African Head Charge interview: “I was amazed we didn’t sell 10 or 100 times more than we did” | Juno Daily

Join the duo on a trip to African dub paradise

It’s polite etiquette when visiting somewhere as a guest to come bearing a gift.  You should, of course, give without expectation of anything in return. But those of us who live in the real world would probably quietly acknowledge that the right present can truly work wonders.

It certainly helped grease the wheels of sociability in the case of African Head Charge’s Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah – who we’ve met up with in Warp’s North London headquarters – and his attempts to meet Afrobeat king Fela Kuti.  In an event that brings Homer Simpson’s innocent delight at being bought beer as a birthday present – “Beer! How did you know?!!” – he managed to import some prime weed from his native Jamaica for a visit to the well-known stoner king’s palace. Did it work? We’ll let him take over the story.

“When I went to Africa, it was like I could just fit in,” he tells us, reflecting on a childhood spent drumming at sometimes all-night Rastafarian temple meetings hosted by his big sister, back in his homeland of Jamaica.

“I could see how African players are playing drumming, whatever tribe they are, I could go in there and I sit down and I can fit in. If somebody played something to me  then I would play it. And so that is where I was, plus I was studying that kind of drumming a long time anyway, since the 70s.

“I went to an audition for a group called The Frankies, and they were supporting Fela, Fela Kuti from Nigeria.  One of their drummers didn’t make it because of Visa problems, so I went on to replace that person. So I’m the only person in the band that wasn’t born in Nigeria – I come from Jamaica, so I was the only one in there.  But I didn’t feel out of place even though I didn’t speak the language”

Right. So you ended up playing with Fela Kuti?

“Well, when I say play, I didn’t play with him on stage, it was at his house…  The house belonged to this drummer, Ginger Baker and I think Ginger gave the house to Fela and all his wives and all his musicians, a house big house, lots of people were there.

“And because I was working with the band that was supporting them, they took me down there and you know in those days we had this good ganja, it was from Jamaica, and it was really good, you don’t see that anymore. And I used to bring it down there with me, and Fela likes his ganga, he likes his weed, so I remember I bring it down there, and somebody, so I give it to them, and I didn’t see him that day, he’s upstairs.

“Then I went back there the next day, someone must have told him the man from Jamaica come again, it’s good weed. He came down and when he saw me, he said Bonjo – he called me Bonjo. The reason he said that, he said I look like somebody in Nigeria called that, so he called me that.”

Aside from our love of a cracking story, we’ve got onto the subject of Fela Kuti because of the new African Head Charge album, the first new material from the duo of Noah and On U Sound head Adrian Sherwood in 11 years, is very much informed by Africa in general and African drumming specifically.  It was recorded over lockdown, with Sherwood stuck in the UK and Noah similarly stranded in Ghana in the West of Africa, where his wife, four children and two grandsons live.  It’s been his family base for some 25 years now, travelling to Europe (or wherever) when music work calls for it but otherwise steeping himself in the local ‘highlife’ music and its more modern successor, hiplife.

“They have hiplife now, that’s what they’re doing now, the youngsters,” he explains, “high life is like for older people – now we are hiplife.  It’s a hip-hop kind of vibe, I think that music is definitely influenced by America. Yes, so that’s taking over Ghana.”

The album’s title, A Trip To Bolgatanga, is a reference to the journey which sparked the LP’s creation. 

“The lockdown is part of it,” explains Noah, “because I was there in Ghana, I couldn’t come back when it was time for me to come back – that was the same week as lockdown happened, the plane is not running, everything is not running.  So I decide to go to the North, a place called Bolgatanga.”

His aim when he got there was to find King Ayisoba, a legendary player of the kologo (a traditional two-stringed lute) and singer.  “Adrian said to me, if I could get King Ayisoba we could collaborate, so I went there to chat with him.”

Ayisoba was well up for collaborating and Noah began feeding the resulting sessions back to Adrian Sherwood in Ramsgate, who applied his trademark dub skills, and slowly but surely a new AH album took shape.

“Well,” Sherwood tells, us, “I think it’s the best record we’ve ever made. That’s what I think.”

“I think the legacy of Head Charge is unique,” he continues, “Nobody’s worked in that area using heavy African percussion with influences of dub and noise and soundscaping and chanting and whatever.”

As for the 11 year gap between albums, Sherwood puts that down more to the all-encompassing demands of business dealings – and specifically his role as head and owner of the On-U Sound label – than creative commitments.

“It ain’t like I’d gone away from the project,” he says.  “But I had a period where we weren’t really in great shape and the label hadn’t been handled properly.  So Warp are basically looking after the label for us now, I’ve had the guys here managing the catalogue for us.  We really had to get the back catalogue re-issued and re-appraised so people were aware of just how good it is. That was my reasoning.

“And, you know, if we never made another record after this one again… we’ve made some great records, but we’re in very good mental and physical shape touch wood, erm, to do it now. And this record is inspired, that’s the bottom line. I mean, you heard it – it’s proper.”

Of all the riches that On-U Sound has in its portfolio, with Hostile Environment, an archive collection of tracks from Prince Far-I’s backing group and the label’s in house band Creation Rebel being the latest to emerge, and further as yet unheard Jamaican gems soon to surface, Sherwood is clearly immensely proud of African Headcharge’s unique output.  With Noah taking to the road to promote A Trip To Bolgatanga – check the band’s Facebook page for colourful evidence of a triumphant Manchester gig last week – and Sherwood occasionally joining him, as well as repping On-U Sound with his own shows, the promotional wheels are well in motion.

But in Sherwood’s head, like every self-respecting artist who loves what they do, they’re the biggest band in the world.

“I was amazed we didn’t sell 10 or 100 times more than we did,” he says, looking back on their history, “I just couldn’t get it, why the rest of the world didn’t love it as much as I did…”

Ben Willmott

Buy your copy of A Trip To Bolgatanga here

Buy your copy of Creation Rebel’s Hostile Environment here

Check the full On-U Sound catalogue here

African Head Charge play Le Guess Who? in Utrecht, Netherlands on November 9.

Adrian Sherwood plays Ramsgate Music Hall on October 28