The A-Z of reggae: A is for… the Abyssinians, Aswad, African Headcharge…

The Abyssinians… are as good a place as any to start a history of reggae. ‘Declaration of Rights’ and ‘Satta Massagana’ are two of the foundation stones of roots reggae.

Bernard Collins and Donald Manning formed The Abyssinians in 1968 when they wrote ‘Satta Massagana’, which was recorded at Studio One in 1969 but did not get a release until 1971.

The title is Amharic for ‘Give thanks and praise’. It set a template for a Rastafarian devotional music that would become known as roots reggae.

 

Aswad… were part of the first wave of great UK reggae bands that rose to prominence in the 1980s, along with the likes of Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and Dennis Bovell’s Matumbi (more on him later).

Our man Graham recalls: “Aswad were a great live band. The first time I saw Aswad was in 1981 at the ‘Rock For Jobs’ free festival in Brockwell Park in Brixton. It was part of the culmination of ‘The People’s March For Jobs’; when marchers had walked from Liverpool to Brixton, gathering masses along the way, to protest at rising unemployment.”

Aswad headlined, coming on after The Who’s Pete Townshend, who was at the height of his boozing and went through a bottle of brandy while on stage.

Others on the bill included The Dennis Bovell Dub Band, which stayed on to back Linton Kwesi Johnson, plus the likes of Richie Havens, Jim Capaldi of Traffic, George Melly and others.

“I remember Aswad had loads of family and friends by the stage, children were dancing on the stage; it was a real community gig as much as a demonstration against Thatcher’s hardship producing policies,” recalls Graham.

‘Warrior Charge’ would soundtrack the classic Brit reggae film Babylon, bringing the dread to the UK’s version of ‘Rockers’ or ‘The Harder They Come’. It appeared many years later on Andrew Weatherall’s classic post-punk compilation Nine O’Clock Drop.

Aswad never really topped ‘Warrior Charge’ and would go weirdly and woefully pop at the end of the 1980s, when they topped the UK charts with ‘Don’t Turn Around‘ in 1988.

 

African Head Charge… are On-U Sound’s Vision of a Psychedelic Africa. The phrase as used by Byrne and Eno to describe their Life in the Bush of Ghosts LP and Adrian Sherwood later nicked it to use as an album title for AHC.

The AHC discography has recently been re-released in two marvellous boxsets that cover the early years and later years. Environmental Holes & Drastic Tracks 1981-1986 covers the intensely dark, dank warped rhythms of their early years, while Drumming is a Language 1990-2011 covers AHC’s “pop” period, when their grooves flourished into glorious praises to Jah, life and love.

AHC provide a bridge between the UK, Jamaica and Africa; bringing together the ancient rhythms of Count Ossie with Sherwood’s dubwise psychedelic electronics and Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah’s devotional hymns. Music doesn’t get much deeper, groovier or hypnotic than AHC at full force.

 

Althea & Donna… from the deep grooves of AHC to the froth of Althea & Donna. ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is one of the greatest number one hit singles in UK chart history. Sassy, cool dancehall vibes – an ear worm melody with a groove that will delight any dance floor. Estelle did a pretty cool cover version in 2002.

 

With thanks and praise to Steven Cumming, Grim Dewar, James Fyffe and Graham Sherman. Jah Bless.

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