Marcia Barrett is a woman in a hurry. Time Out is offered an interview with the singer and star of hit ’70s band Boney M the day before her concert to raise awareness about autism for the Dubai Autism Center (DAC), but when the time comes our 15-minute slot has been reduced to a mere two. ‘She’s very busy,’ her publicist tells us, by way of explanation.
Indeed. In fact, it’s a mini miracle that Barrett is in Dubai at all. ‘I’m here to do a show, but it was spontaneous,’ says Marcia in an accent rich with her native Caribbean rhythms despite living between Europe and the US since she moved to England aged 13. ‘I was in India doing something for the Breast Cancer Foundation and while I was there I was invited to Dubai.’
It took, she says with a laugh, ‘about a week’ for her to work the logistics out. ‘It fitted in,’ she notes with the easy authority of one used to last-minute schedule changes, ‘superbly.’
Awareness-raising is important to Barrett, who’s travelled from South Africa to Romania to help bring attention to causes from Aids to preventable blindness. (‘If I have some time I like to help give a little laughter, a little fun,’ she says with a shrug.) Her own series of brushes with cancer have contributed to Barrett’s idea that awareness and understanding of many different issues is key.
‘I was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1994,’ she explains, ‘Then breast cancer and, in 2003, breast cancer again and [cancer in my] spinal cord.’ It’s important, she says, that people learn that illnesses and conditions aren’t always in line with public perception of them. People hear the word cancer, for example, and ‘sort of give up or dig a grave for you.’ Barrett, meanwhile, ‘would really like to spread the news that you can be healed, and you can be healthy again.’
For many, autism is similarly misunderstood. Rather than being, as many people perceive, one condition with one diagnosable set of characteristics, the condition sits on what is called the ‘autism spectrum’, a scale that encompasses various degrees of so-called typical symptoms of autism – resistance to change, difficulty in mixing with others, a lack of demonstrable affection, to name just three. Not all sufferers share the same symptoms and, while many find it difficult to socialise ‘normally’, there are many others who are able to, and many more who can be taught to do so with the right teaching and therapeutic approach.
Dubai Autism Center is doing much to raise the profile – and understanding – of the condition in the UAE. Since its inception seven years ago, it has grown from a resource and assessment centre with only a handful of staff to a fully-functioning school (boasting over 40 students) and 60 staff – 10 of whom are trained professionals in the field.
As an entirely non-profit organisation, DAC relies on grants, donations and fundraising to continue and develop its work; events such as Barrett’s recent outing under the banner of Boney M are crucial in profile-raising terms.
She is, in fact, the only member of the original band appearing on stage. (Boney M’s demise in the late ’80s was notoriously fractious and there’s little love lost between former members. As Barrett notes – without a trace of bitterness – ‘During the time I was ill, I was living in Florida, yet my old colleagues and other people were out there making money and singing these songs. So I thought to myself, when I started to walk again [her spinal cancer had confined to her bed], “Why don’t you go back to Europe and do the same?” I worked hard for it and I’m here to take my rightful place.’)
Boney M’s strong disco tang has meant their numerous hits – ‘Brown Girl In The Ring, ‘Rasputin’, ‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’, et al – have remained foot-stompin’ favourites since they first topped charts over Europe with ‘Daddy Cool’ in 1976 (a Momma Mia-style musical of the same name opened in London 30 years later).
The key to their success? ‘What can I say?’ Barrett answers rhetorically. ‘We were at the right place at the right time with the right songs – they are melodic and good to dance to. It’s really nice to know that after 32 years people still want to dance to them.’ And with that, she’s off. Our two minutes have stretched to 10, but Barrett has a concert to perform. Charitable disco? Marcia, you’re playing our tune.