It’s not an understatement to say that I shivered with anticipation: it’s been a few years since I stumbled upon the gem that is Amanaz’s “Africa“, an influential album in Zambia’s largely forgotten but exceptionally important Zamrock movement. A musical blend of both traditional Zambian instruments and western psychedelic rock, it flourished in the 1970’s for a glorious, albeit short-lived, amount of time. I remember the frustration I felt after listening to the album and trying to piece together Zamrock’s hectic and poorly documented history; why wasn’t it more widely recognized, and why was the music nearly impossible to find? So when I saw “Africa” on the list of re-issues for Record Store Day 2015, I nearly fell out of my chair with excitement.
Zamrock epitomizes the concept that music can be shaped by history; its singular blend of western and african influences can be traced back to Zambia’s colonial roots. At the time, most African nations were composed of several small kingdoms, but under the centralized British rule, these distinctly unique cultures were put under the same economic and political sphere, throwing the country into turmoil.
As a result, there was mass migration into Zambia’s rich mining districts, specifically the Copperbelt region where the exploitation of ore and melding of musical styles alike occurred; traditional Zambian instruments met western instruments such as the guitar, and western psychedelic rock and funk became immensely popular through British and American radio stations.
In 1964, Zambia earned its independence, and both the civil and legislative desire for local music burgeoned. In fact, President Kenneth Kaunda formed the ZBS (Zambian Broadcasting Service) and dictated that a large majority of the music played on the radio must be local, which ironically greatly facilitated the progression of Zamrock.
Soon, bands started forming in Zambia’s major cities such as Lusaka and Chingola, influenced mainly by the psychedelic guitar of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown’s funk, but also by the Rolling Stones, Osibisa, Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad, and The Hollies.
However, Zamrock’s golden age came with the advent of the 1973-74 oil crisis, which polarized social tensions across the nation. Many of Zamrock’s greatest treasures have distinctly melancholy themes and melodies with a sometimes dark, aggressive beat, featuring themes such as the hardships of migrant workers, (as in “Working on the Wrong Thing” by Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya) everyday social injustices, (as in “I’ve Been Losing” by Chrissy Zebby Tembo & Ngozi Family) and the ultimate black empowerment song, The Peace’s “Black Power.”
It is also during this time where Zamrock bands began adding more elements of traditional Zambian music and even Zambian languages into their songs rather than just trying to imitate the Western artists they heard on the radio. Paul Ngozi, the guitarist of the influential group Musi O Tunya, is credited with creating kalindula, Zamrock’s unique musical style that can be classified by a funky and hazily blown out lead guitar, (as in “Sunday Morning” by Amanaz) gritty rock, rumba, and afrobeats, and a mixture of English and local languages.
At their peak, Zamrock bands sold out stadium shows, and fans traveled from all over the country to come see them perform. No different than western rockers, Zamrockers were infamous for their rebellious and reckless lifestyles and wild stage antics. Just as dark and gritty as their music, Zamrockers acted and dressed to get a reaction. For example, influential Zamrock band “W.I.T.C.H”‘s name stands for “We Intend to Cause Havoc” and Paul Ngozi is actually a stage name that means “danger”, and he was famous for playing guitar with his teeth.
The typical look of a Zamrocker was platform boots, afros, and bellbottom pants, and they often wore women’s underwear over their pants during live shows to add to their provocative image. In an infamous 1974 gig in Ndola, the lead vocalist of Amanaz, Keith Kabwe, jumped out of a coffin, wearing an Afro and bellbottoms and dressed as a skeleton.
Drug culture and sex was prevalent, going against the social mores of the time, and unfortunately many Zamrockers paid the price for this as high numbers of them died of AIDS. During the late 1970’s, Zambia was hit by an economic crisis in the form of falling copper prices; as a result, inflation and unemployment ravaged the country, and Zamrockers had to turn their backs on music and find other professions to support themselves financially; for example, Jagari, W.I.T.C.H.’s lead singer, eventually became a miner. Interestingly, the prominent Zamrockers who are still alive seemed to have turned to religion; in fact, Mr. Kabwe himself is now a Pentecostal preacher who condemns his salacious past.
Slowly but surely as Congolese rumba and disco and reggae influences filtered in to Zambia’s music scene, interest in Zamrock all but disappeared and the entire history of the movement nearly went with it. However, there has been a recent revival of interest in the movement, largely thanks to Now-Again Records’ Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, who became fascinated with the beauty of Zamrock and made it his goal to compile as many Zamrock pieces as he could and re-issue them, hoping to expose more people to the movement; in fact, it is thanks to him that “Africa” was re-issued for Record Store Day. He even tracked down Mr. Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda, who as mentioned before, is now a miner; however, Mr. Chanda agreed to give a seminar on the history of Zamrock in 2011.
For Zamrock fans, this renewed interest in the criminally underrated movement is extremely gratifying. Check out a list of influential Zamrock songs below: