/ 22 June 2023

WITCH doctors of sound

Witch Jpeg

Nicknamed after the Rolling Stones’s snake-hipped veteran singer, Mick Jagger, it is no surprise 71-year-old Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda is behind — and in front of — one of rock ’n roll’s most vital releases this year. 

The Zambian singer’s band Witch — an acronym for “we intend to cause havoc” — has released its first new album in 39 years. Titled Zango, it is a reminder of how the style that Witch pioneered, Zamrock, remains one of the most thrilling to come out of Africa. Zamrock is a fusion of psychedelic rock and heavy metal, blended with folk and traditional Zambian kalindula. 

The first commercial Zamrock album released was Witch’s Introduction in 1973. Zambia’s economy was booming, with prices for copper, the country’s biggest export,  sky high. Young people were able to go to shows and buy records. 

In June 1975, President Kenneth Kaunda ordered that radio stations play 90% Zambian music — a great time to be in a band that’s just put out a fantastic record. 

Witch’s third record Lazy Bones!!, still rated as their masterpiece, was central as the Zambian rock scene blew up. As Chanda told The New York Times in a recent interview: “Witch was the band everyone wanted to join.” 

Thousands of people came to watch Zamrock shows. But the world economic order was changing. Copper prices crashed; wages fell and people had less disposable income. “Music became a luxury people couldn’t afford,” Chanda said. 

Zambia was also under the threat of attacks from the apartheid regime — curfews and blackouts followed. 

By the end of the 1970s, the once thriving Zamrock scene had floundered. In 1984, the first cases of Aids were reported. By 1990, 13% of the adult population was infected. 

Sadly, almost all of the original Zamrockers would die from Aids-related complications. Only a lucky few survived. Chanda was one of them — he had quit Witch in 1979 and became a music teacher. 

Fortunately, some recordings endured. Like many people in the rest of the world, I was introduced to Zamrock in the early 2010s when Now-Again Sounds released a six-record box set of Witch’s first five albums plus a compilation of singles. 

By that time, I was bored with rock music — too self-indulgent and predictable. But this unusual mix felt as if it was made for me — a potent blend of Black Sabbath, Stones, Stooges, Led Zep, Deep Purple and Velvet Underground, with added African rhythms. Delicious! 

The reissue sparked global interest in Zamrock, resulting in a decade-long world tour for a reformed Witch, with the irrepressible Chanda centre stage. He added keyboard player Patrick Mwondela (65), who was in the band for their two final albums in the early 1980s, plus four Europeans in their 30s — drummer Nico Mauskoviç, guitarists Stefan Lilov and JJ Whitefield, and bassist Jacco Gardner. 

Zango was born on the road as they crisscrossed the globe. Last year, the band decamped to Lusaka’s legendary DB Studios to record the album. In the recent mini-documentary Making of Zango, we’re taken into this home of Zamrock back in the 1970s. After 1994, the studio was largely used for voice-overs and radio documentaries. 

Fortunately, this time capsule still had all the analogue equipment used to record Zambia’s most powerful musical movement, including the mixing desk, tape recorder and the effects that were used during the recording of Lazy Bones!! in 1975. 

Engineers Jasper Geluk and Michael Linyama managed to revive the equipment, which had accumulated 30 years of dust and rust, through soldering, modulating and sheer luck. 

Chanda, wearing a Janis Joplin-style massive floppy sun hat, like he did in the heyday of Zamrock, says: “Rock music is a white man’s concept … we just bought into it and we added some Zambian touch to that. So, it’s not surprising to see Europeans trying to see how we created rock in the concept of Zambian eyes.” 

Meaning “meeting place”, Witch couldn’t have given Zango a more apt title, as the band explains: “Every village [in Zambia] will have this central place, where villagers meet to prepare for work …” 

For Witch the DB Studio was their zango. A zango is also “where youngsters go to learn, where the young ones learn from the elder folks, and where the visitors come and converge”. 

As bassist Gardner told The New York Times: “Jagari wasn’t saying, ‘You have to make the exact Zamrock sound.’ He said, ‘Make it your own.’” 

The Zambian uncles run the show, but the young Europeans bring their own solid contributions to the zango. 

When you put Zango — the vinyl version comes in a bright yellow pressing — on a turntable you hear there was clearly a meeting of minds when it was recorded. 

But I had a tiny hesitation. On several recent “African” records, there has been this neo-colonial thing where an overbearing European producer has imposed what he thinks African style should sound like. It’s normally sanitised — what will presumably sound easy on Western ears. 

Luckily none of that happened on the 10-track Zango. They avoid sounding like a cover band of their 1970s self, bringing the classic Zamrock sound creatively into the 21st century. 

Also, it was done with originality, without sounding disjointed, or cynical in a ticking-the-boxes sort of way. 

Under the broad Zamrock umbrella, some of elements reminded me of sludge rock; 1980s Madchester dance-rock (a la Stone Roses); post-punk/electro-funk/hip-hop 3 (associated with ESG and Tom-Tom Club); Adrian Sherwood-style dub; Afro rock (like veteran West-African rockers Osibisa); soukous guitar licks; future hip-hop (with fellow Zambian, the rapper Sampa the Great); psychedelic garage rock and even country, courtesy of a lap steel guitar combining gorgeously with an acoustic guitar. All done, I must add, without being derivative. 

The band has decent politics too. On the final track, Message from Witch, they proclaim: “Sometimes we carry the message ourselves/ The energy our message carries from/ DB Studios in Lusaka, Zambia/ Is sharper than the mightiest sword/ Hits deeper than any bullet can/ It unites beliefs, conquers xenophobia/ It laughs at hate speech, ends sexism/ It erases homophobia, shatters antisemitism, embraces every race/ It’s blind to colour, it is sweeter than honey/ The word, or message, is love.”