Wham, Bam, Thank You, Zamrock

Africa has been my mind a lot lately and not just because I watched Idris Elba have an implausible confrontation with a crazy lion the other night in Beast. My son is doing his country proud in Zambia as I write this. The fact that today is Zambian Independence Day seemed the perfect time to talk about a musical phenomenon known as Zamrock, which I became aware of as a result of his presence there. And the fact that 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Zamrock’s best known band, WITCH, seals the deal.

“WITCH” is not just an appropriate image to contemplate as Halloween approaches, but it is also an acronym, standing for “We Intend to Cause Havoc” — a mission for our times. Or rather, a timeless one, as it was also a mission for their times, of course. The next time a Brit gets in your face to gloat about the fact that the UK abolished slavery in 1833 and didn’t require a Civil War to do so, you might delight in reminding him that notwithstanding Britain continued to have a colonial empire in which the native inhabitants of other countries were second class citizens, and that this state of affairs existed until…my lifetime. That is correct. Britain had colonies in Africa as late as 1980, though most of the process of decolonization had occurred throughout the 1960s. Northern Rhodesia left British rule in 1964, just about a year before I was born, and then became Zambia. And violence was indeed one of the factors that persuaded the English to give up their colonies. That was a century after the U.S. Civil War.

At any rate, 1964 was of course the year of quite another British Invasion. English rock groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones took the world by storm, and that’s the entire world, quite a new pop culture phenomenon. Meanwhile, Zambia initially prospered in the wake of its independence thanks to high prices for copper, their primary export. This translated into jobs and disposable income for young people, which, as with teenagers everywhere else, meant in part the widespread purchase of record albums, and then musical instruments. And this is how Zamrock was born.

Naturally it took several years for Zamrock to get off the ground, for groups to get established, become proficient, generate material, and finally make records. By then it was the early ’70s. But I’ve played a bunch of Zamrock tracks now, and I have been delighted to discover that, against all odds, it happens to show substantial influence of my favorite kind of music, and that’s psychedelic garage rock. Now, I’d certainly heard Afro-Pop before, and enjoyed it plenty though much in the spirit that one enjoys most traditional folk music, in kind of a generic way. But the Zamrock bands mixed their own local voices and instincts with western rock music, resulting in a regional rock sound in the same way the process had happened earlier in places like Liverpool and San Francisco. It sounds a lot to my ears like the stuff on Nuggets and you can hear influences of Hendrix, Cream, the Stones, and so forth, along with touches from their own culture. In addition to WITCH, another major pioneer of this form of music was Paul Ngozi, whose band was called the Ngozi Family. There were numerous other Zamrock bands as well. They toured widely, and began cutting records in the mid ’70s, many of which subsequently became rare and didn’t get widely circulated until the internet age.

By then Zamrock had been gone for a long time, and for the saddest of reasons. Zamrock had only been flourishing for a few years when it was destroyed by a lethal one-two punch combination. First the copper market dropped out, causing a country wide economic crisis, so no one could afford records. And then the AIDS epidemic hit, and literally, LITERALLY wiped out the whole generation of Zamrock musicians.

People my age all remember the LIVE AID concerts launched in 1985 to raise money for, and awareness about, the people suffering from Africa’s AIDS crisis. But in places like Zambia, the music had stopped. A literal plague. Can you imagine how amazing it would have been if some Zamrock bands had had an opportunity to play at LIVE AID to a worldwide audience, what it might have done for the fortunes of the cause and the country? But sadly, it wasn’t in the cards. By 2001 every member of WITCH was dead except for one, Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda, who has revived new versions of the band many times.

Now, another topic unavoidably comes to mind when one thinks of Zamrock. This relates to another post I have been slowly working on, about (for lack of a better term) white rock and roll. I won’t go completely off on that tangent now, but it has to do with a discussion of whites appropriating black music, making it whiter, then profiting off of it. In the case of Zamrock, the process goes one step further, for in that case, it seems like the white music of a colonial power goes back to the former colony, dominating it culturally in yet another way, and then taking money out of the country. But it really is more complex than that. There is a cultural cross-fertilization in progress that was undeniably launched through the process of colonialization initially, but which seems to go back and forth like a ping pong ball. African music and European music merged to make things like blues, jazz, and rock and roll; then whites appropriated these forms in the mainstream culture. In the case of Zamrock, blacks then appropriated the white music, put their own stamp back on it, and now I (as white as they come) am listening to it, as a fan, as a listener. And now I share news of their music with you to explore as you will. (I’ve stopped sharing Youtube links; they always go dead. Just Google it!).

This has way more to do with vaudeville than you may think. I have always admired Jon Stewart’s choice of Trevor Noah as his successor, with the upshot that many mainstream Americans now know and enjoy a South African comedian. (Sadly, he’s leaving in a few weeks, though). That’s one of things show business does best. Back in the day, a large piece of the vaudeville puzzle was the presentation of people of diverse cultures (and sometimes, more problematically, their impersonators). The present age presents us with an opportunity to make that happen again on a global scale, at least the good part. That might be one way to “Get in Good Trouble” as John Lewis put it, or to use a WITCHier phrase, “Cause Some Good Havoc”.