African Children (live) – Aswad
Finsbury Park in 1983 was a crossroads of the world. I started taking photographs of the shops on Blackstock Road with some kind of exhibition in mind. Turkish, Bengali, Nigerian, Indian, Moroccan, Jamaican, Polish, Italian, Pakistani, Greek, Portugese, Ghanaian, and on. You know when you’re young and you think everything you do is important. I loved living there. The park was a stone’s throw away with it’s gentle hill and giant trees. You could buy weed in the Finsbury Park Tavern in times of need from the Jamaicans.
Every now and again you could hear a muffled roar of delight from Highbury as Arsenal scored. Not that often obviously. I was with Mumtaz in the attic flat, corner of Somerfield Road. Laurie Jones was downstairs, communist, comrade, veteran of the Cable St riots against Moseley’s blackshirts and maker of his own wine. I’ll talk about Laurie later. Also for later : the premiere and run of Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in May of that year. My first fully professional, fully paid proper acting job. We ran there for five months. And, yet again for later – my beloved Brighton & Hove Albion’s cup run in 1983 took us to a semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury. Down the road. 1983 was clearly a blessing all round.
I’m playing in a local band called Arc Connexxion, whose afro-beat/soul grooves were the brainchild of genial Nigerian Londoner George (Adebayo ? I can’t remember his surname :-() I’m in the horn section with three others, and we play some of George’s songs like “Agar Grove” (a street in Camden) and also some covers. I’m still playing the same silver saxophone I bought in Lewes in 1972. We think we sound a bit like Fela. I don’t suppose we do, we don’t get many gigs, but they are joyful affairs. Then one day George comes into rehearsal beaming. We’re playing Notting Hill Carnival ! General joy all round – this is frankly the top gig you could possibly get as an unknown unsigned no records band and we get seriously into rehearsal.
Rumours start to spread nearer the time that Aswad are playing Carnival too. This band were all over my 20s. They are a London reggae band formed in the mid-seventies by a group of 2nd-generation West Indian musicians from Holland Park school, near Ladbroke Grove. They were the sound of West London while I lived there, along with The Clash. When I started studying law at the London School of Economics in 1976, Aswad played in The Ents Room in Freshers Week. They were probably the first reggae band I saw live. I was hooked, and they were amazing. In those days Brinsley Forde was singing lead and Drummie Zeb Gaye was on the kit. They played LSE at least twice more while I was there, and I bought all their records from then on – 1st LP Aswad 1976, 2nd LP Hulet 1978, then the mighty mighty 12 inch single Warrior Charge which really didn’t leave my turntable for months, especially the dubplate on side B “Dub Charge“. What was even more exciting than listening to the track was watching them play it live – and they could. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen them. And of course they were Burning Spear’s backing band at the Rainbow in 1977 (see My Pop Life #10). The next two albums A New Chapter and A New Chapter Of Dub really put them on the map musically, their strong melodies and song structures giving their reggae roots a real pop twist – although the dub elements left all that in their wake.
Not Satisfied, released in 1982 is a landmark reggae album. I used the title track in my first play as a writer “Sanctuary” for Joint Stock when I wanted the busker character Raz in the underground to sing something – but that was years later in 1987. But here we were in 1983 Carnival and Aswad are now a 3-piece – the classic line-up with Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson on bass with Drummie and Brinsley. We couldn’t drive anywhere near the stage, so had to unload gear miles away. At least we were sharing the drum kit? I had to carry my sax around, so we decided to hang around Meanwhile Gardens, Westbourne Park end of the Carnival since that was our stage there and we were going to play on it. Just by the canal. We would be last up.
Carnival was amazing that year. Who knows why ? I’m sure it’s always amazing, but it seemed happy, packed, and the weather was perfect. Everyone was against Thatcher. Food was fantastic. And then In the afternoon at about 2pm Aswad took the stage and played one of the most beautiful powerful and righteous sets of reggae and dub that I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. When I say they could play Warrior Charge/Dub Charge live – they could, they did. The horn section was sweet and tight, and they would go into a breakdown with Drummie staggering the beats and echoing the horn stabs to create the dub effect. Brilliant.
They played Not Satisfied, African Children and Roots Rocking. We got on eventually just as the stage was closing and got to play two songs – all that rehearsal !! – one of which was Dancing In The Street by Martha and the Vandellas. We smashed it, and plenty people danced as the sun set. Happy memories.
Some months later Aswad released a live LP called Live & Direct. It was that set. It opens with the words of Brinsley Forde “We are Live and Direct. You know what Live and Direct mean? It mean Live an Direct !” Stunning.