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Taken from Dangerous Minds (Aug 04, 2023)

'A Trip to Bolgatanga': Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah on African Head Charge's first new album in 12 years

by Oliver Hall


Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. (courtesy of On-U Sound)
Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah (courtesy of On-U Sound)


Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and Adrian Sherwood inaugurated the daring studio project African Head Charge in 1981 with My Life In A Hole In The Ground. Both in the studio and in live performance, African Head Charge has burned up the intervening decades exploring unknown Mystery Spots of sonic experience, transmitting dub sonar signals in every dimension where sound travels.


A Trip to Bolgatanga, the band's first LP in twelve years, may be the most sublime entry in the African Head Charge catalog. I recently spoke with Bonjo about Africa, drumming, his youth as a runaway Rasta, and much else. An edited transcript follows.


First of all, my condolences on Mark Stewart's death. He was a person I liked very much.


That is a very big loss for not just me, but for all On-U Sound.


You played with him throughout his career, right?


Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah! I was a part of the original Maffia, the band, yes. I was a part of it, the original one, before Skip [McDonald] and all that, yes. So I knew him very well.


Did you meet him through Adrian?


Yes, I got to know him through Adrian.


When you and Adrian started African Head Charge, had you been to Africa yet?


No. That time I didn't go. I didn't go to Africa until '94. But even then, I still had Africa inside me, you know, Africa was already in me because of the way I was brought up.


Those early records, I guess it's an imaginary Africa, and I'm curious about how that compares to your experiences in Africa. Did you have any ideas about Africa that have changed?


Oh, yes, I've had a lot of it, because I was born in a place in Jamaica called Clarendon, which is the rural part of Jamaica. And in that area you'll find, apart from the big Rasta camp there-my grandmother's sister was the head of the Rasta camp there, yeah?-and then up the road from where I live, about five minutes' walk from where I'm living, there's a Poco church there, Pocomania church, Poco. Which is a part of the African culture. These people brought-you know, they're slaves, then, let's use the word "slave," the people, them that was taken from West Africa, they were maintaining their spirituality and their culture. Although it wasn't a lot of them, 'cause the colonial people tried to beat it out of them, but a few of them kept it.


There's a woman that was close to where we're living, her name is Mother Hibbert. She was about two, three minutes' walk from where I'm living, Mother Hibbert. That's Toots, have you heard of Toots Hibbert, the Maytals?


Photo by @marg_yo
Photo by @marg_yo


Of course!


All right. Well, Toots' auntie. See, that's where Toots gets that all that script from as well. Okay, Toots' auntie, her name was Mother Hibbert, and she was like the spiritual woman in the area, you know? We have many churches, we have church like Catholics, we have church like Nazareth Assembly, which my mom and dad always were a part of that, Protestant, all kind of things. But we have this one church in the area where they were just doing African [spirituality], and her name was Mother Hibbert. So, from where I am, once I hear the drumming starts in the evening, some evenings, I just go there, even though sometimes my family, they would beat us for going there, but I would go.


Because our family, they thought that anything to do with the Black culture were like Obeah, voodoo, or ungodly things, or whatever, you know? But me as a child, I wasn't really thinking about-had nothing to do with no Obeah, voodoo spirituality or anything, it's just: I heard the drumming, I heard it and that draw me to go there. So I used to go there, 'cause when they see me, some of the drummers and their people, they saw that I keep coming all the time, so they start to give me something to play, like a tambourine or some sticks or something, until I start to play some drums as well, you know? And that's when I was about eight years old, I was very young. So because of that I learned the Poco drumming, which was drumming that came directly from Africa, which later, that same Poco drum slowed down to become Nyabinghi drumming, same Poco drumming, okay? So that's where I got the African drumming inside me before I even go to Africa.


It's in a spiritual, religious context, too, which I think is interesting.


That's right. Exactly, exactly. 'Cause Mother Hibbert is a woman, like, when people have a spiritual problem they will go to see her and she will solve it or something like that. She's a spiritualist, you know? She can heal people and all that kind of thing. She used a lot of herbs, she knows about herbs and different trees and bush and whatever, but she's also a spiritual person. She believes in, she work with the ancestors.


So were Poco and Nyabinghi the first drumming techniques-


Yes, well what happened with the Poco drum, the Poco drum was the original drums that came with the slaves, you understand what I'm saying? That drumming. But the thing is, like you say something is bad-people don't want it because it's too Black, it's too African, it's too whatever. And our great-grandparents, they were taught to only believe in whatever religion the slavemasters gave us, they had to follow that. Well, there was a few people like the Maroons and these people, who decide "no, we're going to maintain our thing." Which is a very small amount of people, not a lot! Out of a hundred, maybe you'll get two percent. So I was just lucky that I lived very close to Mother Hibbert. And there was another person again, his name was Arwa (?). But it's Mother Hibbert that I really went and get that African spirit inside of me.


A Trip to Bolgatanga
A Trip to Bolgatanga


Tell me about Bolgatanga and the name of this album.


Bolgatanga, you know, I was in Ghana, and the time came for me to come back. So the same week that I had to come back, the planes stop running. They say no plane is running 'cause of COVID and all that kind of thing. So I thought, well, I did record some drumming earlier anyway, you know? But I decide, yes, I'll go and spend time in Bolgatanga because it's very hot there and they said COVID don't like heat.


So I had a friend lived there, one of them was King Ayisoba who was a top musician in Ghana. He's the king of the kologo. The first track you hear on it is him playing the guitar and the chanting, and we collaborate on doing that. But he was the king of kologo music, he was the number one, and he had a hit song some years ago, number one hit song in Ghana, "I Want to See My Father." So while I was in Bolgatanga, I get to know him and we become friends. And Adrian suggest to me-I told Adrian what I'm doing, I said, listen Adrian, I'm doing this, I'm doing that, and I'm using most of my money to do it; if my money run out, I'll let him send me more money so I can pay the musicians and the drummers and whatever-and he suggested if I can get King Ayisoba to do something. I don't think he knew that he was in Bolgatanga. So when he said that, it was easy for me to do. I just went to King Ayisoba and pay him and some of the drummers and play a session, and we just went in the studio and did two tracks, you know?


So I was spending a lot of time in Bolgatanga. I love Bolgatanga. Bolgatanga is a place where it is extremely hot. When I say hot, hot, hot, hot! So hot that when you go to any drinking spot, or a club, or any place of entertainment, they have a swimming pool there. Everywhere you go there's entertainment going on near a swimming pool. 'Cause when people are dancing or enjoying or drinking or eating or whatever, they get hot, so they wanna jump in the pool, and sometime they stay in there and enjoy the music or whatever. So that place is very hot, so I decide I'll stay there.


And in fact, my woman, there's a girl on the album who sings and plays some percussion on it, and her name is Angela Akanuoe, she's from Bolgatanga as well.


It sounds like you did some of the recording in Ghana?


Yeah, most of it. The foundation of the album was done in Ghana. I just came over here with Adrian and we overdub other things on top of that, like some bass, some keyboards, some this and that. But we did the vocals and the drumming there, and the chanting.


Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. (courtesy of On-U Sound)
Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah (courtesy of On-U Sound)


So the contributions of Skip [McDonald] and Doug [Wimbish]-


They came after, they came after. They came, and I think I'm gonna be working like that now, because I like that idea, you know? Well, I've always been setting the foundation, anyway, for African Head Charge, and then other people come and do other things on top of that, you know? That's how it works from a long time. But this time, it wasn't just me alone as drummer, there's other drummers as well. And I wanted to get some different vibes of drummers, you know? I have one of them who's working in the band with me right now, you know, one of the drummers from Ghana. But he's a part of the Ga. I did some of the drumming in Bolgatanga, and I did a lot of it in Accra. Accra, you have the Ga. It's a different tribe. And they're good drummers.


Different drums.


Yeah, different types of drummers, yes. Every tribe has got a different way of expressing drums and dance, you know?


Is it different instruments, or different ways of playing?


It's the same instrument but different ways of playing.


Why has it been so long since the last African Head Charge album?


Well, after you've done-is it twelve albums we've done already, you know? We've done twelve albums. So maybe it was time for us, and for me as well, to really start to think about the next move, you know?


I've been to going to Ghana from '94. And I just decide that, so many different tribes, I want to record a lot of different kind of drumming, from not just Ghana, you know. Maybe next time I'll go to Gambia, or to Sierra Leone, or to somewhere else. But that is what my plan is for the future. Because it's African Head Charge, so I want to cover as much of Africa as possible, and combine it with the Jamaican thing, just combine that, you know? Because I was born and grew up in Jamaica, but at the same time I have the African inside of me through the Poco church and the Nyabinghi and so forth. So I'm just trying to link them together, find a way of putting it all together, or as much as I can. I can't put it all, but I put as much as I can, yeah?


So I'm planning on the next album-I start to plan the next album already, I start to write things down, you know, and things like that. So when I go to Africa-I've got family there, you know, I have children there, I've got grandchildren there as well. So it's not just going there to have fun and to see my children and whatever whatever. When I go there I want to do creative things, so that when I come back here, me and Adrian and whoever else is there, we can come together and take it from where I've taken it.


African Head Charge c. 1993
African Head Charge c. 1993


There's an interview that you gave to the Wire a few years ago, and I might have misunderstood something you said. Did you play with Fela Kuti?


No. Well, I jammed with them, I jammed with them. What happened was, a long time ago, it could be the early Eighties or something like that, I used to audition a lot. When I found out that drumming is what I really wanted to do, I used to go and audition, sometimes just playing in a pub. I look in the Melody Maker, at that time, at the Melody Maker and the New Musical Express. And it used to come out like Thursday and I used to buy it, and of course they had adverts, "Musician Wanted," "Conga Player Wanted," or whatever. I'll ring them up and go for the audition.


This time, a band from Nigeria came to London, and the band was called the Funkees. And the Funkees, one of their conga players didn't make it, I think it was a visa or a passport problem or whatever. So they put an advert in the paper, and when I went there I met up with this player called Sonny Akpan, and Chyke, and all these other-I mention those names 'cause those were the ones, sometimes you're in a band and you get close to one or two people. I got close to Sonny Akpan, I got close to Chkye; Chyke was another drummer, the kick drummer.


So what happened was, through the way we like, 'cause I mean in those days I used to smoke a lot of ganja, anyway. I don't take any drink, but I smoke a little weed sometimes, and I think Fela love it, you know? At that time, we have this ganja that's coming in from Jamaica, it's called Red Beard. We don't have it anymore. That ganja was like medicine. It gives you appetite and it's really good. Up to now, today, I don't see anymore herb like that, you know?


So I used to get it and I used to go down there with it. And the first time I went there, I didn't meet Fela the first time I go, but someone took it and give him and tell him, say, "Hey, we have a Jamaican friend who'll come here and bring this weed," and he love it! So the next time I went there, the herb was sent up to him, and then I start playing, 'cause in those days I didn't really talk a lot, somehow. About 35, oh, many years ago, more, 40 years maybe. So if I see a drum, that was my way of communication. I'd just start to play it. I'd start to play bloong! bloong!, I'd start to play some riddim, play something. And then some of the other drummers from Fela's band, all the other musicians, they'll come and they'll sit close, and they started playing! So we'll find, after about an hour, we'll find like about 30 people are playing. And some nice girls was there, too, playing, and I realize that all of them was Fela's wife and all that. So we could only look, but nothing, you know what I mean?


And then Fela came down and saw me playing with all idren, and Fela: "Bonjo!" Fela himself called me Bonjo. My name was not Bonjo at that time! So he call me that, and I try to find out why, why'd he call me that? And they said I look like someone in Nigeria with that name, and the person is also a percussionist, so that person is like my twin, you know what I mean? So he called me that name because I look like somebody, one of his people that he knows in Nigeria. So that's how I got the name from Fela.


via Discogs
via Discogs


But I never played with him live. 'Cause he was living in this big mansion. Ginger Baker, there's this guy called Ginger Baker, this drummer. Have you heard of Ginger Baker?


Yes!


Well, Ginger Baker have some big mansion, I forget where the place was, and Ginger Baker give the mansion to Fela so he could live there with all his wives and all his musicians and everything, big place. That's where I used to go, me and Sonny Akpan and Chyke and that, we used to go down there. So I used to jam with them, I did jam with them.


They had a big room downstairs. Massive room! They have all the rooms upstairs around the place, but downstairs was just a big room and playing the drums, you know what I mean? So much drums. I never seen so much drums in one place like that before.


They were speaking their languages there, you know, and I didn't talk because I didn't know how to communicate with them too much in their language. Although some of them like Sonny and Chyke, some of them could speak English, so I could talk with them, but I didn't really talk a lot. Burn my weed, burn the smoke, and play some African drum, some Poco drum, the one that I learned from all small. And that fit right in, you know? I suppose if I'd hung around much or if I was a bit pushy or whatever maybe I could've been playing in the band, but I was playing in the other band, the Funkees. 'Cause the Funkees is the band that warm up before he plays. Then later, the band changed from the Funkees to Efya (?), and I was still with them when they were in Efya (?), too, until that split up and Sonny went to work with Eddy Grant.


He was a great player. He was like my teacher, to tell you the truth, he put me further than where I was in the African drum. He took me further than where I was in the drumming, 'cause I had to learn from him. You play something, and then I have to play what he's playing, you know? And so that's how it goes. And that's why they like me as well, 'cause when you go for the audition, Sonny would come to you and play something, and then he'd tell you to play it. When I hear it, I just play it, 'cause I don't know, I'm like that. I hear something and I learn to play it, you know? And that's why they like me.


So I was playing more like the rhythm, he was playing the lead part. That's why even now, I play lead in some song, but I'm more of a rhythmic player. Pulse, maintain the pulse. I learned that from working with some of the guys from Fela Kuti. 'Cause if you listen to the Fela Kuti music, you notice they maintain the pulse. If somebody's playing "one, two, three, one, two, three," if they're playing that, they'll play that for an hour, and it won't slow up and it won't speed up. They had that discipline. I learned that discipline from them too, although I learned it from Jamaica anyway, but I learn it more when I got to meet them.


I feel like that's why those performances can go on for so long, is because the groove is steady.


That's right. They can play one song for half an hour, or more than that. It's a groove, and you can get hypnotized in the groove, and get carried away. That's what we like, we like to get into that, where it gets inside you.


Photo by Jeff Pitcher
Photo by Jeff Pitcher


It sounds like you've been a student of drumming techniques since you were a kid.


From I'm seven years old, from I'm seven years old. Because even my grandmother auntie, her name is Nana Bonchie, she had a camp which is a Rasta camp-some people said a Rasta church, but it's a camp, really-where this man was head of the camp. If you Google his name, his name is the Reverend Claudius Henry. At that time, he was the top Rastaman in the whole world. The number one, the top Rastaman, the founder, the first Rastaman, his name is Howell, Leonard Percival Howell. Then after Howell, the toughest or the greatest out of them was Henry, because he was the one who was organizing for us to go back to Africa and all that. 'Cause when I was about eight, nine, I remember a lot of them left the camp, said they were going to Africa and they all came back. I remember I used to talk to him and ask him why. When I grow up, I came back to London, and I came back to Jamaica, and I went to, at this time he built a church in a different place, near May Pen, which is the capital of Clarendon, he built a church there, and the church is called Bethel. And you know me, I always like to ask these elders questions. I asked him why did he build a church and call it Bethel, he said God told him to do that. And then I asked him why he organized that trip for all the people to go to Africa, and he said he wanted to see how serious the people were, 'cause they didn't go! You know, somehow they turned back, and they come home, people was laughing at them and all this kind of thing.


And there's other things he tell me to make me strong as a Rasta, as well. There's other things that he shared with me. But he was a revolutionary Rastaman. The hung his son. In those days, they used to hang Rasta, hang people who were thought to be criminal, you know? So one of his son, Ronald Henry, they hung him and four other people with him. I was there when all that was happening. I was about maybe ten, eleven years old, but I remember when the whole thing was going on, you know? Yeah.


And he showed me where they shoot him in his head, where the bullet chip in his head. When I come there, and he heard that I was there, I remember I heard him say "Oh, the messenger has come?" Because I'm so young, they think I'm the one who's gonna go around, and go around, and tell the world about what was happening. So he called me a messenger. I never take up on that, like go around and say this or that, I don't do that, but I remember hearing him say that.


And then, because I'm always asking him a question, he took me and showed me different rooms. And he showed me a room, he said, "Marcus Garvey's spirit is in this room." Told me, "Haile Selassie's spirit is in this room." He told me, "Kwame Nkrumah's spirit is in this room." Different leaders of Africa's spirit is in this room. And later when I went to Africa, I realize something he's telling me that is there in Africa, 'cause in Africa you have stool rooms. And those stool rooms are where the kings are, all the kings dem have stool rooms. When somebody's gonna be a king and take over, they get the spirit of some king that passed, maybe a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or something like that. So they'll take you in there and let you sit on the stool three times, and then they give you a name, which is a stool name. Like they wanted to give me a name called Nana Kwabena Agyekum because they wanted me to be a chief there.


Baking Peacemaker bread (via Duke University Libraries)
Baking Peacemaker bread (via Duke University Libraries)


But I realized that what the Reverend Claudius Henry was showing me, he showed me a lot of things, what I would then see thirty years later, twenty-odd years later, in Africa! He started making bread as well in my area, Clarendon. If you do any research about it, this bread things is called Peacemaker bread. And I would ask him about that. The answer he'd give me was "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God." So, every question I'd ask him, he'd give me an answer, you know? I remember one time I even said to him, "How come people look at you like you are God?" 'Cause he's like my grandfather, you know, so like a grandson, you can say anything. But I was like that, I was always asking questions.


'Cause I remember going up there to the Sabbath, we'd take a truck from lower Clarendon, to move to the next place, Bethel, where's he's moved his church. And I say, "How come the people are looking at you and singing songs as if you are God?" And that's when he was telling me that we are all Gods. That cleared a lot of things up for me as well, to know that we are all creators, we are all God, but we are the creative force, which is nature, you understand what I'm saying? That is really the power, the force. So I learn a lot from him, and because I learn so much from him, sometimes I have problems. Because a lot of people didn't get the chance to sit with somebody great like Reverend Claudius Henry. A lot of people didn't get the pleasure of opting to sit and see people like Mother Hibbert answering other people, you know? And so, at a very small age, I was drawn to these people. Even though my parents, they are Christians.


Like my mom used to go to a church called Nazareth Assembly, and when I went to where my grandmother was living, my grandmother was living in August Town, so one time I went and spent some time in August Town, and they wanted to send me to some Catholic church, and my spirit couldn't take it! For some reason, my spirit couldn't take it. Everywhere they send me, my spirit couldn't take it. I went and live in the country, in Victoria, Thompson Town, which is upper Clarendon, up in the mountains. My spirit couldn't take it neither, 'cause these people are so much into church! Mmm. I'm not saying anything is wrong with it, because people do what they want to do, but when somebody want to force you to go, and if you don't go, you're a bad boy, you know? And some people will go because they want, "I am a good boy," so they go, I've seen some of my sisters and some of my brothers, they'll go to church, because after that, you're gonna be treated really nice, you know?


So truth, I was treated like the black sheep of the family-well, that's what they call it, right? I was treated as the bad one. Out of nine children, I was the bad one. That's the reason why I didn't go to school by eleven. I didn't go back to school at eleven years old because I had to run away, because I just didn't like the idea of [laughs] when I saw those churches. Especially the Catholic church. I went to the Catholic church, and I saw those statues, and it freaked me out! It give me nightmares, you know what I mean?


Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. (courtesy of On-U Sound)
Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah (courtesy of On-U Sound)


And plus, I had a strong voice when I was small. And when I was six and five and all that age group, before I start to realize, no, that's not what I want to do, 'cause I realized no, I didn't want to do that when I was seven and a half years old. I used to go and sing in my mother's church, a church called Nazareth Assembly, and I used to sing, like, "Jesus loves all the little children, all the children of the world," and every Sunday they'd dress me up and I'd sing. And I was a good boy, [made] my mom proud of me, dress me up nice, a good boy. But once I decided to go, when I hear the Nyabinghi drums and the Poco drum, I felt good about those places! I decide I want to go there, and I didn't really want to go back to that church. So I was like the outcast. I was like the outcast of the family.


I ran away. Everywhere they send me, I would run away. I would go and sleep under people house, because I didn't like it. When I went to August Town, that's what I was doing. I'd run and jump over the fence and run, and go and sleep in graveyards, and all kind of thing. I was only about eleven, twelve years old. But what I've learned, that's what give me a good life. 'Cause although I didn't go to school to learn about physics and all these kind of things-I was good at math. But it's the drumming, that's what helped me when I came to London. I was doing workshops and also going to schools and get children and teach some of them drumming and so on. And I see some of those children grow up to be big boys now and playing drums and playing different instruments!


The drumming, to me, is my life. 'Cause I didn't learn mechanic, I didn't learn anything. I just, you know, my ears, when I hear something, I would just hear something and I would play something that fit it. You understand? It doesn't matter what music it is. When I'm in the studio, people are playing a song or playing something and I hear it, and I would play something that suits it.


Even as a small boy, you felt the pull of these other teachers away from that Catholic tradition. It's like you were already kind of formed. It's mysterious to think about what that is in a child.


African Head Charge - Additional PressShot
African Head Charge - Additional PressShot


Well, I think I was lucky. I was lucky in a way, you know. Some people are brought up in a upper area where people are rich and they go to good schools and they this and that. I was brought up in Clarendon, which was very poor at the time. The only way people used to survive is by cutting the sugar cane and load it on a dray or a truck and taking it to Yarmouth or Monymusk. These are the places where they would make rum. So that's how they would live. Or they would go and dig sand and pull up a truck. That's what my dad used to do, put sand in a truck, fill up a truck with sand, him and his friends, and then they take the truck, weigh it, and whatever it weighs they pay them for how much it weighs, you know what I mean? And then the truck will come back, and they'll fill it up again, and so forth. In Clarendon, there was a lot of work like that. Task work. Work where you get paid for what you do. Like somebody will say to you, "There's some grass there, from there to there," and they'll measure it and tell you how much you're getting for it, and if you agree to do it for the price, "Let's do it!"


So that's how I used to survive. I used to survive by cutting cane, loading sugar cane-I'm talkin' 'bout I'm twelve years, 'cause I was very strong when I was that age. My mom and father wasn't there, and plus I ran away anyway; I had run away, because I couldn't take the pressure that they were giving me, and I didn't want to go to the [laughs] Catholic church. So they looked upon me as a bad boy! 'Cause in Jamaica at that time, if you don't go to church, they think that you have some evil spirit in you or you are bad or something like that. You have to talk about Jesus all the time, "Jesus, Jesus," and be baptized like some of my sisters. They got baptized and they were treated well! And I used to think, it's not fair. Because if you have children, and you have, say, nine children, and one or two of them is not in church, you should still love them the same way. But the Jamaican parents, it wasn't like that, you know. And it took me a long time, I think I had a chip on my shoulder, as well; it took me a long time to get over it. 'Cause I wanted to be loved like all my brothers and sisters were loved, and so forth.


But I think, in the end, we come to something where I knew that my mom loved me. 'Cause my mom, before she died, and my dad, they actually expressed their love for me, and that made me feel good. Because at first I thought they hated me. Sometimes I was looking in the mirror thinking, "Hey, maybe I'm ugly! Why is it, what's the problem? Why?" This Christianity thing is so serious about Black people-I'm talking about where I know, I know about Jamaica, very serious. If you don't go to church, they think that you are something bad. And especially with me, I go to place where they don't like, I mean, I go to the Nyabinghi church. I go and play Nyabinghi drums, 'cause I like the chanting.


One time I was a part of the Nyabinghi group. I'm talkin' 'bout when I was eight, nine, seven to nine, those age group, three of us, me, Vern and Owen, we were the three youth drummer in the camp. We play before Bongo Black and all the rest of Count Ossie. The great Count Ossie used to come there when I'm a small boy. And sometime they would teach us one or two things, you know what I mean? I learned to play lead keke. Out of the three of the young group, I was the leader of the keke. And I had a strong voice, so I was leading the chant as well. And nothing could keep me away from there, nothing at all could keep me away from going to the Nyabinghi gathering or the Poco gathering.


I remember they used to beat me so much that I run away, because I thought I can't take no more beatings, so I run away. So now when I run away, I'll go and run and stay with some people who had dray. We have this thing in Jamaica called "dray." Dray is a thing where, it's a cart, like a chariot. Two wheels, and you have three mules, right? And then you load the sugar cane on the mule and you take it to Monymusk or Yarmouth, where they take the sugar cane and they'll weigh it and then they'll pay you. So I used to work for some of these people. I used to work for this guy called Billy Paine, and I worked for the Charoos as well. I remember when I ran away from home, I would go and sleep in the Charoo place. 'Cause they had a room there where they put all the, you know, this and that you put on the back of the animal, like the thing you put in his mouth and the saddle on his back. They have a room there where they keep the saddles. I remember I used to go and sleep in there, because I couldn't go and stay at my parents' house. But at the same time, I was free now to go to the Poco church, I was free to go to the Nyabinghi, without getting beaten. And I was earning my own money from that age, so I was okay. Until later, they sent for me to come to England. I think I came to England when I was sixteen, nearly sixteen.


Did Count Ossie make a big impression on you?


He was like my teacher. He was like-when I say "my teacher," he used to come to the gathering, right? And a lot of us were playing and they're teaching us songs to sing, like "Sodom and Gomorrah," and "Babylon Come Down," and "No Night in Zion," they teach us all these songs. So I just learn them and chant them. I remember we had the Clarendonians. Have you heard of the Clarendonians?


No.


Which is Freddie McGregor, you heard of Freddie McGregor?


coverart
coverart


Yes, I've seen Freddie McGregor.


Alright, well, Freddie McGregor was in my area, 'cause I'm from Clarendon. He's a Clarendonian, and they used to win all the competitions. When Freddie was about ten, eleven years old, he was like a star, you know? I remember once they had a competition in May Pen, which is the capital of Clarendon. They sent me there, the three of us. That's where I see the Skatalites and all those people. I was a lickle boy, maybe this time I was about like nine, ten years old, and I saw Don Drummond. I remember this tall man standing in a corner all by himself with his long trombone. I see them, but I never really talk to them, you know what I mean? I saw them because I went to the competition.


He must have had a sweet voice when he was a boy.


Oh, listen, Freddie McGregor-I remember, 'cause I'm close to his age, yeah? And I remember when young women, like my aunties and all those people, they all of them love him! Especially the women. I'm not talking about the young girls, you know, I'm talking about woman, like who could be his mother and auntie, they just love Freddie!


And Yabby You doesn't live far from where I live. He lives in a place called Longwood. So in Clarendon, they produced a lot of good artists around there. And I think people like Yabby You and certain other artists, they would pass through the camp, they would come through, you know? That camp was a very famous camp. Police used to come and raid it sometime. And as I said, they hung some of my-well, let me call them uncles, they were like father figure to me, you know? So that's when Rasta was a revolutionary movement.


The man, Reverend Claudius Henry, his motto was, he came as the "repairer of the breach." He came to repair the damage that's been done to us, the mental and spiritual and physical damage that's done to Black people, he came to repair. 'Cause when I ask him, and he told me that's what it was, the repairer of the breach. Just like when he told me about the Peacemaker bread, he said "blessed are the peacemakers, 'cause they shall see God." I'm always asking him questions so he was able to tell me things.


Because of what I know, even sometime I'm here in London, I have problem with other artists 'cause they don't really know what it's all about, 'cause some of them just came, and I get the whole thing from, I'm a first-generation Rasta.


It was hard to be a Rasta in that time, right?


Yes, like in the Fifties, it was difficult to be a Rasta. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It wasn't easy at all. Even your own family will fight you. 'Cause even my grandmother-I love my grandmother, I love her, she's one of the women that I love-but she didn't really get on with her own sister, Nana Bonchie, which is the Rasta Queen, 'cause she married one of the Rasta elders, and the elder came from Pinnacle, where Rasta go and live, and the government tried to break Pinnacle up. So the Rasta start to move all over Jamaica, I'm talkin' 'bout in the Thirties, they start to move around.


So that's when my grandmother now, she took her-like everybody in my family, or most Jamaican family in those days, when your family died you inherit-if they have ten acres of land and there's ten children, everyone will get one acre each, you understand? So Nana Bonchie, now, which is the Rasta Queen in Clarendon, she take her land-it could be about, say, four, five acres-and she build a church, and it's a Rasta church, right? And then Claudius Henry, now, he was having problems where he was, in a place called Rosalie Avenue, and they were chasing Rastas all over Jamaica, killing them, locking them up, cutting their dreadlocks, and he ran away. So when he ran away, he come to my grandmother's place. And my grandmother place was a place, if you're running away from somewhere, you can come there, they'll accommodate you. They'll give you food to eat, and you'll get involved in the work or whatever or whatever. So that's how Claudius Henry came there. So when he came, he was the high priest there. Google that name and you can remember that I told you about him.


Rev. Claudius Henry (via the Jamaica Gleaner)
Rev. Claudius Henry (via the Jamaica Gleaner)


What was the music like around Claudius Henry? Nyabinghi drumming?


Hundred percent Nyabinghi. When you go to the Poco church, though, it's strictly Poco drumming. The Poco, the African drumming. That's what you get there, it was a different type of drumming. When I went to Africa, that's what they were playing there.


[After an exchange, Bonjo resumes the subject of his youth.] It was rough, I was rough, 'cause running away from home and sleeping under people's houses, and all this kind of thing, it was rough. But I just wanted to play drums. I used to even make drums, I just love drums. I just like the sound of drums. When I am in Africa, anywhere I go, you can guarantee drumming is going on there. [Laughs] You know what I mean? 'Cause when I go to Accra, now, I go to a place by the beach where I know that every Friday, and Saturday, and Sunday, it's drumming! So sometime I'll go there, I'll maybe book into a hotel for a day or two just to see the drumming. And my woman, Angela, who's on the album, she's also into the dancing and the percussion playing. I don't think they allow the woman to play the drum, but she can play it, and then she play the percussion. And I suppose that's what bring us together, drumming and dancing. Well, she's more into the dancing.


Do you have a big collection of percussion instruments?


Yeah, I have a collection. I have my drums, I have my big thunder drum, I have my other drums. Some of the drums I have, people have it. 'Cause sometime I'll go away, like I'll go to Ghana and I'm there for a while, so I just leave my drums with different people.


At the moment I have two drums here, I have two big conga drums, the main drum. But the bass drum and the other percussion, I let friends use them, because some of them, they don't have it.


It's good for them to be used rather than just sitting there.


That's it, that's it, yeah. Yeah man!


'A Trip to Bolgatanga' is available from On-U Sound, Bandcamp, Amazon, and quality record stores.






 
 

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