John Wizards's musical magic is no illusion
There's something quite romantic about a young band grafting, crafting and moulding their sound on a cold Friday night a floor above an all-night Cape Town café, an orange light streaming into the small studio where they are rehearsing. One is almost too scared to move, propped up on the couch right up against them, in case you disturb the intimacy, the energy, the intensity and the magic this group of six friends–they call themselves the John Wizards–are weaving with their completely fresh, beguiling sound.
This could only come from Africa: some rumba, a touch of soukous, a nudge of Shangaan electro, a base of 1980s township disco, a sprinkling of benga, a hint of Thomas Mapfumo's guitar, King Sunny Ade's there, Dr Nico Kasanda's woven in. But it isn't Africa-by-numbers: abstract electronica, African folk, bossa nova, modern classical, musique concrète, Afro-jazz, soul, reggae, broken funk and rock all also form part–in varying, subtle degrees–of the unique and truly original John Wizards mix.
All these heavy influences have the potential to make musical knees buckle, but as the John Wizards's eponymous debut album confirms, they wear them lightly, making it undoubtedly one of the finest releases of the year.
You don't need to take my word for it though – released by the United Kingdom's revered, mainly electronic, Planet Mu label, the album has been getting rave reviews across the world, except here at home in South Africa.
"Like it's a dream for all of us to play for our moms in Kirstenbosch," says guitarist Tom Parker (23) only slightly tongue in cheek to the raucous laughter of the rest of the band.
We're all freezing our butts off where we're sitting on the studio's balcony after they finally decided they had rehearsed long and hard enough.
A few of the band members want to smoke. Cold beer supplies have been replenished.
"Playing shows overseas, I didn't think it possible at some point ... it's happening now," Parker adds. More laughter of the kind from a bunch of young guys still unable to believe their luck.
But it almost wouldn't have happened if it had not been for the perseverance about a year ago of Mike Paradinas. He is the boss of supercool and exceptionally supportive Planet Mu, who's perhaps better known as electronica musician µ-Ziq. A guy in the UK passed on a mix John Wizards's band leader, guitarist, producer and main composer, John Withers, had put on Soundcloud on to a friend of his–a guy in a band who knew Paradinas–and passed it on to him.
"I actually found an old email from him that I somehow missed – I found this the other day as I was looking for his email address," the band's bassist Alex Montgomery admits to his mates.
"Mike?" asks Withers.
"Yes, he sent us an email, which I completely missed," says Montgomery shyly.
Fortunately for the band, Paradinas liked their music enough not to give up there. He sent the band a Facebook friend request and a message afterwards.
"I saw the message and I called Alex," says Withers.
"I was writing a test, I was applying for PhDs ... I came out, it hadn't gone as well as I'd hoped," said Montgomery. Then he got Withers's message and went to his house. "John told me and it was complete disbelief!"
And the next step after that?
Withers: "Er, the next step? The next step was to party." More raucous laughter.
"We took the initiative and tightened our set, [because] the label wanted to put out a mixtape," says Withers. "We followed through with that and [online magazine] Quietus released the mixtape."
? Photography by Nico Krijno
The band took Planet Mu up on their suggestion to "be creative with it, just make it interesting". The mixtape include a slowed-down Brenda Fassie, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, the township jive of The Movers, soul man Al Green, "the elephant of African music" Pepe Kalle, Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, Janet Jackson, post-dubstepper James Blake and composer Lukas (son of György) Ligeti.
The mixtape was a kind of declaration of intent, to contextualise the band's influences.
"And it was from there [that] I had to work the album a bit more and deliver the tracks," explains Withers, who writes all of the band's music and handles the production.
Five of the band members – Withers, Montgomery (26, a researcher at the University of Cape Town), Parker (23, studying philosophy at UCT), Geoff Brink (21, "I'm unemployed but I'm also a musician") and Raphael Segerman (26, web developer) – were together either at school or at UCT. Formed in 2010, the band only became what it is now through a chance meeting two years later.
Withers met vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba (39), who was working as a car guard outside a coffee shop in Cape Town. Nzaramba noticed the guitar strapped to Withers's back, and they began to talk about music.
Nzaramba had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and Withers told him that he had been writing music, but required vocals.
They didn't get around to recording at that time: Nzaramba quit his job, lost his cellphone, moved to new accommodation and lost contact.
Last year, Withers moved house and by chance ran into Nzaramba again: they were living in the same street. Withers invited him to his place to listen to some of the new songs he had written.
"I'd been trying to fit my vocals into the songs that I do and I wasn't really 100% happy with it and I asked Emmanuel if he wanted to put some vocals on," Withers says. "He sat in front of the mic and very, very quickly came up with stuff I was very happy with. It's a sort of collaborative thing with Emmanuel and myself."
The outcome of these sessions can be heard on the band's debut album.
Their songs, in English and Kinyarwanda, cover a train trip to Muizenberg, the Transkei, Hogsback, a nightclub in Dar es Salaam, pan-African unity, racism, culture and romantic love, of course.
Nzaramba came to South Africa in August 2009. "I've always been a musician; my father was one, my brother too," he says. "I've grown up with the music thing.
"My country had genocide so a lot of my brothers died, [some of] my family died, so I remain with three sisters and me. One is in Europe and two they are married in Rwanda.
"I think they like what I do because my father was a musician. He learned music at school but he had a lot of responsibilities so he couldn't survive on music. So I think my father was not happy with his life, even if he could take care of his family and educate us. But he was telling us ‘I would have liked to be a musician', so I decided let me do what my father couldn't do."
And the band name? "We've got this thing when we watch sport: we often refer to sportsmen as wizards if they reach a certain level of skill. Alex's ex-girlfriend said we should be called John Wizards, because that is a play with my name, John Withers."
I heard the band for the first time when they were being played on BBC Radio 6 Music on the internet–they haven't been playlisted on any national station in South Africa.
"It's something that does happen in South Africa; you become popular overseas and then it filters back," says Montgomery. "A similar thing happened with Shangaan electro that was popularised in the UK–that's bizarre."
The band are doing a UK tour next month with equally hyped Aussie band Jagwar Ma.
So who are you going to conquer: the world or South Africa? In which order?
"Hopefully South Africa at some stage," says Montgomery. "I would feel shitty if we were just popular overseas and no one enjoyed the music here."
Withers adds: "Ja, this is essentially where the music comes from."
And who are your fans?
"We haven't met them yet!" quips Withers, to which Montgomery adds: "We have some Japanese fans."
They're still marvelling over how they were signed by Planet Mu: "I think it's still quite surreal for all of us," says Montgomery.
The label has been very supportive.
"I think they're special in that they can get us pretty crazy publicity like that and make these wonderful things happen for us," says Segerman.
"At the same time I think it's run by not that many people ... it is run almost like a home label. At the same time, they are quite powerful. They seem like the nicest people, [and] they can also make the nicest things happen."
Adds Montgomery: "I think it's also maybe typical of the label to go, okay here's something that we like and why not sign this band that sounds completely different to anything we've ever signed and just do this thing that we decided we want to do."
Brink nods: "I think it is quite a surprise that they wanted to take on a band like us. They're incredibly accommodating, they're pushing for us."
Withers: "They make us feel very loved!"
Later on, over a few more cold ones, I shoot the breeze with Montgomery. "I'd love to play in Rwanda–a lot of our songs are obviously sung in Kinyarwanda [Nzaramba's home language]. I'd love to go there to play the stuff that's come from us and especially from Emmanuel ..."
He tells me the story of their first single, Lusaka by Night: "John was driving through Tanzania with his girlfriend and they saw the name of the club called ‘Lusaka by Night'." He pauses. "I think it would be great to play in Lusaka by Night, the actual club ... to play Lusaka by Night in Lusaka by Night. That would be wonderful."