Jah Punk: The Black New Wave

ASWADDrummie, drums, vocals: George Oban, bass: Chaka Forde, rhythm guitar, vocals: Donald Guiti, lead guitar, vocals. Courtney Hennings, keyboards, vocals.

THE ARCHETYPAL Black New Wave band. Aswad were just another young roots band jamming round Ladbroke Grove till Richard Williams spotted their talent and signed them up for Island. With Island’s help, they started gigging round black and white clubs all over the country, and built up a staunch following. Aswad play all their own material, and had an obvious focal point in 17-year-old drummer Angus ‘Drummie’ Gaye, whose reputation for being the most militant (that means tough, musically), young drummer around was only enhanced by his ability to convey F-U-N onstage.

They released an album, Aswad, one of those one-side-good, one-side-notsogood affairs, which nonetheless showed their promise. Their single ‘Three Babylon’, became something of an anthem, promoted as if it was inspired by the riots of last year’s Notting Hill Carnival, though in fact it was written before the event.

Their reputation for militancy may have caused trouble on the Eddie and the Hot Rods tour last year. Aswad were thrown off halfway through. They’re a band that doesn’t like to take shit. Uncompromising.

Since then, they’ve taken leave of Island and are currently looking for a record deal. They’re still doing lots of gigs, and you’ll often see them at radical left-wing political gigs, e.g. Rock Against Racism, who invited them to play at their first benefit concert at the Roundhouse.

They’ve recorded a dub album, which I haven’t heard, but by all accounts is extremely good. All they need now is a channel to release it through.

A favourite with punks because of their hard-line approach, Aswad are just as popular with young black kids. They’re ardent Rastafarians with a huge commercial potential – they even have a strong cult following in the States, with no promotion. A band to watch (and to sign).

BLACK SLATE

Keith Drummond, vocals: Tony Brightly, kybrds: Desmond Mahoney: Erroll Bailey, bass: C. Fenton, rhythm gtr: Chris Rogers, lead guitar.

I’VE SEEN Black Slate play in black clubs, white clubs, and pubs. I’ve seen them play with the lead singer away and Erroll, the bass player, handling all the vocals. And they’ve always been hot. Keith is an enjoyably aggressive singer – his kind of attack is an incitement to a good time.

Erroll Bailey, the bass player, is the best new bass player I’ve seen. He looks round and cherubic, just like Jamaica’s ace session bass player Rabbi Shakespeare, the same smiling kind of warmth, and he plays with the same rolling depth to the sound. His singing voice is excellent too – an unusual texture, and a remarkable combination chirrup and gargle effect, just like Jacob Miller. Black Slate have released a few singles on their own labels, the one to watch out for is ‘Sticks Man’, a rebuke to the young kids who get their cash/kicks picking pockets and causing mayhem. It’s one of the best singles of the year, and in all probability the biggest-selling British reggae single of ’77.

Erroll’s aka Bassie’s contribution to this single must not be underestimated. Snoopy of Black Echoes recalled hearing it on the original ‘slate’ (a privately-pressed disc designed for distribution to the reggae sound system d.j’s), with bass, drums and vocals all by Erroll – he’s indisputably one of British reggae’s major talents. Go and see them. Even though their current set isn’t all their own material, (they have a special fondness for covering Leroy Smart songs like ‘Shame And Pride’) their personality is.

Black Slate, like most of the bands in this round-up, haven’t got a record deal as such; again, from the way they satisfy and stimulate every kind of crowd, I’d say they were a hot tip for any hip A&R person. They’ve just finished cutting an album of original material.

If it ain’t good, I’ll eat my copy of ‘Sticks Man’. Lucky I won’t have to, I never was one for eating vinyl.

BLACK STONES

Neville Henry, Byron Otis, Leon Liffer – all vocalists.

BLACK STONES are Britain’s answer to the Mighty Diamonds, the Gladiators, and the Abysinnians – in short, they’re a three-man vocal outfit who really do sing sweet.

The only time I saw them, they were backed by the Equators, a session band who deserve a mention in their own right, since (a) they’re a more than solid outfit, (b) they’re beginning to cut some stuff on their own, with special emphasis on lead singer Winston Ferguson. More about them when they come out fully. Although their set was made up mainly of cover versions, Leon told me that they’ve written a respectable amount of songs, in some sort of collusion with Dover Records, I think. For whatever reason, they’ve never seen the light of day.

However, you can get to hear ’em on wax. Their excellent ‘We Nah A Go Suffer’ – loosely translated, we ain’t gonna put up with this expletive deleted no more – is available on Daddy Kool Records (from the bred’ren who brought ya the shop).

Other waxings to date, include ‘Revolution Time’, on Sunshot produced by Phil Pratt, a highly respected reggae knobsperson who apparently plans more projects with Black Stone. Black Stone hope to do some recording in Jamaica. I hope they get the chance, because that kind of honey-coated ethereal vocal harmony is a Jah-sent treat for the ears, and it would certainly be interesting to see what would happen when Stoke Newington meets Kingston 10. Penny Reel reckons they sing like the Impressions, only better. Watch out for upcoming 12″ 45 and new album, both cut with Phil Pratt.

BRIMSTONE/SONS OF JAH

Leo, drums: Sam, bass: Speego rhythm guitar: Tony Robinson, keyboards: Angela, keyboards: Bunny McKenzie, lead guitar: Vivien & Grace, vocals: Trevor Bow, Julius, Derek, vocals: Rookoo Judah, percussion.

I’M LUMPING Brimstone together with Trevor Bow’s Sons Of Jah because they’re both pretty new line-ups recording for Grove Records (therefore comparatively unproven) and they’re gigging round on the same bill.

Brimstone’s Bunny McKenzie and Tony Robinson both used to play with Aswad (it was Bunny plus sister Candy, a very talented musician in her own fight, who used to sing, blow harp, and step in front of the band). Thus – experienced musicians in a band without much of their own material at this point, and no fully-developed band personality. But a promising combo; it’ll be interesting to see how Brimstone move.

Trevor Bow’s ‘Tell Them Jah Son’ is one of my favourite singles of the last few months, and he’s got considerable stage presence. A prolific songwriter, he’s holding back slightly at present – he reckons most audiences prefer to have familiar songs mixed in when they’re watching a new performer. But again, Sons Of Jah may well prove to be a fresh force in the familiar three-men-singing style of line-up.

King Sounds, noted m.c. and all-round entertainer will be appearing on the same bill, backed by Brimstone. He goes in for crooning soft, romantic, M.O.R.-style soul ballads, but his expansive smile is almost enough compensation.

CIMARONS

Carl Levy, keyboards: Franklyn Dunn, bass: Winston Reiid, vocals: Locksley Gichie, rhythm guitar: Maurice Ellis, drums.

THE CIMARONS career is a potted history of reggae in this country. In the 60’s they were Trojan’s main session band and played behind virtually every major Jamaican artist who appeared over here.

With the dawning of the militant 70’s, they decided (after a trip to Africa – there’s no such thing as coincidence…) to develop their own band identity.

That search is still under way, and the Cimarons are still undecided about whether they’re a good-time entertainment band or a contemporary heavy message outfit. While all the soul-searching’s going on, they’re both highly professional and full of spirit. They’ve been together for a decade with the same line-up (all of them come from round London’s Harlesden area) and the wonder of it is that they manage to sustain that unvarying level of exuberance.

The rhythm section of Frank’s bass and Maurice’s rock-hard drumming is immaculate. Franklyn is indisputably the most visual bass player I’ve ever seen, and none of the sultry swaying’n’stepping gets in the way of the most authentically heavy, hard bass playing you’ll hear over here; reggae bass players tend to be spot-on, since bass is the instrument that structures the sound, but there’s a certain depth and resonance to the chops, and a certain imagination in the superficially simple licks that makes it a highly subtle art. Frank’s a master.

The Cimarons have never peaked on record, just as they’ve never failed to win every audience over totally. They’ve been doing some recording at Pebble Mills Studios recently, which by all accounts is grittier than anything they’ve yet cut.

It’s gratifying that major record labels are showing a very definite interest in the Cimarons. Although they don’t have an ace songwriter in the band, their strength as a unit is formidable, their years of experience make them virtually indestructible, and their onstage energy (plus a certain overview arrived at through having seen reggae revolve through many cycles of popularity and the reverse) means that they have a strong chance of being to reggae what, say, the Stranglers are to punk. The acceptable, nay, lovable face, combining crossover appeal with credibility, their records could be the ones that everybody buys.

Incidentally, they deserve credit for being prime ambassadors of reggae. They were the first roots bands to seriously play around white clubs, and they’ve established a sturdy following for reggae in Europe and Japan. And, would you believe, their version of the Wailers’ ‘Talking Blues’ was number one in Jamaica for seven weeks…

MATUMBI

Glen ‘Bagga’ Fagan, vocals: Jah Bunny Donaldson, drums: Glaister Venn, vocals: Webster ‘Scratch’ Johnson, keyboards, vocals: Euton ‘Fergus’ Jones, congas; Eaton Blake, bass: Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell, lead guitar, vocals.

MATUMBI IS Nigerian for ‘born again’, a wry joke, that, since Matumbi are continually being born again, with name after name on 45 after 45. The two fabulous Louisa Mark singles, ‘Keep It Like It Is’ and ‘Caught You In A Lie’ are both Matumbi, so is 15, 16 and 17’s glorious ‘Black Skin Boy’. That’s three of my all-time fave reggae singles there, so Matumbi must be killers. Then there’s their own two classics, just re-issued as a double A-side by Trojan, ‘After Tonight’ and ‘The Man In Me’. Another couple of murderers.

You can also hear their Ah Who Seh – Go Deh album, fine music recorded at odd moments, jams not actually intended for general release which – uh – somehow found their way onto the market. And you can hear them live too, good-time straightforward enjoyment.

Matumbi are, like the Cimarons, a generation up from Aswad and Steel Pulse. It’s a different vibe, when Matumbi come on in their academic gowns and just free up – dancing in the streets, not fighting in the streets. Your bood’s stirred via the feet more than the mind.

After a career speptacularly studdded with with setbacks and rip-offs endemic to reggae, rumour has it that Matumbi may be releasing their meisterwerk double album tentatively titled Nuclear Reggae, through a major label Sensible label – Matumbi are proven hitmakers, and a proven hotbed of songwriting and playing talent.

90 DEGREES INCLUSIVE

Hugh Francis, guitar, vocals: Henry Barnes, gtr, vocals: Webster Dyer, kybrds: Winston Henry, bass: Delford Davis, drums.

NOT STRICTLY a reggae band, 90 Degrees are probably as near as this country gets to a Third World-type reggae/soul fusion. They came together under the guidance of ex-Equal Eddy Grant, who has his own studio set-up in North London. Kitted out with the comparative luxury of access to studio and rehearsal time, 90 Degrees have an evident head start on most of the bands in this round-up. The kind of confidence that Grant’s got in the band, and more importantly, the kind of constructive, practical guidance/assistance he’s given them are the crucial elements missing in the reggae scene internationally. They’re not a militant rastafarian band – “It stops people thinking for themselves” – so don’t be misled by tracks like ‘Revolution’ on their Vertigo album!

They’ve been together 3 years, and have a good onstage presence with Winston and Henry both coming on powerfully. But their first (and currently only) album is over-sweetened with strings, although it offers some interesting cuts, like their adventurous version of Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’, plus some off-beat songs of their own.

Though 90 Degrees have not played many dates – they haven’t been very visible in London, at least – they may prove to be one of the most unusual bands around.

RICO

RICO’S MUSIC is unique.

Rico Rodriguez is a trombone player who started playing alongside masters of ska like Don Drummond and Roland Alphonso (and did you know that 45’s by any of that crowd fetch up to £10 apiece in Amsterdam. Learn something new every day…). After moving to England 16 years ago, he became known as a king session horn player, and it’s his enbouchement that’s responsible for a hefty percentage of the horns on all reggae releases in this country for at least a decade.

Island’s Chris Blackwell decided to give him a chance to flesh out his musical fantasies, and the band you may have seen on tour supporting Bob Marley is the delicious result. Not so much reggae as jazz-reggae. A felicitous combination, writhing smooth and voluptuous as a Rubens-esque courtesan, Rico performs an instrumental set. Rich, African textures (the percussion, watch out for Rico’s long-time soul-mate Satch fly – ) mesh with Phil Ramcon (ex-Snatch) pumping gorgeous jazz grooves on the organ, and the three-man horn line-up. Incidentally, Rico displays true Rastafarian spirit in having aryan Dick Cuthell playing excellent flugelhorn. Everard’s bass is neat, everything synchs along just fine and mellow.

Lately, Rico’s been going back to his roots. Instead of being reggae’s answer to the Crusaders, he’s delved back to the staccato propulsion of ska spiced with instantly danceable body jazz, the kind of jazz they probably danced to in red plush cathouses in I New Orleans in the 20’s.

Go feeling blissed-out, and you’ll emerge feeling even fitter.

STEEL PULSE

STEEL PULSE are exciting to watch. They have a sense of internal dynamics that makes ’em move on the tiniest stage, you’re looking from one to the other of the three-man front line-up all through the set, which is great.

They’ve got a nifty line in strongly rhythmic & tuneful original songs, and they’re adept at getting people to sing along and dance to stuff they’ve never heard before – especially punks. I’ve never seen a band so remarkably in tune with a new wave audience. Steel Pulse, who come from Birmingham, send out a message, of youth and hard-core jollies, they’re forthright and have a stylish flair for tough showmanship that adds the element of rough excitement to polished playing.

I like ’em.

In fact, I was tremendously excited when I first saw them play, supporting Generation X at top punk niterie, the Vortex. I wasn’t in the least surprised to find they’ve been booked back there, and at the Nashville.

Steel Pulse themselves seem faintly bewildered by the speed with which they’ve been adopted as the new hip thing to have playing with you. They’re pretty tired of schlepping up and down the motorway all bundled into one small van, though, so I reckon they’ll adapt to topping the bill more than happily. I’d be very surprised if that doesn’t happen. Very soon. Check them out AT ONCE!

TRADITION

Tony Matthews, drums: Chris Henry, bass: Paul Dawkins, Percussion & vocals: Paul Thompson, keyboards: Les McNeil, guitar:

UNFORTUNATELY, I haven’t seen Tradition live. However, I have seen them rehearse, and they can play fine. Also, Snoopy and Penny Reel from Black Echoes unanimously inform me that live they have a special quality. Apparently they were excellent backing Delroy Wilson, and I know that their In Dub album, cut with an eye to the sound systems, was not only an excellent seller but also an individual dub record.

When I met up with Tradition in the tiny back room of Gangsterville Records, where they rehearse in a room labelled ‘Tradition only’ (impressive, that,) they told me that they don’t go in for strictly militant material – they played me some of their new recordings, and there were some nice love tunes on it. More material’s going to be released soon on Venture Records, and you’ll hear about it in SOUNDS.

At the time I talked with the band, they had Vyris Edgehill and Jacquie McKenzie singing with them, but things weren’t going too smoothly between the brothers and sisters. Vyris and Jacquie are interested in singing their own songs, so hopefully we’ll hear more from them soon, too.

© Vivien GoldmanSounds, 10 September 1977

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