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


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.”

Listening to these fulminations, you wonder if he still gets any joy or satisfaction from knowing the effect of his music on people worldwide. “Yes, I do because it is reggae music and reggae music is always righteous. This is the real reggae music, the original reggae music. The music has grown during all this time and it is the right time for a 50-year celebration. That is why I am still here doing this and proclaiming.

Last year, Wailer termed Jamaica “a failure” because of its social environment, but he also appears to have a problem with how the country treats its music and musicians like him.

“The direction it is going now is not going to benefit us as artists coming out of Jamaica. The whole system of government does not focus on reggae music because without reggae music, Jamaica is not going to be the Jamaica that it is supposed to be.

“Reggae music is something that everyone in Jamaica has the right to exhibit and play and sing and dance. It’s a great music which has come out of Jamaica because of great musicians. I am still here, I am the survivor, and I am the one dealing with those things related to the ska, rocksteady and reggae.”

Acrimony An attempt by Snoop Dogg to befriend and collaborate with Wailer on a trip to Jamaica – during which time the rapper sought to change his name from Dogg to Lion – ended in acrimony between the two parties. This, we learn, is still a hot issue.

“We are not making any peace with Snoop Dogg,” Wailer growls down the phone, “because Snoop Dogg should not have been involved in our musical business. Snoop Dogg came to Jamaica and he exhibited himself as a dog. I tried to call him Snoop Lion but he disrespected me calling him a lion and so he exhibited himself to be the dog that he is.”

He’s not finished giving out yet. He’s terse about the Bob Marley industry (“Bob Marley’s real legacy is The Wailers”) and scornful about the band currently touring as The Wailers (“I don’t know them, they are not the original Wailers. Are they singing [he proceeds to sing very loudly] Simmer Down like I do?”).

Yet Wailer says he is a contented man. “Right now, I am comfortable and satisfied because I am doing the work that is expected of me to do. Bless Jah, I have my Rastafarian brothers to help me. In all of this and in all I do, I try to focus on the Rastafarian culture, custom and practice.

“Sometimes, it takes time. We can talk about things that have happened in the past but what we do about them now is more serious. Actions speak louder than words always.”

Bunny Wailer plays Dublin’s Button Factory on Tuesday