Aswad: Conquering Lions Of The Concrete Jungle

IF REGGAE is dying, how curious that my interest in it is just coming to life. Years of comparative indifference (and ignorance) pass and suddenly I’m playing Isaacs and Wailer and Spear and Wailing Souls: Soon Forward, Rock ‘n’ Groove, Social Living, Wild Suspense. I can’t stop it.

You can stick Aswad’s New Chapter in there too.

All this may or may not be significant, yet for someone who bought Catch A Fire the week it came out it’s been an awful long time to start catching up. And perhaps it’s more than pure coincidence that the ears finally open just as a live LP from the mighty Aswad is loosed onto another dreary white world.

Brit reggae’s already given us one great live record, of course, and that’s Misty’s Live At The Counter-Eurovision 1979, the intense spirituality of which John Peel went so aptly far as to describe as “mediaeval”.

It would have been too much to expect our Ladbroke Grove heroes to match Misty’s magnificent ‘Sodom And Gomorrah’. Live And Direct, at last inspection nestling comfortably in the mid-range of the national Top 50, is a less stern statement of Rasta faith than Misty’s, a more jubilant and celebratory affair altogether.

Recorded at lat year’s Notting Hill Carnival, its selection is vitally upful: ‘Your Recipe’ and the post-CBS ‘Roots Rocking’, a festive Rockers medley that includes Dennis Brown’s ‘Your Love’s Gotta Hold On Me’ and Johnny Osbourne’s ‘Water Pumping’, even a quick Soca rhumba that harks back to the days when Drummie Zeb fooled around with a calypso band. (Mass laughter from Brinsley and Tony.)

Live And Direct is certainly more to Aswad’s sharp point than the clean-cut, rather scrubbed-down Not Satisfied, which, possessed of some wicked tunes though it was, left folk pondering whether the group had been watered down to suit the wishes of their record company.*

RENDEZVOUSING with the three natty Grovers, I put it to them as an opening shot that Not Satisfied might have won some new fans but lost a few old ones on the way. The singularly good-natured Angus “Drummie Zeb” Gaye takes up the challenge.

“Well, I don’t think it lost us any of the old fans, we sustained them, but we did get a wider audience then. I mean, the album wasn’t selling great as in the pop charts, but it was sellin’ a fair amount. There was a lot more white and black people listening to that album. And also we’ve gained a little experience from being with a major record company.”

Was it a consciously less rootsy album? Docile, heavy-lidded bassman Tony “Gad” Robinson shakes his customarily bowler-hatted head. “We never went out and consciously tried to make an album that would get in the charts.”

Finally, the sharp voice of mighty mouse Brinsley Forde pipes in. “At that time what happened was that our contract said they could have two albums in the same year, and it wasn’t that they were not satisfied(!) with New Chapter, they just wanted to take up the option to do another album, and that was the selection of songs that were there, and they were songs that had been there for a while.”

So you didn’t leave CBS with any hard feelings?

Drummie: “No, not at all.”

Brinsley: “The problem was that the people who signed us and knew the work that would have to be put into us, they all left…”

Drummie: “…and that left a set of new people who didn’t really know anything about reggae. The last single we did for them was ‘Roots Rocking’, and they refused it.”*

IT’S A bright, beautiful morning and, true to form, the I-three sleepy heads have taken 90 extra minutes to show, but they’re here now and there’s nothing of the dreadlock freezeeout I’d allowed for. Maybe it’s because with this album they’re finally back to work, but Brinsley and Tone and Drummie seem to be in the very best of moods.

Brinsley’s eyes strain against the shafts of sunlight that flood into the offices of Island Records, so I ask if he’d prefer the blind lowered.

“Hey no, man, it’s nice to see the sun,” he says as if the next time he’d expected to see it would be when the band was next in Jamaica.

He’s got a funny little face, Brinsley. I’d always imagined him to be a right rude boy, simply out to give whitey a hard time. From pictures it’s always looked like it caused him a great deal of pain to smile. But today he’s a little boy again, the juvenile TV star of yesteryear. I like him.

We order up refreshments from Island’s very own live-in canteen, not sinsemilla, but salad and spinach soup. “Spinach soup?!?” exclaims a goggle-eyed Drummie. “Da’s a wicked soup for Rasta!”

Tony Gad digs around hoping it will turn out to be herb after all. He is disappointed. Empty bellies thus appeased, the question really is, can Aswad save British reggae as we know (or do not know) it?

That they’ve hung on this long is remarkable enough, but what today do they think has happened to the music they love? And are they on the verge of breaking big, becoming some heavy roots Wailers, or has reggae retreated to the dancehalls for good?

What is British reggae besides Live And Direct? Is it Dennis Bovell’s sorry hybrid ‘Reggae High’? Will it be the new album from LKJ, who’s voiced the opinion that Aswad’s lyrics “do not express any reality”? How vital are Misty today? And apart from Reddy’s delightful ‘Dim The Light’, has lovers finally gone into hibernation?

Has reggae lost its world impact or what?

Drummie: “It definitely has quietened down a bit. At one time there would be a new band every week.”

Brinsley plays with his ginger stem ice cream. Perhaps the answer is in there.

Brinsley: “You see, reggae has become acceptable to, like, the pop media. They know what reggae is now, and it’s got to a point where everything else has incorporated reggae, whatever division you want to look at.”

Drummie: “The pop charts is full of reggae-influenced tracks, and they’ve accepted it that way, but to accept it the raw way is still a bit hard for them.”

Brinsley: “You see, with most pop, it always has to be an image, cos it’s the image that is the sellin’ thing. And unless they can find a label that they feel comfortable in, in selling thing. And unless they can find a label that they feel comfortable in, in selling reggae, most of the larger companies and radio stations are not gonna get involved, they’re just gonna say it’s there and that’s it.

“You take most of the DJs on the radio and send them to a reggae dance for a month solid, and then hear what they start playin’ on the radio.”

Today there are but four official hours of reggae radio in London: two shows, two hours apiece, on Capital and BBC Radio London.

Drummie: “The problem is ignorance, it’s not really knowing, not understanding the music, and that’s why we’re here to try to make people understand it more.”

Brinsley: “As soon as someone is in a position to make changes, they say reggae, ah, that’s Rastafari and all that and they let it go. Let’s look at the music for what the music is.”

And yet, surely isn’t the raw roots stuff – the reggae that isn’t prettified and assimilated by pop – precisely the more heavily Rastafarian music? Isn’t that part of the problem?

Brinsley: “Well, yeah, the music is basically our vehicle for reminding ourselves and you and other people who don’t know, that we have a very extensive history, see? It becomes like a newspaper, a magazine, the Yardman, the whole dancehall thing, the DJs, they just tellin’ things that’s happening.

Drummie: “The records are like the Bible of today, you know?*

ASWAD FEEL that the Rastaman remains an object of white fear and suspicion; people still stare at their locks and hats in the same way that they stare at punks on the King’s Road. And should a British reggae band happen to cross over into pop, they’re automatically dubbed sellout.

Drummie: “We might be singin’ about something that’s really relevant, and it crosses over and they say, Oh, Aswad have gone commercial. It’s a funny thing, because pop and popular is the same thing, isn’t it? Which means that if your music is popular, you’re pop.”

The situation is a double bind. Actually, Aswad don’t happen to think pop’s in such a bad way these days.

Brinsley: “I started listening to the radio the other day, and there’s some wicked melodies, I tell you. There again, I would say that the influence of reggae has done that.”

Drummie: “Even the way that the music is being mixed at the moment, where the drum and bass is upfront like in reggae, and they’re dubbing it. Take Herbie Hancock’s music, that is just a dub music. Plus they have the rappers, and that is like the DJs, and you have the body poppers, which is like skanking, and it’s the same cos we all come from the same place.”

Is it still hard to crack the dance hall market? It’s rather like American disco, it’s very counter to the idea of a group with its own image, message, identity.

Drummie: “I don’t know about other bands, but I don’t think for us it’s a problem. I mean, we’ve had a struggle of actually getting people to accept that we could play reggae in this country, and play it our own unique way, and still incorporate the dubbing sounds. But once we’d crossed that barrier, there was no way that it was really hard to get there. I think they just wanted something they could identify with that was from England. Now I think they’ve got it.

“If you come to one of our shows now, we incorporate everything, everything that you can imagine. I mean, we always used to incorporate that in the dub, because the dub was a dance hall thing at one time…”

Brinsley: “Now people are coming to our shows and they know they are going to hear better sounds than are in the dancehall.”

Drummie: “What’s important is the mix of the music at the show, so that people can hear that it sounds really…real! Cos I mean it’s not possible to get the best sound, the fullest sound at all times. I reckon the best sound we had in a while was at The Lyceum.”

Where do they think they’d be today if they’d gone in George Oban’s more experimental, American direction following Hulet?

Drummie: “I reckon that the music we’re playing now is the direction we was always goin’ in. I mean, we still think that jazz, and rock and funk, can all be incorporated, because all music is music, I mean it’s just incorporating different ideas. And I think his ideas are very good ideas still, yeah? We just saw it in a different way, we think that the basic rhythm should still be reggae.”

Brinsley: “It must play inna dance hall, unnerstan?”

Drummie: “Georgie’s idea was to have it like where the rhythm was sometimes jazz, and then it would change and it would go into rock, which is a great idea still. An’ we really enjoyed working on the album, cos it was new ideas.”*

FOR THE forthcoming studio album, Aswad finally took the plunge and recorded in JA for the first time, using Channel One studio. No details are to be disclosed till it’s mixed, other than that it will be “a killer album, a murderer”.

Brinsley: “I think our experience in Jamaica has helped to clarify certain sound that we were hearing, sounds that are different from the sounds we hear in England. Not that sounds can’t be achieved, but the studios are set up for different form of music.”

Drummie: “We think that we can set up a sound that is different from the sounds made here and still be acceptable, because everything has gotta be new at some stage, though in the end there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all just creatin’ your own ideas.”

Brinsley: “To me, even the air in Jamaica makes you sound different. It’s like gettin’ a reverb sound, right? England’s reverb sound is very thin, very toppy, it bounces off concrete; in Jamaica that reverb has a lot of belly.”

Drummie: “We don’t know if the next record is good or not good, we just know we can keep getting better and that if you think you can’t get any better you might as well stop. And that’s why a lot of bands have given up since the time when we started. Cos I think if a record company sees that you’re active and you’re mobile and you’re doing something by yourself, they’re gonna be more inclined to help you to do something.”

Let us return to the question of reggae’s survival in a white society. Do Aswad believe, for example, that the majority of people who listen to reggae care about social and political issues?

Brinsley: “have to. Have to, cos it’s their life.”

Six months of water pumping doesn’t affect that?
Drummie: “Yeah, that is true also. Like, after a while people say it’s a bit too heavy, all this gloom, can’t take no more gloom. And we was known as a gloom band! I remember every write-up say this gloomy band Aswad with their gloomy messages…!”*

AT THIS well-crucial moment in the conversation, who should roll up but a representative of the highly important Pop Quiz show, proposing to cart Drummie off into the wonderful, wacky world of TV. Unfortunate, since Drummie is easily the friendliest and most loquacious of the three Wads. However, as if in part exchange, who should simultaneously float through the door but that serene and sagelike ball of a man Aswad manager/producer Mikey Campbell.

“Bye, NME!” Drummie waves an understandably tearful farewell to my tape recorder (which is taking it very well), and stumbles affably out of the room. Tony Gad remains dopily, benignly silent, but Drummie’s departure seems to stir young Brinsley into taking over center stage. Mikey ensconces himself at the other end of the room, looking like a cross between Ena Sharples and a witch doctor. He won’t come any nearer the tape, as though mistrusting it, yet can’t resist interjecting whenever he feels there’s some spiritual point that needs clearing up.

What difference have Aswad and Misty and Steel Pulse made to the lives of blacks in England?

Brinsley: “I think at the beginning that black parents, unless they were musically-oriented themselves, couldn’t take reggae seriously as a profession. Now, because of Misty, Steel Pulse, Aswad and a few others, you can be more serious in music and be taken more seriously.”

Tony: “They was something to identify with.” (Thanks Tony.)

Bunny Wailer was saying the other day that reggae is like “sharing a weight”, that it tries to soothe stress and tension by letting people know that their feelings are shared.

Brinsley: “In ‘Drum And Bass Line’, right, it says ‘We’ve always used music to cool us down’.”

Do you still hold to the principle that Aswad “entertains” whites but “opens the eyes” of blacks?

Brinsley: “We’re here to entertain, yes, and yet also there is serious work to do connected, as we’ve said before, with Ras Tafari, with our way of life. Maybe now a lot more black people are aware of it, because that’s the root of it, that’s where it has to start. But it involves everyone in the world now, so it’s opening everybody’s eyes.

“I mean, Africa is a reality, in the sense that I and I believes that Europe is gonna destroy itself, seen? All of ’em are living to man’s law and not God’s law, which can only end in war. Now, if there is to be a salvation for the whole of the people on earth, it must be where it first started, and that is Africa. Now I and I is the people known from Africa, and if we don’t start preparing and getting things ready from now, there’s no hope. We have to start organizing the black people first.”

Talking of Africa, were your experiences of touring there disillusioning, what with the violence and rioting you encountered?

Brinsley: “I could go down to any football ground here and see that. But of course it opens your eyes to the realities.”

The dry, chuckling voice of Mikey Campbell, who is looking more like a Ladbroke Grove Buddha every minute, joins in.

“Babylon is a state of mind, not geography. Remember that. And it is a state of mind that is prevailing on the earth right now.”

But can you realistically foresee the reunification of Africa, what with all the two-bit tinpot tyrants who rule it?

Brinsley: “I and I cannot tell you exactly when it is gong to be, but just the fact that the Ras Tafari is on the lips of millions and millions of people all over the world, anywhere you go…it’s for them to seek and find out what will happen. An’ it’s simple, love your brethren as you love yourself.”

Mikey: “And that is the law, unnerstan? That is the law.”

Brinsley: “Many things are keeping people from these simple facts, and let us say that they are systems and the so-called runnings that are on the earth right now, which as we said is man’s law. Until people are aware and can see past these runnings, that simplicity will always evade them.”

Is there a spiritual life that does not have Ras Tafari on its lips?

Brinsley: “Once people speak of the true and living God, yes. All those who know God to be a true and living man, they know God.”

So the message of love is as much for whites as it is for blacks?

Mikey “Reuben” Campbell is grinning like a Cheshire cat.

“I remember when that statement of entertaining whites and opening the eyes of blacks was said to the NME,” he says. “I remember that day in our office on Harrow Road. Now things are always said as a reply to something else, so taking it and emphasizing on it now isn’t really right. As time goes by, you modify certain things that you see.”

Something dribbles dreamily out of Tony, too.

“The message that we have in our music doesn’t discriminate against anyone, it’s there to be picked up by whoever picks it up.”

Brinsley: “We only discriminate between Europe and Africa and East and West and such, not between people.”

Not between I and I. Sometimes détente just seems like an argument between two people who can’t agree to differ. Stockpiling is like trying to amass arguments with which to outwit your interlocutor. You don’t want to come to blows, so theoretically you can go on arguing for the rest of eternity. Which is fine, except everyone else has to live with you, and it means they’re on edge all the time. Sooner or later, one of you has to accept the difference, and in that acceptance lies the possibility of agreement, of, dare I say it, love.

But where there is no love there is no trust.

Brinsley: “The argument goes deep, because there is one side saying alright. There is no God, man does it, then you have another side professing that there is a God, but they’re not dealing with the true message and the true teachings of God, they’re just using his name as a cover.”

Mikey: “You pick up 300 people in Moscow and 300 people in New York and you put them in a conference center and they will not be able to tell you what the problem is.”

But the bottom line is still that the most an individual human being can do is to ask God to remove the evil in him/herself. That is the only beginning we can make towards salvation.

Mikey: “That is all, man, that is all. And do you know how much that is? The moment you start to think, well, is the next guy going to think like me, that starts off the evil all over again. He’s not your problem you are your problem. Deep inside, everyone knows what is right, who don’t they do it?”*

PARALLELING THE growth of Aswad’s sound – from the decidedly thin demos of ‘Rebel Soul’ and ‘Concrete Slaveship’ close on eight years past to the thunderous majesty of ‘Finger Gun Style’ and the Love and Dub Fires – has been an emotional maturing which has rid the group’s militancy of its initial bitterness.

Brinsley: “At the beginning, we found that certain things that had always caused us problems were not right anyway, and so the first reaction we had did seem militant, angry, and we had to realist that people we were angry at were ignorant, they had no idea about these things.”

Would you agree that the root of all evil is fear?

Mikey: “Right, that is a circle, and it goes round and round and feeds on itself, it gets bigger and bigger.”

And yet people know in their hearts that they are not satisfied with their lives, with the possessions and fortifications they’ve built around their lives. They know something has gone astray, and yet they don’t know what it is.

Mikey: “Alexander The Great conquered the world and cried because there was nothing left to conquer. In the end, alcohol conquered him, because he could not conquer himself.”

If it is Ras Tafari who will be leading the chosen back to Africa and saving this Babylon-decimated world, is the non-emergence in Jamaica of a new generation of Rasta worrying?

Brinsley: “it’s like everything, those that are not really dealing with it will fall off, but it can’t stop.”

Mikey: “You read Revelations, and you realize that 144,000 is not a great number of people, so it might look like a falling-off to you, but the amount of people that we are talking about is not very great, and that is why it started in Jamaica, take my meaning?”

Did you get any impression of the tension and violence while you were in Jamaica?

Brinsley: “We did not experience it, no.”

Mikey: “You see, that only happens among a very small handful of people, and in a very small area, and it is blown out of proportion at all times.”

What about Rastafarianism in this country? Is there positively no sense of a “schism” between, say, Rasta and hip-hoppers?

Brinsley: “It’s just different notes combined in different ways.”

Mikey: “You see, we’ve reached a stage in our lives when we don’t even look at things like that anymore.”

Brinsley: “I mean, at The Academy last Saturday, Jeffrey Daniels from Shalamar was on the stage with us. You know, it’s all one thing. It’s like Mikey says, people are too worried about their everyday living now to fight about those little things.”

Is there not still the lurking fear that Rasta is racist, that Rasta is the blackheart bogeyman come to destroy the while West, with these wild snakes and tendrils for hair and these dragon flames of ganja? Are these the subconscious fears still evoked? Guess who’s coming to dinner? Natty Dreadlocks eat live white babies for breakfast, right?

Brinsley: “Yeah, and I think that fear still is there, and it will be there until people become more open and realise that not everyone has their taste.”

Photographer and Peter Fonda double Derek Ridgers then proceeds to pop the question that’s obviously been burning holes in his lip for an hour.

“You see your music as having an equal message to blacks and whites, but I think there is a danger that white people are not going to understand that there is a message for them, and they’re going to see that rather than building anything positive, the music is perceived to build a division. When you’re talking about Babylon and going back to Africa, they’re going to see that as building a wall between you and them.”

Brinsley: “Well, I think we can only go back to what we said before about Babylon being a state of mind, that the division is not between black and white, it’s between good and evil.”

Derek: “But you’ve got to get over that point before people can really understand the music, and some people might never get that far.”

Brinsley: “But that’s the same kind of thing as saying, oh yeah, reggae, that’s Rasta and that heavy thing, so you automatically put up that defence, because reggae music is reggae music, seen, but you have all different forms of reggae music.

“You see, Ras Tafari is our way of life, but these days, black or white, everyone is feeling the squeeze. The way you look at us as being different is something that’s been built up since we were going to school, but if you can see that we’re talking about the same things, that’s where we can begin to get the harmony.”

Mikey: “A lot of people might take it that way, that Babylon means you, right? And that brings it back down to black and white. To go to school, right, and to come through a system that is demeaning to you in certain areas, a system where even the teachers don’t know what effect it’s really having on you, and then to discover that you’ve been listening to all these lies all these years, y’know, obviously the reaction from that is a total rejection, which is bound to look threatening to you.

“But it’s not threatening you, it’s getting myself together. And what I realize today is that the English don’t know about themselves.”*

ON THIS salutary note I think we’ll leave Aswad to fulfill their destiny, with an album that promises to mash the country to a pulp. As I’m concluding this transcription, I’m listening to 1978’s ‘It’s Not Our Wish’ and hearing Drummie’s airy alto warbling out the catchphrase “Africa must be free by 1983”. I’m wondering if that means it never will be free. I’m thinking too of Hugh Mundell on Augustus Pablo’s album of the same name: yet another victim of the political violence in Jamaica last year.

If I think like that, then the distance between Notting Hill Carnival and repatriation to Africa seems unbridgeable. If on the other hand I try to think about the fate of man, then the beliefs and ideals of a group like Aswad would seem to speak to all of us, did we but open our ears.

Sometimes I deem it strange indeed that so few white musical entities sing of a spiritual life, of the kind of love that leis beyond physical infatuation. We will listen tot his intensely spiritual music, this primal dub roots, this wailing and sanctifying gospel, but will we give no thought whatever to an idea of God?

The drum and the bass line tell it true. It’s a natural progression.

© Barney HoskynsNew Musical Express, 28 January 1984

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