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DUB WISERS - AN INTERVIEW WITH ABA SHANTI



"Well, I consider that compassion is an important virtue, and I believe the strong have to help the weak, regardless of race colour, creed, religion… Ultimately, people who are like us, who hold similar attitudes, will gravitate towards us, because we are aiming for the same virtues that they are, and this creates a something a lot better than what society stands for. Right now, it's obvious that our societies are controlled by money, polarised, xenophobic. America backs its puppet leaders and the media sanitises, separates "spectators" from reality. For example, we can watch Buddhist monks set themselves alight: People watch this on a screen and it means nothing. We can extend the same principle further, to children being destroyed by weapons. Still, reality doesn't hit home; it means nothing. For Aba Shanti sound system, on the other hand, we are unified by our goals and aims, and we intend to achieve them in a way we consider to be moral and upright. Through our meditations and reasonings, we have come to terms with ourselves, have come to know ourselves."

Greg Whitfield interviews Aba Shanti

COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

It was a dark and rainy winter evening. I met Aba Shanti full sound crew in a complex of towering housing estates, cold looking blocks of apartments which wouldn't have looked out of place in Cold War era, pre-capitalist Eastern Europe. Inner London sprawl. So this is the environment that contributed to producing the shuddering bass vibration of Aba Shanti dub plates I thought…. It seemed fitting somehow, and matched the intensity and seriousness of sound that Aba Shanti made. Anyone who has witnessed Aba Shanti and full crew will testify to the gut rearranging force of the sound. It's a sound physically felt rather than heard, the bass vibrates through your body, actually "rattling" your throat and abdomen. Standing near the speaker stacks, it is like a wind, moving towards you. It's a bodily experienced movement, and the spirituality of the dub plate specials is inherent in the sound. It hints at a solemnity present in the most sacred of music.

Humble Lion and Blood Shanti met and greeted me warmly in the wind swept street, then we went to a nearby community centre, where the Shanti crew carry out music workshops, designed to "put something back into their community and help the youth", as Blood and Humble Lion expressed it. Some Dreads were coolly talking, and playing dominos in the corner. A booming bass line sound emphasised the mood. It was an easy going, peaceful atmosphere, punctuated occasionally by the "clack!" of the dreads domino games. Vibes were good, and uplifting. Quotes from 'Revelations' adorn the walls; one particular reference caught my attention, chapter and verse implying that Jesus had died in Egypt (Revelations Chapter 11, verse 8). This quote intrigued me, and I made a mental note to check this quote out carefully when I returned home. We spoke for a while in the community centre, and then retired to the smoky darkness of Shanti studio, famed internationally for its production of awesome dub plates, thundering subterranean spiritually committed bass anthems, to carry out the interview. At this point Aba Shanti I, MC/DJ/selector with the sound made a brief appearance, smiling broadly as he greeted me warmly, but he didn't stay due to other engagements.

Two main characters emerged from the Shanti family, with quite different perspectives. Humble Lion was a thoughtful figure: sharp, erudite, a quick thinker. He spoke a lot, largely about media critique and spirituality in the Shanti sound fold. Blood Shanti, a calm, gentle and taciturn figure with years and years of experience in the UK roots reggae scene since 1977 or so, in sound system culture and with bands/singers such as African Head Charge, Sugar Minnot, Johnny Clarke, I Jahman Levi, was concerned more specifically with the "sound mechanics" and musical vibes. He came across as being straightforward and direct, solid as a rock. Samari, the percussionist, a polite man, with a qualification from the Royal College of Music, was also present but remained silent for most of the interview. All Shanti sound members exuded a calm and optimistic atmosphere, leaving no doubt that they "walk it as they talk it." We drank and ate in the calm darkness of the studio, which became misty with spirals of heady smoke as time passed. A huge mixing desk dominated the centre of the room. Blood Shanti passed around some impressive creased and aged black and white photographs of his early years as a drummer in UK roots outfits from the late 70's, years of strife and riot in London in the black community against oppressive police tactics. Blood makes brief reference to this, and then we "formally" start the interview. An alert thinker, Humble Lion speaks quickly, his thought jumping from subject to subject. He comes across as well informed, inquisitive and reflective. He seems to hold an almost Manichean -- dualistic attitude: "light" projected on the one hand towards those of peaceful intention within the Shanti fold and in the world, and on the other hand "darkness" to those manipulative holders of power, who represent corrupt and violent governments and ideologies everywhere.

It was a calm but intense dialogue we shared -- Rasta "reasonings" and debate typically move, develop and change, fluidly and naturally: Inspired poetic insight and expression one moment, Biblical "fire" and surreal stream of consciousness the next, shifting effortlessly to focussed spiritual or political semantics and dialectic. It all depends on how the spirit moves the speaker.

This is the way things run with Aba Shanti Sound System.

3AM: What kind of people check out Aba Shanti sound system, and how do you view the "moral motivation" behind what Aba Shanti do?

HL: Well, I consider that compassion is an important virtue, and I believe the strong have to help the weak, regardless of race colour, creed, religion… Ultimately, people who are like us, who hold similar attitudes, will gravitate towards us, because we are aiming for the same virtues that they are, and this creates a something a lot better than what society stands for. Right now, it's obvious that our societies are controlled by money, polarised, xenophobic. America backs its puppet leaders and the media sanitises, separates "spectators" from reality. For example, we can watch Buddhist monks set themselves alight: People watch this on a screen and it means nothing. We can extend the same principle further, to children being destroyed by weapons. Still, reality doesn't hit home; it means nothing. For Aba Shanti sound system, on the other hand, we are unified by our goals and aims, and we intend to achieve them in a way we consider to be moral and upright. Through our meditations and reasonings, we have come to terms with ourselves, have come to know ourselves.

3AM: How do you go about putting together a song, lyrically and musically?

HL: Reasoning and meditation are at the heart of our lyrics, and through spiritual reflection and devotion, our lyrics just come to us, encapsulating all that has happened to us -- This is what song writing is about: the essence of being able to capture your emotions, and put them into words. Actually, the process is beyond words alone. It's not always strictly a logical process. Another important aspect for me is this: Mentally, and in actions, how does one focus on the good and diminish the bad? Well, we know where we have come from, we know where we are today, and we know where we want to go. If a man can't visualise his goals, internally and externally, then it's like walking in the desert. To us, music is music you know: the heart of music touches you, makes a person feel something deeply, beyond words, internally and externally. Music can make someone cry; move them to tears of joy or sadness. That trigger of emotion is the essence of true music. In reggae music now, you have a oneness of expression, dark and light unified, black and white working together. This is what is happening right here now in the U.K."

3AM: In what way do you think the UK roots sound system culture and dub plates is different from what is happening in JA?

BS: I was born in England, with inner city vibes. So many artists strive for a Jamaican sound, or an American sound, but I feel that is the wrong road for UK artists to take. We've been born here and we must create our own sound forms, and put our stamp on the world. Actually, when we create music we reflect and echo what we see all around us, from the point at which we wake up every morning and look around us: When I go outside, I see city smoke everywhere, traffic, darkness, no birds, no trees, no nature. I know that some Jamaican musicians see our music here as too hard and harsh, but we're in a concrete jungle, you overstand, and I can only express myself from the way I live.

HL: As I see it, reggae music here in UK is progressing out of that heavy drum and bass steppers rhythm, into very sophisticated and futuristic sound collages.

BS: Well, these points we make are true, but we still come from a powerful Jamaican root and tradition, even though we have diversified to reflect our condition. My influences are still Studio One , Channel One , classic vibes, straight to the heart.

3AM: So, which artists influenced you as you were growing up?

HL: Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, ET, the mighty 2 at Joe Gibbs. Do you know some of those artists were only paid about 60 dollars per session? I love the spontaneous rawness of those tunes! On some of those tunes you can hear the mistakes! It's real. Fredlocks and Aswad were wicked too, I have to name check "Love and Only Love", and "Warrior Charge". I grew up with Aswad, and tunes like this changed the whole reggae scene here in England, it was so far ahead of its time, it stood out from ALL the other roots music going on. Aswad were outstanding at that time, and those sophisticated rhythms left everyone else behind. So, that was music from my time, tunes and vibes from my era which left their mark on me and many others. That music there made me realise who I was, and the power struggle going on through the 70's. Rastafari was looked upon as a black element, and there was a strong unity between the youths in this area, this area where I was born and raised.

3AM: So what has changed?

HL: Well, I have to say that now it is not only the black youths who are suffering in this land, so to me, increasingly, the true inner meaning of Rasta is not concerned with colour. [As Zulu Warrior Jah Shaka has said, "you know THE TRUTH doesn't have any colour, we play for all nations of people"] And to me, this is an appropriate outlook. As we trod along through our musical journey, we want to draw people together, regardless of colour, because it's so simple that it's a universal strength that we should be dealing with, a coming together. If a man has a wicked heart, a wicked intention, it closes down communication, bringing defensiveness to the fore, whereas to us, it's about unity, breaking down the barriers that society builds up. Music has a natural vibe of goodness. We are working hard. Our music has a meditative, reflective, and moving towards a spiritually higher concept. As long as our sound is focussed, we will go from strength to strength, but to us, this forward looking consciousness is far from ego centric: It's about unity and oneness of consciousness and it is in this direction we focus our creative vibes because it's a fact that there isn't enough unity and direction amongst people at this time. I'm a man from the 70's you know, and at that time, we could clearly see what was wrong with society and it was this consciousness that led us to unity.

3AM: I've heard you do a lot of work within your community, can you tell us more?

HL: Aba Shanti work closely with the youth, trying to offer them guidance: we try to speak with them, find out where they're coming from, how they're living and try to advise them. We run bass and drum music workshops here in the community you know? The scope of Falasha and Aba Shanti is much wider than people know.

3AM: Your record label is called Falasha: What does the word mean to Aba Shanti?

HL: Well, yes Falasha has deep significance for us. As you know, at the time of the diaspora, 12 tribes were exiled out of Israel. Biblical reading tells us this. In 1973, theologians and rabbinical scholars solved a problem that had been plaguing scholars and academics for years: Where was the lost tribe of Israel? They were in fact, located in Ethiopia; the elders could read Semitic texts, and practised ancient sacred ritual. This tribe knew their history and knew where they were coming from. Falasha means outsider, or outcast. Many of the Falasha tribe have been wiped out over the centuries, but they survive, they live on.

One of our mottoes is, "hear the music, feel the vibe!" so by that we mean you're welcome, come and check the feeling! And this vibe is actually an ancient thing: Check the Biblical Psalms, which are the original blues, these are supplications for guidance, and a deep meditation! Sellassie I comes from the throne of the conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, descended from King David and Solomon. King David was a righteous man, a musician [he played a harp and is believed to have composed the majority of The Biblical Psalms] and dancer, who never stopped praising his creator, meditating day and night, chanting his supplications. Solomon was a man of Wisdom. So this lineage of Haille Sellassie, it's a true dynasty we can trace back over a long period of time. In a lot of other royal dynasties, the world over, you'll find that in a large majority of cases their lineage is not based on a historical lineage which emphasises spiritual truth, no, on the contrary: A closer study often reveals a heritage based on robbery, domination and corrupt exploitation. A so called "royalty" of robbers and thieves!

3AM: As a Rasta sound system, how do you see the Bible?

BS: Well, the Bible as a book of wisdom and insight is a book of guidance, but I stress, that I consider the Maccabee Bible to be the authoritative version. They have an ancient copy of it here in London in the British Museum. Certain academics and "authorities" though, have restricted access to it, only allowing so called "serious scholars" to view it. Remember though, that they, in their "wisdom" have defined and decided what "a serious scholar" actually is! So, I would say this, don't read an abridged or selective translation of The Bible, read it as it is. Only a few words mistranslated or edited can lead you astray. Think about it: From the material known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, who decided which scriptures were to be included, or edited out of, the Bible?

3AM: What is your view on this Blood, where do you derive spiritual inspiration from?

BS: Well, as for me, I'm a man who has experienced everything through my livity, what I have experienced and lived through, and it is that over and above everything else which gives me knowledge of right and wrong. So my insight comes from reality. Besides that, great figures such as Malcolm X influenced me: he had no choice but to educate himself, and through that he gained a conscious perspective and spiritual wisdom. Think about it: the time when you most feel the presence of the most high is when you are down, on the floor, when there is no other turning place. So that's my perspective, where I'm coming from spiritually.

3AM: Who do you rate in London and Jamaica these days?

BS: Yeah, I have to say Dub Judah has range, flow and ability: He is a great producer and songwriter. Also my bredren Keety Roots and Black Legacy… a positive and strong man! From the Jamaican side, Luciano runs things, no doubt. His music encourages togetherness and strength, so that is a musical vibe that brings people together, encouraging people to think of one power, instead of ego obsession. I really feel that togetherness is so important, and what is happening in both Jamaica and in England with regards to the whole music scene, whether it's funk , or r n' b, soul or reggae, is an endless dividing and categorising into lots of separate boxes, which ultimately, divides people too! You don't gain anything by this division! I do not exaggerate when I tell you that in some places, people are dying, getting involved with the gun over all this division within black music: its dividing people, and it's just a cynical marketing ploy! So leave these things alone, let people enjoy the music. Let's just look at a lot of today's music for a minute, look at it closely. Jungle, and Garage tunes…so much of it comes directly from Reggae…Take jungle music… slow it down, slow it right down, and the elements of reggae show themselves clearly, Jungle is from the same roots and culture source…

3AM: What mental processes go into deciding how a heavy dub should sound and what state of mind produces their surreal sound when you go about working on a dub plate?

HL: Roots music is protest music which spiritualises people, awakens the consciousness of the listener. Listen to distinctive, original artists from any genre, including reggae, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, or reggae drummers like Sly or Santa, what you hear immediately is their signature, so you know it's them in an instant. Same way with us: When we cut our dubs, what you hear is something captured in time, there is no absolute theoretical "right or wrong" in terms of the sound. It depends a lot on our emotion at the time of working on the dub, whether we are happy or sad, thoughtful or positive, in a mood of upliftment. Then, as the listener, where is your head at the time of hearing the piece? What are you hearing? So this whole process of relationship between the producer of the sound and the listener can be quite random, and certainly doesn't depend on absolutes. The sound and vibe goes beyond that.

3AM: I understand that you operate as a sound system and a band, so there are two major projects within the Aba Shanti fold. Can you tell me more about how you view the role of sound system, and the heritage you are continuing?

HL: Yes, we do have at least two major projects within Aba Shanti, and numerous smaller projects we are running. So we release albums as a band using live instruments and digital sounds, [Blood Shanti is the major force behind the engineering and production of the albums] and we also play out live as a full sound system, with Aba working as selector/DJ/MC. Sound system informs and educates the listener. Sound system aims to achieve these two goals. Right from its roots in Jamaica, it has always been this way, communicating stories of experience, from the heart. Check out tunes like "Niney the Observer" and Dennis Brown's "Tenement Yard"! We are directing ourselves in the same way; good music, good education, which means enlightenment, politically, socially, culturally and historically through sound system. Besides that, we are always open to those who would wish to contribute artworks to Aba Shanti sound system, so we encourage people to contribute artwork, poetry or lyrics to us. If we can include them in what we are doing, we will do so. There are so many who are disenfranchised or tribeless in this society, but we are hoping to achieve the opposite, to show people who have similar aspirations to us, they are not alone.

3AM: I know that "King of The Zulu Tribe" Jah Shaka donates a lot of his money from sound system towards projects in Africa such as hospitals, schools and I believe aid towards disabled people in Ghana and the such like. When I last attended one of your sound system session dances, I believe the money was being contributed to protection of the rain forests : Can you tell me more about this?

BS: Working towards preservation of this planet in it's natural state is important to us, and we've held a lot of sound system sessions where the proceeds go towards protection and preservation of rain forest areas. Look, the inhumanity done by man to man in our collective history is endless. Let's take slavery and its powerful effect, which I don't believe has ever really been properly confronted in American or English society.

HL: I don't believe the implications and results of slavery have ever been fully analysed or even fully apologised for, in the public, governmental or political arenas. Here, in Europe and in America.

BS: There's a lot of people out there who don't care to think about or investigate these things deeply, because a lot of them don't even view what happened historically as wrong!

HL: African people were free labour for the building of Britain's empire. It wasn't only African people who suffered. It was indigenous people all over the globe. In America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, genocide was implemented. Similar things, to a lesser degree of course, are happening in other places in the world even today, for example in South America where the people's natural way of life is being methodically eroded. Same old story: What was theirs has been taken, and they are being herded out whilst their place of origination and beauty is being destroyed. These are actions and attitudes which reveal a root of deep ignorance. If people had bothered to educate themselves and striven to enlighten themselves humanely, politically, spiritually, these vampire like activities might never have taken place on such a scale on this earth. Until recently, you couldn't even find a truthful account of black history in library books! You might find a limited account in a reference book or encyclopaedia, but even these were typically Euro-centric and condescending. Regarding the truth about African history and culture and the reality of what Europe and America took from there in terms of mineral wealth and precious stones, too, you might have found a passage here or there, no more. So the true depth of African culture and its contribution to what is now the "greatness" and wealth of America and Europe has been largely considered as insignificant, as if it didn't really matter. So the bottom line is this: any culture that doesn't give due respect to somebody else's culture or way of life is never going to see that anything they do, or have done, to those people, is wrong. I must stress, this exploitative attitude is by no means an attitude that has been solely limited to the actions of Europeans. Many nationalities, peoples of all colour and background, all over this planet choose to exploit others brutally and cover up their violent acts.

At the root of this is a deep-seated conviction of superiority. Violent acts carried out on others can be justified by the doers if they consider themselves to be of a superior race or ideology. Power and violence based on illusion, and the weakest have always suffered.

So what happens when the exploited fight back against the exploiter? The true reason why the fight back is taking place is white washed, avoided, twisted by the powers that control the media. Events are presented to the public in the way the dominant powers desire them to be viewed. Truth is constantly obscured by clever manipulation. People have to see this game taking place! Please, educate yourselves to get to the roots; to read between the lines when you are bombarded by the media. Reason within, and see the truth for yourselves.




ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Greg Whitfield has spent most of the last twelve years living in London and the Far East, specifically Korea, where his wife is a Korean classical musician. He is currently engaged in researching and writing a book on the avant-garde/sound system and bass culture, which has been emerging out of London over the last twenty-five years up until the present time. He loves Dadaism, conscious music and literature, and, of course, very loud bass.





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