Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye obituary | Reggae

Angus “Drummie Zeb” Gaye, who has died suddenly aged 62, was a founding member of Aswad, one of the most successful British reggae groups. Gaye’s propulsive drumming, which often incorporated intricate rolls peppered by striking rhythmic accents and sometimes uncommon time signatures, helped give Aswad a distinctive edge from their earliest beginnings in the mid-1970s. Gaye’s vocal skills and songwriting ability were also put to good use in the group, which he began fronting in the mid-90s.

However, even during the early phase in which the group strove to establish themselves in London’s burgeoning reggae scene, Gaye’s sporadic stints on lead vocals typically yielded exceptional results: the debut single, Back to Africa (1976), written by the keyboardist Courtney Hemmings, was sensitively delivered by Gaye at Hemmings’ request; It’s Not Our Wish (That We Should Fight) (1978), co-written with the bassist George Oban, and Judgment Day (1979), written by Gaye, gave voice to frustrations experienced by young black British people during a time of heightened racial tension, while venerating the Rastafari faith that gave solace to Gaye and his fellow band members.

Aswad, the name meaning black in Arabic, originally comprised the vocalist Brinsley Forde, Oban, Hemmings, the guitarist Donald Griffiths and the keyboardist Tony “Gad” Robinson, as well as the harmonica player Bunny McKenzie, although Robinson was absent when the group convinced Island Records’ Richard Williams to sign them for their self-titled debut in 1976, the band being too big to allow for two keyboardists. The following year, UK concert dates backing the Jamaican reggae band Burning Spear significantly raised the band’s profile, especially after the performance at the Rainbow theater in London was released by Island as a live album.

Such live musical backing of top Jamaican acts – they also accompanied Dennis Brown – helped to legitimize British reggae in general, as well as the band. Island Records then sent Aswad to Jamaica, where Gaye played drums for the visionary producer Augustus Pablo and the bassist/producer Robbie Shakespeare as well as Burning Spear; he subsequently played drums on Bob Marley’s Punky Reggae Party, while the unusual drum pattern he devised for Janet Kay’s heartbroken Silly Games helped the song to reach No 2 on the UK pop charts in the summer of 1979.

Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye sang vocals on Aswad’s cover of the Tina Turner and Luther Ingram hit Don’t Turn Around, a hit for the band in 1988

After Aswad slimmed down to a trio of Forde, Gaye and Robinson in the early 80s, and took a more commercial direction, Gaye’s sympathetic cover of Don’t Turn Around (a Tina Turner B-side that became a hit for Luther Ingram) topped the British pop charts in the spring of 1988, and a likable take of Stephen Bishop’s MOR ballad On and On reached the UK Top 25 in the summer of 1989. Once Forde opted to pursue a solo career in the mid-90s, the tall and charismatic Gaye naturally became Aswad’s frontman, his quietly expressive voice subsequently becoming the focus.

Born in London to immigrant parents from Grenada and Carriacou, Gaye was raised in Ladbroke Grove, west London, where he attended Holland Park school. I started drumming after a cousin with a drumkit became a lodger at the family home, and after mastering the instrument as a teenager, became the kit drummer in a local steel-pan band, the Metronomes. Shortly thereafter, in 1975, I joined Aswad.

Aswad’s second studio album, Hulet (1979), saw Hemmings replaced by Robinson, and the band members using appellations from the Twelve Tribes of Israel according to their Rastafari faith, with Gaye credited as “Drummie Zeb” (Zebulun). However the release failed to find its potential audience, prompting a shift to CBS that yielded the breakthrough LPs New Chapter (1981) and Not Satisfied (1982), by which time Oban had left, prompting Robinson to handle bass duties.

Following Forde’s lead role in the film Babylon (1981), whose soundtrack featured the rousing Aswad instrumental Warrior Charge, the group launched the Simba label, its inaugural issue being Johnny Osbourne’s hard-hitting 13 Dead (Nothing Said), which commented on the woeful state response to the New Cross fire in 1981, in which 13 young black people died at a birthday party in south-east London.

Tony 'Gad' Robinson and Angus 'Drummie Zeb' Gaye in 1988. After Brinsley Forde went solo in the mid 1990s, Gaye and Robinson kept Aswad active as a touring and recording unit.
Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson and Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye in 1988. After Brinsley Forde went solo in the mid 1990s, Gaye and Robinson kept Aswad active as a touring and recording unit. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The following year, the dub album A New Chapter of Dub heralded their return to Island, and by the time the label issued the concert album Live and Direct!, recorded at the Notting Hill carnival in 1983, Gaye’s son Solomon was making sporadic live appearances with the group as a rapper.

Island would also handle the albums Distant Thunder (1988) and Too Wicked (1990), the group subsequently launching their own Bubblin’ label for self-produced work, achieving a Top 5 chart success in the summer of 1994 with the optimistic Shine, which celebrated black self-determination.

After Forde went solo, Gaye and Robinson kept Aswad active as a touring and recording unit, with significantly less frequent releases. Their final studio album was City Lock, released in 2009.

Gaye is survived by six children.

Angus “Drummie Zeb” Gaye, drummer, singer-songwriter and record producer, born 24 September 1959; died September 2, 2022

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