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Living dread

The return of punky reggae queen Ari Up


“When you’re in a revolution and you set the pace, it’s very easy to lose the path,” she says. With a new solo album, an impending Slits reunion and a celebrated dancehall persona on the side, Ari Up is the mistress of her domain, but as a wounded veteran of England’s punk avant-garde, she knows the rise-and-fall routine well.

The daughter of a rich German publisher, Arianna Forster was raised in a bohemian household in London, where her mother Nora entertained guests such as Joe Strummer, who gave Arianna her first guitar lesson, and Johnny Rotten, who married Nora in the midst of Sex Pistols mania.

Fusing primitive punk and dub reggae, the Slits formed when Arianna was only 14, eventually touring with the Clash, recording Peel sessions and two studio albums, Cut and Return of the Giant Slits. But the young, self-managed, all-female band was plagued by personnel, business and credibility crises, suffering a premature split in 1981.

“We were just girls trying to do this shit all on our own,” says Ari Up, adding that they were too busy “surviving crucifixions” to keep it together. “It was us against the world, basically.”

Aside from the rise of hip hop, the singer was disgusted by music in the ’80s, particularly new wave and its MTV gloss. With her husband and their young twins in tow, Ari Up escaped, not just from the dire music scenes and the depressed cities they thrived in, but from civilization altogether. For eight years, the family lived with tribes in the jungles of Borneo and Belize, a lifestyle Ari Up had thus far only explored artistically, through the Slits’ tribal rhythms and “naked female nature” photography.

“We were messing around with that whole ideology of being in touch with how a female might be when she strips down from all the conditioning of this society,” she says.

The family later relocated to a remote area of Jamaica, and finally to Kingston, where Ari Up dove dreads-first into the dancehall scene, gaining fame as a vocalist, dancer and fashion designer called Madussa.

“I think it’s shit, but they gave me that name because my hair reminded them of the Greek snake person,” she says. “Instead of Medusa, I made it Madussa, being that I’m considered crazy anyway. But it’s good to be mad in Jamaica because no one fucks with you.”

Now living with her youngest son between Kingston and Brooklyn, “world citizen” Ari Up is relieved to be back on the road with her band the True Warriors, supporting her rebel dancehall LP, More Dread Dan Dead. “My first choice would be to just constantly be on tour, and my home would be the world” she says.

After five Canadian dates, Ari Up will return to the U.K. to work on a brand new Slits EP featuring the band’s founding bassist, Tessa Pollitt. “We’re doing a new Slits with new members and a new format – we’re not doing a vintage or anything, but using the old school with the new school,” she says, forecasting a fusion of her punk and dancehall stylees.

“We’ve never accomplished our mission. We’ve become a legend now, which is good, but we’ve gotta do a little more with that legend.”