Aswad: Reggaematic Survival

The attention nowgiven to British reggae bandsis largely due to the pioneering work of Aswad, who invented live dub and played alongside the early punk bands. But, for them, the pressure still drops in Ladbroke Grove. Report: VIVIEN GOLDMAN

I WAS surprised that nobody else seemed to notice a slight non-verbal altercation on stage. It took place at the Afro-Caribbean Post Music Awards at the Roxy, Harlesden. Not knowing they were going to receive an award, all but bassist George “Ras” Levi and Angus “Drummy” Zeb had left the stage. Now, as every Aswad connoisseur will tell you, the close of an Aswad set means George and Drummy engaging in a ritual rhythm battle, staring fixedly into each other’s eyes.

The red, green and gold plaited wool tail on the neck of George’s Fender Jazz is the only thing that stirs on his studiedly immobile figure; his fingers move faster and faster as the rhythm steps up; but so smooth you can scarcely spot the motion. Angus breathes in short, sharp pants. As they approach their whirling dervish finale, his eyes protrude as if they’re going to burst out of his head. Is this man on the verge of cardiac arrest? Or is he just having a good time?

They’re approximately two-thirds of the way through to wind-up time when King Sounds — popular chanteur, MC, and managing director of Aswad’s record label, Grove — bounds onto the stage.

“Thank you for coming here tonight, ladies and gentlemen. I’m sorry we have to stop now, but the regulations —”

Sounds looks over his shoulder at George and Drummy, with mounting irritation. Surely not… but sure enough, as the spiel continues, Aswad won’t stop. They don’t stop through another three minutes of King Sounds, then another two of some other MC. They don’t stop, and they won’t stop, till they reach their natural, triumphant conclusion, when they want to.

I’m surprised King Sounds didn’t know better. Aswad are on a natural progression, and if they didn’t feel that survival is a must, they’d have disintegrated years ago.

BRINSLEY FORDE is Brinsley Dan now. Aswad belong to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, an organisation which groups its members into tribes according to the month of their birth. Brinsley belongs to the tribe of Dan, and is now Forde “only for official purposes. It’s not a matter of throwing away our slave names. It’s just because we’re from that tribe, like we sing about in ‘We Are The Children Of The Rainbow’…”

Brinsley is Aswad’s rhythm guitar player, and most flamboyant front man. He was a star even before he joined Aswad, appearing as a child actor on TV, starring in series like Double Decker, a formula comedy series about children of the rainbow getting into scrapes on a bus. The intervening years have left Brinsley curiously untouched. His pert, sensual features still have a youthful sex appeal; you’d think he’s 18, but in fact he’s a father a few times over.

“Do you think it will work? Do you think there’s a call for an English reggae band?” Brinsley speculates.

When Aswad started rehearsing round Ladbroke Grove, there were only two reggae bands working full-time in this country, the Cimarons and Matumbi. Matumbi were lying low anyway, since Dennis Matumbi was temporarily incarcerated at the time. Nobody around was playing a complete set of original material. That was an Aswad innovation.

After Island signed the band, they had access to equipment and rehearsal time, which helped them perfect other Aswad innovations like live dub (which they were playing even before Bob Marley).

They then proceeded to shatter convention further (“we were the pioneers,” says Drummy proudly today) by taking their onstage dub to pubs, into white non-Rasta audiences. They even toured as support to Eddie and the Hot Rods, and received a full-scale initiation into punk gob techniques. They also played though a p.a. — until then, reggae bands had invariably played through little Marshall stacks. Visiting Jamaican stars stretched to 4 x 12 column speakers.

Aswad reversed Jamaican music traditions by their very existence. Reggae had never been band music, it had never been live music. In Jamaica, economics as well as custom dictated that the few musicians who’d graduated to having their own instruments earned their livings by piecework, playing as session musicians for the studios, backing innumerable Kingston vocal trios.

But, coming from England, Aswad had grown up with bands on the radio. The Cimarons from nearby Harlesden had already toiled through years of being a Jamaican-style studio session band for Trojan, among others. They worked their way through backing visiting musicians to performing as a group, covering reggae and soul hits with some original material.

With the Cimarons’ process of self-definition as a role model, Aswad were the ones to make the leap to being a reggae band, a self-contained entity fuelled by music from within its own ranks.

The military analogy is appropriate. Aswad’s white English contemporaries were just beginning to articulate their anger in song via dole-queue punk rock. Aswad’s approach to revealing the truth was different: as children of immigrants, their response to British racism, joblessness, and cultural and financial deprivation, was a yearning for a traditional, rigid socio-cultural structure, just as formalised as the one the punks were pogoing against. Still, Aswad’s spiritual and religious belief, expressed in Rastafari, didn’t stop them from being a crucial band for a generation.

When they played the Nashville Rooms, just round the same time the Pistols played there, the Clash would be in the audience. Steel Pulse travelled down from Birmingham to check them out; David Hinds’ flamenco guitar style sounds just like Donald’s Spanish fretwork on ‘ I a Rebel Soul’.

But things with Island weren’t working out. Arguments between their then-manager Bernie Dixon and members of the Island hierarchy almost reached fisticuffs one day. The staff at Island HQ, St Peters Square, would flinch as Aswad sauntered — as one militant, khaki-clad youth — into the canteen. After they lost their most powerful in-house ally, Aswad and Island parted ways. They’d already recorded one influential album, containing songs like ‘Natural Progression’ and ‘Can’t Stand The Pressure’, and two fine singles, ‘Back To Africa’ and ‘Three Babylon’ (the latter inspired by events at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival).

Aswad might have broken up then — no management, no record contract, no money — but they would not be stopped.

IN JESTING mood, George will speculate that the whole thing was a plot to ensure Aswad’s destruction. It came in the sweetest candy coating — a trip to Jamaica. Barring George, who spent four teenage years there in his incarnation as an electrical engineer, it was the band’s first visit to the island of their cultural inspiration. They were escorted there by Denise Mills, Chris Blackwell’s assistant at Island, who’d undertaken unofficial management or sponsorship of the band — incidentally, she’s the Denise who produced the Aswad/Burning Spear Live album.

So Aswad, plus Wailer Tyrone Downey, Traffic’s Chris Wood, Lucky, Jamaican cook of Basing Street Studios, and Denise all took off in a Boeing 707 on a special cheap Christmas Day flight to Jamaica.

The idea was that Aswad would record some tracks at the Wailers’ studio, Harry J’s, with engineer Sylvan Morris at the controls. This apparently reasonable plan didn’t take into account Aswad’s acute culture shock on being in Jamaica for the first time.

Although the Cimarons had already visited Jamaica (and cut their On The Rock album there), people were still curious about the bizarre phenomenon of a British reggae band. Interest jostled with resentment and plain job-anxiety among the lesser resident session musicians. Aswad had to undergo all kinds of non-verbal macho initiation rites before they were accepted by the closed studio fraternity.

They finally played some sessions but, outside the music world, their evident “militancy” worked against them, as Drummy plaintively recalled: “We get so much trouble with the police round here that we thought at least in a black country we should be allowed more freedom. Instead, policemen stick a gun up your nose and say, ‘Where do you come from? What do you do?’ It makes you feel a way. We were in trouble right away because the clothes we wear is the clothes the badmen wear out there.”

Over and above accommodation problems, finally resolved when they moved into a house in Content Gap in the chilly hill country — with one Bunsen burner between them — there were direct professional conflicts. Engineer Sylvan Morris could/would communicate only with Drummy, and couldn’t adjust to Aswad’s late-night working hours. In Jamaica, work hours are ruled by the sun. This simple conflict of work rhythms helped Aswad to come back to England with a few tracks, generally agreed to be unexciting. In fact, nobody seems to know where the tracks are, and nobody cares.

STILL, THE Jamaican expedition was a turning-point for Aswad. Perhaps their hard times (“We went through hell out there, you know,” sighs George), were a historical necessity.

“Playing reggae music from England, and going to Jamaica, the direct root, and being accepted there,” Brinsley answers when I ask why Aswad are so much freer and more confident on stage. In the early days, Aswad all stood stock still, as George still does. It seemed as if they thought that pandering to the audience’s desire for entertainment would be Uncle Tom-ing it, selling out.

Nowadays Brinsley and Donald, lead guitarist, engage in strutting, acrobatic dances, weaving across the stage in stepping choreography, like a Star Time battle of the dancers at a sound system. Brinsley’s onstage movement is uncannily like Bob Marley’s. He jogs athletically round the stage and raises his arms, crucifixion-style, with a pained expression familiar from the many Marley In Anguish live photos. The resemblance is unintentional, but the audience respond adoringly — just like they do to Marley.

Aswad set styles. Every youth who sees Donald and Brinsley with one straight khaki leg rolled up displaying red, green and gold socks over nylon green and yellow boxing boots wants to roll one up at once, even though the sartorial symbology is meaningless.

Original fans who misinterpreted Aswad’s previous immobility as militancy fail to understand that Aswad would have danced all along. They just didn’t feel relaxed enough on stage to do it.

Brinsley: “I saw the fullness of what had to be done onstage. We go to entertain the crowd. First of all I used to say it was to get the message over, but if you don’t entertain people they won’t take the time to listen. If they enjoy the music, they’ll go away singing it.”

I can hear hosts of Aswad fans gulp as they realise their heroes have won the right to talk like Rose Royce, on one level, but that is their freedom.

Donald’s guitar has developed into a sophistication that parallels the band’s stage presence. In the same number, he’ll skate from traditional reggae to sparse, stabbing jazz, to rounded, screaming guitar solos in the Kossoff tradition.

Donald has a hesitant,, deferential way of speaking, the inverse of his dramatic guitar eruptions. “It’s jazz-rock I really want to get into,” he confides. “Before I went to Jamaica, I would hold back, but when I went to Jamaica, I found they love lead guitar.”

Rock influences aren’t too happily accepted among hard-core reggae fans over here, because of over-familiarity as much as anything else. In Jamaica, rock’s an alien music, and thus has an automatic level of interest. Perhaps not all Jamaicans would regard Peter Tosh’s current rockola flings with the Glimmer Twins with such abhorrence as his British fans. Their trip to Jamaica overhauled Aswad’s musical aesthetic. They leapt over the hurdle of wanting to sound roots as confirmation of reggaematic prowess, a confirmation of ability or integrity, and felt free to play exactly what they want.

GEORGE DESCRIBED Aswad’s link to their record label, Grove, as “a family affair.” An apt description. Grove’s offices are bursting with kids running and playing through the Harrow Road premises. Mikey’s office is also overflowing, heaps of red disco-mix single sleeves spilling over the floor — ‘Spend One Night In A Babylon’, by King Sounds. A few months ago, Grove Records was King Sounds, a bedroom in a semi over the road. Business is going well.

Mikey “Big Dread” Campbell and King Sounds have built Grove’s reputation on their honesty as much as their genuine friendliness — King Sounds won a devoted following among musicians when he actually went to Jamaica to distribute royalties personally.

Mikey has worked for Trojan Records, and used to be Delroy Washington’s manager and producer. They lived in a squat in Lancaster Road, off Ladbroke Grove, and the house was constantly full of Ladbroke Grove reggae musicians — Trevor and Derek from the Sons of Jah, Junior Brown, Bunny and Candy McKenzie. The Mangrove, scene of many race riots in the Sixties, is around the corner, and Basing Street Studios where the Wailers record in London is over the road.

Since then, Mikey’s got his own record label, and his locks have grown. His tangible warmth, penetrating brown eyes and jovial belly-laugh make him seem a reincarnation of a jolly Santa Claus. Mikey’s explaining the difficulties of a small record label to me — they’ve sorted out distribution via a tie-in with Rough Trade, but pressing’s still a problem. They have to divide up the pressing between available plants, and Christmas-time is always murder. Mikey is Aswad’s manager, as well as their record company m.d. — and that can be awkward, one way or other.

But Mikey’s confidence is infectious, “I can see the album. I can see it now, as if it’s there — and it will definitely be out by February.” He waves towards a reel-to-reel. The next Aswad single, ‘Love Has Its Way’, has just finished weaving its lovers- rock spell. “I know the potential of that tune. That will get airplay.”

NOON ON A Monday in Ladbroke Grove: currently Aswad are sitting in limbo, and their limbo is circumscribed by the limits of Ladbroke Grove, from Hammersmith on the West to Harrow Road on the North. George lives on the basement level of a renovation, one of those standard Edwardian semi-detached residences that are used as squats for living and rehearsal space by the many musicians, black and white, of the area.

George’s room is sparse. Blue lino on the floor, white walls. The bed has red, green and yellow pillows, and on the wall above it hangs a lion tapestry, covered in reggae badges and memorabilia. Two home-made boxes, miniatures of the giants that shake your booty at sound system dances dominate the window alcove, and Return To Forever Live pulsates in strangely bottom-heavy form.

George is stolid, but implacable. Together with the patently zany Drummy, he forms a ying/yang rhythm section.

The flat is quiet; half-term is over, and George’s three ranking youth are back at school. Anne, George’s “dawta” — girlfriend — is going out to do some shopping in Portobello Road.

As we talk, George’s day begins to take shape. Donald and Drummy and Tony Gad, the Grove’s all-round musician, Aswad’s keyboards player, pass through at different times. Neighbours drop round. The band establish that they’re not going to rehearse in a house near Grove Records, and, no, they’re not going to finish mixing ‘Love Has Its Way’ today. Half the band don’t have phones, and the other half don’t have transport; perforce, Aswad’s schedule runs on Jamaican time, heavy on the soon-come.

“It’s a serious joke,” says George. Aswad have just finished a nationwide tour by cancelling some Irish dates. Although Aswad go out for £500 a night, on average, the p.a. takes up almost half that, and then there’s money for food and accommodation for all five of them, and hiring lights. Per head, the sum barely covers costs after the necessary deductions.

“I know the reason for touring. When a person tours for no money, they’re promoting something… but we don’t have anything on the streets, do we? Whereas we should be in the studio, recording, or mixing the single… Personally speaking, touring is a waste. I don’t like it.”

After a morning full of Jaco Pastorius, Billy Cobham with George Duke, and Return To Forever, with ‘Queen Of The Minstrel’ and early Dennis Brown (Derrick Harriott time) as the only reggae, George confides: “I sort of get influenced by some of those LPs down there. ‘Nuff reggae bands woulda like play like dat, but dem scared of what people would say. It’s some rock, because there’s heavy guitar, lead guitar loud, but my influence is jazz. We’ve been sitting down, trying to put together some formulas, what the man in the street would like to hear… the John Travolta team do it, all that crap… with I and I, chart music means simple, smooth melodies, not so heavy, and smooth lyrics that everyone can relate to…

“We just want to be heard.

I remember Donald, in a state of deep depression, saying the same thing a few days earlier. The uncertainty of their present day-to-day existence was obviously wearing him down, as he explained evenly that they didn’t care about the charts.

Will Aswad be trapped by their own excellence? They’re the most daring and experimental of British reggae bands, and their musical sophistication — they have been playing together for four years now — has carried them into areas of advanced music.

Some of their original punk fans are oddly suspicious of musical expertise, mistaking it for lack of emotion. Yet their new formula — cliff-hanger-catchy hooks, plus ringing melody lines in stalactite harmony perfection — makes it possible for them to open a live gig in front of a strange audience with a long, largely instrumental jazz number, ‘Behold’, and have them singing along with the second chorus.

Brinsley’s onstage theatrics, now that he’s happily married acting with singing, have the spontaneous charisma and overwhelming sincerity of Tom Robinson at his most messianic.

Audiences already respond ardently to songs destined for the album — ‘We Are The Children Of The Rainbow’, singalong spiritually, ‘One Love, One Aim, One Destiny’, instant inspiration, and the next single, ‘Love Has Its Way’.

Maybe ‘Love Has Its Way’ will break the other barrier between Aswad and the charts (apart from the unofficial anti-reggae policy operating within, British radio and TV) — at their sweetest, Aswad can’t avoid being heavy.

‘Foreigner’, their most recent disco-mix single, came in a jolly green vinyl limited edition (sold out now), but its song of the alienation of persecuted Jamaican youth was so piercingly eloquent that it transcended race to talk to the outsider everywhere. Much too disturbing, too unflinchingly expressive of pain, to get on the playlist, that certificate of Bland.

Certainly, success must come. There is already an enormous thirst for a new Aswad album in this country — it’s been three years since the last one. Even judging from the new songs heard at concerts, I know the album will be an astonishing leap forward from the first.

As George says, “It’s a natural progression. If you’re growing and seeking you’re going to make some jazz. It’s master’s music.”

© Vivien GoldmanMelody Maker, 11 November 1978

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