It's been 30 years since African Head Charge released their widely regarded album Songs Of Praise on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound. The polyrhythmic dub ensemble led by master Jamaican percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah in collaboration with the label head and producer, worked on the LP together in 1990, which celebrates different chants and praises from all over the world. Grounded in spirituality and faith, the recordings explore how people worship God in their own ways; that there is no wrong way to give praise.
But this was just one of the results of their long and fruitful partnership which started in 1981. Each played an important role, powered by a shared interest in experimentation. Bonjo would lay the foundation for the track, from Rasta/Nyabinghi drums to African and Latin rhythms. These different styles would be layered then manipulated and vari-speeded by Adrian, who also added various reverbs and delays in to the mix too.
Three experimental studio albums were released in the 80s followed by Songs Of Praise and In Pursuit Of Shashamane Land in the 90s, but after Bonjo left London for several years to start a life in Ghana, the ensemble took a hiatus. Two more post-millenium albums followed after Bonjo renewed his partnership with Adrian in 2003, their latest offering being Voodoo of the Godsent, described by the label as being “the culmination of thirty years of endeavour”.
Following part one of African Head Charge's reissue campaign in 2016, which focused on the early years of the collaboration between Bonjo and Sherwood, a new series is rehashing some of their later works between 1990 and 2011, starting with the spiritual sounds of Songs Of Praise which has been expanded to include new bonus tracks.
Here master percussionist Bonjo guides us through the stories behind each track on one of his favourite AHC LPs...
Free Chant (Churchical Chant Of The Iyabinghi)
That’s where I’m coming from. That’s what started me off really; Nyabinghi music. In Jamaica, I used to play in the church and before the elders came to play, we the children (I was about 7 or 8); you had Owen, who was the same age as me, who played the funde, and Bren who used to play the bass drum and I played the kete and we’d lead the chants. It’s like a workshop they’re doing and some times great players would come along and give us workshops. The Nyabinghi drums - that’s why my middle name is Binghi, Iyabinghi. So ‘Free Chant’ is really where I’m coming from.
Orderliness, Godliness, Discipline And Dignity
That is with the spiritual vibrations. The title, that’s our spirituality, because you know Rasta is a spiritual movement, it’s not just physical, it’s also spiritual. So that’s what it’s all about.
It’s an old Gospel song. It’s from the 1920s, or maybe even earlier than that. It’s a reinterpretation of a gospel song.
'Dervish Chant' is one of my favourite songs. You’ll notice I always come on live doing that song. That’s a combination of… You know I actually don’t know how to explain that one to tell you the truth, because really that came when we were just jamming in the studio. We were playing some drums, me and Sonny Akpan.
Sonny Akpan is the first person who got me to meet Fela Kuti. He’s gone now but he was my teacher when I came to Africa to learn about all the different types of African drums. Funny, I went to audition in his band when Fela Kuti came to London, and one of their drummers didn’t get to come, passport probably or whatever, so they were all looking for someone to take his place. I didn’t think I would get it because they were all directly from Africa, but I went there and somehow they liked me.
I think I’m blessed with this thing that when somebody tells me something, a rhythm, I can just play it back without even thinking about it. It just goes in my head and comes out through my hands. My hands just start playing it. I think that’s why they liked me, because I had to play a rhythm for Sonny, he was a Conga Player and he needed someone to hold the rhythm so that’s what I was doing.
'Dervish Chant' came about like that really. Me and Sonny sitting down in the studio and playing. Sonny really came with that "pa pa pa pa pa pa", then the bass player came and played it on top of what we did. What we usually do is lay down some drum rhythms, keep building drums, then we get people to come and put things on top of it. But the foundation is the drums.
Hold Some More
Another one where we laid some tracks down. Adrian was doing a show in Brighton so he left me in the studio, so while I was in there the vibe just came to me. I got all the people who were working in the studio, people who were making the tea, sweeping the floor, I got them to chant "Hold Some More, Hold Me Some More". It’s a thing that came to me that we need to hold more of good things, anything that’s good you hold more of it. When I took it to Brighton and played it and Adrian heard it, I saw him look at me because he didn’t expect that was gonna happen. But he liked it.
It’s a churchical thing. We were thinking of different ways of worship, you know different people worship God in different ways. I’m a Rasta, I worship him through my highs, you have some different people worship God in their different highs. Different expressions. That was what I was really thinking about and talking to Adrian about. Songs of praise from all over the world, from all different expressions.
I suppose it’s the same as above. If I were to talk about Songs Of Praise, which is one of my favourite albums, it’s all to do with spirituality and faith, because what we were taught is we shouldn’t fight another person for his faith or his belief. We all have something in common and that’s love and doing good things. All of these faiths have those good things and because of that we have to learn to live with all kinds of people who are worshipping God in their own way.
When I went to Japan, they take their shoes off and go into a temple and just meditate for half an hour, so I thought well if that’s their way of linking with the creative force power, which is the almighty, then that’s good. I have no idea myself, I’ll sit down and meditate for half an hour because I like to know what other people are feeling or at least try to feel what they’re feeling.
Cattle Hearders Chant
I tell you that one I can’t remember. It was a long time ago (laughs). Some things just happen. Some times it would just be me and Adrian alone and we'll go in the studio and I just start to play, and I don't play as if I'm recording, I just play. But Adrian would record everything. So sometimes I'd think "that's not me, I didn't do that'. Drums have that kind of thing, you can just go on the drums, and you don't think about what you're going to do, you just find yourself doing something. Then when you start to do something, you build on what you've been doing. So that's a lot of African Head Charge music, what we do is just coming out of a person.
Adrian was brilliant because he'd just record everything I'm doing. He would capture everything. Sometimes what you'd do at first, is a lot of people start going over and over it, but what comes out first you can't get that again. It's not natural. So you find that a lot of people who make reggae music, after a while there's no feeling, because they keep changing it or going here and there. What I do, what we do; me and Adrian as a producer, is that we keep building on things. We set a foundation and we keep building on it. Especially in the early days, I used to just go into the studio set down my percussion and start playing. Then we put other things on like guitars and Adrian liked to use a lot of voice samples.
You know Emperor Haile Selassie I, he is the defender of the faith and they have all these high priests who chant in Amharic. I don't really understand much Amharic but I can feel it. You know, sometimes you can't understand what the chant is about but you can feel something. It's about how the priests in Ethiopia give praise. Adrian gets all these chants from all over the world and we choose what is suitable for the track we're doing.
I can't say much about this one (laughs) but I remember doing it...
As I say it's always about the gospel because to us reggae music is gospel, we say when somebody listens to reggae you don't really need to go to church. We have this song "this train is bound for glory, this train is bound for glory". It's about a train full of people going with gospel, a gathering of people going with the gospel all over the world. It's people who are moving with the gospel.
Chant For The Spirits
I remember once I was playing the drums in the early times, especially in those days when I'm practising for about 2/3 hours and I'll go into a chant, you know you're going into a different world. And I remember playing and playing and I felt as if some ancestors came to join me in the room. The ancestors they like music, especially drumming, because drumming is the beginning of the whole thing. I stopped playing and some elder told me I should carry on. You can be playing drums and you don't think of time, you don't think of anything, you just get carried away. Drumming can bring the ancestors close to us.
God Is Great
What can we say about that one. It's just about giving thanks. You know a lot of people pray to God, "I want shoes, I want a house, I want riches, I want this and that", but for me and other people it's just about giving thanks and praise. About how great he is for giving us all the things. Like I'm standing here now and there's all these banana trees and different coloured fruits. The creative force power. That's what our people call him, you know it's a title. The real is the creative force. That force that makes things happen. Whether there are ups or downs we give thanks for life.
You know my father used to say to me life is a test, it's like cricket. We are batting. Some people go in and make 10 runs, some make 40, some make 50. If you make 50 runs, you can put your hands up and say irie, you say yeah man. You have people in all these different positions trying to catch you out, trying to stop you achieving your goals. You have a talent, in this case it's the bat. You have to use what you have to get what you want. You have people throwing different balls at you too, sometimes slow and fast, sometimes you have to duck. I'll never forget that.
He also said if you have one thing make sure you do it well. And that's what I did, because I didn't really went to school. I left school at 11, and I never spent more than 6 months in any school in my life. But when I found out that the drums were inside of me, I decided that's it, there's no plan B, this is it. So I studied all kinds of people, all kinds of drums. In Jamaica the Nyabinghi drums, coming to London to learn jazz and rock and Latin and all kinds of things. So when the time came to do African Head Charge, I put all those things I'd learned together.
Deer Spirit Song
I tell you some of that I can't even explain because it was so long ago. How long ago? 20 years ago, some of it I can remember how it happened but this one I can't.
You charge yourself. It's like charging yourself. That mean's don't get weak. Do everything to make yourself stronger and everything you're doing, do it well. That's why I used to get up and go running, I used to go and jog round the park, because sometimes when I'm jogging I'm getting a rhythm in my head. Because with me, when I'm doing something I want to make sure I'm doing it to the best of my ability, whether I'm getting paid or not. So for that I have to be strong mentally, spiritually and physically. I can't just be strong spiritually without the other parts. I'd be off balance. We have to keep fit. Especially as a drummer we have to make sure we keep fit. We have to charge. We have to be well charged.
Every year I have to find that time for myself, not just be hustling and bustling and doing this and that, sometimes we just need to charge ourselves.
Buy Songs Of Praises HERE.
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