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Rastafarians may or may not be the lost children of Israel, but reggae legends The Wailers have found their own Israeli connection to carry on the tradition of their late collaborator Bob Marley.
Despite his American Jewish upbringing and his Israeli father, the Los Angeles-bred 36-year-old Elan Atias can sing uncannily like the beloved Marley. That talent has landed him the coveted role of lead singer in The Wailers, who, 28 years after Marley's death, are still playing to enthusiastic audiences around the world, and will be entertaining attendees of the Tamar Festival on October 5 at the Dead Sea.
"I used to go to Israel every summer, I would tell my parents I was going for three weeks and end up staying for three months," laughed Atias during a phone conversation from Uruguay, where The Wailers were performing last week. "One year, I did the Gadna military program - my Israeli friends said, 'are you crazy, you're volunteering?' But I loved everything about being in Israel."
That includes getting stoked on the thriving reggae scene in Tel Aviv that emerged in mid-1980s, spurred by Guil Bonstein, a promoter and producer who opened the Soweto Club, which evolved into the center of all reggae and African related activities in Israel. Atias, who was crowned by his veteran band mates with the nickname the Young Lion, credits spending long nights at the Soweto for spawning his love of the music.
"I was only 12 or 13 but I used to get on a bus in Kiryat Malachi by myself and go to Tel Aviv to the reggae clubs," said Atias. "Guil had this DJ spinning the records, an Arab guy who loved the music but had no idea who he was playing, so they would ask me to announce the songs, and I'd hang out in the DJ booth all night long."
Atias speaks rapidly, with enthusiasm and a runaway trainload of bubbling-over ideas - one part LA Valley kid, and one part spiritual Earth father. Before explaining the back end story of how he ended up singing with the heroes of his youth, he offers the mystical one.
"Honestly, I give all the credit to God, of course there's a story and set of circumstances, but when you ask how a nice Jewish boy ended up singing for The Wailers, the answer can only be that it's God's work," he said.
"You could say, wow, this happened then that happened, and it was one coincidence after the other, but I think everything happens for a reason. Being in the right place at the right time goes hand in hand with belief."
Atias may believe, but he had no idea that he would end up being a singer, let alone the vocalist for the band he grew up loving. Early on, as a teen, he realized that his voice possessed a special quality, but had no intentions of doing anything about it.
"I sang in shul, and in the shower. I was 16, 17, and everyone who heard my voice said 'you should be singing.' But I never thought about it professionally, I was thinking about girls and partying as most kids my age did," he said.
BUT - COINCIDENCE one - in 1996, he was introduced to a Virgin Records executive who heard him and suggested he enter the studio and record a demo of some of his songs. What the exec didn't realize was that Atias had never sung professionally or written a song.
"He thought I was some kind of professional singer. At that time bands like No Doubt and Sublime were really big, and I had that LA look. I couldn't tell him that I didn't have any songs, so I asked him to wait a few days. I booked some studio time and got a couple friends to come in and play bass and drums. But I didn't have a guitar player," Atias recalled.
Enter coincidence two. Atias went to an LA nightclub called the Opium Den, and a friend pointed out Al Anderson, the guitarist for The Wailers. After getting an introduction, Atias told Anderson about the Virgin demo.
"Al must have thought I was some kind of professional singer, because he agreed to come to the studio with me, and he ended up playing on all the songs," he said. While nothing ever happened with Virgin and the demo, the sessions gave Anderson a chance to hear Atias's voice.
"I'd describe it as a combination of roots, soul and dance hall, sort of like Bob Marley meets Maxi Priest. Al couldn't believe it - I shocked people when they first heard me - that voice coming out of what they see," said Atias.
Anderson played a tape of one of the songs to Aston "Family Man" Barrett, The Wailers' bass player, founder and band leader. Another band mainstay, Junior Marvin, who had taken over lead vocals after Marley's death, had just left the band, and Family Man was on the lookout for a replacement. Atias was hired on the spot.
"I was the first outsider to ever join the band. The craziest thing? I had never been in a band, never performed a show, never had been at a sound check or a rehearsal," laughed Atias.
"The first show I played with The Wailers was before 6,000 people, and I just went on memory of the songs I knew as a kid. I wasn't afraid of the big crowds, I was more afraid of being bawled out by the band, I wanted to make sure I did justice to the songs, and knew all the lyrics, and didn't get anything wrong. I knew, as a fan, that everybody in the audience sings along and they know every single lyric and I didn't want to screw it up."
ATIAS DID nothing of the sort, and for the next three years, he was the voice of The Wailers, singing Marley's classic songs from "No Woman, No Cry" to "Exodus," with the passion and timbre of the original versions.
In 1999, however, he left the fold to pursue his own solo career, recording an album with Sire-London that was never released. The sessions did create "Dreams Come True," which was included on 2000's Sex and the City soundtrack, and in 2003 a cover of Roxy Music's "Slave to Love" appeared on the soundtrack to the film 50 First Dates. In 2006, he released Together As One - his solo debut album on Interscope - produced by his friend Tony Kanal (of No Doubt).
But he never lost touch with The Wailers, and reggae music, which remained his first love. Atias would sporadically show up at Wailers shows during the decade, and last year decided to rejoin the band full-time. While Atias has performed in Israel in the last decade a handful of times in clubs with artists like Mosh Ben Ari and Hatikva 6, he sees The Wailers' show at the Tamar Festival as a homecoming.
"I have lots of family here, and this is going to be a big show for me. I don't even know what I'm going to do about the guest list," he laughed. "Playing in Israel with The Wailers is so monumental."
While the set list predominantly consists of classics by Marley and The Wailers, there are also offerings from Atias's 2006 album and songs from an upcoming Wailers album, their first CD of new material since Marley's death. And according to Atias, it will include some surprises.
"There's some great music on it, and we have a bunch of guest artists," said Atias, without naming them. However, press reports have bandied about names like Carlos Santana and Dave Matthews, among other guest musicians who may show up on some tracks.
Higher up on Atias's priorities right now, though, is the band's alliance with the UN World Food Program (www.wfp.org) and its attempt to alleviate hunger among children.
"We're on the road a lot, and wherever we play, the band contract has a rider that stipulates all kinds of food be made available," explained Atias. "All artists have it, and some of them have some really insane demands. We started realizing that so much of our own food was going to waste every night. We started telling promoters that every fourth night, instead of giving us all the required food, the equivalent money be donated to the UN program. We've gotten other artists to do the same thing or something with a variation, like if there's a stipulation for three main course, then give up one of them."
Atias sees the band's involvement with the program as taking the lessons of Marley's music to a practical level.
"I think Bob would be very happy right now, he'd love it - the fact that we're still carrying his message and giving a voice to people who don't have their own voices," said Atias. "That's what his message was and why his music will live forever."
And that's no coincidence.
The Tamar Festival will take place from October 4-8. In addition to The Wailers, featured performers will include Rita, Ehud Banai and Gidi Gov. For more information go to www.tamarfestival.co.il or call (08) 997-5010.