Bunny Wailer: reggae warrior
Bunny Wailer says he is a survivor and the last keeper of the reggae flame, and he has little time for record companies, legal issues or stars such as Snoop Dogg
Survivor: Bunny Wailer formed The Wailers in Kingston, Jamaica with his friends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh
Bunny Wailer: ‘Reggae music is always righteous’
The Wailers in 1964: (left to right) Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
There are certain things which get Bunny Wailer very angry, but we’ll come to them in a bit. Let’s start with the history lesson, one the man himself brandishes with great and warranted pride.
Neville O’Riley Livingston is the last of the original tribe of men and women that emerged in Kingston in the early 1960s as The Wailers who is still making music. The others are either dead (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Cherry Smith) or are seemingly retired (Beverley Kelso), but Wailer continues to preach the gospel. The last Wailer standing sees himself as the guardian of the flame, the one who will protect the legacy of his musical brothers and sisters. “I am the survivor,” he says at least five times during the interview to emphasise this point.
His job, as he sees it, is to fend off the thieves, opportunists, dastardly record labels, American gangsta rappers and anyone else who would dare profit or steal from them and their legacy. It’s obvious from Wailer that this takes a lot of time and effort.
It was much different 50 years ago. When Wailer and his childhood friend Marley met up with Tosh and decided to form a band to perform on the streets of Trenchtown in Kingston, none of them could imagine what was to come.
“We grew as a family and we made music together,” Wailer remembers. “Joe Higgs had a duo [Higgs & Wilson] and he was our teacher, and he instructed us in the ways of reggae music and we developed to be The Wailers.”
However, the reminiscing quickly ends. “Because Joe is not here and Peter and Robert are not here and I am the musical survivor along with Beverley, the female of the Wailers, I have a duty and responsibility towards what we did in the past.”
This means putting together compilations, such as the 50-track Reincarnated Souls album of his own music. “I am also going to put out a 50-track album of The Wailers, that is, me and Peter and Bob. We are also looking to organise similar albums for The Skatalites and Sugar Minott. It is the 50th anniversary for reggae music and all these brothers, and we want to show people the tracks they have left as part of their legacy. There is a lot of work to be done to put these albums together.”
Rights ownership Mention the record labels who might control some of the rights to this music and Wailer gets quite exercised. “No record label own any rights! Them people who record the songs and wrote the songs own the rights. It was thieves who came and stole the rights. They come here and make agreements with musicians and take the songs. Now, what are they going to be doing with them songs? We can look after the brothers ourselves.”
Wailer gives short shrift to one legendary record business man, Chris Blackwell, and his label, Universal Island, both closely associated with the band. “I and I did the Blackheart Man, Protest and Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers albums and he and them have been taking away the justice which belongs to the people who’ve been making this music. But I am a survivor and it is in my interests to make sure I see that justice is done for my brothers and my sister in The Wailers and defend the rights of my people. There is a lot of defending to do, but I am not worried about that. I am right and when you are right, you do not worry about wrongs. The people who’ve been selling this music and planning on taking all the money for themselves, they are the wrong-doers.”