Remembering Aashid Himons, 1942-2011, the man who brought reggae to Music City 

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

In the cradle of country music, Aashid Himons stood out like a Serengeti lion in a Middle Tennessee cow pasture. Most people knew him as the dreadlocked Rasta man who fronted the pioneering and wildly popular Nashville reggae outfit Afrikan Dreamland — a towering figure who greeted friends and strangers alike with his gently rumbling voice, gap-toothed smile and trademark expression, "One heart."

But Himons, 68, who died Saturday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center of complications from diabetes and vascular disease, was always more complicated than the image he projected to the public. A restless and driven talent, he reinvented himself multiple times — as soul singer, bluesman and space musician — throughout a career that practically changed with each generation.

"There wasn't a scene he was plugging into," says music writer/historian Robert K. Oermann, who covered the city's 1980s music scene for the Tennessean. "He made his own scene. He found a way, with few resources, to make lasting music."

Born Archie Patrick Himons in rural West Virginia in 1942, he was a musical child prodigy, playing piano by age 3 and drums by age 5. He first performed in church and made his national television debut at age 10 performing on NBC's The Today Show. He began singing professionally as a teenager, and after a stint in the Army, he pursued music full time as an R&B artist performing under the stage name Little Archie — an obvious irony, since he stood 6 feet 7 inches tall.

Based primarily out of Lexington, Ky., he fronted several soul bands, including the Majestics and the Parliaments. He first came to Music City in the early '60s to play fraternity dates. In the mid-'60s, he recorded four sides for Buddy Killen's Dial label at Columbia's Studio B on Music Row, which are now considered classics and highly sought after by collectors of "northern soul" music.

That in itself may come as news to those who recall Himons in his dreadlocked glory. But his career was filled with similar twists and turns. In the late '60s, Himons began playing a brand of folk blues he called "mountain soul" under the name West Virginia Slim, eventually landing in New York City. In 1969, he moved to Toronto and formed a short-lived acoustic duo called God & I with musician/actor Jim Byrnes.

From Canada, Himons made his way to Central America. But by 1978, he was back in the U.S. He was busking on the streets of Portland, Ore., when someone gave him a ticket to a Bob Marley concert. At the concert, he had an epiphany — he should fuse Marley's reggae with his own upbringing in deep Southern blues. Soon thereafter, he began to develop the musical blend he called blu-reggae.

He started recording what would become the first Afrikan Dreamland album, Jah Message, in Pittsburgh later that year, but finished the record in Nashville after moving here in 1979. The group was originally a duo featuring Himons and percussionist Darrell Rose, but expanded to include a second percussionist, Mustafa Abdul-Aleem, during the making of the album.

To say that Afrikan Dreamland stood out, even among Nashville's burgeoning punk and college-radio scene of the early 1980s, is beyond understatement. Fueled by a high-stamina live show, they soon became one of the city's most popular acts, drawing large, enthusiastic crowds who danced nonstop to the group's irie rhythms. Before disbanding in 1987, they became the first American reggae group to get a video on MTV ("Television Dreams" in 1984) as well as the first Nashville-based act to release a video album (Apartheid Kills in 1985). They were also the first act in the city to mix drum machines with live drums.

But of course, nothing topped the spectacle of a larger-than-life reggae-soul shaman before throngs of adoring Vandy frat kids. A new day had dawned in Music City.

"They brought enormous diversity to the scene," Oermann recalls. "They made me proud to be a Nashvillian."

Himons released a solo album, Kosmik Gypsy, while still with Afrikan Dreamland, and after the band's breakup, put out three more solo recordings in 1987-88 — two reggae collections, One Heart and In My Genes, and his first collection of ambient/space music, Black Holiness. He also sat in the producer's chair for an album by Cyril Neville & the Uptown Allstars. By the end of the decade, he began hosting a long-running cable access television program, Aashid Presents.

As prolific as Himons' output was in the '80s, it was even broader in the '90s. He continued to pursue his blu-reggae vision with Aashid & the New Dream and a revamped Afrikan Dreamland, which released a double album, The Leaders, in 1995. At roughly the same time, he joined forces with a trio of ambient artists — Giles Reaves, Kirby Shelstad and Tony Gerber — to stage a pair of innovative space music performances, Mind Orbit I and II, in 1992.

Working with the same musicians in various combinations, he recorded a voluminous amount of space music, only a small part of which has been released. He also made several world music-inflected rock recordings with the Pyramid Underground (Reaves, Shelstad and the Simmons brothers — Mike, Paul and Jamie), and in the late '90s he formed the Mountain Soul Band with Gerber, Shelstad and others as an outlet for his folk blues material. Himons also appeared in two independent films, Existo and Circle of Fault, as well as a number of country music videos.

Over the past decade, the man some called the Lion of Nashville was sidelined with various health issues. Yet these took less of a toll on him than losing his soulmate of 30-plus years, his wife Kristina, on Jan. 19. Friends say he went into a deep depression, and his health took a turn for the worse, never to recover. His passing came exactly two months after hers.

A memorial service to honor both Himons and his wife is being planned for early April. Details will be announced soon on the Facebook page dedicated to his memory: Archie "Aashid" Himons One Heart Memorial Group.

"It's a big loss to the musical community, to his family and to those who loved him," former bandmate Rose said, while Shelstad called him "a real cultural treasure." But the extent of his loss can be felt most acutely on message boards and social media pages, where news of Himons' death traveled last weekend like the tolling of a bell.

"If you're playing non-country music in Nashville today," one commenter wrote on the Scene's Nashville Cream blog, "you can thank Aashid and others who blew open the doors in the '80s." Still another put the loss in more personal terms.

"I came of age listening to Afrikan Dreamland," a poster named Anne N. wrote, speaking for a generation of Rock Block denizens. "See you on the other side, dear one."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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