Arts and Culture

Zamrock lives again

Zamrock lives again
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2018

The great Anglo-American rock, funk and soul genres of the 1960s and 70s had massive followings in Africa. In Zambia the genres were ‘localised’ into a unique sound, Zamrock, which sadly went into decline around a decade later. Now, however, the unique sound has been revived by international fans and is making a glorious return to the continent of its birth. By Leonard Koloko*

The Anglo-American rock, funk and soul music scene that rocked the world in the 1960s & 70s did not bypass Africa. The three genres had huge followings on African soil.

Resonating powerfully among the youth in the former British colonies, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia were popular global icons such as Elvis Presley, James Brown, Taj Mahal, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Grand Funk, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. The African youth not only emulated their great sounds but also embraced the ‘Flower Power’ culture of the era.

In Zambia this stirred many socio-cultural concerns, leading the then President – Dr Kenneth Kaunda – into passing an edict that 90% of the music played on national radio should be Zambian.

The musicians’ immediate reaction was to crossbreed traditional folk music styles with Western rock rhythms, thus giving birth to a new genre which was immediately given the moniker Zamrock by a University of Zambia medical student cum radio DJ – Mannaseh Phiri.

By then the famous British multicultural outfit, Osibisa, had inspired Musi-O-Tunya (‘The Smoke that Thunders’), a Zambian band that had already taken East Africa by storm with their Afro-rhythms (circa. 1972/73).

Another popular band, WITCH (acronym for We Intend To Cause Havoc), with its vibrant vocalist Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda, drew inspiration from the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple. In fact Chanda derived his nickname from the Rolling Stones front man, Mick Jagger.

Other big acts were Paul Ngozi and Ngozi Family, Mike Nyoni, Doctor Footswitch, Amanaz, Black Foot, Musi-O-Tunya’s founder Rikki Ililonga and his fellow multi-instrumentalist solo artiste, Keith Mlevhu.

Zamrock lasted about 10 years and by then Zambia was shattered by a number of socio-economic woes which included plummeting copper prices, a high cost of living and an escalation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic – the latter sadly leading to the rapid demise of a number of prominent musicians in the late 1980s and mid 90s. 

Whilst foreign genres like Congolese rhumba and disco music also became the new craze among the youth, Zamrock remained trapped on vinyl in people’s homes and on original master tapes, as the country’s only two major recording companies, Teal (a subsidiary of Gallo SA) and Edward Khuzwayo’s Zambia Music Parlour, closed down in the late 1990s alongside many others in manufacturing that could not cope with the dwindling economy.

Forgotten at home but still revered in Europe and America, Zamrock went into a slumber until its recent rediscovery by international music bloggers and record companies, as they have foraged through Africa – collecting, dusting and digitalising rare old vinyl records for reissue. These include the Los Angeles-based Now Again Records, Strawberry Rain Music (Canada), Oriki Music (France) and Shadoks (Germany). 

Initially there was the non-licensed re-issue of Chrissy Zebby Tembo’s My Ancestors, Ngozi Family’s The Ghetto and WITCH’s Introduction and In the Past albums by Shadoks. This was done for sharing online as a leisure activity, rather than profit making.

Sampling these rich Zamrock sounds, Now Again’s owner, Eothen Alapatt went a mile further by pursuing the few remaining Zamrockers, like the Musi-O-Tunya duo of Rikki Ililonga and Brian ‘Shakarongo’ Chengala, and former WITCH front man ‘Jagari’ Chanda, from whom he clinched licensing deals to reissue their great 70s hits.

Alapatt’s first Zamrock shot was the Rikki Ililonga and Musi-O-Tunya Dark Sunrise anthology featuring  the band’s debut Wings of Africa album and related singles on CD1, and Rikki’s solo albums Zambia and Sunshine Love on CD2.

Musi-O-Tunya also had their Chengala-brokered second album Give Love to Your Children reissued, together with their rarest debut 7″ single, Musi-O-Tunya/Thunderman. WITCH’s self-titled anthology was bigger, packaged with four CDs of their first five albums and their related 7″ singles.

The surviving Zamrock icons Rikki, Brian and Jagari have henceforth embarked on tracing other surviving Zamrock musicians and estate administrators of the deceased ones to clinch more album reissues. As a result, the two fantastic Welcome to Zamrock volumes 1 & 2 have now hit the international scene. Like the other Now Again productions which include Amanaz’s Africa, Ngozi Family’s Day of Judgement, and The Peace’s Black Power!, these two CD compilations come with hardcover books telling the story of Zamrock and its role in the socio-economic, political and cultural evolution of the country. 

Alapatt’s business ally, Jason Connoy, owner of Strawberry Rain Music, has on the other hand linked up with close associates of the now-defunct Teal Record Company and Zambia Music Parlour.These partnerships have seen the reissuing of Teal products like Harry Mwale Experience, Salty Dog and Keith Mlevhu’s The Bad Will Die anthology. The Music Parlour deal has been further boosted by the rediscovery of the company’s original master tapes vault and will see many more of Zambia’s great lost music being heard once again.

Already joining the re-issue list are The Crossbones’ Wiseman, alongside Millie and Foot Steps from Blackfoot. In the works too, is the Oscillations’ I See It Coming, plus compilations of non-album material from various Zamrock artistes.

International media attention

This Zamrock revival has already attracted international media attention with Rikki and Jagari featuring on China’s CCTV News Faces of Africa documentary series in a 2013 episode aptly titled The Survivors of Zamrock. The duo later linked up with the German rock act Karl Hector and the Malcouns under the moniker Zamrock to belt out concerts in France and San Francisco. Most recently Jagari Chanda has yet again been billed for the screen in a Gio Arlotta documentary, We Intend to Cause Havoc, which has seen him play in Liverpool with a makeshift but smooth New WITCH band.

South African filmmaker Callum MacNaughton, who anchors the Zamrock.org website is busy, too, piecing together a This is Zamrock documentary series. Already sampled on his Vimeo and YouTube channels are Rikki & Jagari, Black Foot and Zamrock’s only female icon, Violet Kafula of The Crossbones.

As Eothen Alapatt rightly observes; The Zamrock scene, though at first a thing that seemed unlikely to evolve into more than an appropriative imitation of American and European rock music, quickly became a uniquely Zambian movement, befitting of its name. The Zamrock of Musi-O-Tunya, Rikki Ililonga, Five Revolutions, late-period WITCH and Paul Ngozi, Crossbones, Amanaz, Mike Nyoni and Keith Mlevhu sounds nothing like other rock music from the African continent or elsewhere.NA

* Leonard Koloko is author of the book ‘Zambian Music Legends’ & co-author of the ‘Welcome to Zamrock’ CD booklets.

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