Day 5 Birmingham

Matthew Collins - 19 05 09
UB40 and the HnH bus crew

UB40 and the HnH bus crew

When you’ve sold as many records as UB40 have (we’re talking millions), it could be easy to get a little blasé, and move to the country and live in a big house away from your roots. People have done it for less.

With UB40, this has refreshingly not been the case. Aside from the very nice cars in the car park of their studios in Birmingham’s back streets, this is a band that is still refreshingly grounded in the city where they rose from the dole queues to Top of the Pops. (Some of our younger readers may not be aware that ‘UB40’ was the proof of unemployment form for millions of Britons in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.)

The conversation has apparently not changed much either. While they’re sitting together out of what they safely assume is earshot, they’re discussing Children’s Television comedy act The Crankies.

Norman Hassan, the band’s percussionist and backing vocalist, obliges our bus driver Kevin with a tour of the studio where they are playing back the recording they made of the gig they did in Bordeaux two nights before. Norman is a large man and Kevin’s not too small, but Norman’s got Kevin in a firm grip. "We sound great, don’t we?" he asks, roaring with laughter. Kevin agrees, because some thirty years after they started, UB40 did still have what it takes. Norman’s happy with Kevin’s answer and the tour of what can only be described as a labyrinth of UB40 mementos continues.

Saxophonist Brian Travers decides when it is time to brave the rain outside to get onto the bus and before long the seven of them are crammed on the top deck’s sofas surrounded by two cameramen, three journalists and two photographers.

Drummer James Brown begins the debate about a BNP Britain by complaining that there would be room for little else bar Morris Dancing. The rest of the band chirp in en masse about the contribution of black music to British music, "way back it goes, you go back as far as you want and there is that influence all the way through British music," says Travers.

"We’re a reggae band, obviously, but I like to think of us as a political band. Certainly our roots are political, we started playing music together when there was the National Front who stood against everything we believed in.

"I went to the Rock Against Racism Carnival at Victoria Park and from there I really understood that I was a white man in a reggae band, from Birmingham, and there were people who totally hated that, totally hated what music can do for you. The racists have never liked music and have never liked this band, and that is an honour."

While Travers and Brown dominate the interview (and in Travers’s case incredibly self-deprecating wit) the rest of the band are not without their own views.

Brown is particularly concerned about communities and how they can change almost immediately and become divided. He particularly dislikes faith schools. "We have to live together and this has to start at school. My class at school was a rough mix of black, Afro-Caribbean, Irish and Asian kids and that was the way it should be."

Certainly, despite some changes in personnel over the years, this does feel very much like a school band. As we disembark, Travers is still talking about voting and the wide choice of parties to vote for. "Why choose the BNP, when there are other parties you can use to send a message to the people in power?

"Sending a racist message is the wrong message," he says, propping himself like Fred Astaire on his umbrella. Then as the band shot begins, Norman Hassan opens a UB40 umbrella to howls of excitement (and some derision) from the band. "I’ve been keeping this" he tells me, "for a special day like today".

Curious as to how he managed to be both a Norman and a Hassan, Hassan is delighted to tell me he has a Welsh mother and an Arab father. "That’s why I’m in this band, I wouldn’t want to play with anybody else. Just look at the pictures you’ve got. We’re an assortment of modern Britain."


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