How Jon Toogood married African roots to New Zealand hip hop

by James Belfield / 10 July, 2018
Jon Toogood with his partner Dana, now wife, at The Hobbit premiere in 2012. Photo/Getty Images

Jon Toogood and his partner, now wife, at The Hobbit opening in 2012. Photo/Getty Images

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The Shihad frontman’s second side-project Adults LP was inspired by his Sudanese nuptials.

The irony of his varied links to the world of Islam hasn’t escaped Kiwi rocker Jon Toogood.

That a 17-year-old bogan could settle on the name Shihad for his fledgling speed-metal band back in the late 80s without realising its (misspelt) Arabic derivation, only to then briefly shelve the name to cope with post 9/11 marketing issues, and then find himself in 2014 getting married in the oldest mosque in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, still has him chortling into his cup of English breakfast tea.

“It’s still pretty crazy – for my wedding, I was at the point where the Blue and White Niles meet, saying my vows in Arabic and, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I play in a band called Shihad’,” he says.

But what’s perhaps even more ironic is that he and his Sudanese-born wife Dana’s nuptials – and specifically that Islamic ceremony – provided the spark for a new collaborative album with the Adults and could even inform his songwriting for a 10th Shihad album.

The new Adults album, Haja, gets its name from an Arabic honorific for an older woman and its music is underpinned by Sudanese vocals and rhythms called aghani-al-banat – or “girls’ music” – that he first heard on day three of his wedding during a female-only part of the performance.

“I’m the only guy in the room and she’s dancing a dance for me that’s hundreds of years old,” he says. “I’m on stage in traditional Sudanese gear and surrounded by 300 women I hadn’t met before, and that’s when I first hear the music. While Dana was getting a costume change, it gave me a chance to sit down and clap along with them to the point where they were pushing me to do more intricate rhythms and they could see that this white boy could keep up. By the end, we were up dancing with them and I was asking if I could please come and record with them.”

Jon Toogood’s Adults collaborators on Haja include:

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Toogood says he was drawn to the all-female groups’ wry sense of rebellion within what’s otherwise quite an authoritarian society – a “street vibe that has a garage or punk-rock thing to it”. It inspired him to look beyond rock music when he decided to reassemble the Adults.

“A lot of new rock music isn’t rock and roll because it’s not saying f--- you to the man, because we’ve got nothing really to rail against,” he says. “To get to the rebellious streak that the Clash and the Sex Pistols had, hip-hop is closest these days.”

The result was that when he dusted off the Adults brand last used for a 2011 album that included the likes of Fur Patrol’s Julia Deans, Straitjacket Fits’ Shayne Carter, the Mint Chicks’ Nielson brothers and Tiki Taane, Toogood decided to invite along a new, younger and decidedly more hip-hop group of collaborators.

“Originally I thought this music was going to be a musical representation of my son Yahia – half my world and half that world in Sudan –  so I was going to make up a bullshit story about meeting a really cool DJ called Yahia, put the music out as him, introduce him to the world and then have nothing to do with it,” he says.

“But Warner said that idea sucked, said I’ve already got a name, and if I wanted them to fund it, I should put it out as the Adults. That first album was about letting go of those reins of control and saying, ‘Please universe let this be good’, and this was even more frightening – it was about expanding this collaborative idea to the other end of the Earth.

“And I definitely wanted to share the aghani-al-banat with people over here because I know people will love it – if even a middle-class white boy with Jewish blood can get into it I just know that you can’t help but dance to it.”

The result is a powerful, uplifting album that skilfully mixes its African roots with soulful, urban contemporary Kiwi sounds and artists such as Aaradhna and Kings. And it’s telling that the now 46-year-old Toogood first met one of his collaborators, Estère, more than a decade ago when she was a drummer in the same Wellington High School band as his stepdaughter.

So the question remains: are all these influences of youth, positivity, world-music rhythms and hip-hop going to infiltrate the notoriously hard-and-heavy riffs of the next Shihad album? After all, 2014’s chart-topping FVEY was steeped in intense anger and frustration.

“I’m in the middle of trying to write the new Shihad album. In the meantime, this is a real antidote, because if you dwell in all that negativity for too long, you can start to vibrate on the same wavelength as the thing you’re trying to fight,” he says. “Haja shows that the idea is to rise above it and not be involved in the argument … something I think the new Shihad record will also deal with.”

HAJA, the Adults (Warner)

★★★★

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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