The Lion of Nashville
by Rev. Keith A. Gordon
"One Heart, One Love, One Dream, One Destination!" – Aashid Himons
Aashid Himons was a giant of a man, standing at nearly seven feet tall with a leonine head haloed by a mane of lengthy, graying deadlocks, Himons was a force of nature, a charismatic musical alchemist that pursued his muse wherever it might take him. That's not the best formula for success in the music industry, yet Himons managed to forge a career that spanned five decades, influenced countless other artists, and forever changed the image of Nashville from that of the home of country music to a rock 'n' roll mecca that includes the Black Keys, Jack White, and JEFF the Brotherhood among its residents.
A musical innovator that fused traditional country blues with reggae and world music during the late 1970's, Aashid – as he is known to his fans – is best known for his popular "blu-reggae" band Afrikan Dreamland, which put Himons' myriad of musical influences into play in creating an energetic and unique sound that took flight when performed live. With bandmates Darrell Rose and Mustafa Abdul Aleem, the trio recorded six albums during the 1980's and was the first reggae band to receive airplay on MTV. Himons' roots ran deep, though, and included a formative background in blues and soul music.
Himons was born in rural West Virginia in 1942, learning the piano by age 3 and the drums by 5 years old. Like many blues artists of the era, Himons sang in the church, and the talented youngster subsequently appeared on several radio and television shows, including The Today Show with Dave Garroway. Himons left home as a teen, hitchhiking to New York City and later joining the army. After serving his stint with the military, Himons settled into the Washington, D.C. music scene, forming the R&B group Little Archie & the Majestics. During the 1960's, Himons would record a number of sides for various labels and with different bands, but it was a 1966 deal with Dial Records that would result in a pair of singles – "All I Have To Do" and "You Can't Tie Me Down" – that would become known as highly collectible classics of "northern soul" music.
In Toronto with God and I
During the late 1960's, Himons worked throughout the country as an itinerant blues musician, performing coffeehouses and street corners as "West Virginia Slim." He landed in Toronto in 1969, forming the short-lived duo God and I with musician and actor Jim Byrnes. "I first met Archie, and that's what I'll always call him, in the deep dark winter of 1969. I guess we were both on the run from something," says Byrnes. "I had been attending this sort of 'literary salon' called The Soft Cell which met regularly at a little spot in Toronto and which did attract a very interesting crowd. Writers Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje were regulars, the actor John Neville, a number of avant garde visual artists as well. There would be readings, discussions and there was an open mike where I would regularly perform."
"One night I got a call saying you've got to come down, there's a fellow here you should meet," says Byrnes. "Well, I scurried down and was introduced to an extraordinary individual, all six feet seven of him in a full length yak fur coat and with eyes and a smile that could stop you dead in your tracks. We jammed together that night and hit it off immediately. We learned a bit about one another in conversation, our similar interests in music, our, let's say, bohemian outlook and that we shared the same birthdate, albeit I was six years younger." Byrnes remembers, "Archie had just arrived in Toronto from Pittsburgh under mysterious circumstances. He had some friends from his one-time home in Lexington, Kentucky who were young war resisters putting together a new life in Canada. We became fast friends and spent a load of time hanging out, swapping stories, smoking pot, listening to and playing music..."
As to how the duo came to be known as God and I, Byrnes recalls "A few of us were hanging out, pleasantly baked, listening to music, playing along and trying to plot a course of actions to get some gigs and make a little scratch when one of the assembled crew said 'hey, wouldn't it be cool if we heard you guys on the radio and they said, that was God and I?' Well, that's how stoned we were, we said, 'yeah, cool, that's who we are.' Here was a happening acoustic music scene happening in Yorkville before its gentrification and we became a fixture at a number of coffee houses, experimental theatres, booze cans, you name it." When someone would ask "which one of you is God?" their standard reply was "can't you tell?"
"We went out to Ronnie Hawkins' farm to hang out with Dick Gregory and John Lennon, who was planning his 'Bed-In' in Montreal with Yoko," says Byrnes. "We played at The Mosport Festival, an attempt to recreate Woodstock with Sly and the Family Stone, Procol Harum, and a raft of others. We were strictly an acoustic act; I guess you could say we were very much in a Richie Havens kind of bag. We played blues, we played originals which were very much blues and gospel flavored... Archie's mother had been a COGIC (Church of God in Christ) preacher. We played contemporary hits from Neil Young, CSNY, the Beatles, the Stones... R&B, standards, you name it."
Nashville by Way of Mexico
Sadly, Byrnes and Himons never recorded together, and the two artists drifted apart and into other musical projects. "Eventually the whole thing came to an end as the scene changed," says Byrnes, "and I decided I had to get out of town and clean out my head. I moved out West and had my ups and downs. As I had sort of found my way back into normalcy, I had a serious road accident that ended up with me losing both of my legs and spending most of a year in recuperation and rehab."
Even as Byrnes and Himons pursued their individual careers, they would get back together to perform several times throughout the 1970's. "We did keep in touch," says Byrnes, "Archie and Christine (Himons' soulmate) did come out West where we did some gigs in Victoria, BC. He went to Mexico and then, a couple of years later, we hooked up again in Portland, Oregon and put together some pretty cool shows opening for Robert Cray, Third World, and Jimmy Reed, about six weeks before he died in '76."
Himons' restless spirit would lead him to Mexico City, where he performed with a local blues band, but it was during a trip to the Honduras in 1972, where Himons experienced a performance by Count Ossie & the Mystical Revelation of Rastafari, that he had a musical and spiritual epiphany that led to his conversion to Rastafarianism and the creation of his "blu-reggae" style. Himons decided that the Music City was the place to pursue his musical vision. Aashid moved to Nashville in August of 1979, but he had visited the city before. “Back in about 1966 or '67," Himons said in an interview we did for Nashville's The Metro magazine in 1990, “I was working with Buddy Killen at Tree Music and Dial Records, so I used to come to Nashville all of the time."
"I had been living in Pittsburgh," he remembered, "that's when I started the whole Afrikan Dreamland project, because it came into my mind to fuse blues and reggae together, so I started putting this album concept together. I had decided that I wanted to leave town and started to head to Minneapolis until I thought of how cold it gets up there, so then we decided to stop in Nashville and see old Buddy. I'd let him hear my new stuff and see what he thinks of it."
“You have to realize," Aashid continues, “that he hadn't seen me since about 1967. I had a process and wore pointed-toe shoes and sharkskin suits and ties... I was really weird, in bad shape. That's what he remembered, so I walked into his office in 1979 with dreadlocks and a tie-dyed t-shirt and the whole thing just freaked him out. He listened to the music and he regrouped... he said ‘you know, this music has got something, but you'll never do anything with it here in Nashville.' When he said that, I decided that I'd stay here in Nashville, so I did."
Photo by J. Clark Thomas
A hybrid of country blues, R&B, and reggae that was influenced by Count Ossie's mesmerizing nyabinghi rhythms and the Jamaican style popularized by Bob Marley, blu-reggae would later influence contemporary blues artists like Corey Harris. Himons landed in Nashville during the late 1970s; now known as "Aashid," he formed Afrikan Dreamland with Darrell Rose and Mustafa Abdul Aleem. The trio would quickly become one of the Music City's most popular bands, Afrikan Dreamland helping kickstart an original local music scene that had little to do with the city's country music tradition.
Mostly written by Himons, Afrikan Dreamland's positive lyrics preached a philosophy of peace and love, and triumph over adversity, whether caused by economic or social injustice, a thread that would carry through Aashid's entire career. Aside from their popular recordings and seemingly ubiquitous performances, Aashid and Afrikan Dreamland would use their drawing power to help young bands, and many of Nashville's early rock 'n' roll talents got their start opening for Afrikan Dreamland and the massive crowds the band attracted.
In our 1990 interview, Himons explained how a reggae band from Nashville ended up on MTV. “We put together a video called Television Dreams," he remembers. "That was when MTV was coming to Nashville looking for stuff, looking for country music. They were coming to tell people how to make better country videos; country videos used to be terrible, so they were showing them how to upgrade. They had a meeting downtown, which I couldn't go to, so I asked Mustafa, who was a member of the band, to go. He's also a lawyer and he's always late... this time it paid off. Everybody was there already when he walked in with his dreadlocks, and the only seat left was next to the MTV people. He handed them his card and told them about the video. They wanted a video from Nashville so bad, we immediately sent it to them. Afrikan Dreamland became the first U.S. reggae band to be played on MTV."
After the break-up of Afrikan Dreamland in 1987, Aashid embarked on a lengthy and varied musical journey that saw the gifted artist applying his talents to blues, gospel, country, reggae, dub, ambient, and space music. Recording both as a solo artist and with a number of bands, Himons collaborated with a number of Nashville's most adventurous musicians, talents like Tony Gerber, Giles Reaves, Mike Simmons, Ross Smith, Gary Serkin, and Kirby Shelstad, among many others. Prolific to a fault, Himons would become one of the most popular artists on mp3.com during the 1990's as his musical collaborations resulted in dozens of albums that would capture a worldwide audience for Aashid's unique musical vision.
Aashid & Tony Gerber
"We met in about 1985 on a Metro Nashville Bus riding from one spot of town to the other," remembers musician and multi-media artist Tony Gerber. "That was probably the only time I ever used the Metro Nashville Bus system and I met Aashid. He gave me his business card and I later called him to come see me on 'Music Row' as I had set up one of the first MIDI studios (Masterlink MIDI Studio) in Nashville at Al Jolson Enterprises. I think this was after I went and saw him perform... thus started our friendship and camaraderie over the years until his passing about three years ago."
Gerber and Himons instantly hit it off. "I first heard and liked his reggae music, which of course was really popular with the college audiences and such around Nashville," recalls Gerber. "However, it was when I heard his mountain/Delta style of blues that it really hit home for me. I was the most attracted to that style as I had some similar roots growing up playing the guitar and listening to people like Leadbelly, Josh White, and the Staple Singers... as well as mountain music from Appalachia, as my mother was from the mountains. Aashid grew up around the mountains in West Virginia, so we had some common juju I think."
"It was a little later that I discovered he had a knack for space music," says Gerber, "which really came as a surprise, because he was the first black artist I had met who was doing ambient electronic space music. We definitely hit it off musically and artistically, as I did much of his artwork over the years, and design work in addition to performing with him." Gerber is overly humble about his support of Himons' music, as he was intimately involved with much of what Aashid would create over a period of 25 years. "I worked in different capacities with Aashid," says Gerber. "It was not all entirely musical. There was much graphic art work, live concert events, genealogy, recording, webmaster, and keeping him up to speed on his MacIntoshes. As well, in the end, I took care of him for the last couple months of his life."
Aside from releasing better than a dozen of Aashid's space music recordings on his own Space for Music record label, Gerber supported his friend in a number of various projects. Gerber worked with Himons on his long-running and popular late-1980s/early-'90s cable access TV show Aashid Presents, a multi-media project featuring music, interviews, computer-generated graphics, and live performance video. Gerber was a member of a number of Aashid's various bands, including the Akashic Orchestra and the Mountain Soul Band, and he performed onstage with Himons as part of Mind Orbit, a series of live multi-media concert events held in Nashville.
Gary Serkin & The London Side of Nashville
Gary Serkin, appropriately enough, first met Himons in the studio during the mid-1980s while recording tracks for an early Nashville rock compilation album titled The London Side of Nashville. Although Serkin had previously played with Rose, he wasn't familiar with Afrikan Dreamland. "I had never heard their music until Aashid gave me three of their albums that night in the studio," says Serkin. "I liked their music a lot and I went see them play live upstairs at [Nashville bar] The Gold Rush. After the show, I mentioned to Aashid that I had jammed with their records and told him to call me if he ever needed a guitar player."
The call came soon when the ever-prolific Himons first branched out beyond Afrikan Dreamland with a solo album. "The first project was Aashid's solo album Kozmik Gypsy," remembers Serkin. "He played all of the instruments, but he wanted lead guitar on 'I and I Survive' and 'Culture Woman.' After the record was released, everyone liked what I played and Aashid asked me if I wanted to join Afrikan Dreamland," says Serkin. "I worked with them for about a year. I left the band shortly before they broke up and I formed a new group in October 1985 with [Jimi Hendrix friend and bandmate] Billy Cox."
Continuing, Serkin says "in 1988, I joined Aashid & the Seen with Michael Saleem on drums and Ross Smith on bass. After that group, we had Aashid & Friends and then Aashid & the New Dream in 1991. Shorty after our last gig, I got a call to tech for the Allman Brothers Band and I went on tour with them. On a side note, both Aashid as Little Archie, and the Allman Joys got their start on Dial Records in Nashville!"
Serkin remembers his time playing with Himons fondly. "It was great working with Aashid and I'm very proud and honored to have been a part of his music," says Serkin. "I enjoyed my time with Afrikan Dreamland the most because we were touring and playing a lot of festivals to amazing crowds, although Aashid & the New Dream was perhaps his best group of players. I also played in Mustafa's new group, Mystic Meditations too, but my favorite times were with Aashid."
Mike Simmons & The Stand
Guitarist Mike Simmons was another well-known Nashville rocker that fell into Aashid's wide-ranging-and-eclectic musical orbit. "The first time I met Aashid was in a band house I shared with Gus Palas and my brother Paulie Simmons," says Simmons, referring to his globe-trotting band the Stand. "Aashid and I hit it off immediately. It was as if we had known each other for hundreds of years and later we used to talk about that very possibility!" Palas was the publisher of Nashville's local rock 'n' roll rag The Metro, which had run a story on Afrikan Dreamland penned by this writer in 1985, and evidently Palas had invited Himons to the band's rehearsal.
"We did a run-through of one of our instrumentals for the Stand that day and I'll never forget seeing him over there grooving and then eventually dancing to this metal instrumental," Simmons recalls. "He loved the Simmons brothers from that moment on. I think he even started hitting me up to come and jam with him that first day and I had never even heard his music. I said 'Of course! Tell me when.' Who would not want to spend time with this guy?" asks Simmons. "He exuded peace and love in a way I had never seen. His vibe was so good you just wanted to be in his presence!"
On the surface, the mixing of Aashid and the Stand was an unlikely pairing. "You have to understand, we were total Iron Maiden, Van Halen meets Rush type metal heads" says Simmons. "I was fairly open-minded, but I was not into reggae or space music. That being said," he remembers, "when I first went over to jam with Aashid, I was blown away. I credit him alone for much of what I have today musically because he opened my heart and mind to all the possibilities in music, and I have approached guitar differently ever since."
Continuing, Simmons says, "it wasn't something he would tell you either, it was something you learned from playing with him. He taught me how to listen, I mean really listen. I learned so much from listening to him and watching him. Not only when we were playing music, but how he related to people. His honesty flowed through everything he did. The short answer is I was a fan from day one." Simmons soon began working with Aashid on various projects. "The very first thing we did was a recording and a video of a song called 'Home.' It was the Stand and Aashid," says Simmons. "We recorded it at Tim Coats' place and did the video at our rehearsal room. It used to play on the local cable access channel all the time. I used to come home from a gig and see that thing at 3AM many a morning!"
In 1995, Aashid reunited with his former bandmates Rose and Aleem, as well as a number of his more recent collaborators, under the Afrikan Dreamland name to release the two-CD set The Leaders, which further explored Himons' signature blu-reggae sound. "A few years later he tapped me to be his guitarist in the Afrikan Dreamland reunion," remembers Simmons. "We did some big shows around Nashville in the mid-1990s. It was so much fun! It was very loose, stream-of-consciousness kind of playing within the framework of his songs. Some amazing things happen when you play like that."
DeFord Bailey & The Mountain Soul Band
"That morphed into the Pyramid Underground which was Aashid, the Simmons Brothers, Giles Reaves, and Kirby Shelstad," says Simmons after working on The Leaders project. "I was running Underground Sound at the time and we had access to state-of-the-art digital recording gear. We would set up down at the warehouse and just record for hours. After Giles edited and mixed it all, we ended up with at least four or five albums of stuff. I am going to make much of that stuff available online soon. That music needs to be shared and heard!"
One of Himons' pet projects during the late 1990's was the failure of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville to induct harmonica player DeFord Bailey. The first African-American country music star, the first artist to appear on the Grand Ole Opry, and a popular live performer, Bailey not only influenced a generation of Southern artists like bluesman John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and country star Charlie McCoy, his early support of American music legends Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe helped them both establish their careers. Himons lobbied tirelessly to get Bailey inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, a goal that he saw accomplished in 2005.
In the late 1990's, Aashid formed the Mountain Soul Band to experiment with country blues and Appalachian-inspired hillbilly music. Working again with friends like Reaves, Gerber, and Kirby Shelstad, the Mountain Soul Band also included the talents of brothers Victor and Reggie Wooten, and multi-instrumentalists Jody Lentz and Tramp, then of the Nashville trio Bonepony. This collaboration resulted in a pair of critically acclaimed albums of pure Americana: 1998's studio release Mountain Soul and the live West Virginia Hills, released a year later.
For over a decade and well into the new millennium, Aashid explored the potential of space music and ambient electronic music, much of it released worldwide by Tony Gerber's Space for Music label. In this, Himons was also a trailblazer. "I signed Aashid to my label because he was one of the only black space musicians I am aware of and he was a close personal friend as well," says Gerber. "I believe there were at least three of his space music albums released on Space for Music Records in addition to one called Akashic Orchestra that I also performed musically on."
"In addition to the Delta blues that Aashid and I did together," Gerber remembers, "we also connected on the electronic space music as well. It seemed a perfect match to release a few of his space music recordings on my label. The response was about the same as with most of the releases on the label. It is such a select group of people [that listen to space music], and not pop music numbers at all when it comes to sales. However, the level of expected quality from the Space for Music label was recognized by everyone and Aashid's music fit within that level of quality and musical creativity."
Aashid Himons' Legacy
Himons continued to make music during the mid-to-late 2000's, albeit slowed down by recurring problems with his health, including a stroke. The definition of the DIY artist, Himons utilized cutting-edge technology to record and edit complex, textured, and thought-provoking music on his trusty iMac computer. While not well-known outside of the Southeast United States, Himons nevertheless has thousands of fans worldwide that have been touched by his positive message, his exciting and unpredictable music, and his indomitable spirit.
"When I talk about Aashid to other people who may or may not know him," says Gerber, "it surely seems that the Afrikan Dreamland project was the project that most people are aware of; the first black video on MTV which, of course sums, up a lot about Aashid. I also think the song 'Country Blues' is a great one that will continue on, as well as his DeFord Bailey song, and how he brought this nearly-forgotten black harmonica star of the Grand Ole Opry back into the light of day. It will be interesting to see what gets carried into the future. I know I am doing 'Country Blues' with my blues project, Cotton Blossom Band, and will most likely pick a couple more." Tony adds, "in 100 years, who knows what we will still be singing that originated from the musical mind of Aashid Himons."
"Aashid should be remembered for being a pioneer of music and video in Nashville and also for creating a fusion of blues and reggae music," says Serkin. "He had a positive message in his songs and he also supported great causes for people like Nelson Mandela and DeFord Bailey. I learned a lot from Aashid and I miss him dearly." Adds Simmons, "I think him being who he was in Nashville had a huge affect on our city at the time. He brought a new kind of music to Nashville and the South." Himons' influence on those that knew him extended beyond his music. "He showed us how to be a father, a friend, a partner, a peacemaker, a spiritual leader, a giver, a truth teller, and most of all, a lover of life," says Simmons, "I love him and I really miss him."
Archie "Aashid" Himons, an integral part of Nashville's non-country music scene for better than three decades, passed away on March 19, 2011 after a brief illness. Himons was 68 years old at the time of his death. "What I loved was that he never stopped exploring," says Byrnes. "That he married blues and reggae and electronica and country without compunction. No boundaries, no restrictions. One heart, indeed..."
“Communication is the only real answer, fear and hate just another type of cancer. So people of the planet, come together if you please, ignorance is a curable disease. So wake up everybody, the time is here; for learnin' about the truth, so you don't have no fear... " – Aashid, “The Human Race"
This article adapted and expanded from the book The Other Side of Nashville: An Incomplete History & Discography of the Nashville Rock Underground, 1976-2006 by Rev. Keith A. Gordo
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