Aswad was arguably Britain's most successful reggae band, in terms of both popularity and longevity. Critical opinion on their body of work is often divided; some hail their early material as the greatest roots reggae Britain ever produced, while others find their later pop-crossover phase more distinctive and unique, even at the expense of authenticity. Regardless, Aswad's ability to adapt themselves to the changing times -- new musical trends, shifting personnel -- was ultimately the driving force behind their decades-long career.
Aswad (the name is Arabic for "black") was formed in Ladbroke Grove, West London, in 1975. Originally, the group was a quintet featuring lead vocalist/guitarist Brinsley "Dan" Forde (a native of Guyana and a onetime child actor on the BBC), drummer/vocalist Angus "Drummie Zeb" Gaye, bassist George "Ras Levi" Oban, guitarist Donald "Benjamin" Griffiths, and keyboardist Courtney Hemmings. Their sound was already rather eclectic from the beginning, mixing elements of soul, jazz, and funk with hard roots reggae, lovers rock, and dub. In 1976, Aswad became the first British reggae band to sign with a major label when they landed a deal with Island Records. Their debut single, the classic "Back to Africa," was released that year and hit number one on the U.K. reggae singles chart. Their self-titled debut album -- a collection chronicling the experiences of London's West Indian immigrant community -- followed not long after, and the group scored another hit with "Three Babylon." By this point, Aswad already had enough of a reputation that touring Jamaican stars -- Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru -- often hired the group as backing musicians.