Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|November 8, 2021|5 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editors Desk


Entrepreneurs should mourn and take a couple of lessons from the passing of Astro this week – the militant voice of UB40, a band that struck a chord in Africa. He died, after a short illness, aged 64.

The talented and dreadlocked Astro may have been born in England’s industrial grime of Birmingham, but wouldn’t have been  out of place, or short of conversation, on a street corner in Kampala. His real name was Terence Wilson and he acquired the stage name because he always wore Dr Martens Astronaut boots. On stage,Astro was the ‘toaster’ the man with the deep lyrics that could hold a crowd and  spoke to  the oppressed and downtrodden.

It is fitting that the band turned letters and numbers of shame for many English people  into a byword for hope and success across class, creed and colour. UB40 was the name of the government form you had to fill in when you were unemployed. It is fitting, also, that UB40 played its last gig, before it split up in acrimony, in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in February 2008 to the acclaim of many Africans from the streets. For UB40 chimed with the struggle across Africa ;the band sold 70 million records second, in reggae, only to Bob Marley.

Songs written in cold Birmingham – like One in Ten and Sing Our Own Song – resonated with rising, forward-thinking, Africans from postmen to professors.

To this day, UB40 holds the record for the number of people played to in South Africa as night-after-night thousands belted out Sing Our Own Song in the post-democracy euphoria of the 1990s. If ever a song caught a mood, this was it.

I was lucky enough to meet the band in Africa at the Earth Concert, in Johannesburg, back in 2007.  My sister Naomi – who saw UB40 at the town hall in 1979 – was a friend of the saxophone player Brian Travers and he phoned with an invite.  Brian – who also sadly passed on this year – was an absolute gentleman; witty, inquisitive and humorous. It turned out to be a night of light and shade.

Backstage was hell. Everyone was on separate tables, you could almost reach out and touch the animosity in the air; you could tell that these men, once childhood friends, could no longer abide each other. By contrast, minutes later, as professional musicians, they bonded like brothers on stage and soon had the huge dome rocking.

The musicians that made UB40 hold two lessons for young entrepreneurs across Africa – one is an inspirational tale, the other is cautionary. The inspiring tale is how a bunch of young likely lads – with not one qualification between them – worked hard to make something out of nothing  from the cold streets of Balsall Heath, Birmingham, to the heat and acclaim of  Kampala.

They were all unemployed – hence the name of the band – but, like many African entrepreneurs , believed in something better.  They had little musical ability or backing; they borrowed electricity, for their rehearsals, from a mate.  When American Chrissie Hynde – the chart-topping leader of the Pretenders – asked them to back her band on a tour; they didn’t even know who she was! On the other side, Hynde could barely make out what they were saying because their Birmingham accents were so strong.

This turned out to be their big break taking them from playing in front of a few dozen  – many friends and family – to big venues with thousands.

The cautionary tale for entrepreneurs is costs and cash flow; keep a close eye on both. UB40 made millions from rocking Africa and playing to the world, but also spent millions on crew, sound systems, booze and drugs.  In the 21st century most of the band were penniless and forced to sell their houses. It was hard to establish how a band that earned so much ended up with so little.

So, entrepreneurs of Africa – in memory of the mighty Astro –  seize, with both hands, the lesson of hard work, determination and making money from nothing. Just watch the pennies, like a hawk, when they roll in.