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Posts tagged ‘Brinsley Forde’

Angus Gaye (Drummie Zeb) 1959-2022

As I recall, just two members of a band called Aswad arrived at the Hammersmith office of Island Records with a cassette tape one day in the summer of 1975. They were Brinsley Forde, the singer and rhythm guitarist, and George Oban, the bass player. There wasn’t much on the tape beyond a few scratchily recorded rhythm tracks. But I liked what I heard and I wanted to know more and to meet the rest of them. We arranged for them to return a few days later, at five o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 15.

The timing was important because one member of the band was still at school. That was Angus Gaye, their drummer, who turned up along with Brinsley, George, Donald Griffiths, the lead guitarist, and Courtney Hemmings, the keyboards player. They were young — Angus was 16 — and they had a nice combination of energy (particularly Angus) and seriousness (particularly George). I liked the fact that they chosen a name that meant “black”.

It was obvious that they worshipped Bob Marley and the Wailers, who would be playing their historic gig at the Lyceum two nights later, on Thursday, July 17. Their song titles would make the influence explicit: “I A Rebel Soul”, “Concrete Slaveship”. I liked the idea of a young British reggae band taking that as their inspiration and doing something of their own with it, infusing their songs with their own experience as the children of immigrants from the Caribbean. There wasn’t yet a Steel Pulse or a Misty in Roots on the scene, while Greyhound and Matumbi were still basically pop rather than roots reggae bands.

A combination of memory and diaries tells me that we gave them some time in the rehearsal room and the studio to make demos, and eventually I played something to Chris Blackwell on one of his visits to London and told him I wanted to sign them. He was fine with that, so we gave them a contract. They went into the studio at the back of our building on St Peter’s Square, with Tony Platt — who had worked with Blackwell on Catch a Fire and Burnin’ — as their engineer and co-producer, and came out with the 16-track tapes that they and Platt mixed at Basing Street into a debut album that was something to be proud of.

By the time it came out they were adopting new names. Angus would become Drummie Zeb. He sang lead on “Back to Africa”, the track that was pulled from the album to make the first single, and eventually he became the group’s main lead singer. I left Island soon after the album was released, just as they were starting what I believe to have been the first experiments by a band using dub techniques in live performance. I was able to watch in admiration from afar as they made great records like “Three Babylon” and “Warrior Charge”, as they backed Burning Spear on his concert dates, as Angus played drums on Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party”, as — much later — they had their No 1 hit with “Don’t Turn Around”, and as they played big gigs like Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at Wembley and Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay.

Angus/Drummie died last Friday, September 2, aged 62. I think of him and his band, and of their youthful enthusiasm on the day they came to see me at St Peter’s Square, with great fondness.

* The portrait of Angus/Drummie was taken by Dennis Morris for the cover of Aswad, the band’s debut album.

Catch A Fire redux

Catch A FireLondon felt like an oven as I made my way to the South Bank to watch Gary Crosby’s augmented Jazz Jamaica celebrate the 40th anniversary of Catch A Fire last night. It reminded me of the evening of September 20, 1972, when I landed at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, Jamaica and experienced Caribbean heat for the first time, about to discover the way it transports you into a different reality.

Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, whom I had not met before, picked me up at the terminal in a Mini Moke, which also contained the American photographer Lynn Goldsmith. We drove along the Palisadoes, the long spit of land than encloses Kingston Harbour, to Port Royal, the old pirate headquarters — or what was left of it by the earthquakes of 1692 and 1907. It was quiet, and it was hot, and we got out of the Moke by the seafront, where goats were settling down for the night and men were selling fish from glass-fronted wooden cases. Blackwell bought us each a piece of fried snapper and a can of cold Red Stripe from a bar made out of corrugated iron sheets. It seemed like heaven

The following day we went to Dynamic Sound studios, where Toots and the Maytals were trying to record “Tumbling Dice”, a task only marginally impeded by the fact that Toots didn’t know the words and was making them up as he went along. This gave me the chance to witness one of the great rhythm sections at work: Hucks Brown (guitar), Gladstone Anderson (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Jackie Jackson (bass) and Winston Grennan (drums), each of them doing exactly what you hoped he’d do. Particularly Hucks Brown, playing those unique little stuttering, flickering single-string fills that had distinguished Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” a few months earlier.

I was shown around Trenchtown the next morning by Joe Higgs, the singer who had mentored the young Wailers, teaching them how to sing harmony. Joe was an older man, a calm, charming, deep-voiced Rasta. He gave me a copy of his new 45, “Let Us Do Something”, and took me to Bob’s Tuff Gong record shack at 127 King Street, one block across from Orange Street, where I bought copies of the Wailers’ “Trenchtown Rock” and their latest release, “Satisfy My Soul Jah Jah”. That afternoon Blackwell and I went to Half Way Tree, where he had an appointment at the Aquarius record store with Herman Chin Loy, a young producer, who played us some pretty wild acetates on which he wanted to make a deal; they may have been the ones that surfaced the following year on the first of his Aquarian Dub LPs.

That evening we met up with Harry Johnson — the famous Harry J — who removed a Smith & Wesson from the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and placed it in a shoulder holster concealed by his lightweight jacket before ushering took us to his studio on Roosevelt Avenue. I remember it as a bungalow surrounded by lawn and trees. Inside, amid a thick fug of ganja, were Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone, Aston Barrett and Carlton Barrett, laying down the track of “Slave Driver”, whose lyric would provide the title for Catch A Fire.

I knew about the Wailers. Back in 1966 I’d bought two of their early singles, “Put It On” and “He Who Feels It Knows It”, on the old Island white label. I loved the songs, the rhythms and, most of all, the harmonies. But this was a quite different sort of experience: thanks to the Barrett brothers (my second great rhythm section in two days), the music had a dark churn of a kind I’d never heard before, somehow lazy and energised at the same time. The vocals were equally stunning: Marley’s lead was mesmerising, the harmony work piercingly gorgeous.

Blackwell had done something unprecedented in the annals of Jamaican music. At a time when musicians sold the rights to their singles for 25 Jamaican dollars, he had advanced the Wailers several thousand pounds in order to make an album, bringing the economics of production and promotion developed in rock music to the world of reggae. And this was his first exposure to the result of what most people in the Jamaican music business saw as an outrageous and hopeless gamble. But Blackwell was always a talented gambler, and almost as soon as he walked through the studio door he knew that this one had come off.

The quickest and simplest way of explaining the effect of all this on me is to say that when I got home, a couple of days later, I sat down to write a piece suggesting that in Bob Marley, Jamaica had a musician whose effect might one day be comparable to that of Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. Not wrong there. Catch A Fire came out six months later, in its strikingly ingenious (and expensive) Zippo cover, beginning the process that, within three years, turned Marley into an international superstar and cultural symbol and made reggae into an wordwide lingua franca.

That’s a long way of getting round to talking about last night’s gig at the Festival Hall, but it might help to explain why I found it so moving when the 21-member Jazz Jamaica All Stars, the 12-piece Urban Soul string ensemble, the 240-person Voicelab choir, the conductor Kevin Robinson, the choirmaster Mark De Lisser and the singer-guitarist Brinsley Forde launched into “No More Trouble”. In that moment, in that song’s combination of baleful cadences and stare-down optimism, the summoning of musical and spiritual powers was at its most intense: spine-tingling at the start, overwhelming by the finish.

They played the album all the way through, Jason Yarde’s arrangements making use of all the available resources: the strings on Tosh’s “Stop That Train”, an acapella coda for the three female backing singers (Zara MacFarlane, Keisha Downie and Rasiyah) on “Baby, Baby We’ve Got a Date”, the best guitar solo I’ve heard this year from Robin Banerjee on “Concrete Jungle”, a fine Latin piano solo from Ben Burrell on “Midnight Ravers”, a rousing violin duel between Stephen Hussey and Miles Brett on “Stir It Up”, the tenor saxophone of Denys Baptiste and the trumpet of Yazz Ahmed swapping phrases on another Tosh song, “400 Years”. And the other great solo of the night, by the tenorist Patrick Clahar, on “No More Trouble”.

They finished with three songs from Marley’s later repertoire: “One Love”, “Redemption Song” — sung by Brinsley Forde with just the strings for company — and “Lively Up Yourself”. Brinsley deserves the highest praise for a performance in which he evoked the spirit of the great man without exaggeration and without pushing himself forward, becoming just another member of a unique and hugely life-affirming organism. Quite a night.