Bob Marley’s Ghostby Evan Milton / 02.11.2009
Meet Elan Lion. Elan Atias is American-born and Israel-raised. He’s Jewish, based in Los Angeles and a good half-generation younger than the original members of reggae’s most famous band. He’s also the guy that Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, (the Wailer’s original bassist and the centrifuge around which the Wailers still congregate – Ed) asked to take on the vocal duties as The Wailers bring the music of the Marley-era to countless fans across the globe. He’s been asked literally hundreds of times what it’s like to have to front a band that used to boast one of contemporary music’s biggest icons and says, simply, that he’s not trying to be Bob, and that he gives thanks every day for being able to do what he loves. He’s also an acclaimed solo artist in his own right, with his debut “Together As One” (2006), receiving positive reviews as part of a new canon of reggae-rooted music that’s moving the genre into a new era of pop-inclined, summer-friendly irie sounds. Google it, clock the fact that it features a duet with Gwen Stefani and was co-produced by No Doubt’s Tony Kanal. Also, do yourself a favour and ‘net-search one of his other vocals collaborators, the inimitable Tami Chynn. You’ve been warned.
Getting to speak to the man was no easy task. We mention again, it’s not like The Wailers need the publicity, right? Behind the scenes there were South African publicists requesting, Middle East promoters cajoling and tour managers juggling schedules. Even, it is rumoured, a little something-something of a deal when the band wanted tickets to something-or-other and someone knew someone. Of course, when Elan actually comes on the ‘phone, he’s a champion of a guy, as chatty as can be and, it seems, truly and genuinely excited about the fact that they’re coming to South Africa and that his day job is singing some of the world’s best-loved songs and getting a band like The Wailers to back a tune of his here and there.
The first interview attempt is on a tour bus, but the line is bad. Three hours later, they’ve arrived and you can hear the band sound-checking in the background. Elan is clearly taking a walk around the night’s venue, something that is an empty hall now, with only the musicians and crew in it, but will soon be filled with a sea of delighted fans, come to be baptised again in the Jamaican riddims of popular Rastafari.
From I.R.A. to irie
“We were travelling from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Dublin in Ireland, right, and so something happened that could only happen here,” he says, all warm and open and like he’s talking to an old friend over a quick catch-up meal. “Some say they want to call Belfast in the UK, but you know there’s the whole war and the problems there. So – and this is quite funny – when we were in the airport, the customs agent said, ‘How long are you staying in the UK?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to be in the UK, I’m going to be in Belfast for two nights,’ and they had no idea what I was talking about. They had no idea, but after I’d spoken to some other people, I finally got fully educated about the whole thing of Republicans and Protestants and Catholics and the fighting; about the IRA and the real IRA behind it and all the bombings and the sad stories. There was a special on TV here, about how there’s more soldiers that die here in Ireland than have died from Ireland in Afghanistan and Iraq and in that whole crazy war. And that’s just the army – not even counting the police…”
He stops, letting it sink in. I agree that it’s a crazy world.
“Yes, and that’s a great segue into the message and the movement of this band,” says the man whose rendition of the awe-inspiring “Redemption Song” caught the attention of Wailers’ guitarist Al Anderson and bassist and musical director Aston “Family Man” Barrett (also brother of the band’s late drummer, Carly). “If we look at the time of the band’s first popularity in the ’70s, with Bob at the forefront, and all the problems that the world was facing then, I think the songs are more relevant now. It seems there is more war and more atrocity now; more problems with the economy and the environment, and more violence and more shit now – the songs are almost more relevant in today’s age than when they were first written. That’s why these songs stand the test of time. Family Man uses the quote, ‘Past, present and future’, and that’s what it is. They relate to everybody – they are easy to understand, but they are still deep. They transcend time because whatever is going through your mind or going on in your life, you will be able to relate to at least one song.”
“People always ask how the songs have lasted this long. When I first started in the band 12 years ago, I was 19 and I’d never been on stage before, never done a thing like a soundcheck before. I was the same age as the same age as the majority of the audience – let’s say 18 to 26. Now that I’ve been back in the band the last three years – I’v gotten older, but still the average age is the same: 18 to 26. Obviously there are the 7 year olds and the 70 year olds in the audience too, but they’re younger than the band.” He pauses, then adds, “I used to be the youngest, actually, although now that’s the drummer and the two backing vocalists, but they’re like me – we’re the kids; the Energiser bunnies compared to the rest of the band, who are in their early 50s and late 60s. They’ve got all the stories and the history.”
Motherland, Madiba and Obama
I venture the observation that it’s interesting that he’s coming from one country that suffered from widely reported civil strife to another, and that it’s a relief that South Africa is no longer the pariah state it deserved to be during the institutionalised abhorrence of apartheid. What’s it like for Elan and The Wailers to be heading to South Africa?
“Anytime in Africa is big,” he says. “Africa is the Motherland. It is where His Majesty Haile Selassie was from, and Bob really believed that Africa should unite, if not monetarily, then at least everybody should be helping everybody. It’s about being together as one, and that is not only different genres; it means different colours and religions and opinions and nationalities. It’s lime what His Majesty said about world citizenship. The world is a whole lot smaller now and, sooner or later, people will need to see it that way.” He laughs and adds, “One day, we’ll be doing gigs on the moon, and what then?”
“I think South Africa is very integral to all this, especially now that apartheid has ended. Look at when Mandela became president. This was a black man, a man that spend most of his life in jail, and when he gets out, he becomes president? That is the most crazy and absurd story that not even Hollywood could make up – and it actually happened. It represents something for people, and it means the message and the movement can grow.”
“Look at America now: when I first heard of Barack Obama, after the Democratic Convention speech that put him on the map – I remember thinking, ‘Why the hell isn’t that guy running; I’d vote for him.’ Back then who could you vote for? I didn’t really care for Kerry and I obviously didn’t care for Bush. They did a survey and people said he would never be elected because his name was too close to Osama Bin Laden. But he ran and the people voted, and he proved that things can change.”
What’s next for The Wailers?
Elan and Family Man have formed a joint production venture, “designed to extend the Marley legacy yet further, and branch out into all areas of contemporary music”. Time will tell whether that is possible, but the first project is impressive enough: a new Wailers album. “In November, it will be exactly two years that we’ve been working on this record,” says Elan, and it’s almost with a sigh. “The hardest part of working on it is that the concept involves some of the biggest names in music. It will be a revelation when it comes out, but when you are working at this calibre, you have to run after them to get them the song, get them to record, to fit it in with their projects. There are great artists contributing to it and I would love to mention them, but I can’t.”
To mention a new album by a band that is as much legend as it is a current touring outfit begs the question of style and direction, especially since Elan charts a more pop-influenced contemporary set of sounds in his solo material. “Family Man always says that all great artist are inspired by others. Music is music – people love to say that it is this type or that type and give it a genre, but it’s not really like that. I don’t know anyone who only likes one style of music and, especially now with the internet, people have accessibility to all kinds of music from all over the world. When we travel, people are always giving me music – young and up-and-coming artists from all over the world; bands from South America, from across Africa; everywhere. They’re doing music that is cool, taking salsa and going beyond reggae with it, or mixing in their own styles. I listen to all this music, and see ho much it has grown. You see how big reggae has grown, and how big the movement can become.”
“Of course, the people that come to our shows are people that love The Wailers’ music, so you will see white and black and brown and yellow people. You will see Christians and Jews and Moslems. All singing the universal language, which is music. They can put their differences aside, and that’s they key. That is always what The Wailers will be about. One love.”
Catch The Wailers and Elan in South Africa, this week:
Tonight, Monday 2 November in Cape Town:
Wittebome Civic Centre, Rosmead Avenue: 7h30pm
Supported by The Rudimentals featuring Teba and Black Market.
Tickets R200 from Cafe Mojito (255 Long St, 021-4221095), Banana Jam (157 2nd Ave, Kenilworth, 021-6740186) and Jamaica Me Crazy (74 Roodebloem Rd, Woodstock, 021-4480691).
Tuesday 3 November in Johannesburg
The Blues Room, Village Walk, Sandton, Johannesburg
Tickets R220 (The Blues Room, 011 784 5527)