DUBBED the UKâ€™s premier reggae band, UB40 is one of the most successful reggae acts of all time in terms of record sales (over 55 million), chart positions and touring schedule.
During their three-decade long career, they have been performing sell-out shows worldwide as well as spreading reggae to Russia and South America, among others. It is now Ugandaâ€™s turn to partake of UB40â€™s magic, live. Joseph Batte traces the history of the band.
It is now official, legendary British reggae band, UB40, will perform at the Lugogo Cricket Oval on February 23, courtesy of MTN Uganda. At a media briefing in Silk Lounge recently, Isaac Nsereko, MTNâ€™s head of marketing and publicist, Sheila Kangwagye promised a never-before-seen music experience. However, they were tight-lipped on the cost of entry.
The news of the bandâ€™s impending visit should certainly sound like sweet music to our ears, especially avowed lovers of the pop-friendly reggae music that made them popular in Uganda in the 1980s and 90s.
You can blab about Lilâ€™ Wayne, 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake, but when it comes to who pulls in the crowd, UB40 beats them all. According to Wikipedia.com, in 1999, UB40 played to an estimated one billion viewers when they held a concert in India.
They are probably the hardest working band in the world.
The groupâ€™s strength probably derives from their incredible resilience.
From their first release in 1981 through to Red Red Wine, their first major international breakthrough hit, and such local favourites of theirs as Reasons, Many Rivers to Cross, I got U Babe and Canâ€™t help Falling in Love, UB40 are still here. In fact, they will release their next studio album, titled 24/7, in March.
They are also slated to release a very special edition dub album, titled Dub Sessions, but it will only be purchased at concerts and not from record stores.
History of the band
The group took their name from a notorious British unemployment form that was issued by the UK governmentâ€™s Department of Employment at the time of the bandâ€™s formation for claiming unemployment benefit (UB40 stands for â€˜Unemployment Benefit, Form 40).
The band was born in the heart of Birmingham, one of Englandâ€™s most ethnically diverse cities. To date, UB40 is one of the worldâ€™s most culturally diverse dub reggae bands with musicians of English, Scottish, Irish, Yemeni and Jamaican parentage.
All the band members were friends who knew each other from various colleges across Birmingham.
In the summer of 1978, the eight band members were drawn together by their love of the skanking Jamaican reggae vibes.
Brothers Robin (born December 25, 1954, lead guitar, vocals) and Ali (Alistair) Campbell (born Feb 15, 1959, guitar, lead vocals) formed the centrepiece of the group, which also included bassist/vocalist Earl Falconer, (born January 23, 1957) keyboardist Mickey (Michael) Virtue, (born January 19, 1957) saxophonist Brian Travers (born February 7, 1959), drummer Jim Brown (born November 20, 1957) percussionist/trombonist, vocalist Norman Hassan (born January 26, 1958), and toaster Terence â€˜Astroâ€™ Wilson (June 24, 1957).
The band purchased its first instruments using Â£4,000 in compensation money that Campbell received after a bar fight on his 17th birthday celebration.
After establishing themselves as UB40, they proceeded to spend the next six months in a basement, exchanging ideas and learning their instruments.
But before any of them could play their instruments, Ali Campbell and Brian Travers travelled around Birmingham, promoting the band.
Their first gig took place on February 9, 1979 at The Hare & Hounds Pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham, during a friendâ€™s birthday party.
Through the rest of the year, UB40 performed at pubs and clubs in the UK. The band got their first break when an artiste called Chrissie Hynde noticed them at a pub and gave them an opportunity as a support act to her band, The Pretenders.
UB40â€™s first single, King/Food for Thought, was released on Graduate Records, a local independent label run by David Virr. It reached No. 4 on the UK Singles Chart and was the first record to reach the UK top 10 without the backing of a major record label.
Their first album was titled Signing Off, as the band was closing their claim on unemployment benefits. Percussionist Norman Hassan said of the recording: â€œIf you stripped my track down, you could hear the birds in the background.â€
The band consolidated its street credibility with political topics appealing to dissatisfied youth and got a boost from fans of the waning 2-Tone ska-revival movement.
Signing Off and Present Arms were big sellers because they addressed the political issues of the day in songs like One in Ten, a Top Ten hit blasting Margaret Thatcher for the countryâ€™s unemployment rate.
UB40â€™s breakthrough in America and elsewhere in the world arrived in the form of 1983â€™s Labour Of Love, most especially with Neil Diamondâ€™s single Red Red Wine and a Top 30 cover of Sonny and Cherâ€™s I Got You Babe featuring the Pretendersâ€™ Chrissie Hynde.
In 1988, the group performed Red Red Wine at a Nelson Mandela tribute concert, where a Phoenix radio station trotted the single out for a second go-round.
Listener response was far more enthusiastic and the song re-entered the charts, going all the way to the top.
Finally, having hit on a way to conquer the lucrative American market, UB40 responded with another covers album, Labour of Love II, which produced Top 10 singles
The group scored a huge hit in America with Elvis Presleyâ€™s Canâ€™t Help Falling In Love.
In the spring of 1998, UB40 released Presents, the Dancehall Album in the UK.
A third Labour of Love collection followed a year later. In 2002, UB40 bounced back with another collection, The Fathers of Reggae, which appeared on Virgin in November, highlighting the bandâ€™s roots in reggae in a selection of classics.
In 2003, the band scored a major hit in the UK when their version of the spiritual Swing Low with the multi-cultural choir, United Colours of Sound, became the official anthem for the 2003 English Rugby Team. The song was featured on the 2003 album Homegrown.
UB40 earned its status as Britainâ€™s most popular reggae act because the group has consistently taken a pop-friendly approach to the music. Their sound was more relaxed, sophisticated and sexier. That is why it has appealed to many Ugandan fans.
That is not to denigrate UB40â€™s way with riddim, for the group has done a remarkable job in keeping up with the changes in reggae over the decades.
However supple or insinuating their beats are, it is Ali Campbellâ€™s warm tenor and the groupâ€™s melody-centred songwriting that make UB40 consistently worth hearing.
More than any other artists of their time, Britainâ€™s UB40 have proven the power of pop-influenced reggae music. With worldwide sales topping 30 million albums during their career, the UB40 story demonstrates just how far people can go by staying true to their roots.
Adapted from Wikipedia.com and other Internet sources
Additional reporting by Jude Katende
UB40 brings reggae magic to Kampala