Aswad Biography

Formed in west London, England, in 1975, this premier UK reggae band originally comprised Brinsley ‘Dan’ Forde (Guyana; vocals/guitar), George ‘Ras Levi’ Oban (bass), Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye (b. London, England; drums), Donald ‘Benjamin’ Griffiths (b. Jamaica, West Indies; vocals), and Courtney Hemmings (keyboards). Taking their name from the Arabic word for black, they attempted a fusion of Rastafarianism with social issues more pertinent to their London climate. Their self-titled 1975 debut was well received, and highlighted the plight of the immigrant Jamaican in an unfamiliar and often hostile environment. A more ethnic approach was evident on the superior follow-up, Hulet, which placed the band squarely in the roots tradition only partially visited on their debut. Their instrumentation impressed, with imaginative song structures filled out by a dextrous horn section. The departure of Oban, who was replaced by Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson (the keyboard player on Hulet) did little to diminish their fortunes. Forde, meanwhile, acted in the movie Babylon, which featured Aswad’s ‘Warrior Charge’ on its soundtrack.

A brief change of label saw them record two albums for CBS Records before they returned to Island Records for Live And Direct, recorded at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1982. By early 1984 they were at last making a small impression on the UK charts with ‘Chasing For The Breeze’, and a cover version of Maytals’ ‘54-46 That’s My Number’. To The Top in 1986 represented arguably the definitive Aswad studio album, replete with a strength of composition that was by now of considerable power. While they consolidated their reputation as a live act, Aswad used 1988’s Distant Thunder as the launching pad for a significant stylistic overhaul. The shift to lightweight funk and soul, although their music maintained a strong reggae undertow, made them national chart stars. The album bore a 1988 UK number 1 hit in ‘Don’t Turn Around’.

Since then, Aswad have remained a major draw in concert, although their attempts to plot a crossover path have come unstuck in more recent times, despite the appearance of artists such as Shabba Ranks on their 1990 set, Too Wicked. A new single, ‘Shine’, climbed to UK number 5 in 1994, while the attendant Rise And Shine reached the Billboard Reggae Top 10. Brinsley Forde left the band in the late 90s, leaving Zeb and Gad to continue as a duo.

Although they have not always appealed to the purists, Aswad are one of the most successful reggae-influenced bands operating in the UK, thoroughly earning all the accolades that have come their way, particularly with their riveting live act.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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