Zamrock: The Psychedelic Sound of Young Zambia
When a young nation’s president decreed that 95% of all music played on the radio must be Zambian, he didn’t expect it to lead to a psychedelic rock revolution.
There are few experiences as joyous as being introduced to an entire genre of music previously unknown to you, from a part of the world you’ve seldom thought about. This recently happened to me with Zamrock; a brand of psychedelic rock which sprung up in Zambia from a particular set of political and cultural conditions, and faded away just as quickly a few years later.
Zambia was once Northern Rhodesia, a British colony. The name Northern Rhodesia distinguished it from Southern Rhodesia; predecessor to modern Zimbabwe. The land which Zambia now occupies played host to the most ancient of human societies, with archaic humans having lived there over 200,000 years ago. In 1964, Northern Rhodesia won its independence from Britain and became a republic.
Zambia’s founding father, President Kenneth Kaunda, followed an ideology he called ‘Zambian Humanism’, a combination of socialist economic policies and what he considered old-fashioned African values of trust, mutual aid and loyalty to the community.
In the late 60s, psychedelia was sweeping across the world. Zambia wasn’t left out. While the economy gradually improved, young folk in the capital, Lusaka, lazed about listening to Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple whenever they had time off. Soon they were forming bands and playing covers of these popular western artists. But instruments were expensive and few and far between; the record industry was nearly non-existent.
This all changed when President Kaunda declared that he wanted 95% of all music played on the radio to be Zambian. Both Kaunda and the vice president were guitarists and lovers of song, and to them part of the ambitious job of developing a new nation was growing and valuing its cultural foundations. Suddenly the radio stations were desperate for Zambian bands, firing the Zambian music scene into the industrial age.
Record companies sprang up like a rash; the most respected among them being Edward Khuzwayo’s Zambian Music Parlour, who signed bands such as the Ngozi Family, Amanaz and WITCH (We Intend To Cause Havoc). Zamrock musicians took the fuzz of Jimi Hendrix’s music and the innocent harmonies of mid-60s British guitar bands and blended it with local influences, and soon began drawing thousands of people to watch their flamboyant stage shows. Jagari, the lead singer of WITCH, took Mick Jagger’s name and africanised it, and strutted and shimmied across the stage just like the original Jagger in his day.
While most Zamrock bands sung in English, Amanaz, one of the more downtempo bands, sang in the Bemba language about Africa’s journey from slavery to freedom.
The early days of Zambian independence were fruitful. President Kaunda’s government embarked on grand construction projects, making Zambia’s cities the envy of Africa. Meanwhile an educated middle-class appeared. Zambians bought suits and cars and moved into previously whites-only neighbourhoods. With the Brits gone, it seemed this part of Africa might finally find its potential. It was from this heady, optimistic time which Zamrock sprung; the soundtrack to a confident, young country with a guitar-picking socialist as its president.
All of this was funded by the country’s copper mines. The government had negotiated a new deal with the British company which ran them, and as the money flowed in, the buildings went up and psychedelic rock bands proliferated. Bands like WITCH and Amanaz began to dream of touring the USA and Europe. But they never got that far. In the late 70s, President Kaunda nationalised the mines, just in time for the price of copper to plummet as a result of the USSR flooding the market. Hundreds of jobs went, and food shortages arrived.
At the same time, wars sprang up around Zambia’s borders. There was civil war in Mozambique, to the country’s East, and in Angola to the West, and a guerrilla insurgency in apartheid Rhodesia to the south. Zambia, being a country under majority black rule, felt morally obliged to shelter the black guerrillas from Rhodesia who had been fighting Ian Smith’s brutal apartheid government. This resulted in Rhodesia bombing Zambia’s power stations, causing more chaos to the country’s economy.
The white government in South Africa also interfered in Zambia by backing an uprising in the north west led by a man who claimed he could shape-shift into a bird. Another separate coup attempt was defeated in 1980. All this caused President Kaunda’s once genial rule to lurch towards authoritarianism. Along with power shortages, the president’s introduction of a curfew was extremely bad news for the Zamrock scene. Not only would their amplifiers cut out half way through a show, they also had to limit their performances to the daytime.
Then came a mysterious and deadly virus, which began to propagate irresistibly among previously healthy people for no obvious reason. Rumours abounded that it was transmitted by kissing, through food, caused by menstruation or even sorcery. One by one, AIDS struck down Zamrock’s promiscuous pioneers, along with millions of other people of all races and sexualities across the world.
By the 21st century, only a few individuals remained. One of them was Jagari, the flamboyant lead singer of WITCH. Never famous outside Zambia, he had almost been forgotten by his own people. In 1993 he had been sent to prison for smuggling, after which he became a born-again Christian and a miner. By 2010 the man who was once Zambia’s biggest rock star he was sleeping in a tent next to a gemstone mine, coveting a different kind of rock.
But over the last ten years the internet has allowed the current generation of Zambians — and the rest of the world — to rediscover Zamrock. The young people of Zambia, now one of the world’s poorest countries, wonder at how Zambians once made such great music. Documentaries have been released, as well as a banging compilation of the biggest Zamrock hits. In 2013, a group of new Zamrock aficionados in San Francisco managed to get Jagari over to play a gig, and his comeback was on the go.
Along with Japanese City Pop, which I wrote about a while ago, Zamrock is another one of those genres which would have been lost to time, only existing in crates in the back of old record shops, had it not been for the internet. How many more are there out there, waiting to be rediscovered? Art and music can tell the story of a country, and Zamrock rose and fell with the fortunes of its homeland. Kenneth Kaunda is still alive — 95 years old — and considered something of a national treasure, despite having had to be forced out of power by protests in the early 90s.
Today Zambia is cautiously optimistic about the future; enjoying Chinese investment and still mining copper. Zambian young people once again believe in a brighter future, and may now look to an archive of grinding and whining guitars from the past to inspire them.
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