African Head Charge

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African Head Charge is a psychedelic dub ensemble led by percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, along with an ever-changing lineup of musicians and vocalists. Representing the more abstract side of sound system culture, their hallucinatory yet rootsy fusion of traditional African and Caribbean rhythms, samples, and heavy studio experimentation has influenced legions of bass-loving electronic and worldbeat artists. Much of the group’s work has been produced by Adrian Sherwood and issued through his On-U Sound, with participation from members of the label’s other acts, such as Dub Syndicate and Tackhead. African Head Charge began as a studio project and made their debut with 1981′s seminal My Life in a Hole in the Ground. The group continued combining nearly industrial textures with tribal rhythms on their subsequent efforts, and began performing live later in the decade. They went in an increasingly accessible direction with releases such as the devotional Songs of Praise (1990) and the more polished, less dub-influenced Akwaaba (1995). Later albums like Voodoo of the Godsent (2011) return to a trippy, bass-heavy sound, and A Trip to Bolgatanga (2023) explores the culture of the town in Ghana where Bonjo has resided since the ’90s.
African Head Charge began in 1981, when British producer Adrian Sherwood began working with Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, who has studied traditional Rastafarian drumming under Count Ossie in Wareika Hill, Jamaica. Sherwood was inspired by a Brian Eno quote about a vision for a psychedelic Africa. He produced rhythm tracks built around Bonjo’s drumming, adding instrumentation by regular collaborators like guitarist Crucial Tony, saxophonist Deadly Headley, and melodica player Doctor Pablo, as well as vocals by deejay Prince Far I. The result was a blend of boundless dub experimentation, free jazz, and traditional rhythms. Debut album My Life in a Hole in the Ground appeared in late 1981, its title a play on Eno and David Byrne’s highly influentual collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was released earlier in the year. In 1982, Noah House of Dread, a more traditional roots reggae project fronted by Bonjo, released the album Heart, and African Head Charge issued second album Environmental Studies, which experimented with found samples and tape manipulation. The group continued in this mode with 1983′s Drastic Season. Off the Beaten Track, which appeared in 1985, featured appearances by bassist Jah Wobble, keyboardist Skip McDonald (aka Little Axe), and a sampled Albert Einstein. Initially available only on vinyl, the albums were compiled onto two Great Vintage CDs in 1989.
African Head Charge made its live debut in the late ’80s, and soon became legendary for their energetic, bass-heavy performances. Songs of Praise, the band’s 1990 studio album, incorporated African chants and dub rhythms. It was the group’s first album to feature Bonjo as a primary songwriter, along with Sherwood and McDonald, and his lead vocals became a more prominent element of the group’s music. Pride and Joy: Live appeared in 1991, and a more polished studio set, In Pursuit of Shashamane Land, arrived in 1993, followed by an accompanying EP, 1994′s Touch I.
Bonjo relocated from London to Ghana in 1995. Akwaaba, the first African Head Charge album produced entirely by Bonjo, was released by Acid Jazz, and sported a much more festive, celebratory sound than their other releases, nearly resembling soca at times. He established Bonjo I Records and brought back some of the dub influence on 1997′s Sankofa, as well as the second Noah House of Dread album, Heart 2. Returning to On-U Sound, 1998′s Drums of Defiance, a remix effort with Professor Stretch, flirted with jungle and trip-hop. Live Goodies, gathering concert recordings from the late ’80s and early ’90s, appeared on Bonjo I in 2001, and On-U issued the compilation Shrunken Head in 2003.
Sherwood returned to the production chair for 2005′s Vision of a Psychedelic Africa, which was initially released only in Japan by Beat Records, due to On-U Sound’s distribution troubles after the collapse of EMI. The EP In Charge: Live in Japan appeared later in the year, and Vision of a Psychedelic Africa was finally given a worldwide release in 2009. African Head Charge celebrated its 30th anniversary with 2011′s Voodoo of the Godsent, continuing the group’s return to a more experimental direction. Two collections of early rarities and alternate versions, Return of the Crocodile and EP Super Mystic Brakes, appeared in 2016. Both were included as part of Environmental Holes & Drastic Tracks 1981-1986, a CD box set containing their first four albums. Another box, Drumming Is a Language 1990-2011, rounded up their four studio albums for On-U during the time period, along with outtakes disc Churchical Chant of the Iyabinghi, also issued separately. A Trip to Bolgatanga, featuring returning musicians like McDonald and Doug Wimbish as well as appearances by Ghanaian musician King Ayisoba, arrived in 2023. ~ Paul Simpson