Graded on a Curve:
African Head Charge,
Drumming is a Language 1990–2011

In 2016, On-U Sound delivered vinyl reissues of the 1980s work by African Head Charge, the collaboration of percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and producer Adrian Sherwood, and compiled the material in the 5CD box Environmental Holes & Drastic Tracks 1981 – 1986. Now, the label has followed up that activity with five more vinyl sets and a second CD box, Drumming is a Language 1990 – 2011. The blend of Jamaican roots, African-derived rhythms, and the expected studio enhancements, including healthy servings of dubby weirdness, establish a high standard of quality; as the discs unfurl, the consistency can be rather startling. In whichever manner one chooses to partake, the music is out now.

For the details regarding African Head Charge’s formation and a deep word dive into the unit’s ’80s stuff, one should consult the earlier review in this column of their first four LPs. For this piece on the latest set, it suffices to say that Bonjo and Sherwood’s union was set into motion by the former’s membership at the start of the ’80s in the group Creation Rebel, an outfit associated with the latter’s extensive post-punk studio productivity during the same period.

What began as a studio project gradually morphed into a band scenario, though one with considerable fluidity of personnel, and Songs of Praise, the first release chronologically in this spate of reissues (hence disc one in the box set) reflects this shift exceptionally well, while keeping a solid grip on Bonjo’s percussive objectives (as highlighted by the new box set’s title) and Sherwood’s production savvy.

Released in 1990, Songs of Praise is considered by some to be African Head Charge’s creative high-water mark. Now, this might be in part because of its ample running time, with 14 tracks on the original CD (truncated to eight on the first vinyl press) totaling just over an hour. For this edition, the number is expanded by three (and the LP edition is now a double, holding everything). And so, the release offers an abundance, and in any version, it doesn’t run out of gas. Another factor is the record’s concept, as it gathers religious chants from across the globe and infuses them with Jamaican-African-UK vigor.

But right out of the gate, “Free Chant (Churchical Chant of the Iyabinghi)” offers the bigness of sound and a swaying groove (to say nothing of the vocals) that’s a perfect fit for the sort of festivals (e.g. Glastonbury) they were beginning to play in this era. “Orderliness, Godliness, Discipline and Dignity” follows this up with a major dose of reverberating fuzz guitar courtesy of AHC mainstay Skip McDonald, quickly reinforcing Song of Praise as more than just a serving of reggae bigness that might sound swell on a warm sunny day in a field, but then somehow doesn’t translate to home listening.

“Hymn,” with its cascades of chimes and children’s chorus (a motif that recurs later in the heftier, dancefloor-tinged and guitar-injected “Chant for the Spirits”) attains a plateau of prettiness that might be risky in this context but succeeds without a hitch. Those who know Sherwood mainly from his rawer post-punk and Industrial affiliations might be surprised, but all but most stone hearted should be won over.

To say that Songs of Praise rolls from there is an understatement, but there are a few highlights deserving of specific mention, such as “My God,” which dishes an extended sample of an African-American spiritual, bringing Blind Willie Johnson to mind in the process, and illuminating the depth of Alan Lomax’s influence, a connection cited by Bonjo in the interview for this release (a conversation was undertaken for each reissue, with the bunch combined in the box set). “Gospel Train” comes next and effectively drives home the conceptual vitality of the album.

In Pursuit of Shashamane Land, which arrived in 1993, proved a satisfactory next chapter, if one not quite up to the standard set by Songs of Praise. As evidenced by Shashamane’s opener “Heading to Glory,” there are clear thematic ties between this album and its predecessor, but the follow-up does offer an additional (titular) focus on Africa (and Ethiopia in particular) that proves distinctive, and indeed predictive; in 1995, Bonjo, who’d previously transitioned from Jamaica to London, moved to Ghana, which continues to be his home up to the present.

This is likely why the hand drumming of Sonny Akpan and Andy Moses registers as more prominent in the mix. Another difference with Shashamane is a deeper unity with the general electronic dancefloor thrust of its decade. As “Pursuit” gets a DJ edit bonus track, this is by clear design, but the driving bottom end throb of “Fever Pitch” is the strongest example of the development.

But there’s never a substantial break with what came on Praise, as “One Destination,” “Somebody Touch I” and bonus cuts “Kumasee” and “Mama Shante Garden” deliver the moments of accessibility that marked the earlier effort. It’s worth noting that the bonus tracks do show up pretty early on Shashamane (track nine, an alternate version of “Fever Pitch,” out of 16). This doesn’t detract from the whole much, but it is interesting that Shashamane’s core is an even eight tracks, which is how it was initially released on vinyl.

This is also the approach taken with Churchical Chant of the Iyabinghi, a 10-track collection of outtakes from the above two releases, with side one designated as Shashamane Versions and the flip Dubs of Praise (it’s the sole standalone vinyl reissue that’s not a 2LP set). Although it is the concluding CD in Drumming is a Language, it warrants mention here in relationship to the albums that spawned it. While it holds no significant revelations, the swing of the pendulum toward dub is appreciated, spotlighting Sherwood, who sometimes (it seems deliberately) blends into the overall scheme on the ’90s discs.

Churchical Chant of the Iyabinghi has been described as a companion volume to 2016’s Return Of The Crocodile, a collection of rarities from ’81-’86. This second comp of versions covers roughly half the timeframe but also stands as a representative synopsis of African Head Charge’s ’90s run, as Bonjo and Sherwood (and crew) didn’t release another record until 2005’s Vision of a Psychedelic Africa.

The name on their return really hits a certain nail right on its head as pertaining to African Head Charge’s general sound, though it is in fact a comment from Brian Eno regarding the intent of his ’80s collab with David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Eno’s statement also does a nice job of distinguishing the sound of a rekindled African Head Charge in the 21st century as Bonjo had been a resident of the title continent for a decade and Sherwood comes to the party with a wealth of inspired and beautifully strange production moves.

His contribution kinda hits an apex in the back-to-back dubbed-out combo punch of “Run Come See” and “Run Come Saw,” though frankly Sherwood’s presence is never not felt; no background fading on this one. This circumstance helps to put Vision on equal footing with Songs of Praise, but just as important is how they pull off “Surfari,” which features, you guessed it, surf guitar, and slightly Dick Dale-like at that, as played by Catchwise (one of three guitarist on the set alongside McDonald and the return of Crucial Tony from Creation Rebel and AHC’s ’80s period).

Instead of a quagmire of bad decision-making, “Surfari,” Vision’s second track, succeeds with flying colors simply because it’s so gloriously bent. It sets the stage nicely for what’s to come, which includes the track that titles the box and three cuts interspersed throughout that’re immediately followed by dub versions. One of them, “Ready You Ready” sports a children’s chorus nodding back to Songs of Praise. And so, stylistic harmony.

An additional component in this cohesion derives from Bonjo’s fondness for field recordings, from whence the religious chants of Songs of Praise derived. It’s also part of “In “I” Head,” the first track from the 2011 album Voodoo of the Godsent, alongside the undiminished looping-programming-sampling prowess of Sherwood (or as credited here, Crocodile); “The Best Way” has a sample of what I’m certain is a ping-pong ball bouncing off a hard surface. That might not seem like a big deal, but it kinda is.

It should also be noted that Bonjo is AHC’s lead vocalist, though his singing often takes a back seat throughout the discography, and as those field recordings are reliably engaging, that’s fine. When Bonjo’s voice gets slowed way down in “Take Heed… And Smoke Up Your Collyweed,” well, that’s fine too. With all this said, by a very slim margin Voodoo of the Godsent is the least essential of the original albums (this excludes Churchical Chant), which could be useful info for folks purchasing the vinyl.

However, for anybody having obtained the other three (or four) releases reviewed here, it’s difficult to imagine leaving this one behind. Because, as said, the margin is slim. And altogether, Drumming Is A Language 1990 – 2011 offers a sustained progression of rewarding stylistic breadth. It is a balm for the severity of the times.

Songs of Praise

In Pursuit of Shashamane Land

Vision of a Psychedelic Africa

Voodoo of the Godsent

Churchical Chant of the Iyabinghi

Drumming Is A Language 1990 – 2011

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