Chatting to “the legendary voice of UB40” – as Ali Campbell calls himself – is like chilling with a long-lost mate from high school. The reggae superstar has been equated to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as one of the best-selling musicians in pop music history, but he is relaxed, affable and generous with his answers.
The reggae band will be playing hits from their many acclaimed albums, including “Red, Red Wine”, “Kingston Town” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. Although Ali has been back in South Africa several times since 2008, this is the first time that local audiences will have the pleasure of seeing Astro (Terence Wilson) and Ali together on stage. There are now two UB40s. It’s a long story, one which has been amply chronicled in the British tabloids. Ali famously left UB40 under acrimonious circumstances eight years ago. During this time he watched the remaining band members, including two of his brothers, play fast and loose with his legacy, according to interviews in several newspapers. He decided to “take back my band” and make a comeback… as UB40.
Ali had founded the original band, wrote most of the lyrics and provided the vocal force that saw the band selling over 70 million albums. So outraged is he at the antics and lack of integrity of the band that he left behind, he says, that he feels duty bound to rescue his reputation.
Despite the rival UB40 threatening legal action to stop Ali from using the name UB40, he is forging ahead with a world tour and several albums. And just when he thought it could not get worse, the rival UB40 produced a country music album. This was also the last straw for vocalist, rapper and trumpeter Astro, who left the band in 2013 and joined Ali.
Ali is relishing the freedoms of calling the shots and working with Astro: “It’s like putting on an old pair of boots.” Along with the original keyboard player Mickey Virtue, the trio is creating new material, including an album featuring West Coast reggae. “When we are not on tour, we are in the studio. We have two albums out this year, including an unplugged version of our greatest hits. Imagine a reggae album without bass guitar? We will be making music history, since reggae is normally very reliant on bass. It’s unprecedented!”
Ali is a true reggae man. While he is not a Rastafarian, he certainly acknowledges reggae’s protest roots. “Singing won’t change society, but reggae has a unifying, peace-loving message. It is healing music and the world needs healing.”
From his vantage point, that of “an old hippie”, he is distressed by the racial conflict he sees today. He grew up on the streets of Balsall Heath in Birmingham, a predominantly West Indian and Asian neighbourhood. “Our own ‘rainbow nation’ in England went out the window in the ’80s. Racism is racism. Nothing has changed over the years, except it’s a lot worse. The United States is now the most segregated it has ever been. The hip-hop generation propagated a self-imposed racism – the obsession with colour and the state of your hair. It is shocking. The US is a powder-keg. You can feel the tension in the air.”
He says the US does not have a President Nelson Mandela and the TRC to help bring about forgiveness. “This is why we love Madiba so much.”
Ali has very deep emotional ties with South Africa and has lost count of how many times he’s been here. “We upheld the cultural boycott before Mr Mandela was released. In 1994 we did our first concert in Johannesburg to a record crowd of 80 000 people. It was fabulous.
“We sang a song in which the rallying cry ‘Amandla Awethu’ was part of the chorus. And seeing all 80 000 fists go up as the crowd chanted the words was one of the highlights of our career. We had a beautiful time. The flag was beautiful. I have seen amazing change for the good in South Africa.”
Ali and his family have many friends in Lenasia, about 35km south-west of the Joburg CBD, and he has played several smaller gigs there. “We’ve done the Blue Train trip up to Vic Falls and I even brought my children on safari.”
Reflecting back on the last 40 years (the band was formed in 1978), Ali says he is the same person he was back then – he grew up with an intense love for reggae and is still passionate about its message of peace and love. “We went through the ’80s and fell victim to the cocaine craze. We all did that; it’s no secret. Cocaine is an insidious drug but we came out alive. Many others didn’t. Recreational marijuana is the reggae way and being on a beach in Jamaica, where I lived on and off for 17 years, is like being in heaven for me.”
Alas, Jamaica is not his permanent home as he is shepherding his eight children, all between the ages of 15 and 35, through school and into adulthood. He lives in Christchurch, Dorset, with his wife, Julie, and four of his children.
Parenting is a very different task from when he was growing up. Ali was born in 1959, an era when television was in its infancy. His father was a folk musician and would come home tired and grumpy from touring. “We would make ourselves scarce when he was around. I am not like my dad. The hardest thing about being on the road is being away from my kids. I do the ‘school run’. That’s my time with them.”