"Aswad" means "black" in Arabic. In English it means: A veteran reggae band from England that's been around for 15 years and will play tonight at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara along with Judy Mowatt to commemorate Bob Marley Day, even though it's not really his birthday--but it's the thought that counts.
Aswad's latest album is entitled "Too Wicked." It's about as wicked as Mr. Rogers saying, "darn it." The record is the band's first new music in four years and is also a large helping of smooth, homogenized, PG-rated reggae originals. This is your basic foot candy, plus one cover, which is just as mundane and sleep-inducing as the original, the Eagles' "Best of My Love."
The previous album, a greatest hits compilation entitled "Crucial Tracks," includes a much better example of a cool cover--the Temptations' "Beauty's Only Skin Deep."
With the current tour, the band's first in several years, the group is hoping to gain a foothold in the States, something that has eluded them in spite of great success at home. Aswad's 1976 debut single, "Back to Africa" went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts. In 1987, "Don't Turn Around" was the top song in England for four weeks.
Born in England to Jamaican parents, the three dreadlocked core members of Aswad have been together for 15 years. While there are up to eight musicians onstage, lead singer/guitarist Brinsley Forde, singer/bassist Tony Gad and singer/drummer Drummie Zeb are the undisputed stars of the show.
Shortly after landing in the town crowded with Yankee fans, front-man Forde discussed the life and times of Aswad in a telephone interview.
Has Aswad ever played Santa Barbara before?
No, I don't think so. I think I've only seen the soap opera on television. This will be our first American tour in 2 1/2 years.
How did "Too Wicked" do--are you guys rich now?
It did pretty well--it could've done better, but it was generally well-received.
Tell me about Bob Marley Day.
Even though it's not really his birthday--I think it's on the 6th or something--it's great to have a celebration in his honor. I think a lot of people that wanted to see him play never did, and it's great that people still remember him.
How did Aswad get started?
Basically, we just started writing songs. We didn't copy Jamaican stuff like a lot of other bands--we wrote our own songs and came up with our own sound. Our parents are from Jamaica, but we were all born in England. It's like a giant melting pot with all sorts of different music. Our music was influenced by Bob Marley, but also the Beatles and the Stones.
Is reggae, by nature, militant?
It is the conditions that the musicians live in that comes out in their songs. For example, a reggae band from California would reflect their California lifestyle. Reggae bands in Jamaica sing about tenements because there are tenements in Jamaica and because musicians explain their lives through their music. You can learn about England by listening to our music.
What is reggae music?
Reggae music is about life in general.
But what about the different types of reggae--dance hall, roots, progressive?
It's just music. As it moves along, there are different tempos, either faster or slower. There are a lot of reggae influences in modern dance music. People are surprised to find out that hip-hop, dance hall and dub music are all inspired by reggae. And dub music is the basis of rap music. All these different types of music all stem from the same root of the same tree. Only the fruit is different.
Can or should music change the world?
Music definitely does change the world. It's an international language.
What's the worst advice you've been given?
To get a proper job.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Aswad and Judy Mowatt, at the Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara, at 8 tonight. Call 963-4408 for more information.