In 2018, in the lead up to the reissue campaign which would see reissues of 4 African Head Charge titles from 1990-2011, and an album of previously unreleased versions, On-U Sound visited Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah at his base in London, where he was staying on one of his annual returns from his adopted home of Ghana.
In a wide ranging interview, Bonjo touches on his childhood and early life in Jamaica, his work with Sonny Akpan, Desmond Dekker, Prince Far I, Adrian Sherwood, and his move to Ghana.
Interview by Matthew Jones, transcription by Albert Carter Phillips
How was it growing up in Jamaica? Didn’t your grandma run a Rasta camp?
My grandmother’s sister – my grand-aunt, Nana Bonchi – was known as the Rasta Queen in Clarendon. The Rasta movement had been going on from the 30s, and we had one of the biggest Rasta camps called Pinnacle. In 1937, Selassie gave us a constitution and bylaws, and told us how to organise and centralise and develop ourselves as a people who’ve been downtrodden on. Most of the Rastas in those days were using that constitution and being self-sufficient, they didn’t need to survive off working for people. So they took to the hills – a place called ‘Pinnacle’ – but the government later came and broke it down. After they broke it down, Rastas had to spread all over Jamaica, and some of the elders came to Clarendon – that’s where I’m from – which is the ‘country’ part of Jamaica. Some went to different parts of Kingston. The camp that was in Clarendon was my grand-aunt’s. She got married to one of the elders from Pinnacle and they came down, and in Jamaica if you have six children and you have land here or there, you give the girls this part and the boys that part. So they gave my grandma and her sister and their other sister their place, a place called Kemps Hill. The Rasta sister, she turned her place into a Rasta camp and all Rasta people just came and lived there. If you were a Rasta, you just came there, got some sticks, made a little hut and just lived. Like one big family. We had an elder who was like the high priest, his name was Reverend Claudius Henry. He was one of the top Rasta man in Jamaica. I grew under him, I was like his grandson.When I was about five, six, seven years old, the elders taught me how to play the Nyabinghi drums and the poco drums. Before they came to play, it was me, Verny and Owen, the three of us just sitting down and playing for four or five hours while people were coming from all over and the church was getting warmed up. So that’s how the whole thing started for me. I never knew that one day it was going to be a career, I was just doing it because I enjoyed it.
Did you say you spent some time with the Indian settlement and Pocomania communities?
Yes, well the Poco came from the two Poco church in my area – one called Brother Hawa and the other called Mother Hibbert. Mother Hibbert is the one that I support mostly. Mother Hibbert is auntie to Toots and the Maytals, she’s some relative of them–
Yeah of course, ‘Toots Hibbert’.
Yeah, she’s the leader for the Poco church in Clarendon. In those days, in the 50s, we didn’t have television or radio or anything like that so going to those places was like entertainment. We’d go there and when we saw children and people doing all sorts of things, we’d want to get involved, want to go and learn to play the tambourine, play the sticks or something. Sometimes they’d be chasing us when we were playing, and get fed up and show us how to play the drums, so that’s how the Poco interest came.
Can you explain how the Poco churches are related to the older African religion.
The Poco church came straight from Africa, specifically West Africa. The Poco church is a place of healing. If someone has a problem – a spiritual problem mainly but it could also be physical or mental – they’d go there. They deal with herbs, herbs that cure you, herbs you could take to make you feel good in different ways. They deal with herbs and they deal with music and chanting. When I went to Ghana, I went and saw it myself. The slave masters tried to root it out of the people, they wanted them to be either Catholic or Protestant, Church of England or whatever. But a few people in Jamaica, especially those in the country, they still maintain it. Only a few don’t – my mother was a ‘Nazareth Assemble’. But the Poco Church I was interested in because of the drumming really.
It’s amazing it has survived, because I guess one of the things with slavery is to wipe out your identity and take away your culture.
It’s almost wiped out. I went back to Jamaica and I don’t see any Poco church there now. Eventually it’s going out until it’s almost gone. I think lately you find a few people starting the Poco drumming again. When I first started playing it in England – when I was in Creation Rebel – nobody would accept it, they would rub it off. That’s why I rate Adrian, because Adrian is the only producer to say, “Fuck, let’s ‘ave it!”. Even when I was practicing, he would just be recording it. That’s why I rate him. Most of the people don’t want to know about it, even Jamaican people, where I’m from.Reggae didn’t really check it. Later I saw that they started to little by little, but I rate Adrian because he accepted it.
In Jamaica, especially in Clarendon, we have a lot of Indians down there. I had a friend who was an Indian boy. His sister Joy was like my girlfriend, but we were small maybe seven, eight or nine, it was not a serious ting. But that was my girlfriend, and we’d go to school and she’d have to carry my books to show that she was, and so forth. Because of that, the family liked me too, even though a lot of people wasn’t really mixing too much. But me, if somebody showed me some love, I don’t care if they’re Indian Chinese or whatever, I’ll go there. I remember I used to eat with them, eat roti and dahl, and that’s how I started enjoying all their type of drumming as well.
Like tabla drumming?
Yeah! They used to take this thing called Hosay, a gift that they go and give to the sea if they had a good year farming or whatever. Every year, I think in August, they put gifts in this Hosay – it must have been about 25 feet high – and they would take Hosay from Kemps Hill where we were living. They’d play drums and we used to sing because we’d interpret what the drums were saying, the way they beat it. They’d take the Hosay for about two miles or three miles –everywhere you go in Jamaica there is sea, so you can walk to the sea in about two or three miles – so they’d walk playing the same beat and taking the Hosay, rocking the Hosay from left to right, and the people were dancing. They’d bring the Hosay to the seaside and give it to the sea. We’d stand there playing the drums until the Hosay go right in the sea and go, go, go, go, go until you could see just a little bit at the top and then you don’t see it anymore. After they give it to the sea, they’re still playing the same rhythm until everybody goes back. Once a year I used to look forward to it. As children we used to like making our own little drums. We used to get the old condensed milk can, then we have the putty, like clay, we’d put it right around. Then we’d get the khaki, and then we’d put the ashes on and leave it in the sun. I used to love making drums. Somehow, I think I said it before, I never knew that one day I’m gonna do this for a living..
It seems like there’s a lot going on, with the Poco church and the Rasta camp, and it has all fed in.
All of that, you have the Nyabinghi with the Poco, and the Kumina – they call it Kumina – and then you have the Indian drumming as well. I was involved with the whole thing.
How old were you when you moved to England?
I think when I came to England I was about sixteen.
What were your first impressions when you came here? I imagine it’s a hard place to move to having grown up in Jamaica?
One of the main things I remember as a small boy was looking up and seeing all these very tall buildings. But the strangest thing was that I had a job in this place in Shoreditch, and one day when I was in there I saw these white things coming down. I’m wondering “What is this thing coming down?” and later I found out that this was snow. I’d never seen snow before! That was one of the biggest shocks I had. When it started to get cold I was really suffering. I had to go with my mum every Saturday to the market to help her take her shopping home, and that was really hurting me. When I went home I had to warm my hands in front of the fire. It took me a long long time to get used to the cold. At first it felt like a punishment.
Your first involvement in music– I read that you used to roadie for people like Dandy Livingstone and Desmond Dekker? How did that come about?
I went to live in this place called Nisbet House, I had my girlfriend there. She ran away from Nottingham and we stayed together, and they ended up giving us a place in Nisbet House. It was a rough place really, but we took it. Upstairs there was a singer called Eddie Talbot, he was singing in a band called The Undivided.
The Undivided were a top band at that time, they were backing even Bob Marley. When Bob Marley came they were the band, Rico was another, they were the top band in England. In those days, in the 60s, I used to move round with Eddie, and then U-Roy started coming over, U-Roy and Roy Shirley. I used to love U-Roy, so I had a chance to be backstage, and go to all these concerts freely, and I was enjoying all that. I was enjoying going there being backstage, enjoying the herbs, everything you know?
There was a drummer who lived downstairs, his name was Ruben. He was in a band called In Brackets and they were backing up Dandy Livingstone. At that time Dandy Livingstone had a hit called ‘Susan Beware of the Devil’, that’s when I became like a roadie. I had to lift up all these keyboards and things, I had always liked lifting things. I liked training and going gym and that, and it was like training for me. And they used to love me too! I was like a part of the band. After the gig everyone would come and give me £5, £5, £5, so sometime I ended up going home with about £30, and in that time it was good money.
Would you go on tour with those guys or would it just be in London?
Most of it was around London, I never really went anywhere with them, really. How I started playing music: that same drummer from In Brackets one day decided to go to the rehearsal place, just so we can be free to smoke our weed without people. The rehearsal was supposed to start about four o’clock, but we went there from about one o’clock so we can kick back and smoke and talk and whatever. The guy called Erol, he left his congo drums there, and when I smoked the weed, something just told me to go play it. So I just went and I started to play, and just as I’m playing – ‘cause sometimes when you play drums it can take you into a trance, you know – I went into a trance that meant I was playing for hours without even knowing.
By this time, the rehearsal musicians started coming, and everyone started to look and wonder what’s going on, but I’m in a trance and playing. And I feel like there’s spiritual beings around me as well. Sometimes the drums can do that. You can be playing, and then you feel like there is ancestors around you. So Erol who owned the drum, he decided, “I’ll show you how to play those drums”. So he looked in Melody Maker and showed me how to get a set of second-hand drums, and I got them and decided I would start learning. So I started listening to people like Osibisa and Fela Kuti, I started listening to Mongo Santamaria, different congo players. Already I knew about Count Ossie, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Count Ossie was the top Nyabinghi group in Jamaica. I decided, “Okay, I’m going to study this”. I was signing on, but in my head I’m in college”, I’m studying the drums. Every day, I’d put Osibisa on. The Osibisa guy did a solo, and I wanted to learn how to copy his solo. At that time, if I looked in a newspaper and saw that they were auditioning for a Conga player, I’d go and see if I got the job, and sometimes I ended up playing jazz. I remember playing at the 100 club, playing in a jazz group. But when you’re playing in a jazz group, everyone’s doing solos, so I decided now I’ve got to learn how. The time came for me to do it and I did it, and I felt good for a long time! It was nothing to do with money, it was how I felt after that solo.
I started studying all different ways, because i’d never really learnt anything like that. I left school at eleven. My memory wasn’t good and they kept beating me. In Jamaica, if they ask you a question like “6 x 6” or “7 x 7”and you don’t answer, they’ll beat you. I never liked anyone beating me, I don’t beat people. And it hurts! I used to run away from school all the time. I ran away from Clarendon. I went to Kingston to live, I ran away. Everywhere I went to – Thomps-town, Victoria– I ran away. Everywhere I go because of my memory. They’d tell me go to the shop for three or four items, and most likely I miss two or maybe three! My memory wasn’t good from when I was small. I don’t know if it’s because I start smoking herbs early. In Jamaica, when I was eleven or twelve, I wanted to smoke with all the big men, so my memory was very bad. That’s why I didn’t end up going to school and didn’t learn a trade or nothing So when I found that the people like my drumming, I decided to take it serious. The thing about the drumming, I’d never forget that. No matter what, it just came naturally. If I was gonna do a show, I’d never forget anything.
The drums can be your trade.
Yes, I found people were liking it. People were coming from Jamaica like Dillinger, Trinity even. One other person I liked working with was Desmond Dekker. I worked with him for quite a while, not on his records but on his live shows. He gave me confidence to sing because a lot of people didn’t like my voice. My voice is too [sings in a deep voice], it wasn’t pretty like Gregory [Isaacs] or Dennis [Brown] or those people, but Desmond Dekker said, “Yeah man, Bonjo sing man!”. I used to even sing some of his harmonies, like [singing] “Oo-ooh, The Israelites”. So Desmond Dekker, I have a love for him, he was like a bigger brother to me. He was always talking to me about his problems, like his drinking and so forth. And he was really good, you know one day he sent a Rolls Royce to my house to pick me up! I couldn’t believe it that this man sent a Rolls Royce to my house, to pick up this little Bonjo. That man really respect me. Desmond Dekker, he always really respected me. When he died, I was in Ghana. I didn’t know about it.
Then they needed a Congo player to play with this band, The Foundations – ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ and all that. They asked me to come down for an interview and showed me what they want me to play, and it was so simple! So I just got the job straight away.
Yeah it’s not like jazz, it’s just pop songs.
Yeah. I worked with them for a small time, because I had a young family as well.
Did they tour?
Yeah, they toured. One of the places I went with them, that if I’d known maybe I wouldn’t have gone, I went to Ireland, the time when Ireland were doing all the bombing and the IRA was big. At that time, I was very young and I was excited for going to these places so I didn’t think about it. I remember going to a place called Portrush, and then we went to another place and heard they’d just bombed up the place [Portrush]! Sometimes we’d come out and people were checking under the coach for bombs. One day some soldiers came out and lined us all up against the wall, the whole band – serious ting – and said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “What? We just come to play, you know”. That’s what I said. I said, “Hey, is this a serious ting? The gun?” Because he had a gun and I’m taking the whole thing as a joke, and he said, “Yeah, this could really hurt”. Then they had to make some phone calls and they let us go.
I met Derek Boothman as well, and he came and talked to us about that stuff, so that was the only time I felt something. I felt the passion in the people. In fact, when we play we had to do an encore two or three times. The people, them were kind of aggressive. They say they want more, you have to do it otherwise you feel like they’re gonna smash the place down.
You also played with a more fusion band called Freedom Fighter?
Yes, I wanted to put a band together to play the type of stuff I wanted to play, a band that will fuse the Poco drumming with the Nyabinghi drumming, fuse the Indian drumming, fuse the east/west/north/south African rhythms together. That’s why I called it ‘fusion’. It was me that really formed the band at my place. I called the people together and told them what I needed, s we came and started it. At that time, I was working with Dillinger and he had some song called ‘I’ve cocaine running around my brain’. So while I’m touring with him, I spoke to some promoters there telling them about my band, and then they set up maybe ten gigs, and they’ll pay us something like £50 each, which was okay in those days. I was doing mainly France and they teach us, “Est-ce que ça va? Aimez-vous le reggae?” Hello, how are you? Do you like reggae? And they teach us some other things as well like, “Voulez vous coucher avec moi?” So we started to jam [singing] “Est-ce que ça va? Aimez-vous le reggae?”, and the guy who promoted us liked it! So he gave some of our members some money to go and record it. By this time, I wasn’t the band leader anymore. Someone had taken over so I don’t know what happened to that. What came out of that was I met up with Charlie Fox.
Eskimo Fox. We were playing in the same band with Dillinger, so me and Charlie became really close.That’s why they called him ‘Mus’come’, because anywhere Bonjo goes Charlie must come! We were moving like twins. Normally, when you go on tour to Germany, France, Italy, Belgium or wherever you go, you want to go out. You don’t want to just stay in the hotel. Sometimes you get lost or whatever, and so I always like to walk with someone. So Charlie, he’s the one that was always moving with me so me and him became close. Charlie was also working with Creation Rebel too.
And they were backing Prince Far I?
Yeah they were backing up Prince Far I. Because of Charlie – and Fatfingers too, the keyboard player – I ended up being a part of Creation Rebel. And after I became a part of Creation Rebel, that’s when I met Adrian. And then somehow the bass player, Lizard, died. After he died, the band kind of… we didn’t really feel like working any more because that bass player was more or less Creation Rebel.
In the meantime, me and Adrian were in the studio and some of the old tracks that were rejected… I used to go and put out four, five six or seven different tracks of drums. Like I’d play a foundation, then I’d put something on top of it, then I’d put another thing on top of it, then another thing, and keep building until it became something. Then maybe have a bassline or add certain things. Sometimes we’d go in the studio and we didn’t even have a plan! Adrian had this studio in Berry Street–
Like a basement studio ?
Yeah, so it was just me and him alone in there. We used to get it all night, when nobody doesn’t want it so it was cheap. We’d just go there, he’d turn on the thing on and I’d go in with my congos, and somehow anything I’d do he’d record it. Even if I’m sound-checking, he’d record everything and I’d say, “Why’d you record that? You record everything!” That’s how we started putting the whole thing together. That’s how African Head Charge really started. It was just that I wanted to do something with mainly percussion and drums – the Poco, the Nyabinghi, and all those kind of drums – and Adrian decided he was going to record it, and that’s what came out.
Those early records are really great because it’s not just reggae, it’s not like dub or traditional African music. I know Adrian’s talked about ‘Visions of a Psychedelic Africa’, which ties into one of the albums we wanted to talk about. Did those kind of ideas come later? After you’d got the music down?
Normally there’s no concept. We never really had a concept. Even now, I could go in the studio right now, and have all the percussion there, and we’d just go in there and… I think it’s like a spiritual thing, it just happens!
You just let the music flow.
It just happens! I start playing and it starts happening. When you play you hear something else that will work with what you’ve done, and then you hear something that will work with what you’ve done again – you’re building and building and building. So we never really had a concept. When we finish the album, that’s when we start thinking about it.
“I think they feel something in it, everyone no matter what you are, no matter race or religion or whatever. That’s what that album is all about, it’s got nothing to do with the individual, it’s to do with the whole world.”
I’m gonna jump forward a little bit and talk about the Songs of Praise record specifically. That to me – more so than the early albums which are quite instrumental and quite psychedelic – feels connected to a lot of the things we’ve been talking about in your upbringing. There are a lot more vocals and chants on that record, it’s quite spiritual sounding. Was that a conscious decision or was that just what happened in the studio?
That was conscious, that was something we wanted to do. Different voices from different ways of worship, or different ways of celebrating life. You find the Ras’s, We have a different way of expressing ourselves, that’s why I called it Songs of Praise, from all corners of the earth. Whether you’re a monk or Sheikh or whatever – who likes to ‘get in there’ and do something, be a part of it – that’s what Songs Of Praise was all about really. All the religions, part of earth, can do something with the music. That’s why Songs of Praise is more or less my favourite album.
I think it’s a lot of fans’ favourite as well. Do you have any thoughts about why people feel so connected to that album. Do you think it is the spiritual aspect?
I think so. Because sometimes you do things and you don’t even know why. I think they feel something in it, everyone no matter what you are, no matter race or religion or whatever. That’s what that album is all about, it’s got nothing to do with the individual, it’s to do with the whole world.
It’s a collective thing. I know Adrian recorded a lot at Southern studios.Was that where you did that record?
Yeah we did a lot at Southern, and we did some at The Manor.
Yeah, that’s a nice studio. Richard Branson’s…
Yeah that was stepping up that was! From there [Southern] to The Manor – that’s a big step! I think Adrian knows how to get deals. Sometimes you get it at a time when it’s not being used so you get a good deal.
I wanted to ask you about another guy that recently passed away sadly, Sonny Akpan. He played on Songs of Praise right? And he’s also a conga player?
Yes! I would say Sonny was my teacher! Let me explain to you how I met Sonny. As I said before, I used to go for auditions for anything. One day I saw in the newspaper that a band from Africa were auditioning for a conga player. At that time I was still learning but I thought I’d go,. So I went and met Sonny and his band The Funkees. I never thought I’d get it I just thought I’d go. When I went, I was the only Jamaican in the band, everybody else was from Nigeria, everybody else was there speaking their language. So I was quiet. Whatever Sonny told me to play, I played it. I think one of my strength is to maintain a pulse, I can maintain a pulse for an hour if I have to because I’m trained that way from Jamaica. Even the Indians, they played the same pulse for three miles, and three miles coming back [referring back to Hosay]! So that’s why somehow Sonny and his band they liked me, because they needed somebody to maintain the pulse. When Sonny gave you a rhythm like [sings drum pattern], then you have to play that for one hour, nothing else. Most people want to add things, this or that, but me? I’ll hold that, I maintain the pulse until it becomes hypnotic. Sonny was such a great teacher and great player. He started working with top people like Eddie Grant, people like that. When the Eddie Grant thing finished, that’s when he came and started working with me.
Did Sonny used to play with you live around that time?
Oh yes, most of the time. If you were at a [African Head Charge] gig and saw a little short man, that was Sonny Akpan. When we did Glastonbury – twice we did Glastonbury – you’d see Sonny. That was when the Eddy Grant situation ended – I had the keyboard player from Eddy Grant as well.
Before Songs of Praise, African Head Charge had been more of a studio project. But around this time you started to become a live band, and you did the Pay It All Back tour and stuff like that.
Let me tell you how the live thing came. I used to do workshops. I used to go to schools and have children around me. Everybody got their percussion and everybody played. The schools used to pay me to do that and I used to love that. My brother was in Austria and they were playing My Life In A Hole In The Ground in this place, and they were liking it. And my brother Baron looked at it and there was a small picture of me on it. He said “Hey, that’s my brother” and they said to him, “That’s your brother? Could we invite him to Austria?” So they spoke to my brother and we organised to go to Austria to do a weekend thing for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday in this back yard. It was a place where people go to drink and eat, but they have a back yard as well. We went and set up a stage in the backyard and we played there for three days. I didn’t make a penny. I ended up losing money because I took too many people. I’m like that. In those days, I used to organise everything for African Head Charge – posters, everything. I brought [to Austria] the rasta drumming, I brought Bim Sherman, I brought Noah House Of Dread, I brought African Head Charge. I brought about eighteen people, we were overloaded really. There was no money left! I just wanted to do something big, you know, so we did it. That’s the first time I thought, “Wow, it’s good to take this out on the road”.
When I came back, they asked us to do the University of London, ULU. It sold out! I never knew so many people were willing to stick up on African Head Charge! It used to be just a recording project. After that, I started to promote shows myself. I’d go to the venue and ask if we could play there, and I’d take a percentage. I put on a show in this place and it was a flop! Nobody turned up. We put posters all over the place. This man – Vince Power – it was him that really kickstarted the live thing properly. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. He came and he gave me a card and said, “Bonjo, I like what you’re trying to do. Here’s my card – come and see me at this place”. So I went and saw him at the Mean Fiddler and we sat down and talked, and we put on a show there. He told me about this small pub/club called the Powerhaus in Angel. So I used to go there once a month and put on a show. I liked it cos it’s good when it’s small and it ram out. So we were playing there once a month and a woman came there and saw the thing and she liked it. She started talking saying, “I know somebody who knows somebody who knows Glastonbury, and I can get you on it.” So wow, she got me on Glastonbury. I remember [they paid me] £1000 for Glastonbury was good. I got a coach that cost nearly £400! Because I wanted to go to Glastonbury nice, you know? I got some good musicians and went to Glastonbury.
Before that, I saw this man sit down from EC1 – the agency EC1. I asked him “What you doing here?” He said, “I’m trying to start an agency”, and I said to him, “Listen, I’m in a band you know, I’ve got a gig at Glastonbury and they’ve paid me this. Could you administer the whole thing for me and take a percentage and sort it out?” So he took it over. I was his first person on EC1 agency. If you see them now they’ll tell you, “001 – African Head Charge – Glastonbury”. After that, we did a song, which I’ll put down to Adrian really, it was him that really came with the idea. We did a riddim and he decided, “Let’s put ‘Einstein’ on the track”. Somehow, because of that, the students all over London start liking us. So we started to gig all over London. It wasn’t paying much money but it was regular, in different student unions.
You did a big show at the Town and Country club, which is the Forum now, that was recorded for the Pride and Joy record.
Yeah, we started moving. That was moving up from the student unions. The whole thing just evolved. The truth is, a lot of people think African Head Charge is a band, but it was never a band. It’s a studio project that we took on the road.
I guess the musicians would change quite a lot, depending on who was available.
Yes, whoever can play the stuff when we went to auditions. Normally, I like to get the best musicians that’s available to reproduce what we did in the studio.
“For me, it’s up to you to make an effort with what your individual thing is. I don’t sit back and wait for people to do things for me. I’m the type of person to go find a little pub down the road and say, ‘Listen, I want to come here and show you people what I am.'”
Talking of other musicians you had on Songs Of Praise, did you have Bingy Bunny on there from The Morwells and Roots Radics? He sadly passed not long after that record. And Olla Gabby – he did stuff with Bim Sherman I think. I guess the real question is – because you played on Singers & Players records, and Creation Rebel records, and Bim Sherman records, and those people would play on your records – was the On-U thing more like a collective or family?
To me, it was a family. Within this family, we have different ideas. Everybody has got their ideas. At first, Bim Sherman – I knew he wanted to do something – he called me and I went a contributed my best towards it. Just like if we asked someone to come, they’d come and do their best on it. Get paid, obviously we’d get paid, but that’s what it was. If Gary Clail’s doing something and he feels like Bonjo can do something that makes it better, then so it is. I check the whole On-U Sound thing like one big family. We all have something from it – Bim Sherman, Akabu, everybody. For me, it’s up to you to make an effort with what your individual thing is.
I don’t sit back and wait for people to do things for me. I’m the type of person to go find a little pub down the road and say, “Listen, I want to come here and show you people what I am.” Normally I’m the one running around putting all the posters up. When we did the show in Brixton at The Fridge, there were three floors and it was me that organised the whole thing. I brought the whole of the On-U Sound people together – Gary Clail, Mark Stewart, Bim Sherman. I had the Nyabinghi drumming downstairs and I had the sound system in the middle, and then at the top we had something else. It’s the same with Vince Powell and his clubs – I’m the one that did it. As I said, I’m a musician, but I’m the kind of person that will go out and fix things and make things happen.
Would you inspire each other as well? Would you hear something that, say, Bim was doing and get some ideas? Or do you think he got ideas from you?
Things just come to me. Normally, I don’t even know what I’m going to do. I remember going to a session and somebody putting some paper in front of me saying “1,2,3,4”, and I didn’t understand about reading music. So I was just jamming but they liked it! That’s how it is. If I go to do something I never really think about it, I just go in there and it happens. The Foundations or Sonny [Akpan], they’d tell me something that’s already been done and I’ll study it, and then play it. Say for instance you have a session, you do something and say, “Come and play some percussion on it”, I’ll go and listen to it, and I’ll feel around until I feel something that I feel will click with it.
Moving on to In Pursuit of Shashamane Land I wanted to ask you about that title because obviously it links into your story in a way. I understand that Shashamane refers to the Rastafarian settlement in Ethiopia? Returning to the motherland, and some of the things that Marcus Garvey taught, the ‘Black Star Liner’… is that what you’re talking about in In Pursuit of Shashamane Land?
Yes, I’ve made that transition! When you say ‘Shashamane Land’ that’s not just Ethiopia, that’s the whole of Africa. It’s just that Ethiopia is the peak, like the capital of the whole of Africa for us. So ‘In Pursuit’ means ‘returning my spirit to my spiritual home’. That’s what it’s all about.
To me, it contains some of your most melodic work, there are some really nice harmonies and melodies on it. In places, it feels closer to the Noah House of Dread project. What were the differences between Noah House of Dread and African Head Charge?
I think Noah House Of Dread is more deep roots reggae music, because that’s something that’s in me naturally. As a Jamaican, we have the deep reggae music in us. African Head Charge is different, it’s a fusion of different things. NHOD is straight reggae, like you have Burning Spear, or Culture, or those kind of artists.
“Anything that’s come from On-U Sound Skip was somewhere because Skip knows the ins and outs of everything, when it comes to music. Skip is the number one. He’s very gifted. When you mention Skip to me, I feel something … Skip, in my life, I will say is the greatest musician that I have worked with.”
Skip McDonald is obviously a big part of the On-U family.
Well I’ll tell you, when you mention Skip, I would say he’s the greatest musician that I’ve worked with. I’ve worked with lots of great musicians, but he is the number one top, top, top. We are so lucky to have Skip in the On-U Sound thing. He is the number one.
I guess he can play lots of different instruments.
Yes, and to me, out of all the guitarists, he’s the greatest guitarist. I mean, I rate guitarists – like the kings, Hendrix I’m mad about, but we can’t put no one near Hendrix – but Skip is one of the greats. I don’t think people have seen the best of Skip. Skip is a great, gifted musician, singer, player… he is great.
People don’t value Skip. I value him more than anyone else in my career. If you ask me, say if I’m gonna do an album, who I’m gonna call first, I’m calling Skip.
He seems to have contributed quite a lot to the Shashamane Land record.
Me and Skip, we can sit down and make an album in a week. If me and Skip were to be sitting down here – I’m talking about without Adrian, right – we could sit down and make an album within a week for anybody. Skip is brilliant because I know he respects me, because lyrics come to me naturally. Lyrics and harmonies and things like that. The combination of me and Skip and Adrian were most close. The only disappointment I had is that I think Skip should have been the main person for On-U Sound. Anything that’s come from On-U Sound Skip was somewhere because Skip knows the ins and outs of everything, when it comes to music. Skip is the number one. He’s very gifted. When you mention Skip to me, I feel something.
Those albums, especially Shashamane and Vision of a Psychedelic Africa, most of the writing is done by Skip. He’s somebody that I can go to with some lyrics – because normally when I have lyrics I have the music in my head as well – and I can just sing it to him and he’ll sit down and work it out. What he puts to it is magic. Skip, in my life, I will say is the greatest musician that I have worked with.
You were continuing to tour during this period, doing festivals like Womad.When you went away, how long would you be on the road for? How did you find it? A lot of people find, when being on tour for that length of time, that there are good sides and bad sides to it. Life on the road can take its toll.
You know me, I enjoy touring. I really, really enjoy touring, because I enjoy seeing the people and enjoying the people, and things like that. No matter the ups and downs – because for me, that’s life, we must have ups and downs – I always try and enjoy it, because life is short. My motto is “always enjoy” – enjoy dancing, enjoy singing, enjoy music, enjoy each other. That is what my life is all about. I love being at festivals, I love being at clubs. Since I lost my agent… EC1 was the agent that I started with, but the guy sold it to some people, and they told me that they’d gone to more guitar band kind of things, so I lost that agent. Since I lost the agent, it hasn’t been that good. Me, I just wanted to find one agent, have one agent and one management. I want to go back touring again but at the same time, I have my family in Africa. For 23 years now, I’ve been going there, my children are there. When I talk about In Pursuit of Shashamane, anything I say, I’m serious about. Some people talk about going back to Africa, sing it, but they don’t do it. Me – anything I say or sing I’m serious. So that’s why I ended up going to Ghana, and I just love it there.
So you moved to Ghana in ‘94?
‘95. Why did you choose Ghana out of any place in Africa?
Why did I pick Ghana? Because in Jamaica, especially my grand-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, she was always talking to me about Ghana. We, especially from Clarendon, we feel that we are Ghanaians. In fact, we feel that 85% of people from Jamaica are from West Africa. Most of them is from Ghana. The reason why we know that is because in Jamaica we have places like Achampong Hill – Achampong is a Ghanaian name. We have things like Kwaku Anansi – when I was small they’d tell us about Kwaku Anansi’s story, Kwaku Anansi and Bredda Tukuman. All these names, Kofi, Kwame, Kwabena, because I was born on Tuesday I’m Kwabena. So we realised that everything – the Poco Church – all these things link with Ghana. That’s why I ended up… It was in my head and somehow it just happened. In my head, I was thinking of Freetown, this place called Freetown in Sierra Leone. I remember some hundreds of years ago, a lot of Jamaican people migrated from Jamaica to Sierra Leone and developed this place called Freetown. So I’m thinking that one day – because although I’m here, I’m ‘there’ – always thinking that one day I must go back to where my ancestors are from, where people are from, and I realised that it’s Ghana.
What was it like when you first moved to Ghana. Did it take some adjustment or did you immediately embrace it? How was it?
When I went to Ghana, I felt like I’m in heaven, this is heaven. I always thought that heaven is in space or someplace else, but we always say that ‘heaven is a place on earth’. Heaven and Hell is right here. So when I went there I thought, “Yeah, this is heaven” The weather, the people, how they are, the culture, the food, everything! Everything suits me – the drumming, the dancing. Even now, I’m excited about the drumming and the dancing. I’ve got a Ghanaian friend, me and him were very close in Ghana, and he’s drumming with me right now. When it comes to acrobatics, the drumming there… In fact, I’m still learning even at my age. When I go there, I’m still learning a lot of new types of drumming, different percussion. I’m learning all the time.
Obviously you’ve been a student of drumming your whole life. hen you went to Ghana did you pick up any different rhythms or styles?
A whole heap of different styles, and some of it is shown on the albums I’ve done like Shashamane Land. The next album I’m gonna do, there’s gonna be a lot of Ghanaian influence too. The thing about percussion is you never stop learning. I went to the north to a place called Bolgantanga. It’s another thing there again, you know? From there I went over to Burkina Faso, which is another thing! Everywhere I go they have different types. They have the Ashanti kind of drumming, the Ewe kind of drumming, you have the Ga kind of drumming, all different. This guy I’m working with is from the Ga and I found their drumming is more fun. I’m still learning from these people in Africa. That’s why it makes me happy to go there. When it comes to winter, I don’t really like touring so I’d rather spend the winter time in Ghana where I’m learning. Writing too.
So just to go back a bit, there’s quite a big gap in terms of On-U Sound releases between In Pursuit of Shashamane Land and Vision of a Psychedelic Africa. Obviously you’d moved to Ghana, but I guess you and Adrian were doing different things during that time, because Adrian was having some business difficulties with On-U, and you did some stuff with similar labels like Acid Jazz and Go Beat. Can you talk about that period?
Yeah, we were going through some weird weird things but that’s life. You have to go through those things. The people who used to distribute our music went bankrupt, and all types of things were going on. So Acid Jazz came in and said, “Let’s do something”. I went and did it in a rush. Really, I wanted to sit down with Skip and do it. If I’d sat and done it with Skip, it would have been okay, but somehow I couldn’t get hold of him, I don’t know what was going on. Everybody was going away and all types of things were going on. So I went and did one album with them, Acid Jazz. I don’t think much happened with that.
Yeah, there’s a few odd bits that you did. I even heard a thing where you did a cover of Neighbours?
Yes, the Neighbours thing… We were going through stress! You know, everybody in life goes through a few things. Either you’re gonna come out strong or it weakens you and turns you on to alcohol or drugs or whatever. I was going through a rough time – I think that’s when me and my wife separated – and I found myself alone. She had the children, so I’m on my own and I was getting sick and nothing was happening with the music side of things. I decided, “I’m not gonna go down”, because I have that pride about me. I’m not gonna go down, I’ll stay strong and be up there. So I decided to stop – don’t drink, don’t smoke too much (have a little bit sometimes) – but get up every morning and go jogging! I used to get up every morning and go jogging and when I came back in there was this programme called Neighbours. I was young in those days and I really did have a love for Kylie Minogue! I’ve grown out of that it’s a long time ago! When Neighbours would come on, that was the time I was stretching. I used to go and sit in front of it and do my stretching for twenty minutes. Even now I still like stretching. I was stretching to that programme and I heard the song, Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours”, so I said, “Hey, I’m gonna record a version of it”. I called some people together – some of them I couldn’t pay, I told them after I’d pay them after – and I went and did it.
Then I got a call from Gold Disc that Fatboy Slim was signed to, and they gave me some money. It was the first time I got so much money in my life! I can’t remember how much it was, but it was a lot. It paid off my rent arrears and instead of driving a banger, I got myself a reasonable car. Then Radio 1 started to play it, everywhere started playing it. But Tony Hatch wrote a letter to those people – that’s what they told me anyway – that we couldn’t release it, because he’s the song writer, but by then they gave me the money already! So I sorted my life out. They didn’t release it, but the money paid my rent and all kinds of things. I ended up buying that flat, started working in the schools and things and started to live up. I was really, really down, and then after… I’m always planning to do something with my life, and when I saw Neighbours, I decided to just take a chance and do it. The people loved it, they started making me feel like a star, doing this and that, and then Tony Hatch just came in and everything went. They sent me to work with Norman Cook too. I did a single with him called [singing] ‘The More We Are Together’. I wish I could find it, but we didn’t put that out either! He had a studio in Brighton somewhere. After that I lost touch with him, and then I found out he changed his name to Fatboy Slim. I should really try and get in touch with him, see if he’d remember me. That was a long time ago. As I said, I’m a loyal person, and because I was with Adrian – and I don’t think Adrian, Bobby and those people wanted me to go outside On-U Sound – I never really went outside unless it was something big like Neighbours.
So there’s this long break, you’re living in Ghana, there’s these different projects and Adrian’s dealing with some stress on the business side… But then you come back together in around 2004/2005 to make Vision of a Psychedelic Africa. How did you reconnect with Adrian? Had you always stayed in touch?
We always kept in touch. Never a month goes past where we don’t have a phone call, “Wagwan, what’s happening?” Things like that. When I first met Adrian, I think he had just got involved in the music business. He was an only child and somehow – I can say this loudly – I took him as a little brother. I taught him how to cook – I think that’s why Adrian is a good cook now, I should get claim for that! We used to move together, he used to come to my house. Even before he met Kishi we were very close. Even if I’m not working and he’s in the studio, I’d be there and we’d always be together.
I felt as though I was giving him confidence, because if I was sitting beside him, I was giving him confidence. He was with all these ‘roughnecks’, if you understand ‘roughneck’, but I was the roughest out of all the roughnecks! We were respected. All the badman, when they come from Jamaica, we’d just meet up and say, “Don’t joke with that person”, you know? I know for a fact he was happy to have me there. I could go to his house to his family too! His daughters, I used to take them to the park, swinging. For me, Adrian’s like a brother from a different mother, that’s how it is.
Later, lots of other people started coming in, like Skip and all these people. But from Creation Rebel times, I think I was one of his closest people. Not just close physically and the music side of things, but as human beings, as a person to another person. After a while, he started meeting other people and getting busy and so forth, but at first we were always there. If he’s got a problem I know he’s gonna call me, and he’s always there for me too. If I have a problem and I have to make one phone call, I’ll phone him. He was there for me no matter what problems I had. I remember I went and did a gig with Creation Rebel and we didn’t get paid that night, so I came home the next day and I really wanted a spliff. I couldn’t get a spliff so I went to some friends place to see if they could trust me and give me some. I’m sitting there and about 40 or 50 people start to break the door down, because they thought I was a mad person! They say they saw me molesting some people on the street! Guess where I was the night before? I was in Birmingham doing a gig! So all these people were outside wanting to lynch me or something like that! I couldn’t run. If I ran to the back it’s the River Lea, so I have to come out the front. I had to fight my way out the front through all these people, and the police came and arrested me. Later they found out it’s not my fault, I won the case. But I had to make one phone call and it’s Adrian I rang He ended up getting me a lawyer and I won the case. So I had that kind of relationship with him. Even now, I’ll still do it. Sometimes he’s fed up with me or whatever, but I’ll ring him up. I can rely on him. I mean, sometimes we have our little things. Sometimes I’m annoyed at him, sometimes I won’t talk to him, but we always seem to make up. Sometimes I think,t “Oh, me and this man, we’re gonna fall out”, because I get really angry. I think, “Fucking hell, me and this man, we’re not gonna talk no more.” But somehow we seem to get back together.
Did you record that album in Crouch End? In Adrian’s garage?
I think that one was done in The Manor … no Southern!
Compared to Songs Of Praise, Vision is more of a hard rhythm record. It seems to connect back to things like Off The Beaten Track. Was that just the music that came out at the time, or were you thinking to make something more rhythm-based?
Sometimes it’s not what you think, it just happens. With African Head Charge, normally we liked to experiment. ‘Try this, try that, try this…’ kind of thing. It’s not that we deliberately said we’ll change anything, it just happened, what we felt at that time.
I notice that that record’s got Skip on it, but it’s also got Doug and Keith LeBlanc and all the Tack Head/Sugar Hill Gang guys on it. Were they in the studio with you?
They’d more or less come and do a session. They’d come in and even though they were only doing a session, they put their thing into it. Normally, someone would come into those sessions and be fiddling around, and then something happen and we’d say, “Yes! That’s it!” That’s how it was with those people, they were very creative.
They all seem like people who can create something on the spot.
Yes, straight away. As soon as we’d hear it, we’d keep going and keep going until somebody says, “That’s it!” The thing I like with Adrian, anything I play ‘Yes, yes’ he’d record it, so because of that it was easy. Maybe it’s because I’ve got a bad memory, but when it comes to music, as soon as I hear it, whatever I play on it, it just works.
You must have a good instinct! So Voodoo of the Godsent is the most recent AHC album, from back in 2011. What can you tell me about the process of making that? Was that after Adrian had moved to Ramsgate?
Yeah, we did that in Ramsgate, down at his house. We were able to sit down, relax and just… I think the next album we do will be at his house as well. I love that I can go there spend and few days there, wake up in the morning, straight in the studio, work until the night, stop when we want to, do anything, you know? I think the next album will be the same way, lots of creativity. We have time to do plenty things.
Yeah, you’re not on the clock, whereas in the studio you’re watching the time.
I’m looking forward to the next album. It will be very special.
“When Prince Far I walked in, you feel as if he’s one of the… You read about Matthew, Mark, John, Luke, all these disciples, all the great prophets – that’s how I see Prince Far I. He had a presence. He had the voice and everything.”
I’m really excited to hear it! So going back to Voodoo… There are some really beautiful basslines on that record, which I think is George Oban of Aswad and New Age Steppers. Was he someone that you’d worked with before?
Yes, that bass player, the original Aswad bass player – he’s something else. Whenever Adrian can get him to do a session, he’ll try and do it. It’s the same thing you mentioned with Blackbeard (Dennis Bovell). Any time these people are available to do something, we’ll try and get them.
There’s a track on Voodoo, ‘Take Heed and Smoke Up Your Colly Weed’. I thought it was a nice touch including a sample of Prince Far I. That goes back to those roots and almost completes the circle of when you started working with Adrian. Do you have any memories of Prince Far I?
When I look at Prince Far I, it reminds me of one of these great prophets in the bible! When you see the way he dresses, everything about him… if he came in this room you’d feel as if one of the greats has come in. To me, he wasn’t like a normal person. Out of all the musicians I’ve known, Prince Far I, Lee Perry… they’re not normal. When I say ‘not normal’, I mean they’re like something else. When Prince Far I walked in, you feel as if he’s one of the… You read about Matthew, Mark, John, Luke, all these disciples, all the great prophets – that’s how I see Prince Far I. He had a presence. He had the voice and everything. To me that was biggest loss. That was tragic. I think that it freaked Adrian out, I’m telling you that was a knock-out blow for Adrian. Prince Far I is, for me, the number one for Adrian. I remember the first time I met Prince Far I. I had a band called Fusion. We had a gig at The Music Machine in Camden Town.
The bill was Prince Far I – top of the bill – Fusion, Generation X (with Billy Idol). Generation X went and did their show, we went as Fusion and did our show. We were in the dressing room, and we saw Prince Far I walk in and say, “Who can play ‘Satta Massagana’?” I said, “Yeah man, we know them tune there man.” He’s the top of the bill and he came without a band! So he came in the dressing room and we all sat down, and we started to play. And once the bass player learned the thing, the whole thing finish. That was our first time meeting Prince Far I, and we did the gig there and then. The only problem was, we were arguing about money! We knew he needed us so we stuck to what we wanted, because if we didn’t do it he had no one. So we decided to stick to get the extra £10 or whatever. That was the first time I met Prince Far I.
You were very prolific in the ‘80s, releasing lots and lots of records, then it slowed down a bit. Was that partly through prioritising family and being a father, and your life in Ghana?
I don’t think so. I think a lot of changes happened in the music business, big changes happened. We were selling a lot of records until everyone started downloading, then I saw there was a big change. A big change even that the distributor went bankrupt! That was a big fuck up for us, because we were owed a lot of money. That fucked Adrian up too, because most of the money was his investment. That was when the whole thing started to go down. But for me – alright, we must have money because we have children to look after – but for me, it was just the music. I love playing music and I love performing live. One reason why we love to be live is because we see the people and they love it! We see the feeling of the people and that’s what keeps me going, because I see that the people them like it. When we’re backstage getting ready to go on, you feel the vibes of the people them, knowing that they’re gonna have a good time. That’s what keeps me going because, you know, I could go to Ghana. I’m a pensioner now. I could go to Ghana and just relax, it’s like heaven there. But one of the reasons I’ll come here, every year, and spend three or four months is because I can see that the people them love what we’re doing. They love it. If I didn’t feel that they love it, I’d stay in Ghana and enjoy the rest of my life there.
I was looking at some recent footage of you playing shows in Bristol and Exeter, and one thing that struck me was that the audience is very diverse. It’s all ages.
Yes! I’m surprised as well. When I look, I see young people. I’m expecting to see people in their 40s and 50s and that, but I’m seeing people in their 20s. I couldn’t believe it.
When you listen to African Head Charge, it’s instinctive, it’s dance music. It makes you want to dance. It’s joyful, there’s a real joy in the music, and I think people respond to that. What’s an average day in the life of Bonjo like?
What I love to do in Ghana or in London, first thing when I get up, I like to go and do some training, keeping fit. I’m addicted to training. I like to go to the gym for at least two hours every day. Then I feel better for the rest of the day. After that, anything can happen. When I’m in Ghana, I do the same thing. I just go train, come back, and just enjoy life. I’m just enjoying my life. Seriously! That’s the truth! I’m just enjoying life.
What’s the future of African Head Charge? Can you tell us about the new record and your life plans?
I will always keep making records, making albums. And because I’ve got this thing with Adrian and Skip, we can do a lot of things. So we’ll keep doing that, that’s a good combination. And once there’s a good combination, you should keep it, especially on the recording side of things. I love to do live things as well, I love to do the clubs and the festivals. One of the reasons why I love the clubs is that although the clubs doesn’t pay me as much as the festivals, you can actually touch people, they’re close to you. It’s like having a big party!
All albums discussed in this interview are available directly from On-U Sound