After 25 years and two dozen albums, Britain-based Aswad has become of one reggae’s institutions. Not only has the band outlasted almost every other band to emerge from the vibrant London reggae scene of the 1970s, it has also survived numerous personnel changes over the years. The group even avoided the pitfalls of succumbing to its own success; after securing a number one single, Aswad continued to develop its style regardless of its presence on the charts. Known for its energetic live shows, the band has also sustained its popularity with an extensive tour schedule in Europe, Japan, and the Americas. For its longevity alone, Aswad ranks among the most notable reggae bands, as well as one of the most commercially successful.
Developed in Jamaica from the 1960s onward, reggae mixed traditional Caribbean rhythms, a prominent bass line, and often socially profound lyrics with elements of American jazz and R&B. In Britain, where many of the island’s immigrants had settled after World War II, independent record companies brought the latest reggae releases to Jamaican expatriates. By the mid 1960s homegrown British reggae bands, such as the Cimarons, had sprung up among the immigrants and their children. Largely ignored by commercial radio and
Members include Brinsley “Dan” Forde (born in 1952 in Guyana), vocals, guitar; Angus “Drummie Zeb” Gaye (born in 1959 in London, England), vocals, drums; Donald “Benjamin” Griffiths (born in 1954 in Jamaica); Courtney Hemmings; George “Ras Levi” Oban (left group, 1980), bass; Tony “Gad” Robinson (replaced Oban), bass.
Formed group in London, England, c. 1974; released first, self-titled album, 1976; scored number one single “Don’t Turn Around,” released Distant Thunder, 1988; released Rise and Shine, 1994; released Big Up, 1997; released Roots Revival, 1999; released twenty-fifth anniversary concert album, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Ark 21 Records, 14724 Ventura Blvd., Penthouse Suite, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, website: http://www.ark21.com. Website — Aswad at Ark 21 Records: http://www.ark21.com/as wad/indexold. htm.
the major records labels, it was not until the mid 1970s that reggae began to be heard on a significant scale outside of the Anglo-Jamaican community in Britain.
Formed around 1974 in London, the group Aswad was one of many bands that emerged during the fertile period in British reggae music. Deriving its name from the Arabic word for “black,” the group initially performed with five members. In addition to mainstay Angus “Drummie Zeb” Gaye on drums and vocals, the band included George “Ras Levi” Oban, Courtney Hemmings, Donald “Benjamin” Griffiths, and Brinsley “Dan” Forde on lead vocals. Forde was perhaps the best-known of the members at the time of the band’s formation. As a child actor, he had appeared in several British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programs. Over the years, the group’s lineup would change several times. By the 1990s, Aswad was a trio consisting of Gaye and Forde, joined by Tony Gad after 1980 on bass. In the late 1990s, however, Forde also left the band, and Aswad carried on as a duo.
In its first incarnation, Aswad reflected the multicultural, immigrant environment that made British reggae somewhat distinct from its island counterpart. After all, most of its members came from different countries: Gaye was born in London, Forde in Guyana, and Griffiths in Jamaica. Reflecting this diversity, the members found influences in Jamaican styles such as ska and rocksteady, precursors to reggae, as well as American jazz. Like many reggae artists, however, the band’s lyrical output often focused on themes of struggle and survival in the midst of racial hostility. The band’s first single, 1976’s “Back to Africa,” referred to a longing for an idyllic mother land, while the follow-up single, “Three Babylon,” was a statement against police brutality.
With its signing to Mango Records in 1975, a division of Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, Aswad became the first reggae group from outside Jamaica signed to the renown label. A pioneer in his own right, Blackwell had facilitated the development of reggae in Britain in the early 1960s by producing some of the leading reggae artists in Jamaica and importing their records to the émigré Jamaican community in Britain and around the world. By the 1970s, Island Records was recognized as the premier international reggae label, a fact that established Aswad’s credibility with reggae audiences from the start.
With “Back to Africa,” Aswad found immediate success as the single hit number one on the British reggae charts. The band was also in demand as a backing group for visiting Jamaican reggae stars, including Black Uhuru and Bob Marley. Aswad also took part in the creative alliance between reggae and punk rock at the end of the 1970s, performing with New Wave acts such as the Police and Elvis Costello. With reggae’s popularity at an ebb in Britain after 1980, however, one of the group’s outstanding releases, 1981’s New Chapter, sold poorly despite the critical approval. Searching for direction, the band went back to its roots, recording some old Jamaican dancehall standards before pushing on with more mainstream pop efforts.
Aswad’s previous experimentation with jazz fusion, R&B, and various Jamaican styles had led some critics to question their commitment as bona-fide reggae artists. The band’s breakthrough success in 1988 seemed to confirm this skepticism. Taking a tune co-written by prolific American songwriter Diane Warren—best known at the time for penning hits by De-Barge, Laura Branigan, and Michael Bolton—Aswad’s version of “Don’t Turn Around” hit number one on the singles chart in Britain in early 1988. The group followed the chart-topper with another hit co-authored by Warren, the top 20 single “Give a Little Love.” In similar fashion, Aswad’s 1988 album Distant Thunder hit the top ten on the album charts in Britain.
Firmly established with mainstream audiences in Britain, Aswad continued to score on the charts with hits such as “On and On” in 1989 and “Next to You” in 1990, yet reggae purists continued to criticize the band for becoming too pop-oriented. In a 1994 Billboard interview to promote the release of Rise and Shine, Gaye acknowledged that some Aswad fans had not approved of the band’s crossover appeal. “They were saying those albums were OK, but that our older projects had more true flavor…. For the last few albums, we had been recording at the most expensive places in London. For Rise and Shine, we decided to record in a place that had a certain atmosphere that we were looking for.” The change in venue helped Rise and Shine recover some of the band’s old fan base while maintaining its mainstream popularity as the single “Shine” hit the top 30 in Britain. Rise and Shine also proved extremely popular in Japan where Aswad became one of the most popular international artists of the 1990s. Rise and Shine was one of the biggest-selling albums in Japan in 1994, in part because Aswad allowed Sony Records to press a domestic release of the album for the Japanese market, a rarity for an international artist in the country.
The changes in Aswad’s musical direction were reflected in the reggae world itself. As Gaye commented in a 1994 Billboard interview, “Music used to have a real message. It’s still youthdriven music, but a lot of the newer forms—hip-hop and house and dub—changed reggae.” In particular, according to Gaye, the use of new technologies in the studio took the feel of modern reggae far away from its roots: “A lot of kids out there today can’t play the [reggae] beat, so they use computers to create them.” For all its mainstream success, Aswad remained firmly identified as one of the great British reggae groups, along with Steel Pulse.
Summarizing the band’s accomplishment upon the release of its Reggae Greats album in 1998, a Q magazine reviewer noted its “rightful place in the history books as one of the few reggae bands to make a lasting impact on a mainstream (i.e. white) audience,” while reviving the old criticism of Aswad as lacking in authenticity. The fact that Swedish pop group Ace of Base had an international number one hit with a remake of “Don’t Turn Around” in 1994 had done little to restore the band’s reputation. Still, after more than 20 years of varying degrees of success, the members of Aswad had outlasted most of their original colleagues and many of their critics. With Brinsley Forde’s departure from the group, Gaye and Gad continued with the 1999 release Roots Revival, which included cover versions of the Bob Marley songs “Caution” and “Thank You Lord,” in addition to a contribution from Sting on the group’s rendition of the Police song “Invisible Sun.”
On August 22, 2000, Aswad performed a concert in London that marked the band’s twenty-fifth anniversary, a tribute that was recorded and released the following year as 25 Live: 25th Anniversary. Although it had not achieved commercial success in the United States, where urban and mainstream radio programmers typically ignored reggae releases, Aswad remained a popular concert draw in Britain, the Caribbean, and Japan. Despite a lack of recognition after its initial period of critical acclaim, the group also maintained an eager fan base willing to stick with the band throughout its musical and personnel changes. As a Q reviewer commented in October of 1999, “The future for Aswad’s breezy, lightweight reggae looks fairly bright.”
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New Chapter, Columbia, 1981.
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Not Satisfied, CBS, 1982.
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Crucial Tracks: The Best of Aswad, Mango, 1989.
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Too Wicked, Mango, 1990.
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Broughton, Simon, et al., editors, World Music: The Rough Guide Volume 2, The Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
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Billboard, July 2, 1994, p. 22; January 28, 1995, p. 57; August 5, 1995, p. 57; July 17, 1999, p.37; August 19, 2000, p. 73.
Q, October 1995; September 1998; October 1999.
“Aswad,” Ark 21 Records, http://www.ark21.com/aswad/indexold.htm (June 23, 2001).
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