Aashid Himons rests his large frame in a cushioned, blanketed couch in his comfortable home off Charlotte Avenue. A fleet of remote controlseight total, in all shapes, sizes and missionswaits within reach. The modest room is decorated with colorful art that ranges from native African to psychedelic American; across from him, electronic equipment fills a wall. In the center is a television screen, flashing a radiant group of African dancers shimmying as South African singer Mahlathini (“the Lion of Soweto”) puts forth a gruff-toned style of rhythmic Zulu pop known as mbaqanga.
Aashid lifts one of the controls and lowers the volume. The videotape, he says, comes from Doug Wendt, a reggae and world-music expert who has been tracking and promoting the pop music of island and African musicians since the late 1970s. Wendt, a longtime friend and supporter of Aashid’s, figured the Nashville musician would enjoy the homemade compilation of world-music videos, which traverse the planet from Brazil to Bulgaria, from Senegal to South Central Los Angeles. Wendt included a detailed explanation of each group. He also sent a note congratulating Aashid on his new compact disc, The Leaders, the first release in more than eight years by his band, Afrikan Dreamland. Of late, Wendt has been drawing heavily from the musically diverse CD for his syndicated weekly radio show, which is the most prominent world-music program in the country.
For Aashid, this living-room scene represents several aspects of his career, which happens to be an especially unusual one for a musician based in Nashville: He is the city’s most prominent world-music practitioner. Along with colleagues Darrell Rose and Mustafa Abdul Aleem, as a member of Afrikan Dreamland, he turned on thousands of young Nashvillians and Vanderbilt students to reggae and Third World rhythms in the 1980s.
But it’s not just the music emanating from the television that helps define Aashid’s careerit’s the TV as well. As a local music-video pioneer, Himons launched Aashid Presents on community-access channel 19 in 1987; the program still airs weekly. Thus, his interest in Wendt’s tape isn’t just for the music: He’s studying the advances and techniques artists from different countries employ to put across their songs on film and videotape.
When Aashid starts talking about Wendt, he leads into what may be his own greatest contribution to Nashvillehis role as a creative conduit between the city’s white and African-American communities, which rarely interact, in music or on any other plane. Wendt, he explains, recently moved his world-music operation from San Francisco to Montana because of the racial polarity ripping California apart. When Wendt, a white man, originally began championing world music in the wake of Bob Marley’s introduction in the United States, he was widely hailed for bringing people together and erasing cultural barriers. But younger African-Americans in California, charged with political and social agendas, recently launched an attack on Wendt, saying he was a white man co-opting African music to advance himself.
“They saw him as an example of that same old storya white man profits from African-American musicians,” Aashid says. “But they didn’t look at his history, how he helped a lot of people who never would have been heard, often at his own expense. That’s not what Doug’s about. But they can’t see that. That’s how bad things have gotten, and that’s a shame. We should be trying to learn to work together. We can’t just keep seeing these old stereotypes, or nothing will ever change. We have to learn to reach out and accept and work together, or else we’re doomed.”
Aashid has always followed his own advice. When Afrikan Dreamland was one of Nashville’s most popular bands, they performed at the African Street Fair and at Summer Lights, at TSU and at TPAC. The band’s shows at Exit/In, the Cannery and the old Goodies Warehouse were among the few in Nashville that drew racially mixed crowds.
Nearly 7 feet tall and with salt-and-pepper dreadlocks cascading across his broad and often beaming face, Aashid is an unmistakable presence about town. He also looks much more youthful than his 53 years, and he’s currently enjoying his second wave of fatherhood. His 3-year-old son, Matumbe, is a stout, joyful and remarkably spirited boy. Meanwhile, his first-born son recently turned 31 years old and last year gave Aashid his second grandchild. “My plans are to have another baby in 30 years,” he says as his slow, strong laugh rolls like thunder across the room.
For Himons, this is the latest chapter in an extraordinary story. He first came to Music City as Little Archie and recorded several soul singles in the 1960s with country producer Buddy Killen. He also led R&B groups the Parliaments (not to be confused with George Clinton’s late ’50s/early ’60s group of the same name) and the Majestics. In the late ’70s, however, he discovered reggae music and Rastafarian spirituality; he changed his name and transformed his image and his music. He returned to Nashville from New York in 1979 to play his new music for Killen, who at the time was heading the city’s most prominent music publishing company, Tree International (now known as Sony Tree).
Killen told Aashidwho had looked at his Nashville trip as a two-week exploratory excursionthat he didn’t know what to do with his music. Outside of Music Row, however, the singer found an outpouring of support. “I was going to stay a couple of weeks and drop off some tapes,” he says, his laugh again punctuating his words. “And here it is, 1995, and I’m still here.”
One of the main reasons is the level of support Aashid feels from within the music community. “I would have left this town a long time ago if it wasn’t the way it is,” he says. “There’s such a community-type vibe here. That’s something unique to this town. It’s not like that in L.A., and it’s sure not like that in New York. Here, if you need a DAT machine, someone will say, ‘Hey, I’ve got one, come use mine.’ They might even drop it off for you on their way someplace. It ain’t about money. It’s about you give to me, and I’ll give to you. That’s what we got to get going on this planet. We’ve got to get out of competition and get into cooperation. Competition is going to smother us. Me wanting to be better than you is no good. Me wanting to be as good as I can be is what it’s about.”
The Leaders is a two-CD collection featuring 25 songs and two hours and 25 minutes of music. “No way I could have done that much music without a lot of help and cooperation,” Himons says. “It would have cost me a fortune. You’d need at least a quarter of a million dollars to do it right. I got it done for a lot less than that, because people are so willing to help me here. Someone would say, ‘No one’s in my studio tonight, why don’t you come over and work?’ I think they know my emphasis is not on money, that that’s not what I’m interested in. So this record is really a community project. People say to me, ‘Man, how do you get all this stuff done? Where do you get the money?’ It’s not about money. It’s about people.”
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