Aswad: Home Grown

Aswad have been Britain’s top reggae band for years. Yet for some reason only now are they making their chart debut with ’54 46 Was My Number’. Deanne Pearson saw them put on another ‘wicked’ show in Birmingham.

“GIVE IT to me one time…” “Huh!”

“Give it to me two times…” “Huh! Huh!”

“Give it to me three times…” “Huh! Huh! Huh!”

“Give it to me four times… ” “Huh! Huh! Huh! Huh!”

A sea of black and white faces bobs and sways in front of the stage at Birmingham Odeon.

They respond wholeheartedly as Brinsley Forde hollers out the chorus to Aswad’s current single ’54 46 Was My Number’, bringing to a close a ‘wicked’ show.

Aswad are always an exciting live band. One of the finest.

There was only one thing puzzling. How on earth did Drummle (the drummer, natch) keep his black leather cap atop his flailing locks?

It was as amazing as the band’s performance Itself.

Never have I seen a drummer who so adamantly refuses to maintain contact with his stool.

That hat swayed and lurched, but for over 90 minutes refused to jump ship — unlike those belonging to the rest of the band.

LONDON ROOTS

Aswad formed nearly ten years ago. Their line-up is now Brinsley Forde (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson (bass and vocals), and Angus ‘Drummie’ Zeb (drums and vocals), plus an impressive line-up of regular session men.

Tony and Brinsley were both born in North London, where they went to school. Although Brinsley was a couple of years above Tony they had a common interest — music lessons.

“I was never much good at anything else,” Tony confesses — which may explain why he states the three members’ ages as being “between 25 and 30 — with an average of 25″.

Tony and Brinsley both played in steel bands before Brinsley formed Aswad. The name, chosen from a book of African names, means ‘black’.

“My parents thought I was a bit nuts,” he says, “because I had an acting career. From the age of about 13 I was appearing in films, TV, plays, commercials. I was in Please Sir, Double Deckers, Babylon.

“There came a point though where there weren’t any black writers in the field I wanted to go into, and I was expected to play kids’ parts all the time.

“It made me grow up a little faster. I was asking questions within myself about who I was and what I was doing, and I sort of released it in writing songs.

“That was when we started writing our own original material.”

Drummie was born and brought up in the Ladbroke Grove area of West London, where all three now live with their wives and children.

A MESSAGE FOR EVERYONE

Bands like Aswad, along with Jamaican artists such as Black Uhuru and Bob Marley, have undoubtedly influenced British pop music.

The Police, UB40 and Culture Club have all taken reggae music high into the British charts. And they in turn are now opening up the charts to their mentors.

“Bands like The Police and UB40 have opened up people’s ears a lot, and they want to find out more about the real ‘roots’ sound that it came from,” Brinsley insists.

“The American scene too has been influenced by reggae, though not in such an obvious way. They’ve taken the heavy dub sound — just listen to all the rapping and funk records.

“I think reggae has put rhythm into music, and in European music there really wasn’t much of that before. There was harmony and melody yeah, but the riddim…”

The reason Aswad are so popular with a British audience is, he believes, because Aswad are British.

“Jamaican reggae relates the life of the people, like folk music. We’re playing the same music, but we’re singing about our experiences in England, in inner London, which is much the same as any major city in England.”

“What Aswad is really about,” Tony takes up, “is talking about our experience in England from a black point of view. But the message we send out is not a racialist message, it’s a message for everyone.

“Reggae music has been discriminated against for a long time. The media call it a minority music, but it wouldn’t be a minority if it was allowed to get on the airwaves and be played to the people.

“Reggae is international. If it’s allowed to go there, it will go there, you know?”

NUMBER’S UP

By constant touring, Aswad have taken the music to the people. And with ’54 46′ climbing the charts Aswad are closest to their well-deserved hit yet.

’54 46′ is an old Toots And The Maytals song, and is only the second cover version Aswad have done — the other being Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’. Both are on their next album Rebel Souls, due for release at the end of this month.

“Basically we’ve just always liked ’54 46′,” says Brinsley. “It’s very big in the dance halls and it’s a song that, even if people don’t know reggae, they somehow know that song.”

They certainly knew it at the Odeon. So loud did they sing along, so hard did they dance and so much energy and fire did the band put out, that it seemed something just had to give.

And finally, Drummie’s hat… fell off.

© Deanne PearsonNo. 1, 20 October 1984

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