Jimmy Brown of UB40 takes us through the band's four-decade journey: from Red Red Wine to the new album
WHETHER IT’S RED Red Wine or Kingston Town, songs by British reggae band UB40 are still party staples today. With a 43-year -career behind it, the band’s music is still popular, even in India because of its instantly recognisable rhythms and melodies. UB40 now returns with its 20th album, Bigga Baggariddim, a unique collaborative project.
The band was born in the city of Birmingham in 1978. The city, particularly in the ’60s was the epicentre of musical innovation led by its diversity. Over the years, the city has given birth to bands such as new wave outfit Duran Duran, heavy metal legend Judas Priest, and rock icon Black Sabbath. Genres such as dancehall and bhangra flourished because of the Jamaican and South Asian immigrants. And UB40 took inspiration from this, especially in its initial days and featured a diverse line-up. The new album harks back to these early days of the band as it is a fresh take on the 1986 album Baggariddim. It takes this spirit of inclusion and diversity even further with collaborations all the way from Jamaica and India.
UB40 today consists of Robin Campbell, Brian Travers, James Brown, Earl Falconer, Norman Hassan, Martin Meredith, Laurence Parry and Tony Mullings. Duncan Campbell who worked on this album, announced his retirement due to poor health after the release. We speak to drummer, James ‘Jimmy’ Brown who tells us more about the music, his life in the UK and also how the industry has changed over
the past decades. Excerpts:
The new album has collaborations with artistes from four continents. Can you tell us more about them and how they happened?
We released an album way back in 1986 called Baggariddim. That was a collaboration with local DJs and rappers from our hometown of Birmingham performing on our backing tracks. This new record, Bigga Baggariddim, is a long-awaited follow-up to that. But now, because we have travelled the world many times since and met new friends, we wanted to introduce an international flavour to the concept. So it includes tracks from many different parts of the world: New Zealand-based band House Of Shem, various Jamaican artistes, Florida-based Inner Circle, and even some of the artistes who were on the original Baggariddim way back in the ’80s. And of course we also have an Indian collaboration — General Zooz and the Reggae Rajahs who opened for us in a recent show in India.
UB40 has such a long career. How do you think your music has evolved over all these years?
Our sound has definitely evolved. Music isn’t like sport where you peak at a young age. Musicians get better with time. The more they play, the better they get, and we are better on stage now than we have ever been. But we have remained faithful to reggae music since day one.
At this stage in your career, where do you look for inspiration?
I suppose I go where I’ve always gone — 1970s reggae, particularly early dub. But that’s just me. Other band members are influenced by different aspects of reggae, some are into the period of great singers like John Holt, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Freddie MacGregor. Yet others are influenced more by sub-genres such as ragga and dancehall. Reggae is a broad church!
Tell us a little more about those early days in Birmingham, and how its diversity inspired you.
I was born and raised in inner-city Birmingham — an area with a very high immigrant population that mostly came from countries like India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean in the 1950s and ’60s. Many immigrants settled in areas which had seen post-war decline and they revitalised these areas and brought life to the streets I lived in. I was born in 1957, so most of my early life was spent in this environment.
Indians had taken over the cinemas that were closing (because of the popularity of TV) and I would be exposed to Bollywood movies while waiting for my Saturday night Kung-Fu and martial arts movies. Although, I’m not really a big follower of Bollywood, I do distinctly remember those early Bollywood films that were made on old technicolour stock film. They always looked like big Hollywood movies did back in the 1940s and ’50s.
You’re revisiting the album after 35 years! The world is such a different place now. What are the changes you’ve noticed in the industry?
Yes. The world is a very different place now. There has been a technological revolution. When we first started, bands would pay thousands a day to work in state-of-the-art analogue studios. Now, for a fraction of the cost, musicians can own their own virtual studio using software. It’s a good thing because it has democratised the ability to make music. Producing and distributing music has become more accessible. The consequence has been the absolute destruction of the old record company system, where a handful of major labels controlled everything that made it to the mainstream market. De-regulation has caused market fragmentation.
But while all this has been going on, the live performance side of music hasn’t really changed as a result of this technological revolution. People still want to see musicians get together on stage and perform. It’s a skill not every artiste has, but it’s a relief for UB40 because we see ourselves as a live band before
How relevant is the genre of reggae today?
Reggae as a musical form broke out of that Caribbean island years ago and the message of the music has been heard all around the world. Reggae is now world music, and people around the world make their own version of it. There are reggae bands everywhere and we also wanted our new record to reflect that diversity.
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