Elian Attias: the man who fills Bob Marley’s shoes

The reggae superstar is a hard act to follow. Garry Steckles marvels at the chutzpah of the Wailers’ new lead singer, Elian Attias

Elian Mattias, the lead singer of the Wailers, stands in for reggae legend Bob Marley. Photograph courtesy Gorgeous PR/Paul Parks

The last time I’d seen the Wailers Band playing live had been in 1995, and it was at the unofficial world headquarters of reggae, 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica.

The occasion was auspicious: 50th-birthday celebrations in honour of Bob Marley on the grounds of the colonial mansion that had been his home for much of the Seventies. Dozens of Jamaican musicians converged for the concert, and the evening was memorable in every way.

So the contrast was more than a little stark when I caught up with the Wailers recently – at the British Club in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The two venues – and the crowds – could hardly have been more different, but the music was the constant: Bob Marley standards, anchored by the spine-bending bass of Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the guitar maestro who came up with the crucial bass patterns on most of the tracks that Marley wrote and recorded during some of his most creative years.

The bonus at the Abu Dhabi concert was the opportunity to catch up with a young singer I’d been hearing about for years but had never seen perform live, and had heard on record only occasionally.

He’s called Elan Attias, and his job description could hardly be more intimidating: standing where Bob Marley once stood at the front of the Wailers band, filling some pretty heavy musical shoes.

So when I asked Attias that question – just how intimidating was it? – I fully expected him to tell me he’d been scared half to death the first time he sang with the Wailers.
Wrong.

“I never looked at it that way,” said Attias. “I just feel like I’m part of a great message that this band – not one individual – is bringing along. Bob never said it should be ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers.’ He was just a Wailer, and every part of the band was integral to its success.

“Of course, he was the frontman, and the record company put him in the forefront. He was definitely an integral part, but there was also Carly [the late Carlton Barrett] and Family Man – without them, Bob couldn’t have been who he was. Everybody in the band, all the different members from 1967 to this day, are part of a movement and message that is greater than any one individual. The message is the voice of the people, ‘wailing’ or crying out for equal rights and justice against oppression of people who can’t defend themselves – the lower class, the poor, the unfortunate. But it’s a message that speaks to everyone…Fams always says, ‘We’re involuntarily chosen to take on the mission.’

“The music is still being discovered by kids every day, so it’s still relevant, perhaps even more relevant than before because we have even more problems – more wars, more oppression, more environmental and economical problems. Kids discover the message and support it – I was one of them.”

This, I have to tell you, is coming from a young man whose background could hardly be more different from that of Bob, who spent most of his teenage years in Kingston’s Trench Town ghetto. Attias’s father is Moroccan, his mother is Israeli and he was born and brought up in LA, with a spell in Israel.

This most unlikely of Wailers came to front Bob Marley’s old band as a result of a chance encounter with Al Anderson, the American who played lead guitar for the group in the mid-to-late Seventies.

Says Attias: “Al and I met through a mutual friend at a nightclub in Los Angeles. My friend knew how much I loved Bob Marley and the Wailers, and he pointed Al out to me and introduced us.”

Attias was about to record a demo album and needed a guitarist, so he asked Anderson, who happened to live two blocks from the studio. He played on every song, and he played Attias’s music for Family Man.

“Fams said, ‘Get that kid.’

“I’d never been in a band before. The session had been my first time in a studio or writing lyrics and songs. When I did my first show with the Wailers, it was my first time being on stage in front of an audience, with no rehearsal and no soundcheck. I loved to sing but I had no aspirations of doing it professionally – I had always wanted to be in the NBA as a professional basketball player.”

Attias’s’s musical aspirations may have been modest, but the musicians who have influenced him, in addition to Marley, show how he came by his distinctive, reggae-friendly, vocal style.

“That’s a tough one – there are so many. With reggae, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, The Itals, Toots and the Maytals, the Abyssinians. Outside of reggae, I’m into old soul stuff, like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green, The Temptations, The Delfonics, Marvin Gaye; African music such as Fela Kuti and Cheb Khaled; lots of new wave and punk music such as Depeche Mode, The Cure, Duran Duran, the Smiths, the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

“I’m even into country music like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, as well as hip-hop acts like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy and Too $hort.”

Attias is comfortable in his role and doesn’t envisage any radical job moves in the foreseeable future.

“We’ve performed in almost every country more than three times over. With my career, I see great things. We’re almost finished with our upcoming album, and I want to see it do really well.

“I’ll continue with them as long as Family Man’s good to go. I don’t think any band can be called the Wailers without him. There are only three original members still around: Family Man, Bunny Wailer and Earl ‘Wya’ Lindo, and Fams is the only one touring. Without him, it would be a tribute band. As long as his health is good, and he’s touring and recording, I want to make music with him. I also had a great idea, in the vein of those last few Johnny Cash albums, of the Wailers playing our version of our favorite contemporary artists.

“Aside from that, I’ve already done one solo album, and have enough material for many more, if I can get the chance to record them.”

In closing, a personal take on Attias: I was lucky enough to see Bob perform live a few times, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see fronting the Wailers. He’s got a voice enough like Bob’s to sound authentic on the Marley numbers, and a stage act that’s full of movement, but he never comes across as someone trying to either sound or perform like the late king of reggae. I rather think Bob would approve.

 

Goodbye to a gentleman

I was saddened by the recent death of yet another legendary Caribbean singer-songwriter – Kelvin Pope, known to calypso fans everywhere as the Mighty Duke, passed away not long before this year’s Trinidad Carnival.

The apex of Duke’s decades-long career as one of calypso’s leading performers came in the late Sixties and early Seventies, with four consecutive victories in the Calypso Monarch finals at Trinidad Carnival – a feat that has never been equalled.

My fondest memories of Duke, though, are somewhat more recent, dating back to the Eighties, when he performed regularly in Montreal, where I was working at the time, and I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times and socialising backstage with some legendary calypsonians. He was a gentleman in every way, as polished and professional offstage as he was on it.