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WITCH: Zamrock pioneers still soundtracking toil and trouble

Decades after fusing African music and rock, Zamrock pioneers WITCH have returned with a new album as raw and impactful as ever

WITCH band members today

WITCH today (l-r): Jacco Gardner, JJ Whitefield, Patrick Mwondela, Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda, Stefan Lilov, Nico Mauskoviç. Image: PR

In 1964, When Zambia gained independence from Great Britain, President Kenneth Kaunda was determined to galvanise a sense of national identity and pride, particularly in the younger generation. Many young Zambians at the time were optimistic, keen to be politically engaged and focused on self-development.

The UK radio stations they had been listening to had them hooked on the gritty, blues-steeped rock’n’roll of The Rolling Stones and The Who, but the new government introduced a new slogan, ‘one Zambia, one nation’, along with a mandate that 95 per cent of music played on local radio must be of Zambian origin. It was under these mercurial conditions that a new musical genre, Zamrock, began to percolate.

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Musicians in Zambia kept one ear firmly pointed west as the vivid psychedelic sounds of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin’s blues rock gained traction, but they were also eager to incorporate elements of traditional Zambian music into their playing. Zamrock interfused raw punchy guitar riffs and basslines with traditional rhythms led by the kalimba, the babatone and other indigenous instruments. By the time the late ‘60s came along, Zamrock had begun to take shape, and in 1971 a group emerged that elevated the genre conceptually as well as sonically; WITCH, an acronym for We Intend to Cause Havoc.

WITCH’s music is accessible, funky and danceable, but it bristles with hard-edged elements of garage rock and psych, often led by starkly honest and politically charged lyrics. Tracks like Living in the Past criticised the government’s policies of censorship and repression, and Feeling High, an ode to the pleasures of marijuana, were hits on Zambian radio. Their live shows became a space to let off steam – wild, raucous events which would sometimes last up to seven hours.

WITCH’s musical talent matched their stamina. Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ (a name picked in tribute to Mick Jagger) Chanda’s vocals are assertive and soulful, John Muma’s lead guitar was virtuosic, Hendrix-inspired but highly original. Boyd Sinkala’s drumming created a dynamic and propulsive groove that sounds as good on the radio as I imagine it did in a sweaty, packed-out music hall at 2am.

The Zamrock movement, which featured equally noteworthy bands like Musi-O-Tunya and The Peace, became part of a larger trend in African music during the 1970s which saw artists experimenting with new styles and confrontational lyrics that reflected their own cultural heritage. In countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa, similar movements were taking place, with artists like Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba using their music to explore issues of race, politics, and identity.

By the late 70s the political and economic situation in Zambia was becoming increasingly unstable. The government had nationalised many industries, including the music industry, which made it difficult for bands like WITCH to make a living. The country was also facing a severe drought and a global recession, leading to food shortages and inflation.

By the early 1980s, the group had disbanded, with members going their separate ways.

Despite its relatively short lifespan, interest in the Zamrock movement, and especially WITCH, has been quietly consistent. A label called Now-Again, a subsidiary of LA’s Stones Throw Records, reissued the band’s albums in a 4LP box set in 2012, and a documentary, We Intend to Cause Havoc, which sees filmmaker Gio Arlotta tracking 70-year-old Jagari Chandra down at his new job as a gemstone miner, was released in 2019. Contemporary acts like Blur, Vampire Weekend, GOAT and Khruangbin have all credited WITCH as a musical influence.

For some time now the world has been patiently braced for their return, and it’s a relief to note that, nearly 40 years after the release of their last album, WITCH’s new material is as raw, impactful and inventive as before.

Their new record, Zango, primarily recorded at dB Studios in Lusaka, where the band originally recorded some of their most popular tracks, is full of those familiar elements: danceable basslines, rough unpolished guitar, dynamic drumlines. One highlight, Avalanche of Love features Zambian rapper Sampa The Great as a guest vocalist, a shrewd future-facing move with a big musical payoff.

Though the world looks very different now from the one that made Zamrock possible and necessary in the 1960s and 70s, the quality and catharsis in the music is what keeps people seeking out WITCH’s past releases, and even though their sweaty, chaotic seven-hour live sets be a thing of the past, Zango will no doubt satisfy listeners new and old.

Zango is out 2 June on Desert Daze Sound

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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