Black Flag: Aswad


A HOT SUMMER night in Finsbury Park bears witness to private negotiations in a place of entertainment. The place is gilded and rotten, and has housed violence and ambition in its time, as well as laughter, love, dancing, transcendence and redemption.

This night it is a little over half-full, attended by black and white steppers in fancy clothes come to hear the hardest reggae in Britain. The hall resounds to King Sounds And The Israelites – a curtain-raiser, no more – while the foyer clatters with barroom chatter and the deals go down in the Gents.

One of the many vendors crying “Callie!” is holding court in this bright, tiled enclosed space. Flanked by a pair of silent, watchful minders, he clasps a wad of paper towels in his left hand and a big bag of herb in his right. He is confronting a customer – a rockabilly in red trousers – who has the temerity to offer him change in part payment for his measly two quid draw.

“Cho, man!” he screams, “I naw an’deal wid naw raas claat change, man! Gimme notes, man!”

Impasse. Eventually, he takes the pound note and the fistful of silve, shakes a ration of herb into the paper towel and pushes it into the other’s hand. The children of the Rainbow.

It is a quiter, lighter night than the Black Uhuru celebration which follows a week and a bit later. There are less people there: and less urgency – after all, Aswad are local heroes with the accent on local and they can be seen at regular intervals, while Uhuru were feted visitors with Sly!!! And!!! Robbie!!! riding shotgun on their stagecoach – but the evening is an unquestioned success. The Grove Rockers are into a new phase of their five-year career, kicked into overdrive by Brinsley Forde’s performance in Babylon and the success of ‘Warrior Charge’, a magical tune, an unstoppable surge of proud, healing music that came out of nowhere one night.

After five years of this-and-thating around on (Island- Records) and with Grove Muzik, the Island distributed indi run by their manager/producer Mikey Cambell (not to be confused with the other Mikey Dread (At The Controls) Campbell, Aswad have marched firmly into the belly of the beast and signed with CBS, who have just issued the superb ‘Finger Gun Style’ as the first fruits of their association with the band. As the finest flowering of roots reggae in the country, band and label would seem to be in a position to do each other a power of good, as long as CBS hold their end of the deal up and assuming that the deal was a good one in the first place.

But here in the Rainbow Aswad are doing what they do: the four plus the two. The two are on guitar and keyboards and they are primarily members of King Sounds’ band, and the four are Aswad. Levi handles percussion, Tony Robinson – aka Tony Gad, who originally joined as a keyboard player – does it on the bass, and the two originals, Brinsley Forde and Angus (Drummie Zeb) Gaye act as the central pivot on guitar and drums respectively.

Their set draws on their singles – recently collected in the exemplary and indispensable Showcase album – and the new material soon to be made available on their forthcoming as-yet-untitled album. Vinyl-wise, Aswad don’t have a lot to show for the number of years that they’ve been together, but live they are so hard; they are crucial.

Angus Gaye is, as far as I am concerned, the best drummer in Britain, regardless of style, field, genre or technique. His understanding of rhythmic nuance is nonpareil, his command of dynamics is flawless. His drums are miked up to a level that would result in the total domination of the music if applied to your average rock drummer, but he holds the power and volume completely in check through is deftness of touch and his understanding of timespace – and when he does lay into the kit you feel like the whole building’s coming down.

The material is interpreted beautifully, both by the musicians on stage and by Mikey Campbell behind the desk – and no one without bad memories of Religious Education to project into the world could feel preached at. This band is forward.


A hot summer day in Chiswick bears witness to work and play in a factory of entertainment. Despite the Grove Rockers’ move to CBS, they’re still using the Island studio, mixing, editing, overdubbing and generally polishing their album. They have 15 tracks from which to choose and what with this and Dennis Bovell’s Brain Damage, I’m here to say that 1981 is a very special year for UK reggae.

Mikey Campbell is behind the desk, playing back and listening. If length of locks is an indication of length of commitment to Ras Tafari, then Mikey Campbell has been a dread for an awful long time: his locks, tied back on this occasion, hang to the small of his back. His presence is huge and warm, a dread Buddha. Over in the corner, a Chinese dread who’s something to do with Tuff Gong studios is asleep in a yoga position on a chair, his legs halfway up the wall. He is the most relaxed person I have encountered in quite a while.

The studio itself has been set aside for reasoning this afternoon. Levi, Tony, Brinsley and Drummie sit in a semi-circle to discuss the view from – and of – Aswad. We start out with the notion of bringing the band up to strength with two more full-time members to fill the guitar and keyboard slots.

Brinsley: That will happen. We want that to happen. The problem is getting someone who will actually fit in, who’ll decide to stick with all the hardships that we have to go through…and we still got a whole lot more to face, a lot of work to do. People who’d want to come in only see the outward part: rehearsing, doing shows. You’re talking about a musician who wants to be out gigging every night, want to play with two or three different bands…you’re talking about the rough with the smooth, total devotion to the music and to Ras Tafari, because it is his works that we are doing.

That’s the important thing. Musically, the more you know a person, the more you know his reactions and the better you can play together. It’s a long time now that we haven’t had a keyboard player or a guitarist, and one day, a keyboard player is just gonna come along.”

And when he does you’ll just recognise him?

Brinsley: Yeah! That’s how it’s always happened.

Is that how you four found each other?

Brinsley: The unit just came together.

Drummie: It was there and we just rehearsed and continued.

You two were the founders, yeah?

Brinsley: The founder was Ras Tafari, the basic founder was Ras Tafari because that was the concept, the reason, the basic start, and for the work to perform you need a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist…you need musicians, and the band came together. It’s changed from the original format…other original members was George Oban, Courtney Hemmings and Donald Giffiths…and then Tony joined us. They’re all doing their own individual things.

Tony was originally the keyboard player, wasn’t he?

He was in the band at the very beginning, but he left to do some other things and then he came back to play keyboards. After George left he moved to bass, and that’s why we’ve got a keyboards space now.

Drummie: If we didn’t have that then we’d have a bass space, and you can’t really have a bass space, you know what I mean?

I would have thought that a lot of musicians would want to play with you. You make fine music, you have respect, you’re getting yourselves across…

Brinsley: That could be true in one sense, because our music is being listened to, but in our position, someone is going to come to the band and they’re going to want livelihood, a living wage, and right now that is just works and making the music. That’s what’s happening.

Drummie: To the next man, music might not be priority because he might have a family…fame might be priority.

Brinsley: The standard of living is high, just living is hard. He might be married, might have kids, might have to look after them, right? He might need money to do other things and can’t just think about the music. He might just want to learn his part. It is not as easy and as simple as you see it. There is a lot of things involved.

To be a good band you have to believe in the music 100 per cent, and the music has to deal with the life that we are experiencing. For instance, when Aswad first started the people who were listening were the youths who were at school. Now them same youth are our age, they’ve left school and there’s no work, right? And this is all about selling records. The youth, them are out of work. So the important thing is to put over the situation that we’re in now to these youth any way we can because we’re experiencing it. We’re not just looking at it and saying that they’re going through that.

You’re talking about a shared feeling between band and audience where there is no actual division: you just happen to be the ones with instruments.

Levi: Not everyone has been given the gift of being able to play. There would be no point in being a musician if there was no one to enjoy what you play, to listen to what the musician say.

Brinsley: When you check the music, ultimately it’s harmony, and in this trouble time, when people hear harmony…even in the time of Saul and David when David played on his harp to soothe him…it’s to provide a moment where people can get away from what’s happening. Now you can do it in either one of two ways. You can do what’s happening in the pop business, which is sho-be-doo-be-doo and everything’s all right. Now that’s fine on a Saturday night, it’s great. But then they’ve got to go back to where there’s no work on a Monday, right? Or else you can try and make someone stop and think, because it’s our fault that we are in this situation now, because we let ourselves be put in that situtation. Still, you have to accept and know the reason for it, and we are put into this situation of where we are now by the system. Now the only way that you can stop being given injustice or treated certain ways is by standing up for your rights. You have to know that one man can’t stand up and change the world. The world has to be changed by the masses, and that’s why you have rioting on the streets. It’s the masses versus the few. It has been written in the Scriptures that a woman shall lead them and the children shall be their own oppressors. We see that in reality now.

Drummie: The Bible has been written a long time. Prophecy is that what has been done will repeat itself.

Brinsley: This is why we chant Ras Tafari, because in Ras Tafari it shows you that nothing is new under the sun, as Drummie say. So therefore although it’s happening you know and you can see the solution. Each and everyone works towards that aim.

What is the aim? What do you work for?

Levi: Black man emancipation.

Tony: Black man emancipation, that’s what His Majesty way we work for.

Drummie: A time when the world is free of all evils.

Brinsley: The race is not for the swift, you know what I mean? The war is not between black and white, but between good and evil. Until we have harmony the world will always be in a turmoil. Why can’t we just live happily and freely? Why does it seem so hard?

I see it as conflict between positive and negative…

Brinsley: That’s good and evil! You check it: whether you say positive and negative, whatever you wanna say it’s good and it’s evil. When Father created the earth – seen? – it was good. Everything was good, but evil came to the world and on evil’s back was greed and envy and jealousy and hatred and grudging and all those things that every man has in him, so really the battle is within a man himself.

Between all those things that you mentioned, and responsibility and love.

Brinsley: Yeah! That is within each man. It is just that certain man now have attained a certain level where a man is gonna be a politician, right? Because his greed is more, he is able to get more and he’s going to sue you to achieve his own aim. Now it’s up to you now to see that injustice and say I am not gonna accept this again. You just have to know that you cannot stand to accept another evil, because the same thing will just go on. So this time it’s righteousness that’ave fe cover the earth. I and I Aswad, an’ Aswad means black, and as black youth we have to see it from I and I-self for I and I-self.

Your own experience and your own emotions show you what’s right.

Brinsley: Ras Tafari will show I and I truth and right, seen? Every man has the concept of right and wrong, and for my wrongs I will justify my wrongs to you and make them right, seen? But for truth and right, it’s just the truth and the right. If each man lives for truth and right…I don’t know your faults and I shouldn’t be looking for your faults, I should look for my faults and sort out my faults.

You do know my faults. If you know yourself, then you know me.

Brinsley: I’m not talking that way. I agree: in One Love we are a oneness and we are one with Good whether one say Ras Tafari or anything else, seen? It is a oneness with that living God, and I agree with that, but what I am saying is the lickle injustices that we have, the greed and the envy. I am saying that you should treat you bredren like you want your bredren to treat you. Too often a man will jump up and say, ‘You shouldn’t do that, you mustn’t do that, blah blah blah blah’ and round the round the corner he’s probably doing something that’s just as wrong. I is for each man to look at himself and clean himself up.

Levi: I mean, you can be a nice person, a real cool person and one day someone really really really upset ya an you murder that person an’ everyone say, ‘Naw he could never have done that, not this man that I’ve known all these years’. But if you really cool now and someone upsets you then you still cool. But how long can you keep this cool with certain things have to be done, but as you go around you learn more as news comes to you.

Brinsley: And you do certain things and you learn that they’re wrong and you know not to do them again.

Tony: We make mistakes, and we try not to make them again. That’s what we try to do.

Drummie: If you don’t learn by your mistakes, you can’t make any progress.

The afternoon passes in reasoning and music. Removed from the formal constraints of an interview – and from the need to direct all remarks specifically to me – the conversation slips into backayard, patois repartee fast as lightning – ahhh, y’naw see’t, Rasta! – and the new Aswad music fills the room. A while ago I saw them at Hammersmith Palais and prophesied that their next album would be the best reggae record ever made in the UK and now that I’ve heard it I feel confirmed in that prophecy. This music will strengthen every soul in this country who is working – directly or indirectly – towards freedom, redemption and the victory of love over oppression. A blessing, a joy and a kindness.

Outside, the baking summer sun had been supplanted by a vicious, stinging rain. It didn’t matter.

© Charles Shaar MurrayNew Musical Express, Summer 1981

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