Carlton Barrett

The Legend Behind a Legend

Carlton Barrett

My ironic, youthful introduction to Bob Marley was when I read about him battling cancer via the pages of ‘Sounds’ newspaper. Following his death, tributes poured out through the worlds media and I became acquainted with Marley’s music plus the work of one the greatest reggae rhythm sections to walk the planet. However, it wasn’t until I saw Stewart Copeland explain the ‘One-Drop’ reggae drum beat on ‘The Police In Montserrat’ documentary that I gained a visual understanding of what Carlton Barrett and other reggae drummers were playing.

Like everyone else in the early 80’s, my vinyl collection included a ubiquitous  copy of Marley’s ‘Legend’ compilation album. Armed with this and my Police records, I was able to stitch together some sort of understanding of reggae drumming, even attempting my own poor-white-boy’s version in early bands. But it wasn’t until the late 80’s that I really had to pull my finger out and get to grips with Barrett’s feel when asked to learn some of Marley songs. My efforts were passable I guess (nobody complained about my ‘One-Drop’), but it wasn’t until many years later that I realised how wrong I’d got things!

To put it quite simply, nobody played Hi-Hat cymbals or felt reggae grooves like Carlton Barrett. He was The Master of light, shade and feel within the genre. In fact, I have no doubt that if he’d recorded Funk, R&B or Soul music he would have brought the same musical qualities to the table. Listening to Barrett today, it’s easy to hear why I completely misunderstood his drum parts within my own interpretations. The guy was pretty much inimitable and it would take a better musician than me to get anywhere near his performance on ‘Waiting In Vain’, a song I managed to massacre my way through on many occasions. My gut instinct tells me I’d do things a lot better today; but I’d still be punching above my weight…

Unfortunately, the world was robbed of another unique groove master in 1987 when Barrett was brutally shot in the head, aged just 36. My advice for any drummer wanting to learn reggae would be go get a copy of ‘Legend’ and listen to it through a decent set of headphones, so it’s possible to tune into Barrett’s subliminal nuances. Then go back and listen to it, over and over again; because you still won’t have got it…

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