Aswad & Easther Bennett - Just A Step From Reggae


by Amir Hussan & Aneta Tadeusiak

Aswad & Easther Bennett Aswad have been at the forefront of the UK reggae scene ever since they started out in the mid-1970s. Legends in their own right, having previously won a MOBO Award for Outstanding Contribution To Music, they are best known for their huge 1988 chart topper "Don't Turn Around" and their 1995 Top 5 hit "Shine".

Now consisting of two members, Angus "Drummie Zeb" Gaye and Tony "Gad" Robinson, they have just released "Cool Summer Reggae", an album of classic songs covered in a reggae style. Easther Bennett, former lead singer of the UK's most successful R&B girl group Eternal, features on the album's first single, "Shy Guy", a cover of Diana King's worldwide smash.

UKMIX was fortunate enough to meet Aswad and Easther to find out more about the project. Despite us being nearly half an hour late (the result of a little mix-up with the times), Aswad and Easther were very understanding and nice to us, and came across as funny, a little crazy, yet down to earth, wise and professional.

UKMIX: Your single, "Shy Guy", is out on 19th August. So how did a legendary band like yourselves, Aswad, team up with the lead vocalist from the equally legendary R&B girl group Eternal?
Easther: Well I know their management company. They approached me and explained to me the project and what they were trying to achieve on their album - covers made into reggae etc. They put forward two songs, one was by The Bangles...
Zeb: The Bangles "Eternal Flame".
Easther: The other one was "Shy Guy". I think this one just hit with everybody, so we just went ahead and recorded it. I think, why I did it personally, it's definitely not something that people would expect. You know, it would be the glossy ballad, which I still do love, but it's nice to come back and show your head with something special, something different. So musically it was something that appealed to me, and also just working with the guys in general appealed to me as well.

UKMIX: Easther, before you got together with Aswad, could you tell us what you've been up to since your last album "Eternal".
Easther: I've actually been spending time creating my own sound and putting my own album together. It takes a long time because when you've been in a group like Eternal for so many years, to find your own identity and what you're trying to achieve in life yourself is quite hard. I've actually been working with different camps - I've worked with people who've worked with Mariah Carey, Faith Evans, Destiny's Child... You write all your tracks and bring them home and think, "Oh God, they're so different to each other", and you kind of go out and start again. So I'm just basically trying to find myself and put my album together.

UKMIX: Aswad, tell us more about your current project. Why did you decide to go with an album of covers rather than original material?
Zeb: Well, basically we really wanted an album for the summer. So we got the idea, the record company wanted us to do it, and we did the album in a big space of time. We wanted to do tracks that were challenging, and tracks that people would know but never think of to be done in reggae. So we had to pick tracks that we thought were relevant to us. Plus, we've never had a female lead singer in Aswad, ever, and we thought who better to get than the queen herself, Easther, to come and sing on one of our tunes. If you're going to have a female singer for the first time, you might as well get the best. [Looks at Easther] I'll get the money off you later!

UKMIX: Your first single from the album is going to be the Diana King classic. Why did you choose that one particular track to be the leading single?
Zeb: Well basically it was a record company decision, because it's unusual from the normal Aswad stuff. There's a different angle, and it would be more interesting for people, i.e. on radio and TV, to get something that's so out of the norm for Aswad and out of the norm for Easther.
Gad: A lot of people have known the name Aswad for a long time, so for us it was just something different. We've done fifteen albums now. It's just a different avenue to go down, and we've enjoyed it.

UKMIX: Do you have other favourites from the album? What would you recommend people listen to?
Zeb: Well we've got other tracks that we would like to be follow up singles after Easther's one. That's if we can get away from Easther!
Easther: No, just mine, no more! [Everyone laughs]
Zeb: I would say listen to "Weather With You", Crowded House.
Gad: I would say listen to "Good Thing Going".
Zeb: I would say listen to "Night Nurse".
Gad: I would say listen to "No No No".
Zeb: I would say listen to "Shy Guy" with Easther Bennett from Eternal!
Easther: I'd say listen to the album!
Zeb: Nice one!

UKMIX: Most people remember you from "Don't Turn Around" in 1988. Admittedly that was a cover as well, but people associate that with you, that it's your track. When Ace Of Base covered that song a few years ago, what did you think? Did you like their version?
Gad: Well at first we didn't recognise it as being the same song.
Zeb: I remember being in a club in Chelsea and someone said to me, "listen to this song!" And I'm there going, "yeah," and I'm listening to it, but I didn't know what it was until it went to the chorus. I really didn't know what song it was.
Gad: We actually did a remix. If you listen to the actual Ace Of Base single, there's a remix with us.
Zeb: The single was actually the remix, 'cos when I heard it, it was the version they'd done, and they approached us to do the remix, so we added horns to it and changed some of the chords.

UKMIX: Would you consider covering an Ace Of Base track?
Zeb: No. [Everyone laughs]

UKMIX: Keeping with covers, Easther, if you could choose anyone at all to cover one of the tracks you've done in the past, who would you choose and what track would you want them to sing?
Easther: I'd choose Kelly Price, because I think she's an exceptional singer... and "Sunday Morning" off the self-titled album.

UKMIX: Easther, your only visible link to reggae music up until now has been an impressive cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" on the second album. Now you're releasing a reggae single. Does that mean you're a reggae music fan?
Easther: I wouldn't say I'm not. To be honest I grew up on just gospel, but I'm the kind of person who likes to keep my options open by listening to different types of music, 'cos you can't grow just listening to one set of music. So yeah, I listen to reggae, I listen to country, I listen to rock.

Aswad UKMIX: Do you think music of black origin is finally getting overdue recognition in the UK, what with the MOBO Awards and lots of British urban acts gaining recognition and influence on the music scene?
Zeb: We were the first reggae band to be signed by a major label, and we like to think that we had a lot of influence in the way things are developing now. Whether you're dong jungle, drum & bass, garage, R&B or hip-hop in Britain, I'd like to think that came from where we started, 'cos we had to struggle hard to get to that situation. Now you've got all these new artists coming up. The only thing that's missing really is the actual band formation. Now you have vocal groups, solo singers...
Gad: It's basically what technology's done to the music. In our days we started without the technology, we made music with what we had - keyboards, bass guitar, drums, those kind of things. Music these days can be made on anything, in people's bedrooms and so on. Which is still good, 'cos at the end of the day, different music comes from it. When we started out, that whole scene of English music wasn't there.
Zeb: When we started, people used to say "you can't make reggae in England". They didn't even give us a chance. Now we've got a whole new crop of English artists inventing their own kind of music and doing their own thing which is totally British - British black music, urban music. So yeah, it's getting recognition now.

UKMIX: Are there any artists in particular that you like with this new UK urban sound?
Zeb: So Solid is a band that comes to mind straight away. In a lot of ways they kind of remind us of ourselves because at one time people used to say our music couldn't be made here; then there'd be trouble at the gigs and it wasn't your fault; and then people stopped having reggae concerts for a while. They're in a situation now where they've got so big and popular that people come to their concerts and are making trouble and it's not fair on them, 'cos they can't make a living doing live work. So some of those things come hand in hand with British urban music.

UKMIX: What was the most recent album that you've listened to and enjoyed?
Gad: The latest one I bought was Ja Rule's album, he reminds me of the Jamaican vibe, 'cos his voice is rough.
Zeb: Mine was Busta Rhymes. I think Busta Rhymes had influenced Ja Rule as well, 'cos it's the same rough vibe and also the attitude. A lot of music from America bears a Caribbean influence, take Timbaland. Another thing is the breakthrough of reggae artists, like Beenie Man having recorded a song with Janet Jackson, Bounty Killer with No Doubt - look at how far reggae is going.
Easther: I think it's more acceptable when it's done as a duet...
Zeb: [laughing] Oh well done Easther!
Easther: You didn't choose me for nothing! [Everybody laughs]
Gad: It's true though.

UKMIX: What about you Easther, any recent favourite albums?
Easther: I tend to buy compilations nowadays, 'cos I find that albums now aren't as strong as they were back in the day. Many artists have one or two killer singles but not much else on an album. But I like albums of all the artists that the guys mentioned, Faith Evans, Kelly Price, Busta Rhymes, Ja Rule, they're all good.

UKMIX: Easther - Eternal were the first UK R&B girl group to make a major impact. You cannot deny that you've opened doors for other acts to follow. How do you feel when you see the likes of Mis-Teeq being successful?
Easther: I'm actually quite proud, those three girls are doing what they do best and what is completely different. Most girl groups come with the same thing, because record companies aren't very inventive. It's usually "let's do the same" attitude, whereas Mis-Teeq are doing their own garage and rap sound apart from R&B and no one else is doing what they're doing. And to get to where they are right now - respect to them. It's what the record companies would look at and say "oh my god, how are we going to market this?", because it's easier to market something that's done, where there's a precedence, rather than something new. So I really respect them for what they're doing.

UKMIX: Is there a solo Easther album on the horizon?
Easther: I would like to think there is, yes. But I'm not putting a time on it, it's a form of natural progression. For me it's not about how quick it comes out, it's more of finding the right time to do it. I don't believe in putting a single out because "I've been away for a while", that doesn't actually make sense because if it doesn't do anything for you then people aren't necessarily interested.

UKMIX: When that right time comes, would you consider touring again?
Easther: Oh definitely! I love touring, I love being out there, seeing people's reactions and enjoying themselves. It's good to perform live the songs that I've worked hard on with producers in the studio and actually seeing how the audience react.

UKMIX: So how long does it normally take for you to record a song in the studio?
Easther: A day or two days, sometimes if you write a certain song and you want to do it the right way it can take a bit longer.

UKMIX: Can you remember what song took the longest to record?
Easther: "I Am Blessed", I was in that studio for days! The producer that I was working with at the time just wanted the best out of me, so he just kept pushing me and pushing me, which I think is great. But in the end I came out of the studio feeling dead! The body was still alive but the voice wasn't!

UKMIX: Easther, what sort of material can we expect from you? What are your influences with the new album?
Gad: Aswad! [Everybody laughs]
Easther: I'm still defining myself and what I like. It's the vibe of artists like Angie Stone, Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, I like their sound.

UKMIX: What about Eternal, with your sister Vernie - do you plan on reforming and doing something together?
Easther: I'd say never say never, it's definitely an option.

UKMIX: Aswad - you've been in the music business for over 25 years. What is your recipe for long-term success?
Zeb: It's enjoying what we do.
Gad: Chicken breast, and the love for what we do! [Everybody laughs] But seriously, it is true, if you do something you don't like then it's not going to last very long. That is the essence of staying power, as there are hardships along the way, but you get over them because you love what you do.

Aswad & Easther Bennett UKMIX: You had more members originally though.
Zeb: Yes, it started with something like 53, then we came down to eight, then we came down to five, came down to four, came down to three, we came down to two, [looking at Easther, laughing] now there's three, and next week you never know!
Easther: Yeah they'll kick me out! [Everybody laughs]
Zeb: No no, there's no chance of that!
UKMIX: Easther will kick you out! [Everybody laughs]
Gad: Yeah ha ha! All we really know is that tomorrow is a brand new day.

UKMIX: What do you think of the current trend of the TV-route-to-fame (i.e. Pop Idol etc shows). Do you think there's any longevity in that?
Zeb: Everyone finds their own way to do things. We've worked hard, we've done demos, we've toured, we've done lots of things to get to where we are now. Now you can make music in your bedroom, get on a TV show.
Easther: It's whatever works for you best.

UKMIX: Easther, can you tell us what you do to keep your voice in such incredible form?
Easther: Possibly there are a lot of things that I should do in general! On the day that I'm singing I don't drink milk, I have honey and lemon, warm up for 45 minutes, wrap my throat after I've finished singing.
Gad: I'll tell you what she does - she just keeps singing, she doesn't stop singing!
Easther: Also I don't shout and when I'm on tour, I just do that, go on stage and then straight back to my room!
Zeb: You've never been on tour with us yet! [Everybody laughs]
Easther: You'd only see me on stage!

UKMIX: Would you tour with Aswad if they went on tour?
Zeb: Oh we can't do without her!
Easther: Yes! [laughing]

UKMIX: Finally, sell us your album, tell us why we should buy it!
Zeb: You should buy the album because it's Aswad featuring Easther Bennett, and it's crucial, with the original reggae band that first got signed to the same label as Bob Marley. The reason we got signed to the label is because we just walked into the label office without any appointment, and we said "Bob Marley's signed here, we want to be signed here as well." They listened to our demo and said "OK." You should buy the album because it's wicked, surprising and it's the right choice.

UKMIX: Thanks very much for that, and good luck!

"Shy Guy" is released on 19th August on Universal Music TV.
SITE: Easther Bennett Official Website (requires Flash)
SITE: Aswad Official Website (requires Flash)