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Act African Head Charge

Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah
Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah (Photo: On.U Sound / Panni Charrington)

African Head Charge's master percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah is one of On-U Sound's longest-serving musicians and maker of ground-breaking records. Steve Barker (with additional content from the editor) takes a look into his back catalogue:

It always seemed that Adrian Sherwood's future-proof labelling of his early eighties On-U Sound albums, as for example - "another 1992 On-U Sound production", was an affectation at best and mild megalomania at worst. Listening back to that work now the arrogant young producer's artistic licence can be acknowledged as precociously well founded, especially when applied to the work of the unit known as African Head Charge (AHC). This virtual band coalesced around the percussion talents of Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, Bonjo to you and me, subsequent to the demise of Creation Rebel, a real time band who had been subject to the rigours, disciplines and boredom that recording, rehearsing, touring and playing inevitably bring.

On the streets in late 1981 "My Life In A Hole In The Ground" (ON-U LP 13) paid direct, if somewhat disrespectful, tribute to the groundbreaking "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts", the collaboration by Brian Eno and Talking Head David Byrne which had emerged earlier in the year on the ever-so-arty E.G. Records, home of early second-wave ambience. On the one hand Eno's "vision of a psychedelic Africa" was an elevating concept at the time, but putting it into practice "in a hole in the ground" was to provide the challenge to Bonjo and Adrian. The "hole in the ground" referred to Berry Street Studios in the City of London, an establishment accessed off-street and down a flight of stairs. The studios were in possession of particular ambiences and resonances popular with the producer at the time, but also the basic rest and recreational facilities offered little for the late night worker.

The 'My Life In A Hole In The Ground' LP
The "My Life In A Hole In The Ground" LP

The album can now be viewed as an experimental work in that it was a search for a fresh musical template for the then virtual band African Head Charge. At the time it was made, and certainly more prosaic than the grander sounding term experimental, it was a case of "what next?", "how about trying this?" or "will this work?". Studio time was precious and samplers, even in their most rudimentary form, had not yet arrived in commercial studios. The introduction of pre-captured sound had to be managed by the use of precious channels or the mind-numbingly tedious process of multi-edits. So we find Adrian, Bonjo and the usual On-U suspects of the time playing with fairly free-form rhythm creation based on the tenets of reggae - drum and bass makes the space. On this bed Bonjo was then free to develop percussion patterns and breaks, whilst contributions from the likes of Deadly Headley and Dr Pablo filled in the requirements for colouration.

The album "Environmental Studies" (ON-U LP 19) was originally released in the UK in September of 1982. Apparently the set was so titled because of the producer's vague interest in a school subject of the same name! It was recorded and mixed with the producer being very much influenced by, and wanting to be a part of, that musical avant-garde which was possessed by no country, or even continent, of origin, yet took influences from wherever and whenever it wished. The producer recalls talking to Geoff Travis of Rough Trade and David Thomas, from the band Pere Ubu, about water noises and other ambient sounds playing "louder" than the band.

The album's sound could only been have achieved in the studios at Berry Street. They had an old style reverb plate just waiting to be used and abused - inna King Tubby style, a mainly stone-built toilet where Adrian stacked big speakers with an auxiliary microphones to obtain the sound of distant drums (sic), and most importantly a bunch of stacked-up free time in which to record some tunes! The players included Benbow on drums, who was in the UK with Prince Far I after Style Scott had been seduced by the Roots Radics, George Oban lately of Aswad, Bruce Smith ex-Slit and Rip Rig and Panic-er, Charlie "Eskimo Fox", Nick Plytas previously with Roogalator, Crucial Tony as "Fuse", a white London jazz-player Dave Wright as "Flash", on sax the great Deadly Headley, and the multi-talented Steve Beresford who cropped up on so many early On-U affairs particularly with the New Age Steppers.

Talking in more recent years to Bonjo he had little recollection of the sessions that constituted this and other early AHC albums - none of which he owns in any format! This is not necessarily due to the ingestion of any mind altering substances during that period or since, but more to do with the time that has passed and the music made between then and now. As Bonjo says:

"I man just here for the music!"

The 'Drastic Season' LP
The "Drastic Season" LP

The "Drastic Season" LP (ON-U LP 27) was originally released on vinyl on the 20th of October 1983. Like its predecessors it was a largely instrumental affair with little actual dubbing and no detectable vocal samples. However the sound of Sherwood's production had become radically different with the move to Southern Studios, where state of the art digital studio hardware lived in harmony with the hard edged punk ethic of the musicians who inhabited the area by night. The first phase of AHC's development was coming to a logical conclusion, as on their future recorded output we would discover more studio generated ideas and the introduction of more chants and captured vocal and ambient sounds (samples) whilst Bonjo conversely emerged as the leader of not only a real band but also a fully-fledged touring outfit.

So this set finds Head Charge very much in mid-stream. Bonjo had not yet carved out his niche as the happy-go-lucky king of the ethno-chant so beloved by the festival-goers of UK and Europe. The sound of "Drastic Season" is stop-go, at once urgent but searching, wired and speed-fuelled, some would find the listening experience failing to stop short of the psychotic. The band suffered from not conforming to one particular category or another, not reggae or new wave and certainly not new romantic! Who would play this on radio? Which promoter would take the risk of presenting this stuff in live performance before a crowd of innocent and gullible students? Where was this music coming from? The answer was - the mind and fingers of Adrian Sherwood who regarded the album's studio sessions as...

"...experiments in active frequencies, out of time noises, rhythms within rhythms, and endless tape edits (edits on edits) resulting in the ultimate cut-up and paste job..."

...which, in retrospect, can be seen as an integral learning experience for the then young producer. When "Drastic Season" was originally released On-U Sound were not in the habit of commissioning sleeve notes for their albums. However, a few sporadic press releases crept out of the On-U bunker, including this one:

"A high-tech rhythm mix of human, animal and machine sounds, captured on the Southern Studios digital rig by the "wackid' mixer ADRIAN SHERWOOD, up in sunny Wood Green, "DRASTIC SEASON" features that On-U rugged bass sound. Check it if you're a dancer, a listener, a film maker, a computer programmer, a human or an animal. Special treats in store for steam locomotive enthusiasts and biologists. You've never heard such sounds in your life (to quote ESP)."

In the intervening years between the 1986 release of "Off The Beaten Track" and "Drastic Season", AHC had been moulded into a live blood-pumping band by Bonjo, who had truly come out of the shadows where percussion usually resides, fuelled by a righteous desire to occupy that front-of-stage position. Also during that time Sherwood had volunteered to be fed through the funk-mangle by Messrs. (Skip) McDonald, (Doug) Wimbish and (Keith) LeBlanc, and had come out the other end more disciplined and focused on what fresh sounds might be possibly be created through the blatant use and abuse of state of the art technology. The result of this "great leap forward" was the first "modern", AHC album - "Off The Beaten Track" (ON-U LP 40) - which sounded like nothing else around at the time, and whose combination of fat beats and ethnic chants was to provide the template which many lesser lights were to attempt to emulate over the ensuing years.

Compared to previous efforts the "new" AHC rhythms were less abstract and more direct, with continuous and flowing percussion lines and more managed tempo shifts. The application of loops and samples of increased time duration made all the difference when combined with the more fluid and confident approach of the musicians involved in the build of the tracks. Sherwood shows up once more under his by now redundant guise as "The Prisoner". Skip McDonald makes an early non-funk entry and the reappearance of Jah Wobble makes clear his creative commitment to his old friends at On-U. But most remarkably, and making his debut as a recording artist, is the twentieth centuries most radical scientist - the super-cool Albert Einstein, laying down a sweet rap with the most conscious of lyrics in "Language And Mentality". Of course, Albert was in the studio in spirit only and the exercise, to my knowledge, has never been repeated.

The 'Songs Of Praise' LP
The "Songs Of Praise" LP

The title "Off The Beaten Track" was not just an example of a great piece of wordplay but also incredibly apt as the music was not only a departure for On-U Sound but also a landmark album for what was to become the whole new ethno-beat strand within the commercial category of what we now know as "world music". The track also led, over the following four years, to the eventual creation of AHC's meisterwerk - the 1990 peerless "Songs of Praise" (ON-U LP 50) - a set so complete in its realisation that it provided a peak that the band could not scale again, even though the later, and by most standards excellent, 1993's "In Pursuit Of Shashamane Land" (ON-U LP 65) provided some splendid moments.

Having gained a taste for being AHC's spiritual leader and spurred-on by his more vocal-based work with Noah House Of Dread, Bonjo and On-U went their separate artistic ways in 1994 - Bonjo finding greater creative freedom in a number of self-produced sets on either Acid Jazz or his own Bonjo I label. A relocation to Ghana also took place after he completed a small beach-side housing compound for himself and his ever-increasing family. Ten years later, revived and now very much a father, Bonjo and Adrian are once again working together on new material and 2005 should see the first On-U AHC album for over a decade, Bonjo returning to London specifically for recording purposes.

It is fitting that Bonjo has made Ghana his home, in an act of self-managed repatriation, as the country accords its musicians due respect and status, especially the masters percussion - of which Bonjo is certainly one.

2 Badcard
Adrian Sherwood
African Head Charge
    . Biography
Andy Fairley
Annie Anxiety / Little Annie
Audio Active
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Bim Sherman
Charlie "Eskimo Fox"
Creation Rebel
Deadly Headley
Doug Wimbish
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Keith LeBlanc
Lee "Scratch" Perry
Little Axe / Skip McDonald
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