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Bunny Wailer: The Elder Statesman of Reggae

What if I told you that in the mid-to-late seventies there was a collective of modern prophets that pioneered a new genre of music as a way to spread a message of love, peace, unity, and justice?  What if I then told you that this new genre of music created a force so strong that it took a mystical religion from the mountains of Jamaica and spread it the world over?  What if I then told you that this holy trinity of musical prophets parted ways, each to become a force on his own, and forged a single revolution that reached all corners of the globeThat armies, and rebels, and protesters, and scholars alike are motivated by the teachings of these menThat these men had such an impact on music and culture that they are celebrated as prophets on every continent on the globe?  You would probably say that the story is a sort of fairy tale, the type of story only found in religious texts or children’s books.  We just don’t have men like this walking the planet anymore.  These are the men that inhabited holy books and history texts.


Neville Livingston O’Riley aka Bunny Wailer is one of these men and, praise the Almighty, he is still with us.  For those who don’t know, Bunny Wailer, along with his breddas Robert Nesta Marley and Winston Hubert McIntosh, are these three prophets who pioneered a new genre of music that is responsible for spreading the force of Rastafari to all reaches of the earth.  Bunny Wailer, being the only surviving member of the Original Wailers, is now in the struggle of his life fighting for the respect due the Wailers for creating songs that spread love, start revolutions, and save lives.

Bunny Wailer

I invite you to visit http://wailerslegacy.blogspot.com/ to read more about Bunny’s struggle to retain the rights, royalties, and respect due him and the Original Wailers.  It is a story that involves, piracy, thievery, and accusations of foul play, even murder, in an attempt to take from the Wailers, and Bunny Wailer, what is rightfully theirs. 

Bunny Wailer vs. Chris Blackwell Rototom 2009

I will not comment further as I am not privy to the actual facts of the case.

Bunny Wailer

What I will say is that Bunny Wailer is THE elder statesman of roots reggae in the world today.  There is no other.  He is considered one of the longtime standard bearers of reggae music. He has been named by Newsweek as one of the three most important musicians in world music.  After departing the Wailers in the mid-seventies, Bunny went on to become a very successful solo artist, releasing classic albums like Blackheart Man, Protest, Struggle, and Sings The WailersHe writes much of his own material, and has as re-recorded a number of cuts from the Wailers catalogue. Bunny Wailer has recorded primarily in the roots style, always staying true to his political and spiritual messages.

Bunny Wailer has won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1990, 1994 and 1996.

So with that, I would like to add to the electronic archive of this brilliant rootsman a profile and interview of Bunny Wailer by Mark Sinker, published in the New Musical Express (NME) on October 8, 1988.

Rototom 2009

© Michele Lapini

Click here to read on Issuu.

Bunny Wailer
Mark Sinker, NME
8 October 1988

“Bunny had fashioned a guitar out of a large sardine can with a bamboo stalk and electric wires. Another friend, Peter MacIntosh, obtained a real wood-and-guts guitar and joined Marley and Wailer in their daily harmonising. Tosh usuallly crooned the baritone parts, Bob the tenor, and Bunny sang the high parts.”  (from Reggae and Latin Pop by Billy Berg)

THE RAGGEDY confidence of the Wailers’ harmonies said more than anything about their future place in music. They weren’t interested in any regimented precision or gliding sweetness.

They weren’t simply miscopying doowop, they were remaking music and the three voices swoop and tumble carelessly round each other as if no one had ever sung like this before them. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if they can be listening to each other, and still they belong uncannily together.

A true history of reggae is probably a history of its vocal trios. Somewhere winding between Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, the I-Threes, and the original Wailers themselves (there are four Wailing Souls, just to wreck a perfect theory), a path maps itself out through a song that hangs like heavy smoke round sense of its own evolution and purpose. Marley, Tosh and Wailer provided the ultimate vehicle for three-in-one strength-in-diversity.

Neville O’Riley Livingston has not been to Britain for more than 15 years. As Bunny Wailer, the last surviving founder of the most significant Third World/First World cultural force of all, Bob Marley’s Wailers, he dresses and carries himself like a backwoods Prince, a measured, noble statesman of communication. At a time when — for example — Ziggy Marley is being presented as his father’s son, and reggae is breaking out as a significant innovation all over Africa, this original Wailer has come back, at last, to see if reggae can’t be once more given a direction and seriousness to fulfil its former promise.

“At the moment there’s the sense that people feel reggae’s been on the reverse — since Bob passed, we have this DJ business coming into the picture, which really hasn’t been doing any credit for the reggae music that paved the way. It’s in the air, and people are sensitive to know what’s happening. Especially lovers of reggae. They don’t want to spoil the taste that has already been put in their mouths. It’s really a kind of nervous situation”

The crisis of confidence that followed Bob’s death — when no one seemed to want to put themselves on that same line, and the music ended up a an endless wash of DJ slackness — has hardly been helped by the violent society that Jamaica has become: other deaths, in particular the murders of Hugh Mundell, Prince Far-I, Michael Smith, Carlton Barrett, and fellow-Wailer Peter Tosh have cast a grim shadow over music, apparently forcing it back towards the triviality that the Wailers had dragged it out of.

Bunny Wailer has kept himself at a distance from the world that Marley’s successor could have inherited. His records have come out, intermittently, on his own Solomonic Label, and have often only achieved minimal distribution in the UK. But no other figure has the authority to remake Marley’s legacy. Burning Spear and Lee Perry are eccentric, isolated innovators — their contributions will continue to inspire respect, but they can never be at the popular focus of attention.

When Bob died, of all the records that poured out purporting to mourn him, only Bunny Wailer’s Tribute remains in anyone’s mind — Wailer was always regarded as the better singer, and he chose to cover ‘Soul Rebel’, ‘Time Will Tell’ and, especially, ‘War’ — if there was to be a rebirth, then it would start here, with a singer who was Marley’s equal, not an overshadowed acolyte.

After all, even Tosh, the other founder Wailer, who had consistently kept a higher profile than Wailer, hanging out with the Rolling Stones and so on, had rendered himself a marginal figure. Always a difficult character, quite prepared to seem dangerous and remain unliked in the music community, he wasted his intelligence and aggression on strangely flippant demands. He would sing “I don’t want peace, I want equality and justice” and then call an LP Legalise It. He became a man whose priorities were hard to take seriously.

In the wake of Tosh’s murder, it might be expected that Bunny Wailer would lapse into unconfident silence for good. It seems to have had the opposite effect. For the first time, he’s considering international tours — he originally left the Wailers because he didn’t like flying — and he talks long and sincerely about his duties to Wailers-followers.

“People come to you because they think that you can help them, and they can’t go to anyone else, because they aren’t wanted in the society because they’ve been to prison, they’ve been in a lot of trouble — and because we plead the cause of those people, then they run to us for rescue, in whatever way they want rescue or support or help.”

Wailer sees the ballroom and the dancehall as places to be revered, not trivialized, a crucial social meeting point. Once a rudeboy himself, and now almost a saint, he’s back in roots-action:

“It’s never too late for the sun to shine or the rain to fall. I know that now I have to make my move and I’m ready and I’m able and I’m capable. The people can look forward to not only listening to Bunny Wailer on record, but to see Bunny Wailer in person.”

© Mark Sinker, NME

Bunny Wailer “Rise and Shine”
Fort Charles, Jamaica 1988

Interview Part 1

Interview Part 2




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