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Like Fine Wine

Ex-UB40 singer Ali Campbell remains the toast of the reggae scene because he makes fans feel so fine

The years definitely have been kind to Ali Campbell. More than three decades into the music business, the former frontman of the wildly popular British supergroup UB40 can still pack concert venues like he did in the ’80s – still make you want to get up and do the things you do out on the dance floor to what he swears is “the sexiest music ever.”

Obviously, you don’t sell more than 70 million records without having a sufficient amount of staying power among reggae and dub fans. But like fine wine, the guy with one of the most recognizable nasal voices in music keeps getting better with age, attracting a new legion of listeners with his burgundy-rich melodies and high-spirited rhythms.

“It’s always been about letting people know all about dub and reggae music, and I think that when you stay in the business long enough, it’s only natural that you get fans from the following generations,” says Campbell, who headlines The Mayjah RayJah 2013 Music Festival Aug. 31 at Kakaako Amphitheater. “Nowadays, a lot of the kids are growing up listening to the music of Mom and Dad.”

Indeed, today’s youths, like their parents, can’t help falling in love with Campbell’s collection of timeless tunes. In fact, playlists are considered incomplete if they don’t include the UB40 remake of the Neil Diamond classic Red, Red Wine or the Smokey Robinson-penned The Way You Do The Things You Do. For the native of Birmingham, England, the reggae and dub genres were embraced early on in his life because it was “the music of the streets,” particularly among disenfranchised, first-generation West Indian youth whom Campbell considered his closest friends.

“We didn’t have jobs after leaving school at the ages of 15, 16,” he tells me. “We were all angry, political activists. So we formed a band and called ourselves UB40 – UB standing for the document that people used to claim unemployment benefits, and 40 was the number of the document. Many of our lyrics back then were about (former British prime minister) Margaret Thatcher and our very first gig was aimed at raising funds for a claimants union.”

Thus, reggae became an infectious outlet to express how the downtrodden were feeling at the time, he adds.

“I grew up in a folk music household, but folk didn’t have enough bass for me and rock music just made me feel angry,” recalls Campbell, 54. “On the other hand, reggae is perfect music to dance to because it goes with your heartbeat. It’s also the sexiest music ever. In the ’60s, everybody was singing ‘I wanna hold your hand.’ But when reggae was exploding in Britain in the ’70s, we were all singing ‘I wanna hold something else!’ and doing things that were quite risqué.”

After leaving UB40 in 2008 “because of disagreements with management,” Campbell embarked on a rather successful solo career. To date, he’s released four solo albums, with a fifth album scheduled for release in coming weeks. For now, the singer is excited about returning to Hawaii and, along with other Island reggae artists, pouring out his blue, blue heart to local music fans at the MayJah RayJah festival.

“Everywhere I’ve been there’s been some form of reggae music. It’s really a lovely thing,” he says. “Of course, coming to Hawaii is also a lovely thing. Growing up, me and the lads didn’t get to go abroad much because we were from the wrong side of the tracks. To us, Hawaii was something we only saw in the movies or read in magazines or books. But now I’m back in Hawaii for what, my eighth time? That’s a beautiful thing.”

Here’s what else Campbell told Musical Notes:

MN: Red wine or white wine? Be honest.

AC: Absolutely red.

MN: Shucks. I was kind of hoping you’d say white. What are you up to these days?

AC: I’m mixing songs for my next album. I’ve got about six tracks completed with another eight to go, and I must say that so far they’ve been sounding brilliant! The album was supposed to be out this month, but that’s not going to happen at this point. Let’s just say that the album release is imminent.

MN: Did you feel that success was imminent for UB40 when you formed the band in 1978?

AC: Yes, but not until we caught the attention of Chrissie Hynde. At that point, we had only done about 11 or 12 shows together. And then one evening while we were performing at a pub called The Rock Garden, she came up and asked if we would like to open for her and The Pretenders on their upcoming tour. Of course, we said yes. She obviously had great taste.

MN: Oh, don’t be so modest.

AC: Seriously, I think what Chrissie did was quite a brave thing. Given her stature, she was taking a chance by asking a multiracial, hybrid reggae band to go out on tour with her. It turned out quite well for us.

SMALL-KINE NOTE: American bluegrass musician and Grammy Award-winner Peter Rowan makes his debut in the Islands this week when he performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Atherton Performing Arts Studio, and at 8 p.m. Saturday at Surfer the Bar, Turtle Bay. Rowan, who was once a member of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe‘s band and later leader of the seminal ’70s group Seatrain, says he’s thrilled to finally bring his music to the Islands. “I met a Hawaiian reggae band musician some years ago in Alaska and he told me that it’s always good to come to Hawaii when you don’t have to make it. He was right. I’m here to enjoy myself.” Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.