jamaica and has grown into almost a mythical figure since his death, with his image gracing T-shirts, posters and other merchandise. His music continues to influence new generations of reggae musicians, and he has sold more than 75 million records, according to a May 2015 article in Billboard Magazine.
Aston Jr. and Family Man continued to serve as mentors to Josh as he worked on learning Marley’s songs with The Wailers. Josh called the experience a “good challenge with respect to the great legacy that (Marley) left.”
“Aston B. was my coach, Aston Barrett Jr., and he was working with Family Man and kind of keeping him posted what I was doing in terms of preparing myself, sending songs every now and again just to hear the rest,” Josh said. “I also took vocal lessons at the time, too — I was doing more bass playing at the time than singing. I would check in every now and again and make them hear my progress. I have to say, Aston Barrett Jr. is a great coach in that wise.”
Touring and living in close proximity to the older Wailers members has been “a great learning experience” for Josh. Family Man, along with brother Carlton, met Marley in the ’60s, and has been musical director for The Wailers since 1973, when Tosh and Livingston left. Four members of the current Wailers — Family Man, Marvin, Lindo and Downie — were part of Marley’s new backing band after his split with Tosh and Livingston, and recorded some of Marley’s most well-known studio albums, including 1977’s “Exodus” and 1978’s “Kaya.”
“Family Man is, I consider and is one of the chief architects behind that classic sound,” Josh said. “… I’ve always admired him, and I considered myself a student of his from afar. Working with men like Junior Marvin — and we did a brief tour with Al Anderson — those cats are my heroes; they’re my guitar heroes. For me, even before I joined Wailers, it was always anytime I hear them, I’m wondering what solo Junior Marvin is gonna play tonight. … I love that fresh energy where them give to the music every night. It’s not like you’re gonna hear the same thing.”
With new blood in its ranks, the band is prepping new songs for a studio album, its first since the mid-’90s. First single “Stand Firm Inna Babylon” will be released sometime in late summer or fall, and a teaser has been released online. The song was written three hours before the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the band was performing that night, Josh said.
“We all put our talents together to not recreate, but to give it a new vibe, but still to maintain the sound,” Josh said. “… They’re giving you that roots, but in a new fashion.”
This article has been corrected. The original version misidentified the date The Wailers became Bob Marley’s backing band, and two touring members. The Bulletin regrets the error.