In 1964 Zambia became independent from the United Kingdom and seized control of their biggest industry, copper mining. The population had more money and more freedom than ever before. At the same time, the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple were releasing their newest, sometimes their first, records. By the turn of the decade, the sounds of psychedelia, hard rock and blues were swirling around the hot, dusty streets of Lusaka, the capital, and into the ears of budding guitarists who were dead-set on creating a new Zambian sound – a cultural melting pot of traditional African music and experimental, psychedelic rock. This appetite for creation was only boosted by the president’s decree that 95% of all music played on Zambian radio had to be of Zambian origin. But this period of intense creativity and cultural revolution was cut short. Global copper prices dropped dramatically, leaving Zambia and its population once again impoverished. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s killed off a staggering 13% of the adult Zambian population. Musicians living a rock’n’roll lifestyle, already on the fringes of society, were particularly at risk.
By the turn of the decade, the sounds of psychedelia, hard rock and blues were swirling around the hot, dusty streets of Lusaka, the capital, and into the ears of budding guitarists who were dead-set on creating a new Zambian sound – a cultural melting pot of traditional African music and experimental, psychedelic rock.
So it was forgotten. For almost 40 years, Zamrock (which in itself is only a collection of around two dozen albums created over that short period) was collecting dust on the shelves of music history. But over the course of the last 10 years, as this music has slowly dispersed across the digital landscape, Zamrock has had an unlikely resurgence. A documentary focusing on one of the front-running bands of the movement, WITCH (We Intend to Cause Havoc – one of the great band names of our time) gained momentum at festivals and actually led to Emmanuel Jagari Chanda, the band’s frontman and sole living flagbearer of Zamrock, to begin touring across Europe and North America.
It’s a miraculous story of the inherent connections and tensions between global cultural trends and local economic and political circumstances. In this case, the results were quite extraordinary. The sound of Zamrock can be difficult to pin down, but one thing is certainly ubiquitous across the whole genre: vitality. The interplay between traditional Zambian rhythm structures and the insanely fuzzy, fervent guitar playing is like lighting in a bottle. When a distorted, fuzzed-out guitar cuts right through a traditional African rhythm section and rips a hole in your speaker, it’s not just cool sounding. It also makes an undeniable affirmation of resistance and revolution to the listener. Even on tracks that are more laid-back, the instruments fizz with life. The bass pops. The guitar sings. These were musicians with pent-up creativity, waiting patiently for revolution. When it finally came, they seized the moment and, for a decade, made some of the most interesting rock records of the 70s.
It’s a miraculous story of the inherent connections and tensions between global cultural trends and local economic and political circumstances.
I highly urge you to check out some Zamrock and see where it takes you. Here are a handful of songs to get started:
Living in the Past – WITCH
Khala my Friend – Amanaz
Rain & Sunshine – Crossbones
Tikodane – Ngozi Family
Love and Freedom – Keith mlevhu
Dark Sunrise – Rikki Illilonga