The locals call her Madussa, or Medusa. Clearly, 46-year-old Ari Up, the punk-reggae goddess of the recently reformed Slits, is still a mesmerizing presence — and not only because she sports a tangled blonde beehive of dreads.
Spending a few days in spring last year at Ari’s then home in Kingston, Jamaica, with a seemingly never-ending entourage of her local extended family, my host was the life of the party and often one of the few non-Jamaicans at the raucous all-night sound systems that the island is famous for.
A typical day went like this: invite the kids over to jump about on an inflatable bouncy castle erected in her backyard; have a domestic drama with her 19-year-old boyfriend; dance and party (a lot) to the rawest music; attend a hillside sound-system session backdropped by the sound of gunshots, only to return to find our car had been taken for a joyride; and enjoy a beach-side barbecue attended by Ari’s posse of Jamaican back-up dancers.
It wasn’t all high life and high jinks. During my three-day stay, Ari’s nephew was shot over a dispute involving a cell phone. After this and a series of other disasters, Ari finally decided to leave her adopted Jamaica for Brooklyn, New York City. She explained the reasons for the move when I recently caught up with her by phone ahead of The Slits’ forthcoming Japan tour.
“My brother-in-law has got shot many times and survived. But this time he got shot again, in the head, and died,” says Ari in heavily accented Jamaican patois that can’t disguise her German roots.
“Then there was a big hurricane that destroyed my place; and there was voting for the new prime minister (in elections that took place in September last year) with lots of killing. There was a deadly shooting in school,” says Ari. “I pretty much moved out from Jamaica and took my son to school in L.A.”
Given that Ariane Forster’s mother once ran a refuge in London that housed disenfranchised punks, and married The Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten, it seems like a natural progression for Ari to have become a “riot grrrl” icon (admired by contemporaries such as The Raincoats and idolized by the next generation of alternative bands, such as Chicks on Speed) after forming The Slits aged 14.
The group was born from a friendship made in a mosh-pit at a Patti Smith concert between a young Ari Up and drummer Palmolive (herself in a band called The Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and future Clash/Public Image Limited member Keith Levene).
With a lineup completed by Kate Korus (guitar) and bassist Suzy Gutsy, their notoriously wild shows, where they sometimes flashed the audience, and their raw playing, in no small part a result of a lack of technical ability, gained them a reputation on the live punk scene and a spot on The Clash’s “White Riot” tour alongside The Buzzcocks.
But not everyone approved.
“I was a kid, doing what I wanted to do, really isolated from the rest of the world, because the world just wanted to see us dead, basically,” says Ari. “The driver was a problem, because the driver wouldn’t take The Slits on the bus, so the manager of The Clash had to bribe him. We had to give him money just to be let on the bus! We weren’t the rude ones, like The Clash — they were much ruder, but just because we were girls, it was too much for their driver.”
The Slits split up in 1981. Ari went on to perform with the Adrian Sherwood- produced reggae outfit New Age Steppers before moving to Jamaica in the early 1980s.
Thirty years after punk first went mainstream, and with quite a number of bands from that era still touring, or recently reformed, few are better placed musically than The Slits to translate their sound — most famously captured on the Dennis Bovell-produced debut album from 1979, “Cut” — into something applicable to current times.
“The sound was always a hybrid,” explains Ari. “It was experimental, putting lots of flavors together. There was no music that we could relate to, and the only thing we were doing at the time was bashing out our punk stuff. Reggae was one of the few types of music that was around, so that’s how we got into it. Also, the female ingredients were very strong, so it came out very different.”
The latter-day Slits have been recording and touring, most recently opening for Sonic Youth in New York. Of the current lineup, Ari says, “We are mixing old school with new school, because me and Tessa (Politt) are the old original Slits, and then we have new girls. In the old days, there was only dub and reggae, and we integrated it into punk, funk and the tribal rhythms. We do that now, but also include, of course, electronic sounds and all the things that are going on now. We were ahead of time anyway, and we never finished what we set out to accomplish. It’s a continuation of where The Slits left off.”
Ari finds it hard to contain her excitement about the Japan tour.
“One of the reasons why Tokyo makes such an impression on me in a positive way is because the people are very connected to reggae of all styles in a much bigger way than anywhere else in the world. Just go to Kingston — you see Japanese and Jamaicans together at the same dancehall parties. More and more Japanese are moving into ghetto Kingston — no one else dares to hang out in Kingston. All for the love of reggae.”
“The Slits x Adrian Sherwood”: Oct. 26 at Shibuya O-East ( 5766-6571); Oct. 28, Nagoya Club Quattro ( 264-8211); Oct. 29, America Mura Big Cat, Osaka ( 6535-5569). All shows start 6 p.m. Tickets are ¥5,800.