African Head Charge is a dub reggae ensemble founded in 1980 by percussionist Bonjo I (Bonjo Iyanbinghi Noah) as a purely studio 'band' and featuring a revolving cast of members, including, at times, Prisoner, Crocodile, Junior Moses, Sunny Akpan, Skip McDonald, and Jah Wobble. The group released most of their psychedelic dub experiments on their mentor and producer Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound label.
Releasing more than 10 records over the last 23 years, African Head Charge has amassed a large if sometimes uneven discography. " As none of the previous African Head Charge records on On-U sound are still in print, "Shrunken Head", a compilation of recordings ranging from 1981-2003, is not only the best entry point into African Head Charge's bizarre and fascinating musical universe but also indispensible for the budding dub/reggae fan.
For the uninitiated listener, African Head Charge's music is a strange combination of Rasta roots, African chanting and loads of other little things. Their sound can be dubby, trance-like, haunting, psychedelic and occasionally repetitive with hymns and chants culled from the spirit of dub/roots reggae, Nyabinghi, African and North Indian sounds, Bollywood-esque melodies and Rastafarian praise-songs and drumming.
Amongst the hightlights on "Shrunken Head" are the seminal "Pursuit," which features Prince Far I on vocals over eerie samples of bells and field recordings of pygmy chants; from 1997's "Environmental Studies", the pure dub of "Dinosaur's Lament," whose rumbling basslines and pulsing drums serve as the foundation for a meditation voiced through some sort of harmonized harp-like sound; "Dervish Chant", which heads straight into the Kasbah with overlapping percussion timbres and rough chanting; "Cattle Herders Chant" whose interlocking patter of drums, staccato guitar and Afro-pop texture draws inspiration from West Africa; and the psychedelically beautiful brand new track "Who Are You".
Ted Boothroyd's review of "Shrunken Head" from Jahworks.org:
You won't find African Head Charge written up in the major current guidebooks to reggae. Why not, you ask? Not good enough? Not important? Too new on the scene? Not reggae?
It's hard to say. They are definitely good enough, in fact are highly respected stalwarts of the On-U Sound label. By all appearances, they're very influential, so they must be "important." They were around in recorded form twenty years prior to the end of the last millennium, and as a live band for the last 16 years, so they're hardly new. It must be that they're not quite reggae enough for some folks, but on my shelf that's where their albums sit, resting comfortably between The Abyssinians and Laurel Aitken, and they haven't asked to be moved yet.
They're reggaeish but not pure reggae. Dubish, but not pure dub. Impure in various respects, come to think of it, but perhaps it's that lack of purity that makes their albums so fascinating, so appealing and frequently so entertaining. To quote from the liner notes of this new compilation, "…the idea was to try and create a psychedelic Africa, merging Jamaican tones and grooves, using dub techniques to create a distorted version of 'world' sound."
Distorted, impure, whatever. Let's give it a spin, track #1: A rumble in the distance, quickly on top of us. African drums nyahbingi rhythm tribal voices chanting, sudden foreground different songchant, dies off, builds again. Rich full multitude of sounds, organized and chaotic, incessant beat, strange instrumentation electronic swirls and wails, builds fades builds and fades lone female voice trails off into everywhere.
The track is typical and yet it's also the only one remotely like it-a contradiction, for sure, but also true. A few of the tracks are songs, or close to songs. Some have lyrics, most have appealing hooks of one sort or another. Some can be grating, at least in part; some are wildly successful experiments, such as "Language & Mentality," in which Einstein, yes, Dr. Albert Einstein, lectures loopily over a slow, sympathetic riddim about the significance of language. The slow, deep, unmistakeable voice of King Cry Cry, whom you may know as Prince Far I, lends its weightiness to another track.
"Shrunken Heads" (a truly inspired name) features, to quote again from the liner notes, "…a selection from some of the best African Head Charge material taken from the On-U albums-remastered and sounding as unique as ever." The group had a couple of earlier On-U compilations entitled "Great Vintage," Vols.1 and 2, but this one is far more representative of their scope and more attractively presented. In fact, with over 79 minutes of exotic, mostly appealing weirdness, this is the one to get, the very next time you feel a little courageous.