Published on September 27th, 2018 | by Gaelle Finley0
THE ROAD TO REGGAE
Gaelle Finley interviews Handsworth musician Basil Gabbidon.
(The following article appeared in our former magazine ‘Hands on Handsworth’ in January 2011)
Basil Gabbidon is a founder member of Steel Pulse, the phenomenally successful reggae band formed in Handsworth in the 70s. He was born in Buff Bay, Portland (Jamaica) and moved to Britain in 1964 when he was eight years old. He has been a Handsworth resident for most of his life. The following interview marks the relaunch of his most recent album, ‘Reggae Rockz.’
What are your earliest memories of music?
I started listening to music on the radio, then listened to Jamaican music such as Ska and Bluebeat on the jukebox in the café I used to go to after school. This was a big influence as I got older.
How did you get involved in music?
I went to Handsworth Wood Boys School, where I learned to read music and play the trombone. I also taught myself to play the guitar. I wasn’t so much into the Beatles but I did like the Stones. I was interested in revolutionary music such as Jimi Hendrix and a Funk band called Mandrill.
What reggae artists first inspired you and why?
Niney’s ‘Blood and Fire’ first got me into reggae. I also liked John Holt, though I was always more interested in bands than singers. I liked roots music and heavy dub, and anything that expanded creativity.
What about Bob Marley?
Bob Marley and the Wailers were a major influence. When they came along, I realised they were just up my street. They were different as they had guitar solos, which reggae didn’t have before. And of course the lyrics were different too; they were revolutionary. When ‘Catch a Fire’ came out, Bob Marley became a cornerstone, the man for reggae. He, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer spread the music all round the world and brought different cultures together more than any other genre.
Do you have a favourite song by him?
I love ‘Concrete Jungle’, the mystical nature of it. It was poetically written, in a different way than the conventional way of writing songs, and of course the guitar solo is fantastic.
Apart from reggae, have other artists inspired you?
Jimi Hendrix was a great inspiration – the guitar playing, the attitude, the torment… He made it seem so easy. It was as far away from classical music as you could get, but he was very classical in a way, very cosmic in his approach to playing, like jumping off a cliff. His message seemed to be ‘Free yourself’.
Around 1976, David Hinds, Ronnie McQueen and I used to rehearse after school, about twice a week. My brother Colin joined us on drums and Selwyn Brown on keyboards. We didn’t play gigs then; we just enjoyed playing together. In 1977, we started playing gigs at the Crompton pub, off Heathfield Road. Ronnie found our name. He enjoyed a bet and had noticed a horse called Steel Pulse. We all agreed it was a great name for the band.
Tell us about the album ‘Handsworth Revolution’
Our first big break was in 1977, when we were asked to play with Burning Spear as support at the Rainbow in London. We looked different, as we had made our own costumes: African robe, witch doctor, preacher and prisoner. We designed them ourselves, with animals and the colours red, gold and green. No one had seen anything like that before and that helped to get us noticed. The gig was sponsored by Island Records and as soon as we came off stage we got signed by them. The first record we did for Island was in 1978. ‘Handsworth Revolution’ was produced from Jamaica by Karl Pitterson, who had engineered some of Bob Marley’s albums. We had plenty of songs already, but the album came about because of what was going on at the time – racism, the police taking advantage of their position. People’s feelings in Handsworth rubbed off on us.
Why did you leave Steel Pulse?
I was mentally exhausted. We toured, recorded, toured, recorded, non stop. I wanted to stop for six months, to recharge my batteries and reconnect with people, but I couldn’t. I left in 1981. I have no doubt in my mind that if I’d been able to have that break, I would have continued with the band.
Do you collaborate with any other bands or musicians? I have worked with Buju Banton, Musical Youth, Ranking Roger from ‘The Beat’, and Dennis Bovell.
Can you give us a snapshot of your recent career? After Steel Pulse, I had a break until I formed Bass Dance in 1985, with my brother Colin and other musicians. Then around 2003, I started a joint project with Birmingham Symphony Hall, called Reggae Rockz, which charted the history of reggae – a kind of musical journey from Africa to our day. We performed regularly at Artsfest on Centenary Square. I’m also a producer and have my own studio, where I produced the Reggae Rockz album. My present band, Gabbidon, consists of myself on guitar and vocals, Colin on drums, Paul Beckford (who used to play with Burning Spear) on bass, Israel on keyboards,Errol and Alvin on brass, Candice and Anne Marie on backing vocals.
What are you up to now?
I work in an inner city school, doing music technology, helping children to produce music. I also produce Gabbidon and other bands. I write lyrics, play guitar, a bit of electric piano and trombone too.
What tips would you give any budding musician?
You can do it if you work hard. The more hours you put in, the better you sound. And the better you sound, the more people like you. The more people like you, the more they buy your records! Another tip, and it’s an important one, is never wear too dark glasses on stage – it’s not clever to notice that a piece of the stage has been removed just as you fall down! Believe me it happens; I should know!
Main pictures: Catherine Beroard-Gabbidon, Banner picture: Gaelle Finley