Brinsley Forde is a living legend. He’s a skilled musician, talented singer and founder of legendary UK roots outfit Aswad. Last year he dropped his debut solo album Urban Jungle, a set produced by acclaimed duo Not Easy at All Productions. Reggaemani caught up with him on the phone while he was in London rehearsing for a show.
Aswad is possibly the most well-known roots reggae band from the UK. They formed in the 70s and dropped their self-titled debut album 1976, to wide critical acclaim. They had – or have since they are still active – a conscious and social approach and much of their early output was hard and spoke to the angry youths in the UK.
The band formed in 1975, the same year as another roots rocking outfit – Steel Pulse. The nucleus of Aswad – meaning black in Amharic – was vocalist and guitarist Brinsley Forde, bass man George Oban, keyboardist Courtney Hemmings, lead guitarist Donald Griffiths, drummer Angus “Drummie Zeb” Gaye and Tony ”Gad” Robinson, who later replaced Courtney Hemmings on keys and later George Oban on Bass.
They reached pop-chart success with Chasing the Breeze in 1984 and the smooth chart-topper Don’t Turn Around in 1988. But their best song to date is probably the hard-hitting Warrior Charge, used for Dennis Brown’s Promised Land and later versioned by Nas & Damian Marley.
No longer part of Aswad
When I reach Brinsley Forde he is in London rehearsing for a show where he together with Jazz Jamaica All Stars and the Urban Soul Orchestra performs an orchestral interpretation of The Wailers’ legendary album Catch a Fire. The first shows were held in 2012 and were so successful that another round had to be scheduled in 2013.
He’s no rookie in performing music originally recorded by reggae legends. In the 70s he and Aswad guested with a number of Jamaican singers, for example Dennis Brown and Burning Spear on his album Live released in 1977.
Brinsley Forde is no longer part of Aswad. He left in 1996, but didn’t take the name; even though he’s the one who came up with it.
“For me it’s like marriage and family. The band was like a unit, but it was time for me to move on. I wanted to take a different journey, but I’m grateful for everything. I still call Aswad family. And after so many years of singing and one love, we never argued about money or whatever,” explains Brinsley Forde over the phone, and adds:
“But it might come a time when we come together and work again. It’s one love between us. It was a break-up, but we can still work together.”
He wanted to take a different journey and left for spiritual reasons. Today he lives on the Canary Islands, about 100 miles west of Africa.
“It’s a little piece of Africa, and it’s a long story. You have to leave it to the Father. It was his decision I ended up there, but it’s a great place to write,” he says.
Friend inspired him
On the Canary Islands he has over the years done a little bit of everything. He has had a bar there and was also one of the DJ’s to open the UK’s first digital BBC radio station with his reggae radio show Lively Up Yourself.
“I wasn’t doing music seriously for some years, but I had a friend on the Canaries, guitarist Marco Vavassori, who played in a band, and he asked me if I could come and jam with them. So I went to see how it felt,” he says, and continues:
“To sit and play with people just for the love of music steered my whole vibe and I understood why I started with music. It inspired me to start working with music again.”
Different being solo
Rumors about a solo album from Brinsley Forde have been circulating for a number of years, so Urban Jungle came as no big surprise. But he reveals that he has a number of albums cooking – one for a producer from Germany and one for Sly & Robbie.
“This was meant to be the first, but there are more albums to come. I love my music and I love what I do, so this won’t be the last,” he reveals, and continues:
“But it’s also difficult. I have been working with great musicians like Drummie and Tony and I needed to re-educate myself. You have other people to bounce with when you are on your own. You can’t have any doubts in yourself, and this time everything has worked out fine.”
Working with Not Easy at All
Urban Jungle was released via Dutch label JahSolidRock and Platinum Roots from the UK with production by Marc Baronner and Manu Genius, formerly known as Not Easy at All Productions.
For this album Brinsley Forde was approached by Ras Denco, owner of JahSolidRock and he told him about Marc Baronner and Manu Genius. But when talking to Brinsley Forde about recording a new album it was not an easy decision.
“Music business is a different thing. It’s difficult to be both commercial and being artistic. I struggled with it for a long time. Because once you have success it’s hard to maintain your integrity. Stick to what you believe in and stay true to yourself. It’s a learning process and I had to decide what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do,” he says.
Brinsley Forde had heard a couple of productions by Not Easy at All and liked what he had heard. So Marc Baronner and Manu Genius sent him a couple of riddims. The first being the one used for She Don’t Want to Try and the second being Can’t Stop Me Now, lifted as the first single off the album.
“The vibes were great,” remembers Brinsley Forde, and continues:
“I went to Holland and met them and it was instant. They loved the vibe of early Aswad and early Steel Pulse. Roots music. That was the kind of album they wanted. But for myself, it was ‘do we really want go there or move forward’? But it has been a blessing. It sounds relaxed. Manu wanted the 80s vibe and he really captured it. It was a great collaboration and I really enjoyed making the album.”
A conscious effort
The album was recorded using two studios – one in Holland and one in the Canaries, and according to Brinsley Forde the mixing and production were meticulous.
“I wasn’t just voicing an album and Urban Jungle isn’t a riddim album. It was like a production and it took a lot of time to finish. Each track has a special feeling and we bounced ideas back and forth. It was a constant molding of ideas. Rhythms were changed, drum patterns were changed. Hope it shows,” he says and comes back to working with what you believe in:
“I’m struggling with this business. It’s about having hits and recording commercial songs. I want to make a good song that maintains what I believe in.”
“The song Urban Jungle is just an observation of a couple of wars that have taken place over the last few years. Like Europe coming together and joining up for war. The countries bankrupt themselves,” he says and gets into a discussion about the actual motives behind certain wars:
“We have been told it was about this and that, but what was the reality? You have to make your own decisions. The title invokes all that. It’s an urban jungle and the strongest will survive. And I want to ask a question – what do you see? This is what I see,” he explains, and continues:
“We were told about weapons of mass destruction, but my view is that it was all about economics.”
But there is also a song like Sodom & Gomorrah, a track with a more local perspective.
“It’s about what has happened in London. Mark Duggan was shot in Tottenham and it’s still believed to have been unjustly by the police and it sparked the riots,” says Brinsley Forde.
“You have to believe what you are saying”
Brinsley Forde’s first solo album certainly echoes from the 80s, but the music scene has changed a lot since he started almost 40 years ago. Digitalization and technology improvements have been key for these changes, but also globalization and the rise of consumerism.
“I remember Bob [Marley] saying I and I is the root. And reggae music is the root of modern day music. Just take rapping. Herc [Kool DJ Herc] from Jamaica was playing his sound system in New York City, and if it wasn’t for him, hip-hop would not have been here today,” he believes, and continues:
“Technology has caused quality control to go out the window. You have to know your craft in this time when music is disposable and quick,” he says, and concludes:
“I’m hearing more cultural music coming from Jamaica. This is what we need. Social commentaries last. Not just jumping up and down and sing. Lyrics are important and you have to believe what you are saying. You owe it to yourself.”