Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



British reggae group formed '75, name derived from the Arabic for 'black'. Lineup: Donald Benjamin, guitar; Brinsley Forde, vocals and guitar; Tony 'Gad' Robinson, guitar; Courtney Hemmings, keyboards; Ras George Levi, bass; Angus 'Drummie' Zeb, drums. Forde had been a child actor in the early '70s children's series Here Come The Double Deckers on BBC TV. Signed to Island '76, scored with single 'Back To Africa' and debut album Aswad. Hemmings moved on and Tony Gad joined; in '78 they became the backbone of the independent Grove Muzic label on which Hulet appeared in '79 (and from which it was later licensed by Island). Forde acted in film Babylon '80, dealing with the lives of urban blacks in Britain; Aswad contributed to the soundtrack released by Chrysalis same year, featuring 'Warrior Charge'. Showcase took temporary stock, a remixed anthology; New Chapter and Not Satisfied on CBS followed. Despite some commercial/chart success they parted with CBS '82, releasing one single ('Roots Rockin'') on the independent Simba label, then re- signing with Island for Live And Direct '83, recorded in a canny move at the Notting Hill Carnival. Reinvigorated, Aswad had some chart action with 'Chasing For The Breeze', following this with an affectionate gesture, covering Toots Hibbert's '54--46 That's My Number'. Rebel Souls '84 was on Island and Going To The Top '85 on their own Simba label. They had established themselves as the most important British voice in reggae and signed again with Island '86, this time on the label's 'tropical music' subsidiary, Mango. By '87 Aswad's core was Forde, Gad and Drummie Zeb; Going To The Top that year included guest appearances by Dennis Brown and Hugh Masekela. A no. 1 British hit with 'Don't Turn Around' '88 helped album Distant Thunder to no. 10 in the LP charts; follow-up single 'Give A Little Love' made no. 11. They were known for not appearing on their own record covers; Zeb said, 'It was never a conscious decision ... we saw ourselves as musicians, not as pop stars.' A video shot at the Hammersmith Odeon '88 appeared as a concert-length release in '89 under the title Distant Thunder on Island Visual Arts.

Mango released single 'On And On' in the autumn of '89. Zeb and Gad also produced singles by Sweetie Irie and Joe, and by disc jockey George Danger '90. Showcase '87 in Mango's Reggae Greats series is a compilation of much of their best work to that year; Mango issued Firesticks in '93, an album of 'alternative mixes' featuring the likes of General Levy, Sweetie Irie and Shabba Ranks. Production work for other artists incl. co-producing violinist Vanessa-Mae's cover of Mason Williams's 'Classical Gas', incorporating a reggae mix and DJ rap for EMI '95, part of the continuing drive to increase her profile in the wake of her hit album The Violin Player. Always good value on tour, Aswad's position as the most successful UK reggae group is unassailable. They've gigged and/or recorded with Jackson Browne, Cliff Richard, Joan Armatrading etc; taken part in charity and community projects (a three-day careers course at London's Camden Centre '86, a Free South Africa concert at Wembley '90, etc). After entertaining happy crowds for 20 years, with ten albums available in the USA on Mango, they were praised with faint damns by a sociology lecturer reviewing a UK gig because they've only had two big hit singles in the UK and because their politics aren't rigorous enough (all they want is peace). You can't please everybody.