Bunny Wailer: Blackheart Man

Bunny Wailer is the only surviving member of the Wailers’ vocal trio, which makes him reggae royalty in anyone’s book. It’s his voice soaring alongside those of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh on ska sides recorded at Studio One back in the sixties, as well as sessions produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry that yielded unforgettable early versions of songs like Dreamland, Kaya, Sun Is Shining and Duppy Conqueror. Bunny was also there for the Catch A Fire and Burnin’ albums, released by Island, but then opted from touring and signed a solo deal that resulted in one of the greatest reggae sets of all time, Blackheart Man – more of which later.

In recent years, he’s toured with Ziggy and Stephen Marley and recorded with their brother Damian, in-between releasing the occasional album of his own and starring [both as orator and performer] in Jerome Laperrousaz’s film Made In Jamaica. Halfway through that movie, Bunny sings I Shot The Sheriff dressed in a cowboy outfit. The reggae faithful were stunned, but then he’s hardly a stranger to controversy. Last year he made a notable appearance at the Rototum Festival in Italy, where he clashed with Chris Blackwell at a Reggae University seminar. This happened shortly after he’d declined to participate in Island’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.

“I’ve learnt that if you don’t have anything good to say about someone, then don’t say nothing,” he now says with a smile, after I’d asked him about this. “Silence is golden, but it also speaks volumes, you know what I mean? It’s good to just keep your mouth shut and anyway, they’ve got their own toilets to clean out…”

The enmity between him and Blackwell is longstanding, and was something he mentioned during my first interview with him, twenty years ago this month. It was to be my first-ever feature in Echoes and when I mentioned this he replied, “Better make it a good one then.” I later discovered my tape recorder hadn’t worked properly and I could barely make out a word he’d said. It was my first lesson in “the show must go on,” and a valuable one.

Two decades later and we’re back where we started, except this time we’re due to speak about his licensing deal with digital distributors Zojak, who’ve reissued a special edition of Blackheart Man complete with bonus tracks, and will be making his entire output available for download over the coming months. This is a significant development, and underlines just how far the new medium’s come in recent times.

By his own admission, Blackheart Man is Bunny’s piece de resistance, and deserving of a place alongside other seminal seventies’ albums by the likes of Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley… We could add a few more names to that list except it’s an elite group we’re talking about – one responsible for landmark releases that redefined their genre, and still make essential listening today.

“I’ve made other albums that are good in certain aspects, but Blackheart Man was the first and as we all know, the first cut is the deepest,” he says. “There are a lot of people who feel the same way about it too, because everywhere I go in the world people approach me thanking me for that album. Some people tell me it’s changed their lives, and that listening to it has made them better people.”

Blackheart Man tells of the Rastafarians’ journey, and dates from a time [1976] when relatively little was known of the faith outside of Jamaica. Bunny calls it “a phenomenon” and takes pride in how it’s helped present Rastafari in a good light, despite so much negative media attention.

“Yes, because Rastafarians have been ridiculed, they’ve been abused and accused of doing all kinds of religious misdeeds,” he snarls. “For instance, a lot of people have yet to come to terms with the fact that His Imperial Majesty is the supreme power of all creation, even though there’s people of every race serving Emperor Haile Selassie I.”

Bunny says albums like Blackheart Man were responsible for keeping people on the right track and making them feel proud of themselves.

“They were records in the fullest sense,” he explains, “they weren’t just recordings, like this disposable stuff you listen to for a minute or two and then forget about. The stuff we did back then is eternal, but my own work is coming from the Wailers because even before I embarked on my solo career, I was being trained and prepared for an album like Blackheart Man. If you notice, the Wailers never sang any songs with racism in them or anything suggesting any kind of superiority or inferiority complex. We never tried to put down people or put up people. The Wailers made songs for different moments and attitudes among people, so I try and stay within those same areas and teach people to remain conscious and aware of things that are significant. That’s why I believe that everything we did as Wailers has been good. There were never bad situations between us. Even when we separated, you’d still hear good things coming from the Wailers so I’m satisfied with all that has been achieved and I’m also satisfied in knowing that I, Bunny Wailer, have been a part of it all. It makes me feel real proud and it gives me strength in continuing to represent the Wailers in all areas.”

Bunny’s legacy since Blackheart Man has been up and down in truth. Protest disappointed, but then as Jamaica fell victim to political warfare, he unleashed a series of songs commenting on social issues that remain among his best-ever work. Innocent Blood, Trouble On The Road Again, Liberation [talking about the uncertainties faced by the poor], Cease Fire, Struggle, Unity, Peace Talks, Tugawar Game, Power Strugglers and Boderation – mainly produced for his own Solomonic label – all resulted from this period. Other highlights of his early solo career include Love Fire, Bide Up, Rockers and Bright Soul, as well as Crucial. In the lead-up to the 1980 election, Edward Seaga used the latter as a campaign song, making it appear as if Bunny supported the JLP. Manley had been in power for eight years; there was little food in the shops and record unemployment, which must have lent Bunny’s phrase “my belly filled with white squall” additional resonance. At the same time, Manley used Marley’s Bad Card as his campaign song, which made it look like the two former Wailers were in opposition with one another. Not so, and when Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981, it was Bunny, his childhood friend, who paid his respects more memorably than anyone else with two albums of Wailers and Marley cover versions.

By then, he’d embraced early dancehall on songs like Dance Hall Music, Cool Runnings, Ballroom Floor and Rock ‘N’ Groove, which boasted an up-to-date sound. Whilst there were further gems tucked away on later albums like Hook, Line & Sinker, Marketplace, Liberation, Gumption and Dance Massive – especially Rise And Shine and Ram Dancehall – it wasn’t until the Grammy-winning Hall Of Fame, recorded in further tribute to Marley, that he again lived up to his reputation.

His next solo album will be called Unite, although he’s also been taking care of a little family business in the meantime.

“Yes, because my daughter has now joined me in this artistic affair, and I’ve just done an album with her called Save The People which I produced and arranged,” he says proudly. “In fact I put a lot of Bunny Wailer in it just to make sure it has that Wailers’ legend about it but it’s a great album and I’m very proud that my daughter has taken up the baton.”

I tell Bunny that I saw his daughter [who records and performs under the name Sen C Love] in Amsterdam last year, where she accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and cast a spell over the crowd with her Rasta-infused brand of folk songs.

“Yes, because she also plays guitar,” he responds. “When I was nine years of age with Bob in St. Ann’s, I made guitars from bamboo and a sardine tin, using electrical wires that we cut and take out the copper wires for strings. That was my hobby and I did it to entertain the local people because there was no electricity, no jukeboxes and no nothing in St. Ann’s at that time so Sen C Love is only manifesting those things that are in Bunny Wailer as far as playing a guitar is concerned, because I didn’t teach her to do that. No, it’s something in my genes that she inherited but she makes her songs by playing her guitar and then we take it from there, producing these records and giving them the treatment they deserve. I think her songs are really advanced, and certainly in relation to her career, which has only just got started.

“I’ve also been working on a compilation with eleven of the most outstanding female artistes from Jamaica called Combinations. Sometimes things happen so rapidly in music that a lot of good people get left behind, so I’m trying to see if I can rally back some of them now. We’ve got Lady Patra, Lady G, Macka Diamond, Sister Carol and Lady Junie, who’s now changed her name to Platinum… Also Queen Ifrica, who sings an answer version to She’s Royal called She’s An Empress, addressed to female Rastafarians and that’ll give them reasons to stand up and hold firm.”

As a Rasta elder, Bunny takes his responsibilities to the faith seriously, which is why he’s helped found a school in Kingston where pupils can learn to cherish and build upon their rich, cultural legacy.

“Yes, the school is called the Solomonic All Saints Preparatory College where we teach children aged between four and eleven, so I’m now in the business of educating youngsters as well,” he explains. “We have to be working from the syllabus given us by the ministry but we’ve added our stuff too. We’ve added African history and included one or two African languages as part of the foreign language options alongside Spanish and French. We’ll be teaching agriculture as well because we’re going to make sure our children know how to plant, and we want them to know the principles of the food they eat, because that’s very important.”

This is something Bunny also knows a lot about, since he’s been farming ever since the early seventies. After cultivating sixty acres of coconut trees, he says to watch out for Solomonic ital jelly and coconut water going on sale in Jamaica very soon!

On a more serious note, the venerable Wailer’s a profound thinker, and articulates the present-day struggles faced by ghetto people in Jamaica more clearly than anyone else I know. Lack of space means we can’t include too many of his thoughts on that subject here, but his main concern is the issue of “garrisons” – closed communities divided along political lines and manned by children and youths armed with sophisticated weapons provided by shadowy JLP and PNP enforcers.

“Imagine you are born into a community and you can’t leave there until the day you die,” he says, “and all because of political isms and schisms. What’s more, the people who’ve created these situations seem like they’re trying to disassociate themselves from the situation. They want to divorce themselves from the repercussions of their own doings. Right now, all of this doesn’t concern the upper and middle class people. They aren’t the ones dying in the streets or being gunned down because it’s concentrated in the lesser-privileged communities but somehow or somewhere down the road there’s going to be a twist of fate, and with so many guns in the hands of these youths, and all of the incitement to violence that’s coming from politicians looking to gain political mileage this situation could very well turn into ethnic cleansing, right here in Jamaica. That’s why I’m desperately trying to open the youths’ eyes and let them see where we might be headed. Nobody seems to want to deal with it though. Everyone is just pressing forward but I’m trying to stop the train and tell the drivers, ‘Hey, we’re headed over the cliff,’ so I’m still here, desperately trying to wake up the consciousness of the people…”

John Masouri

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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