Mention the word reggae and immediately visions of sun-soaked Jamaica come to mind. Reggae is, after all, a Jamaican music form. Its birthplace is the back alley recording studios and steamy streets of Kingston, the island’s major city.
But ever since the death of Bob Marley back in 1981, Jamaican reggae has wandered in a cloudy, shapeless limbo. Marley was reggae’s king and Rasta prophet, its most acclaimed spokesman and recording artist, and its most compelling live performer. Along with his band, the Wailers, Marley tirelessly set about introducing the rest of the world to reggae. He was both reggae’s and Jamaica’s favorite son, and that’s why when he passed on, a victim of cancer, the island and the music went into a state of shock. Kingston’s most prominent recording artists seemed stymied and unable to carry on with the same “everyting cool man” attitude that had previously encompassed their music. Without Marley they seemed lost as to how to continue his work—the merger of reggae within mainstream pop music.
Eventually, artists such as Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, newcomers like Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse, and groups like Black Uhuru—featuring the indomitable Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass—began to step out of the gloom.’But the lack of consistent and truly good reggae emanating out of Kings- ton in these post-Marley years has prompted people to search elsewhere for reggae. That place was England.
England was a logical choice. Ever since the early ’60s, there has been a steady influx of Caribbean immigrants to Great Britain in search of work and a higher standard of living. They settled mostly in London and the industrial cities to the north. Many of these immigrants came from Jamaica. With them came their culture, and with their culture came reggae.
Today, England is reggae’s largest market, meaning that more reggae records are bought in Britain than anywhere else. In addition, there’s a better black/white balance within reggae music circles there. There’s also a much larger music press to address and promote reggae than in Jamaica. There are even more venues and opportunities for reggae artists to perform in London than in Kingston. Finally, the vibes may not be tropical, but in cities like London, Birmingham and Bristol, they ‘re a heck of a lot mellower than those in the Kingston ghetto where most of the Jamaican recording studios are located.
Since 1981, English reggae has made steady strides towards respectability. In the absence of any notable Jamaican reggae artists assuming the role vacated by Marley, British reggae artists have quietly taken up the slack in the music. As a result, UB 40, a black/white reggae band out of Birmingham, scored with a major album, Labour Of Love. Steel Pulse, another Birmingham-based band, completed its most successful world tour ever in 1984, and currently ranks as the most popular reggae band in the United States and England. Aswad, a London band left for dead by Island Records a few years ago, re-signed with the label, and last year released a critically praised LP, Live And Direct. Even Linton Kwesi Johnson, the creator of the reggae offshoot, dub poetry, is back touring and recording. What all this means is that reggae’s future may indeed be in England rather than Jamaica.
On a recent trip to England, I spoke with the country’s four top reggae drummers. Jah Bunny, Steve Nesbitt, Drummie Zeb, and Jim Brown have all played significant roles in the recent development of Union jack reggae. But more than that, they have helped define and, in some cases, redefine the boundaries of reggae drumming.
Lloyd Donaldson, aka Jah Bunny, is the dean of British reggae drummers. Having played with such important English reggae out- fits as the Undivided, Matumbi, and the Cimarons, not to mention countless dates as a session drummer, Jah Bunny has probably logged more studio and stage time than any other reggae drummer in England. “If there is anyone who knows about reggae and drums here in Britain, it’s Jah Bunny, “says ace producer/musician/songwriter Dennis Bovell. “You have to talk with Bunny before you talk with any other reggae drummer here in England. ”
Bovell knows all about the talent of Jah Bunny. Matumbi, perhaps the first great British reggae band, was the brainchild of Bovell. And when he decided to tighten up its rhythm section, the drummer he sought—and landed—was Jah Bunny.
These days, however, Jah Bunny isn’t as active as he was in the early and mid- ’70s when British reggae was just coming into its own. But he says his inactivity is about to change. Bunny resides in the Clapton section of London where he’s recently built a small recording studio in the bottom floor of his apartment. His goal is to begin recording and producing local reggae acts, in addition to keeping up with his session work. There’s even the possibility that the Cimarons might re-form, he says enthusiastically.
“There’s a whole new generation of reggae drummers here in London and up in Birmingham, but there’s still plenty of room for me, too,” he smiles. ‘I think the time has come for English reggae to finally sprout up, y’know. The time is right and the music is right.”
RS: You played drums with one of England’s earliest and finest reggae bands, Matumbi. How did you get involved with the group?
JB: Well, after I stopped playing with the Undivided—which was one of the very first reggae groups around here, and one that used to back all the great Jamaican artists who would come to England to play—Dennis Bovell of Matumbi rang me. I went to his place and we had a little talk. He asked me to play in his group. I give it a thought and say, “Yeah, I will do it.”
RS: Back in the early and mid-’70s, British reggae had a difficult time gaining recognition not only in Jamaica and the U.S., but in England, too. About the only British band to achieve recognition was Matumbi. Why was that so?
JB: British reggae back then was underrated and not given a chance. The people who had come to England from Jamaica— well, all they wanted to hear was music from back home, y’see. Some of the records made by English groups were good, but some weren’t so good. Some weren’t mixed tight or professionally recorded. The music sounded too loose. The engineers didn’t know how to EQ the music. But people like me, Dennis Bovell and some others overcame that by engineering and producing our own tunes. Dennis Bovell was a good one for that. Back in the early days, he was the best producer and engineer.
RS: Were you born in Jamaica?
JB: Yeah, mon. I come to England with my family in 1965, but before that I lived in Kingston. That’s where I get the feel for the drums. As a kid I used to get two sticks and bang on the table, or two boxes or just some wood. I never take no lessons—no money for that. I listen and train myself. I watched the military bands and the Boy Scout bands, especially the drummers.
RS: But you also spent time working with the legendary Jamaican producer, Coxsone Dodd, before leaving for England, right?
JB: Yeah, Coxsone ran my favorite sound system [portable disco]. I used to go along with him to all the street dances. Then he built Studio One [Kingston’s most prestigious recording studio]. I’d hang out there and watch the Skatalites lay down some tunes.
RS: Then Lloyd Knibbs, the great Skatalites drummer, must have been a big influence on you.
JB: Yes, yes! Lloyd Knibbs is the root of all reggae drummers. I used to sit and watch that man play. He showed me a lot of rudiments and how to find the right feel of the music. He would give me drumsticks to practice with. When he and the other Skatalites took a break, I would sit behind his kit and play. He was big influence, yes. At 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon in Jamaica, there’d be a program on the radio called Ska Time. I’d listen to that program and hit the table with the sticks Lloyd Knibbs gave me and thump my foot on the floor. This was in the early days—the ska days, before reggae and before rock steady.
RS: When you migrated to England in 1965, what was the music scene like for West Indians like yourself?
JB: The scene was low. It was not bright like today. But you could see that it was building. I couldn’t earn enough money as a drummer back then, so I started to work as a car mechanic and car-paint sprayer. I was doing that for two years. Then I told my father I wanted to get involved in music and become a professional drummer. So he buy me my first drumset. I played drums and worked for Trojan Records. Then my first big opportunity came up. I played drums for Bob [Andy] and Marcia [Griffiths], who had a big hit in Jamaica at the time called “Pied Piper.” A little while after, I started the Undivided and we backed up everybody—Heptones, Max Romeo—everybody from Jamaica who come to play England.
RS: You also played with the Cimarons, another notable English reggae group.
JB: That’s right, the Cimarons. Matumbi and the Undivided were two popular home-style reggae bands in England in the early days, and the Cimarons was another. I played with all three.
RS: So many of today’s young English reggae drummers claim you as one of their main influences. How does that make you feel?
JB: Pretty good, y’know. I’ve been around and played a lot of gigs.
RS: How would you describe your drum style? Unlike some of today’s more prominent English reggae drummers, you’re really from the old school, so to speak, since you go back to the days of ska and rock steady, before reggae was even born.
JB: My style comes from the traditional style of reggae drumming—upbeat, very tight, clean. A lot of the young drummers in London and Birmingham listen to a lot of rock and that affects their drum style. They are creating new beats and have more accents in their playing. Not too many young drummers can be called strictly roots drummers. They improvise more, too. I improvise a lot, but I try to keep the roots feel.
RS: Tell me about your recording studio.
JB: Well, it’s a good little recording studio. It’s called Must Dance, and it’s where I work with some local groups from the neighborhood. See, I’m lucky because I have a good reputation as a drummer. People used to know me as the heaviest one-drop drummer in England.
RS: Explain your interpretation of a one-drop drummer, if you will.
JB: The one drop is the snare and the foot drum coming in on the third beat. They drop together. The one drop came to be when the reggae took over from the ska beat. Ska was much faster than reggae—much quicker. So they slow the tempo down and they get the one drop. In Jamaica, the people would say the ska beat was too fast. They couldn’t really dance to it. That’s when I left Jamaica. So between 1967 and 1968, the ska slowed down into rock steady, and then it fell into reggae. The organ and the guitar started shuffling in between the rhythm. That’s how we get the reggae sound. It took shape over the years until now you got the stepper’s beat, too. Sly [Dunbar] created the stepper’s beat. On the foot drum it’s straight fours, and they call it the stepper’s beat. And there’s also the one step, one kick, on the bass on the beat. The snare comes on the third, and straight fours on the hi-hat with your accents in between. It’s a laid-back feel and a laid-back beat.
RS: Have you performed in Jamaica since the ’60s when you left the island?
JB: No mon. I haven’t been back even to visit, y’know. I want to go sometime, but I’m always busy. I haven’t even been to the States, and I want to go and play there, too. There’s a good market for reggae in America. A lot of English reggae bands are getting popular there. Steel Pulse and . . . what’s that kid group, Musical Youth? Well, they big in the States now. That’s a good sign for reggae.
Steel Pulse might very well be the most exciting reggae band in concert since the days when Bob Marley & The Wailers stomped and shanked across stages the world over. Lead guitarist and lead singer David Hinds, whom some compare to Marley, and who readily admits to being greatly influenced by him, is a multi-talented frontman and a gifted songwriter. But without the sturdy drumming of Steve “Grizzly” Nesbitt, the Steel Pulse sound would lack perhaps its most vital rhythmic muscle.
Nesbitt was born on Nevis, a tiny island in the West Indies, and played with local Birmingham funk bands like Penny Black and Force before joining Steel Pulse in 1977. “It’s really kind of strange that I’m playing with a band like Steel Pulse, ” says Nesbitt. “Despite my West Indian heritage, my early influences as a drummer and musician are not what you ‘d expect them to be.”
‘ ‘Highly respected among reggae and rock fans alike in England, Nesbitt is a classy, often aggressive and unpredictable drummer. ‘ ‘If you asked me to describe one of the main things about my drumming, I’d say that I really try not to play the same thing twice. I like fresh beats—fresh sounds. ”
RS: Unlike a lot of other British reggae drummers, your drum roots are almost exclusively rock and funk, correct?
SN: Pretty much so, yes. Believe it or not, I used to be into bands like Black Sabbath and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I also listened a lot to the Meters. But in the beginning, I never listened to reggae or reggae drummers.
RS: When did you begin to play the drums?
SN: When I was about 16 years old.
RS: And when did you begin playing reggae?
SN: When I joined Steel Pulse. Before Steel Pulse 1 was playing rock and funk, like you mentioned. I was in Force and the band split up. I just sat at home doing nothing for a few months. Then David [Hinds] came down and told me that he and the band needed a drummer to record their first single. So he asked me if I would do the session. I had nothing going then, so I did the gig. I had never played reggae before, so it was a challenge for me. From that point on, we just stuck together.
RS: Did you find it difficult to make the transition from rock and funk to reggae?
SN: Yes, it was difficult and it still is. [laughs] Reggae drumming, in comparison to rock drumming, is a totally different feel all together. The action is different; the mode of thinking is different. Rock drumming is like straightforward energy. Reggae is like pushing, but you can’t push it too far. You’ve got to hold back, but not too far. It’s a delicate feel that you have to master. After playing reggae for a number of years, the urge to play a rock style still creeps in, especially when Steel Pulse plays live. Sometimes I really want to open it up.
RS: As a youth, did you ever take drum lessons or study music?
SN: No, no lessons. I just played. I watched other people and learned whatever I could. When I play, I play what I feel coming from the rest of the band. I free-play, if you know what I mean. The bottom line is, if it works, play it.
RS: How would you describe your style of drumming? How is it different from say, other British reggae drummers?
SN: I’m not a patterned drummer. I don’t like to get bogged down. The way we write most of our songs is David will write the lyrics and have a basic idea of what the melody is supposed to be. Then everybody chips in with ideas. I’ll come up with a drum riff, and if it sounds right, we’ll keep it.
RS: Steel Pulse used to work quite frequently with the Police before they broke big and became a super act. What was your relationship with Stewart Copeland?
SN: Well, we talked a lot, you know. I’d show him different things and he’d show me different things. We became good friends and exchanged ideas.
RS: What would you say is the main difference between the way English reggae drummers play and the way Jamaican drummers play?
SN: There’s not a whole lot of noticeable difference, I don’t think. But British reggae drummers, because of their life-style and environment, will probably play an accent—the same one a Jamaican reggae drummer would play—a bit more up-tempo. In Jamaica, everything is a bit more laid back as far as drumming goes—as far as life goes, too, for that matter. In England, life is faster and it shows in the music. Plus, Jamaican drummers take on a more roots feel and a more conscious attempt to link up with African roots.
RS: Steel Pulse likes to tour and does so perhaps more than any other English reggae band. Has so much road work affected your drumming one way or another?
SN: It definitely has affected it, because I’ve come in contact with many drummers I would have never met otherwise. I’ve been able to compare my abilities with other drummers and pick up different ideas and different arrangements. Before we started to tour a lot, there were many things about reggae drumming that used to baffle me. Talking to other drummers—reggae drummers—has helped me tremendously. Another thing that has helped me is your magazine.
RS: Back to touring for a minute, I remember the very first time Steel Pulse played Jamaica. It was at Reggae Sunsplash ’81. That was a very important gig for the band, since it helped you get a new American recording contract and gain mass acceptance in Jamaica.
SN: Yeah, that was a great gig. To be honest, the band, including myself, was very, very nervous about that gig. We just didn’t know how we’d go over. Playing reggae in Jamaica, the place where the music was created, was a big highlight and a big test for us. At that time British reggae wasn’t really respected in Jamaica, and our brand of reggae was very different from what was coming out of Jamaica at the time.
RS: In what way?
SN: Our stage show was much more up front and active than any Jamaican reggae group. We heard that, when you play for a Jamaican audience, if you’re not playing their brand of reggae, they don’t want to hear it. And we weren’t doing their brand of reggae. We were all warned about what was going to happen until we just said, “To hell with it. We’re going to do our thing and enjoy ourselves.” The reaction we got was tremendous. Our strategy worked! [laughs] But it was a total surprise to us, and every time we’ve gone back to play Jamaica, it’s gotten better and better.
RS: Which Steel Pulse record contains your best drumming? Which LP are you most proud of?
SN: I’d say Tribute To The Martyrs, our second album, and in second place, Earth Crisis.
RS: Why those two?
SN: Because I was very relaxed for those sessions, and that helped me drum better. Normally, I’m a pretty intense guy; I’ll walk around and squeeze tennis balls or something. When I’m relaxed, drumming is more enjoyable for me.
RS: Does the fact that you’re in a very popular and very successful reggae band put any kind of pressure on you?
SN: Oh yeah, sure. I always feel that I have to outdo myself and play better than I did the previous night. Being in that position, a lot of people look up to you and expect certain things from you. Drummers ask me for advice and things, and follow my example. 1 have respect now as a reggae drummer, but with respect comes responsibility. See, I’m doing what a lot of people would like to be doing—playing drums in a successful reggae band. So not only do 1 play drums for myself and Steel Pulse, but for all those others who wish they were in my shoes.
RS: With the success of bands like Steel Pulse and UB 40 in America, do you think British reggae is about to be more widely heard around the world?
SN: Yeah. A lot of British reggae bands are more adventurous today than they were five years ago. They’re willing to try new things before they happen in Kingston. Bands like Steel Pulse, UB 40, Aswad and others are making a mark because we are different. Because of our success, other bands are following in our footsteps. That makes us feel like we’ve accomplished something.
Angus “Drummie ” Zeb is England’s most noted reggae drummer. He’s warm and affable, outgoing and chatty, appears on TV talk shows, and is as much a spokesperson for British reggae as anyone else.
Zeb is also one very fine musician. A stylist who’s never been afraid to break new ground, Zeb is a routine winner of’ ‘England’s Best Reggae Drummer” award in both fan and critic polls alike. “There’s a special feel that Drummie Zeb brings to reggae music,” says a fellow musician. “He’s energy, excitement and enthusiasm all wrapped into one. ”
“Drummie Zeb has the charisma and class that all drummers should have—reggae and otherwise, “says another.
Although Zeb’s band, Aswad, is just now becoming known in the States, the band has been together for some ten years. In fact, Aswad was the first English reggae band to be signed to a major label (Island}. But due to a number of things, not the least of which was plain old bad luck, Aswad stalled and stuttered whenever it attempted to broaden its base of appeal beyond Great Britain.
Things look much brighter, however, since the group’s release of Live And Direct, a live LP recorded at the Notting Hill Gate Carnival in London. “We’re real happy to be able to get another chance at recording and touring on a serious level,” says Zeb. “We’re out to do it right this time around.”
RS: Not many people realize that Aswad has actually been together in one form or another for a decade.
DZ: I know. It is amazing. When we started, there were only a few reggae bands around, like Matumbi and the Cimarons. Jah Bunny was playing drums with those bands back then. But those bands would listen to Jamaican reggae and then try to copy what they heard. From the start, Aswad tried to be an original band.
RS: Wasn’t Aswad, like Steel Pulse, heavily influenced by Bob Marley & The Wailers?
DZ: Yes, but in a strange sort of way. You see, Bob Marley inspired us to seek our own path in reggae music. And that’s what we’ve tried to do for the past ten years. Maybe that’s why it’s taken us so long to get noticed outside England, [laughs]
RS: Listening to old recordings and demo tapes of Aswad, it’s easy to hear the originality of the band. Some of the bass and drum patterns are quite unique.
DZ: That’s right; that’s right. Back in 1977, we were writing and recording reggae songs that had hardly any rhythm, but instead were very percussive.
RS: How did that come to be?
DZ: As far as the drumming went, I used to play drums for a steel band. I used to go to this youth club where this steel band would play, and one day I just starting playing with them. My parents come from Grenada, not Jamaica. 1 was born in England, but I was influenced by other Caribbean music forms besides reggae—things like calypso and soca. I think that has a lot to do with the way I approach playing my drums.
RS: When did you begin to play the drums?
DZ: I started to play the drums seriously in 1975. It was that year that I thought I might have a chance to make a career out of being a musician. But before that, you know, I just fooled around. That was the year I started playing with the steel band. Then, in 1976, I met Brinsley Forde [vocals and rhythm guitar player for Aswad] and Aswad came to be.
RS: Who were some of the drummers who had a profound influence on you at the time?
DZ: Carly Barrett of the Wailers! I’ll tell you a story: Bob Marley & The Wailers had come to London to play the Lyceum. I didn’t have a ticket to the concert, but I went just to hang out. There was a bit of violence going on there because a lot of people wanted to see Marley perform, but most of them didn’t have a ticket. Well, I was standing by a door and all of a sudden some people smashed it down. A lot of people started to run into the Lyceum, so I did as well. But when I got into the place, I ran in a different way than they did. I ran through some corridors and landed up right on the bloody stage! I mean, Carlton Barrett was playing not ten feet away from me. I couldn’t believe it; I really couldn’t! I saw the whole show from there, and I watched every move Carly Barrett made. That was the most important thing that had ever happened to me. He left such a big impression. He really inspired me. That was the very first concert I had ever been to. It was an amazing thing for a 15-year-old kid who was thinking about becoming a drummer.
RS: I know that you played drums on some Delroy Washington tracks back then, in which the influence Carly Barrett had on you is extremely obvious.
DZ: Yes. [laughs] I tried to copy everything from Carly as a youth. He was my main influence, no question about it. When Carly heard those tracks you’re talking about, he told me that was the closest he had ever heard anyone sound like him. I was really touched by that.
RS: Did Sly Dunbar have any impact on you? I know you think quite highly of him, too.
DZ: That’s what I was going to say. In 1976, Sly was playing drums for the Mighty Diamonds on their tour of England, and Delroy Washington, whom I was playing drums for, was on the same tour. So I really got friendly with Sly. The thing that struck me was how little effort he seemed to put into his playing. It always seemed as if he was thinking of something else. I couldn’t come to grips with that. But eventually I realized that he looked that way because he was so relaxed when he played. One day, I asked him to tune my drums and he did it. He also gave some tips. From then on he became a big influence on me, too.
RS: It’s a fact that most Jamaican drummers of note—Carly Barrett, Sly Dunbar, Horsemouth Wallace—grew up listening to American rhythm & blues, whereas over in England, there seems to be a greater association with rock. Would you agree with that?
DZ: Yes, it’s true. But I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. The reason why it’s so is because British reggae bands do gigs with rock groups all the time. There’s an integration when it comes to rock and reggae that I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else except in England.
RS: Aswad has played Africa a few times over the years. What was it like the first time you played there?
DZ: A funny thing happened to me the first time we played Africa. I was playing a few beats, just warming up, you know, and the drummer from the African band who was supporting us came up to me and said, “Do you know what you just played?” I said, “What do you mean?” He laughed and said, “That’s my tribe’s beat!” I couldn’t believe it. I mean, talk about roots! I had never heard the drum beat of his tribe before, and there I was playing it. In Africa, reggae is the music. They’ve adopted it as their own, and really, it is their own. The roots of reggae are in Africa. When Africans listen to reggae, they hear things they’ve been hearing since they were kids.
RS: What African countries has Aswad toured in?
DZ: Kenya, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Zimbabwe. We were the first reggae band ever to play Senegal. I was glad about that. As a Rasta, it was like going home for me.
RS: Besides Sly Dunbar, you’re one of the few drummers who successfully works electronic drums into reggae.
DZ: Well, I try to, anyway. I’ve gotten into the Simmons sound. At first, I didn’t really like Simmons drums because they were so totally different for playing reggae. But after a while, I said to myself, “Well, if reggae is to progress and if I’m to progress, we both have to go forward.” So I tried a Simmons kit again and realized its potential. The weird thing is that, since I’ve been using Simmons, my control has gotten better. You can hear it on the latest tracks Aswad recorded. On about half of them I used the Simmons, and the other half, my acoustic kit. But my playing is stronger regardless of what I play now. I think the Simmons kit will be a part of reggae’s future, no matter what.
RS: If this is so, why aren’t other reggae drummers experimenting with the Simmons?
DZ: In reggae, things are not as up-to-date as they are in other music forms. It shouldn’t be that way because reggae is music, like rock or jazz or whatever. But conditions are hard for many reggae musicians, especially in Jamaica. That’s why only Sly Dunbar has mastered the Simmons kit. Few reggae drummers in Jamaica, and even here in England, can afford to own a Simmons kit. It’s too bad. I feel lucky that I have all that experience with the Simmons.
RS: You’re about the only reggae drummer I’ve ever heard do a solo. Why isn’t soloing popular with other reggae drummers?
DZ: I don’t know. I do it all the time. I’m known for it. I like to start my solos slowly and then work up into a frenzy. One of the reasons why I think I became interested in soloing is because I went out of my way to see and listen to drummers like Phil Collins play live. I had to see them live because, as a drummer, I want to be just as good as they are. Maybe this is part of the reason why, for the last four or five years, I’ve been awarded the title of the best reggae drummer in England.
RS: Do you have any other ambitions as a drummer?
DZ: I’d just like to reach the peak, wherever that peak may be for me. I never want to stop learning about the drums. I want myself and my band to be appreciated. We’ve had a lot of problems with record companies. We were with Island Records, then we weren’t, then we were with CBS, and then we weren’t. Now we’re back with Island. We haven’t been the most fortunate band in England. Our first gig in Jamaica was a fiasco, but it had nothing to do with us. Certain things happened backstage, and that sort of thing. But Aswad hasn’t been without its problems. Still, we’re continuing to push on. We want to be successful just like any other band. As for me, I want to be respected the same way Sly and Carly are, or Stewart Copeland and the Police are. Actually, I’d like to be better than those drummers. Everyone is born with a talent. I was born with the ability to play drums. I don’t want to forget that.
UB 40 decided to be a reggae band before any of its members knew how to play music. “The way the group got together, quite frankly, was we all simply decided that we wanted to make music together and form a band, “says Jim Brown. “Next, we decided what its name would be [UB 40 is a British unemployment form], and finally, we decided who would play what instruments. “Brown considers himself the lucky one in the group. He got to be the drummer.
Now this was back in 1978, mind you. UB 40 struggled playing clubs and pubs in and around Birmingham. Then, they got a break and toured with the Pretenders. When the records Brown and company made regularly worked their way up the British charts, UB 40 began focusing its attention on the States. The LPs sent across the Atlantic didn’t exactly bomb in America, but they didn’t raise any rooftops, either. Then along came Labour Of Love in 1984, and all of a sudden, UB 40 had a best-selling album on the U. S. charts.
The LP was a departure from UB 40’s previous records; it contained the band’s interpretation of a batch of classic reggae songs originally done in the early ’70s. “They were songs we all had grown up listening to and loving as kids,”says Brown. “The name of the record is right on the mark; it really was a ‘labour of love.’ ”
Brown has been in UB 40 since its inception. A direct, open person, he isn’t afraid to talk about UB 40’s not-so-glorious formation or his rather limited experience behind the drumkit. But by being straightforward and eager to learn about his instrument, Brown has become a wonderfully capable drummer and the most successful of England’s new breed of reggae drummers.
RS: How did you approach the drum parts for the songs on Labour Of Love! Did you try to approximate the original drum sounds heard on the early renditions of the songs, or did you decide as brand new interpretations?
JB: I went after totally new and different interpretations of the drum parts I heard on the original records. The thing about reggae is that it’s really developed over the past 10 or 12 years, and in the process, has completely changed in style. There was a time when reggae was just one-drop rimshots. Then Sly Dunbar came along and opened things up, especially the use of the bass drum. He’d come in with a rimshot every third beat or something. As a result of Sly’s innovations, there’s a lot more bass drum work in reggae these days. I wanted to reflect this on Labour Of Love because I get my inspiration from what happens in Jamaica, to be quite honest. I think Sly Dunbar and Style Scott are two of the greatest drummers I’ve ever heard.
RS: Is there any one track on Labour Of Love that you’re especially fond of or proud of due to your playing?
JB: I think the one song that worked best for me was probably “Cherry Oh Baby.” The way it turned out was exactly the way I had hoped it would turn out. I played a real standard reggae beat. Everything I do is really dead standard. I don’t really invent anything, and I don’t really try to invent anything. All I try to do is reproduce a musical idea.
RS: Growing up in England in the early ’70s, were your musical influences a combination of rock and reggae?
JB: Strictly reggae.
RS: That seems to me a bit odd, especially since you’re not a West Indian.
JB: Well, you have to remember that England has a lot of reggae, and where I was born and lived—a working-class, inner-city area in Birmingham—my family was one of the very few white families in the neighborhood. Our area was a big immigrant area. So if I went to a local dance, there were Asian, Pakistani and West Indian people there. It was sort of natural that I’d be influenced by reggae, because as a kid, that’s all I ever heard, really.
RS: I read somewhere where you remarked how competitive the reggae scene is in England these days. Could you be a bit more specific?
JB: It is competitive. It’s that way because reggae is not a mainstream music. The music is so young and there are no real traditions yet, so all of the musicians are trying to establish themselves while they can.
RS: One of the things UB40 has done for reggae, I think, is open it up. Since UB 40 is mostly a white band, and since the band hails from England rather than Jamaica, there seems to have been more rock radio stations in the States that were willing to play selections from Labour Of Love than any other reggae album released in the past couple of years.
JB: If anyone can break new ground, I think UB 40 can. We have a commercial sound and an accessible sound, yet at the same time, we’re a reggae band. Plus, the songs on Labour Of Love are simply great songs. Whether you’re into reggae or not, you can’t deny the brilliance of, say, Eric Donaldson’s “Cherry Oh Baby” or Jimmy Cliffs “Many Rivers To Cross.”
RS: Was Labour Of Love, then, a calculated move by UB 40 to break open as a commercial act in America?
JB: It wasn’t a calculated commercial move, because it was some- thing we always wanted to do. But if you were going to try to make hits out of reggae songs, you’d do it the way we did it. It was the perfect way to do it. There’s an untapped source of great songs in reggae.
RS: When LJB 40 began as a band, you volunteered to learn how to play the drums. Why the drums?
JB: Why not? Keeping the beat sounded important, and it was a fun thing to do.
RS: You mentioned before that you grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood. Was there ever any resentment that centered on the fact that here were a bunch of white boys trying to play reggae?
JB: Not really. The people who used to come to hear us play when we were a pub band were mostly black. Any negative reaction or resentment has been since our success. But what can I say about that?
RS: How do you personally handle such resentment?
JB: I say that we’re the second biggest selling act in England, and we’re number one in various places. The thing is, we’ve used pop rules to get where we are. We push ourselves to a pop audience, we market ourselves as a pop band, and we use pop recording techniques. That’s why we’ve been successful. We haven’t used any of the reggae cliches. We’ve stayed away from them. I think a lot of reggae artists want to do that as well. It’s mainly the purists in the audience who don’t want them to do it. I’m sure Gregory Isaacs would be really happy if he could get his records in the top ten in the States.
RS: Despite being white and British born, you were brought up on reggae. Have you embraced any of the cultural and religious elements that go along with the music such as Rastafari?
JB: No. I find Rasta philosophy hard to understand. I mean, I see the reason for, say, growing dreadlocks. It’s an identity thing; it’s something Rastas can actually call their own. I can understand that. But as far as the religious doctrine is concerned, it just doesn’t mean much to me. Rasta, to me, just seems like bastardized Christianity anyway. I have no involvement with it at all.
RS: How would you compare the drumming styles of British reggae drummers with those from Jamaica?
JB: I was arguing about this the other day with friends of mine. I think the English style is a bit, I don’t know, thicker. I think there’s a lot more work done in the English style of reggae. There are usually a lot more rolls, and a lot more cymbal crashes. There’s more punctuation in the music, generally speaking. The Jamaican style is just dead straight, which is what I like about it. Most Jamaican reggae drummers do little punctuation. They just keep the beat. Style Scott is a perfect example of this. If you get one cymbal crash in the whole song, you’re lucky. It’s more of a circular pattern: It always comes back to that same original pattern. Whereas in English reggae, there’s more striking out. I don’t fit this generalization, though. I’ve made a conscious effort to play as simple as possible. On Labour Of Love, for instance, you’ll find hardly any tom rolls. Most of what I play is just timekeeping.
RS: Did you always strive to play so simply?
JB: Well, with the other albums, I tended to do too much.
RS: Do you plan to continue to structure your drum style around simplicity?
JB: I don’t know. I mean, one of the reasons reggae doesn’t sell to the mainstream audience is because it’s too repetitive. I personally love the repetitiveness of the music, but I think it might be a bit too narrow sounding for rock audiences. I think Sly Dunbar is doing some interesting things on drums these days. He’s not doing dead straight reggae. He’s adding things. He has a beautiful style.
RS: A couple of years ago, there was a ska revival in England with bands like Madness, the Specials and others doing quite well with the music. Since ska is actually the forerunner of reggae, did the revival have any effect on you?
JB: No. Ska never interested me that much. To me it’s just nostalgia—kind of like watching Humphrey Bogart movies or something. The way a lot of bands worked it out in the late ’70s was as a perfect companion to punk. It was right for England at the time, and I suppose that’s why it was so popular. But it’s not happening anymore.
RS: You’ve toured America a couple of times. What’s your impression of the American reggae scene?
JB: It’s real diverse and underground, which is a shame. In England, reggae is much more accepted because it’s part of our culture. But in the States that’s not true. It’s not really accepted, is it? I’m disappointed that it’s not stronger than it is. Hopefully, some day things will be different over there.