Performing Arts

Timeless UB40 at Nairobi’s Carnivore


Ali Campbell was the distinctive voice on the hits by UB40. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Ever since they hit the big time in 1983 with their version of the song “Red Red Wine” the group UB40 has virtually synonymous with reggae around the world.

Many people who had never even heard of the original song by Neil Diamond or didn’t care much for reggae (beyond Bob Marley) have been drawn to the genre thanks to the sweet sound that has become the trademark of UB40.

The group from the British city of Birmingham has transcended the genre, with a style of reggae that is easy on the ear blended with pop and soul. They have crafted a successful template that involves taking old Jamaican reggae and pop hits and breathing new life into them in a style that connects to the average music listener.

The songs have been packed in a series known as “Labor of Love” a title taken from their breakthrough album that contained hits like “Red, Red Wine”, “Cherry Oh Baby” and “Many Rivers To Cross.”

That is why the performance of UB40 at the Carnivore Nairobi on February 1 is such a big deal for the generations of fans that have grown up with their timeless hits.

The original line up of UB40 enjoyed unparalleled success form 1979 to 2008 with sales of over 70 million albums and four Grammy nominations. Actually, their success predates “Red Red Wine”.

The group was formed in the city of Birmingham in 1978 and took their name from the unemployment benefit form in the UK, hence UB40.

The original line up was truly international with musicians of English, Welsh, Irish, Jamaican, Scottish and Yemeni origin.

Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders invited the group to tour with her band in 1980 and they soon had their first hit on the UK charts with “King”.

That was followed by the album “UB44” in 1982 and eventually the big moment came with “Labor of Love” in 1983 which hit No. 1 on the album charts while “Red Red Wine” sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

In 1986, “Rat in the Kitchen” became the group’s sixth Top 10 album in the UK and two years later they played at the historic Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert at Wembley Stadium in London. In 1989, they released the self-titled “UB40” featuring the hit single “Breakfast In Bed” featuring Chrissie Hynde.

The second edition of the “Labor of Love” series, released in 1989, produced hit singles like “Kingston Town” “Homely Girl” “Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and their version of the Temptations classic “The Way You Do The Things You Do

Promises & Lies” in 1993 became UB40’s best-selling album propelled by the success of the cover of the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love

Their next albums, including two more in the Labor of Love series, were moderately successful but the band had produced enough material to secure their legacy as one of the most popular bands of all time.

Ali Campbell who was the distinctive voice on the hits by UB40 left the group in 2008 citing business management issues. He recorded a few solo albums and then joined up with another former member, the dreadlocked musician and rapper Astro who left the group in 2013.

The two musicians will be in Nairobi with their eight piece reggae band as part of the African leg of their worldwide tour to celebrate 40th anniversary of the band.

In Kenya, the group promises to give fans the closest thing to the sound of the original line up of UB40 thanks to the distinctive voice of Ali. He has always accused his brother Duncan, who took over as lead singer following his departure, of “murdering” the UB40 songs and so he formed this off shoot of the band ‘to protect the legacy.’

The concert will be opened by the Beathogs, a popular band on the Nairobi live circuit whose repertoire incorporates funk, soul and soul grooves.

“This show really means the world to us because UB40 is a legendary band and we are proud to get a chance to show what Kenya has to offer on such a big stage,” says Andy Salmon of the Beathogs.