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By Michael E. Miller
In many parts of the world one of the biggest names in pop music is Aswad. If that's a news flash, you have to understand that the world is a big place. It doesn't begin and end with North America, although the British reggae band also has enjoyed a few moments in the sun here, as well.
While theirs is a slick sound, particularly on the band's new album, Rise and Shine, and while they tend to overdress for press photos, Aswad can't be lumped together with reggae-lite bands or any of the other reggae-based acts that have put commercial success before all else. (Repeat this mantra: Dancehall sucks, dancehall sucks, dancehall sucks.) Aswad is real, sincere, and they have the history to prove it. Even if they have dabbled in dancehall.
Dabble is the key word. It happened in 1990, during one of the three times that the group was signed to Island Records. Producer Gussie Clarke was popping out hit after hit at Music Works, his Kingston, Jamaica, studio, and Island sent Aswad there to record. A number of big names participated, including a young hotshot named Shabba Ranks. It wasn't until this year that Aswad followed up that project, Too Wicked, by issuing a single, "Dancehall Mood," for Bubblin' Records.
Perhaps it was then, in 1990, that Aswad realized the jeopardy they were placing themselves in by turning to the massively popular but ultimately trendy genre. Or maybe it's just geography. "Jamaica is very dancehall-oriented," singer-guitarist Brinsley Forde says by phone from London. "So the turnover is very quick. Producers take one rhythm track and use it again and again with different artists. In England it's more geared to the business, more long-term with a bit more attention paid to the career situation."
Which means it's geared to Aswad, who've made a career out of making a career. Forde, who cofounded Aswad about twenty years ago, says that even in England the current emphasis is on DJs and solo singers, but technology explains that. "It's the producer who gets the track together," he explains. "You don't need five guys to sit and play in the studio. One guy can do it." So naturally Aswad went into the studio as a full band A the three frontmen (Drummie Zeb, Tony Gad, and Forde) joined by a horn section with production shared by several upstarts the band has worked with in the past.
Like virtually every Aswad release, the result, Rise and Shine, represents a new chapter. It sounds more like a return to the sound of the group's old albums than a linear progression from their dancehall excursions. One cut, the effervescent joy ride called "Shine," already has scored major chart success in the U.K. And as has been the case with most of Aswad's past work, the new effort is full of high-profile instrumentation, including their signature keyboards.
"I'll tell you the truth," Forde says flatly. "We said, 'Listen, let's put the brakes on. Let's check what people have been saying.' We came up with New Chapter of Dub and Live and Direct, and when it came to putting vibes and ideas on the tracks, those albums are the ones that say what it is we regard as Aswad. By all reports this [Rise and Shine] is that vibe."
It's a long way from Forde and company's early days working with Marley, Tosh, and Wailer, but Rise and Shine is a remarkably enjoyable record that features more chops than a butcher shop. And even if they had been going for the gravy, who could blame them? It took Aswad more than a decade to achieve a hit record in the U.S., so if they want to ride the train now, okay. Their dues have been paid many times over.
But if you go back to 1988's Distant Thunder, which contains that first U.S. hit, "Don't Turn Around," and compare it to the new album and the rest of their catalogue, you can hear the thread that ties together the colorful Aswad fabric. You also can hear it on early Sixties, North American soul and R&B records and the rock and roll they inspired and influenced. "Definitely an influence," Forde says. "The Sixties soul and R&B, Motown, to the Stones and Beatles and Bobby Vee, you name it. We had all those experiences. 'Don't Turn Around' had a bit of Everly Brothers. I can't put my finger on it, but I love it and it inspired me. Reggae itself started from rhythm and blues. Even now in Jamaica they play R&B-based American music more than the reggae made there. And the Wailers [who open for Aswad on their current three-city U.S. minitour] were directly influenced by Curtis Mayfield. The three-part harmony we do was inspired by Curtis Mayfield [primarily with the Impressions]. He's kind of the grandfather of reggae."
All influences and dabbling aside, Aswad, particularly in the live setting, pumps out solid three-beat music that more often than not succeeds, even in such bastard forms as dancehall and dub. And by maintaining high quality and making distinctive original music through thirteen albums over eighteen years, Aswad has proved something. "We got to a point where we fought to have our own identity," Forde says. "English bands used to just copy Jamaican bands. There was a vibe that authentic music couldn't be made here. We wanted to break that down."
Outside influences are also important to an understanding of how Aswad has maintained and achieved. Way back when, Forde recalls, he went over to Peter Tosh's place when the legend was staying in England: "All the Wailers were staying there. They had no instruments or anything there. So I took my guitar and amp and jammed with them. Bunny was the first to explain the Rasta lifestyle, which is my lifestyle. And he invited us to go to Jamaica and play a youth-consciousness show. He called us the young Wailers."
During Aswad's formative years there was another outside force at work: racism. (Aswad essentially means "black.") Back in 1976 Aswad had their first number-one hit in the U.K. with "Three Babylon." At the same time the racial tensions that led a couple of years later to the Brixton riots already were becoming evident. As a dark-skinned British Rasta, Forde is qualified to speak to this. "Racism hasn't really disappeared or gone anywhere," he offers. "These problems tend to flare up when the economic situation takes a bad turn, whether it be a country people are fleeing from or where they're settled but are deprived of certain living standards. I believe that music is the international language, that differences can be dissolved by people sharing music, a style of dress, sharing the vibe.
"That was what has eased the situation, the generation now is schooled in this society, kind of know society as it is, people can get up and hold their own. But it'll never go away, whether it's black versus white or two nations or two tribes. We're trying to find the common ground to communication. With music, people can say, 'We love this music,' and so they're together and you can't have the differences."
And you can dance to it.
Aswad and the Wailers perform after 9:00 p.m. Sunday at Glam Slam, 1235 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 672-4858. Tickets cost $19.50 and $22.50.