?Conquering Lions' or Sell Outs?
They burst through, seemingly from nowhere, to become the leading ?young lions' of British reggae. They were equally at home at reggae events as at mixed-genre concerts with their poignant socio-political lyricism. They were called Aswad, meaning ?Black' in Amharic, and before groups like Steel Pulse came along, it was they who articulated the expression of Britain's burgeoning Rastafarian movement and the experiences of inner-city Black youths. It's hard to believe this trailblazing band of the ?70s, judging by their recent hits, is still the same band. Age mellows.
Aswad was formed in 1975 by five friends from around London's Brent and Ladbroke Grove area. It was in a back room of a record shop in Kensal Green that I first heard the youthful, then unsigned, band rehearsing. I remember the noise from Drummie Zeb's badly tuned snare drum. Unimpressed, I thought at least they were keeping off the streets by occupying their time in a creative manner.
Less than a year later, they had become proficient enough to be the first British reggae band to be taken on by Island Records. Signed by Richard Williams, a former journalist who championed reggae - particularly as performed by Bob Marley - in the rock press, the group were given the freedom to produce their work. ?Three Babylon', their first single, dealt with police harrassment at a time when many young Black men were being incessantly vicitmized by the Police using the ?Sus'law. Their d?but struck a chord not only amongst Black youths but also many white fans, who felt just as disenfranchised and harassed. Their eponymous d?but album was released in 1976, at a time when most reggae artists, particularly new ones, were confined to seven inch singles.
Aswad was in no doubt influenced by the polished, socio-cum-Rastafarian lyricism and rock-influenced albums of label-mates Bob Marley and the Wailers. The since departed Dee's lead guitar chops and titles like ?Back To Africa', ?Can't Stand The Pressure' and ?I A Rebel Soul' said it all. But more importantly this was a very credible reggae band coming from a British perspective. They also cut it live by playing at Black clubs, the college circuit, the popular punk-and-reggae bills of the ?70s and one of the first Rock against Racism concerts - at the Roundhouse in Camden in the summer of 1977. What a gig that was!
Fast forward to 1995. With a national number one hit under their belt and already veterans of pop TV programmes, there is the perception that they have gone soft and abandoned the need for Black expression and settled for raggaefied pop cover songs with recent singles like ?You're no good'.
"You say we come up with these pop hits, but for us from day one the musical taste has always been wide with Aswad," says Tony Gadd, the group's
bassist. "What happened is I think after we had that big hit with ?Don't Turn Around', we gained a big audience of mainly younger people while our old fans who had been with us all those years were like, ?You can't be a credible reggae band if you're having pop hits!' For us it's just like a natural progression because we've always done things like that. If you only listen to what comes out on the singles, then you might pick up that picture of us being about pop hits. But if you go back to the albums, the albums have always had what Aswad has been about."
Their album, ?Rise And Shine', was recently re-released with the inclusion of their lyrical remake of their instrumental classic ?Warrior Charge'(They have released another album since this interview). "If you listen to the last album," continues Gadd, "it starts with a tune called ?Day By Day' which is basically talking about the struggle of each and every one of us. We understand the qualms of the Black population out there. We've heard that we've sold out. But like I said, to be able to get across to a bigger audience like people in America or further away, we have to be having
some form of chart hits for people to be able to pick up on what we're doing."
Though Aswad started off on a strong Black expression tip in the mid-70s, they always had a big white following in addition to their Black core fans. "It was never just Black people that came and listened to Aswad. So for us, as far as we're concerned music really has no colour. Yes, we know that we have convictions and we are Black - there's no getting away from it and what we sing about is going to come that way anyway."
Whilst many of their older Black fans may have deserted, it's worth bearing in mind that Aswad are one of the Britain's foremost reggae flag-bearers - they continually tour abroad. Coming back strong in Britain with the merry single ?Shine', it's not surprising that they were voted best reggae group at the International Dance Awards earlier this year. They were also nominated for the best reggae album category in the 1995 Grammy awards, which shows that Aswad still have enough fans who love what they are doing.