Aswad: Reggae gold
Taking their name from the Arabic word for “black”, Aswad originally formed in West London’s Ladbroke Grove area in 1974. Prestigiously signing to Island Records the following year, the band quickly became one of the first home-grown acts to prove that Caribbean music could successfully take root in the UK, when their debut album (1976’s ‘Back To Africa’) hit the Number One slot on the British reggae chart.
With many of their songs (typically for the time) speaking about the oppression of black youth, other significant early Aswad releases included their popular 1981 anthem ‘Love Fire’; plus the 1983-released ‘Live And Direct’, hailed to this day as one of the quintessential live reggae albums.
However, despite early on becoming the only English group to record and/or perform with Jamaican icons-of-the-day like Burning Spear, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, international mainstream success nevertheless eluded Aswad until 1988 - when their cover of Tina Turner’s ‘Don’t Turn Around’ became a UK pop Number One. Following which, in 1994 (after several further hits) the band’s new-found global acclaim next found them garnering their first Grammy nomination for the album ‘Rise And Shine’; with its single ‘Shine’ additionally proving massive in both Britain and Japan.
With Aswad’s line-up today comprising the group’s original vocalist/drummer Angus ‘Drummie’ Zeb’ Gaye plus long-serving bass-guitarist Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson, said twosome relax at the Hammersmith offices of indie label Rhythm Riders to discuss with Pete Lewis their aforementioned new LP. Whose blend of richly melodic, feel-good reggae with other influences like soul, dub, funk and dancehall continues the band’s uplifting musical vibe, which has to date seen them sell over four million albums worldwide.
PETE: How would you describe your new LP ‘City Lock’, musically and lyrically?
TONY: “With Aswad - from Day One - all of us were born in England, but our parentage came from The West Indies. So, even though we were listening to what was going on over here, at the same time we were still connected to what was coming outta The Caribbean. You know, calypso, reggae and bluebeat were still very much part of us because of the lineage. So basically all Aswad has ever done over the years is make reggae music - just like all the reggae bands who are from Jamaica - while at the same time also incorporating the influences we’ve heard from other forms of music here in England. And so musically it’s all those different flavours that you’ll hear when you listen to this latest album.”
DRUMMIE: “And lyrically the inspiration behind our writing basically just comes from life as we live it! I mean, the social problems that we have in the UK are very different from what they have in Jamaica. So, from the start, our messages have always pertained to what we’ve seen and experienced here in ENGLAND - because that’s what we KNOW about!”
PETE: How do you now look back on your pioneering early days as one of the first English reggae bands?
TONY: “For us as a band, over the years we’ve seen loads of changes. ‘Cause when we started there wasn’t really any English reggae scene as such. Instead everybody was always listening to what was coming from Jamaica. So, without blowing our own trumpet, I think Aswad actually had a lot to do with cultivating the British family of reggae musicians and artists. You know, we saw what was going on in Jamaica, and that in turn became OUR inspiration to do something HERE… And, when youts saw a band from England was starting to make some noise, they thought ‘Well yes, we can do that TOO!’… Which in turn brought about an explosion of OTHER reggae artists here, and created a SCENE!”
DRUMMIE: “Yeah, because we were the first black British band to sign to a major label, we gave a lot of people inspiration to form bands. To where, at one point, there was reggae bands all OVER the place! From Tribesman and Black Slate and Misty In Roots in London, to Steel Pulse in Birmingham!”
PETE: How do you now reflect on your international mainstream breakthrough in 1988 with your UK pop Number One ‘Don’t Turn Around’?
DRUMMIE: “The reason the hit happened was because it actually got HEARD! You know, a big problem with reggae music is that a lot of the songs you make don’t get the EXPOSURE. Whereas with ‘Don’t Turn Around’ - because we actually made a video to go with it - it started to be shown on TV; the record started playing on the radio... And it all just escalated from THERE!”
TONY: “And what ‘Don’t Turn Around’ actually did for us was get us a whole new audience who didn’t know we’d already had a career for l4 years! So, in addition to the people who knew us from years before, we now had a NEW crowd coming to our gigs who only knew that one song! So we’d be there literally playing to two different audiences! And I think our old audience got a bit pissed off! You know, ‘Hold on, this is MY band - and now they’ve got this new crowd! Oh, maybe they’ve turned commercial!’... So suddenly we had this conflict going on within our fan-base. But hopefully, with this new album, we’ll tie it all back up together. Because for us ‘Don’t Turn Around’ was never a commercial song! It was just a GOOD song that got heard and then broke through! You know, we never set out to make a commercial pop record! We just made it as part of an album (1988’s ‘Distant Thunder’), which - in its entirety - did represent all that Aswad is about. Because musically Aswad does encompass a lot of different things!”
PETE: You’ve recently been participating in Island Records’ 50th Anniversary celebrations. How do you look back on your time with Island during the Seventies and Eighties?
DRUMMIE: “The reason we went to Island in the first place (in 1975) was because they had Bob Marley, and no other major label back then had ANY reggae artists. And what was funny is we didn’t even organise a MEETING with them! We just went there, sat in reception, and demanded to SEE somebody!... And, looking back now, we do feel very proud to have been part of the Island Records history. Because being the first British reggae band to be signed and then getting the opportunities to work with people like (then-fellow Island acts) Burning Spear and The Wailers was incredible! You know, Island did play a big part in promoting reggae in general, and making it international. Basically Island’s thing was to make the music accessible to EVERYBODY! And - with Bob especially - they were very successful in DOING that. I mean, we even heard of Bob doing shows in Italy where he literally got more people than The Pope!”
TONY: “And while yes, in some ways it is sad that (the now-Universal-owned) Island - as a label - has definitely changed from what it used to be, at the same time you have to remember that music too has changed, that technology has changed, and that the WORLD has changed! You know, just like reggae music itself has gone through many different changes since the Seventies and Eighties, so have artists and record companies! So, for the Island label to survive, to me it was just inevitable that it had to change too!”
Aswad perform at Broadlands, Romsey, Hampshire on July 18; and at Outside Leytonstone Tube Station, London on September 20
The album ‘City Lock’ and single ‘What Is Love’ are both out now through Rhythm Riders
Words PETE LEWIS