The importance of drumming, and of the drums, in reggae cannot be overstated.  If one were to describe a true reggae riddim as a house for example, the drums would make the foundation; the bass would make the structure; and everything else would be decorative.  The fact is that drumming, and drumming styles, can be traced back to ancient tribes in Africa who would use a “talking drum” to communicate.  Drumming is almost synonymous with Africa; it symbolizes origins.  According to Maureen Warner-Lewis, it has come to “symbolize Africa itself.”

There are many talented and influential reggae drummers, including Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Lloyd Knibb, Winston Grennan, Mikey “Boo” Richards, Larry McDonald, Sly Dunbar, and the list goes on.  Many would argue that reggae drumming is the most difficult style of drumming around.  In my opinion, the most influential; the most talented; the most precise reggae drummer in history is the one and only Carlton “Carly” Barrett, the “Field General” of reggae drummers.

Carly was born in Jamaica in 1950 to Wilfred and Violet Barrett.  Building his first drum set from paint cans, he and his brother Aston, the legendary Wailers bass player, would practice endlessly on the famous ska tunes of the day.  In the late 60’s the brothers developed their own signature sound and formed the “Soul Mates” and “Rhythm Force” riddim syndicate.  The boys soon teemed with legendary vocalist Max Romeo to form “The Hippy Boys“.  The Hippy Boys became a sought after backing band in the Kingston town area.  Their first recording was “Watch This Sound”, backing the late Slim Smith. They also released a couple of albums for Lloyd Charmers, Reggae With The Hippy Boys and Reggae Is Tight. As well as playing on many sessions for Bunny Lee and Sonia Pottinger, the Barrett brothers also played on two 1969 UK chart hits, “Liquidator” for Harry J, and “Return Of Django” for Lee “Scratch” Perry, with whom they had now taken root.

As the rhythm section for Perry’s “Upsetters” band, they knocked out a long run of instrumentals, including “Clint Eastwood“, “Cold Sweat“, “Night Doctor“, and “Live Injection“. It was while with Perry that the Barrett brothers first teamed up with The Wailers, then a vocal trio consisting of Bob, Peter and Bunny. After recording many now classic numbers, Carly and Aston decided to team up with The Wailers on a permanent basis.  The rest is history.

Carly is credited with writing the classic Bob Marley song “War” (using a famous Haile Selassie speech as lyrics) and with his brother Aston, is credited with co-writing “Talkin’ Blues“. Carly is featured on all the albums recorded by the Wailers along with brother Aston. Barrett is perhaps best known for popularizing the one drop rhythm, a percussive drumming style created by Winston Grennan. With Carly’s beats and his brother Aston’s bass, the Wailers’ rhythm section planted the seeds of today’s international reggae.

While much of the credit for The Wailers success is often bestowed upon Marley (and rightly so), it is easy to understate the importance of Carly’s drumming.  However, one would be hard pressed to find another drummer from the “golden age” of reggae who possessed the technique, precision, and feel of Carlton Barrett.  Technique and “feel” are the two most important qualities of a great reggae drummer.  Many are under the false impression that reggae music, and reggae drumming for that matter, is simple and unrefined, while the truth is quite the contrary.  Talk to any experienced drummer and they will tell you that reggae drumming is the most difficult style of drumming to play.  This is because the drummer must develop and refine a certain style, feel, and technique that is unique to reggae.  This comes only through years and years of practice as a reggae drummer.  It is often said that reggae drumming can not be taught, but must be felt.  Many of the best drummers in the world have stated that reggae drumming becomes almost an impossibility once you have mastered the techniques of jazz or rock drumming.  This is because reggae drumming requires a completely different approach, style, technique and feel.  An unusual characteristic of reggae drumming is that the drum fills often do not end with a climactic cymbal. A wide range of other percussion instrumentation is used in reggae. Most of the influential roots reggae outfits have a separate percussion section altogether.

Like many talented Jamaican musicians from the golden age of reggae, Carly met an early, violent end at the age of 36, ironically the same age that Marley met his physical death.  Whilst returning home one night from grabbing dinner after a rehearsal, Carly is ambushed outside of his Kingston residence by a gunman and is shot dead.  While the murder is officially recorded as a domestic matter, rumors still abound regarding the Marley Family and the rights and royalties afforded to Wailers musicians for their contributions to the Wailers’ international success (for more on this, please read John Masouri‘s “Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers”).  I’ll just leave it at that.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Donald

This tune is titled the “Michael Talbot Affair” and can be found on Keith Hudson’s “Pick-A-Dub featuring the Barrett Brothers and King Tubby”.  The tune features Carlton Barrett on drums and Family Man on bass.

Carlton and Aston Barrett Dub Session September 14, 1980, Criteria Studios Miami, Florida

Carlton Barrett Intro

Carlton Barrett Drum Roll

Carlton Barrett Drum Roll

Carlton Barrett Drum Roll

Carlton Barrett Drum Sample

I came across these two very intriguing media files.  The first is Carly’s last rehearsal which occurred at Mount Airy on April 10, 1987, just days before Carly’s brutal murder.  The second is Carly’s last live performance with The Wailers in Reseda, California, April 3, 1987.

A friend of mine who lives in France graciously gave me these photographs which are nearly impossible to find in the U.S.  They are rare photographs from various books and magazines.

Carlton Barrett
Carlton Barrett
Carlton Barrett and Aston “Family Man” Barrett