Oct 12, 2011
Zambian fuzz rock: The Witch - Lazy Bones
By the mid 1970s, the Southern African nation known as the Republic of Zambia had fallen on hard times. The new Federation found itself under party rule. Zambia’s then-president engaged what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in a political fencing match that damaged his country’s ability to trade with its main partner. The Portuguese colonies of Angola to the West and Mozambique to the East were fighting their own battles for independence; conflict loomed on all sides of this landlocked nation.
This is the environment in which the catchy – if misleadingly – titled “Zam Rock” scene that flourished in 1970s Zambian cities such as Lusaka and Chingola emerged. Though full of beacons of hope for its numerous musical hopeful it was a tumultuous time and it’s no wonder that the Zambian musicians taken by European and English influences gravitated to the hard, dark side of the rock and funk spectrum. From the little of the Zambian 70s rock and funk music that has been spread via small blogs and bootlegs – the likes of Chrissy Zebby, Paul Ngozi and the Ngozi Family, and the devastating Peace – we learn that fuzz guitars were commonplace, driving rhythms as influenced by James Brown’s funk as Jimi Hendrix’s rock predominated, and the bands largely sang in the country’s national language, English.
The European and North American compilers that had, say, fallen in love with the wonders of Nigeria’s 70s scene via an introduction by Afro-Beat maestro Fela Kuti and decided to journey to Lagos to investigate further never even bothered to visit Zambia. Perhaps this is because even the largest of the 70s Zambian recording artists made any impact on the global scale. (Prior to reading this, had you heard of Paul Ngozi or his innovative Kalindua, Zambia’s equivalent of Afro-Beat?) Before 2000 – and infrequently since then – few Europeans or North Americans outside of university-funded ethnomusicologists more interested in the country’s folk musics than its pop culture even journeyed to this country in search of a the progenitors of the Zam Rock scene. And, when they did, the markers were few. Only a small number of the original Zam Rock godfathers that remained in the country survived through the late 90s, when the music recorded in Zambia became the next frontier for those global-psychedelic rock junkies searching for the next fix.
Now-Again, in conjunction with Zam Rock pioneer Rikki Ililonga, has licensed the WITCH repertoire from the ensemble’s last surviving member, Emmanuel Jagari Canda, and the Amanaz Africa album from the band’s Keith Kabwe and Issac Mpofu. Vinyl issues of WITCH’s Introduction and Lazy Bones and Amanaz’s Africa are out on Shadoks; CD issues licensed from Now-Again are planned for early 2010. In early 2010, Now-Again will present a Rikki Ililonga anthology. Plans are in the works for a proper WITCH anthology and a Zam Rock compilation.
Now Again Records
Lazy Bones!! is the recently reissued third album by the Zambian psych-funk quintet WITCH (“We Intend To Cause Havoc”), and it may be best described as marginal, in dual senses of the word. At times, the record just passes the threshold of technical competence. But to call Lazy Bones!! marginal is not to denigrate it. It’s not lack of quality so much as the collection’s position on the periphery of several styles — and of a 70s “Zam-rock” scene that itself occupies a small corner of the niche African record collectors’ market — that ultimately makes “marginal” such a tidy, if reductionist, summation.
WITCH’s sound bears strong influences of both funk and Anglophilic psychedelic rock, but it doesn’t sit comfortably in either style. Seldom do WITCH’s songs — often grooves, really — approximate the sunshine pop- or blues-appropriation of the Sonics or early Beefheart. Instead, they occupy some wah-wah nether-region between Jimi Hendrix’s rock stomps and the J.B.’s’ syncopated loops. Yet with a combination of fuzz guitar, Emmanuel Jagari Chanda’s often stilted, English-language vocals, and thin-sounding, lo-fi guitar and drums, WITCH often achieve an aural effect that does hearken to Nuggets-style psych-tinged garage rock.
Somewhat ironically, given the likely source material for the reissue and technical constraints of recording in 1970s Zambia (where any such capacity was a luxury), much that’s appealing about WITCH is actually surface level — primarily, Chris Mbewe’s searing leads and the gritty marriage of fuzz with off-kilter bass and drums. WITCH are at their best on such tracks as “Strange Dream” — with its wah-wah backdrop and slinky, crisp acoustic guitar-driven groove — and the rhythmically agile “Black Tears,” which begins as eerie, plodding psych-folk but quickly kick-starts into a blistering assault of knees-on-stage guitar soloing. It’s when the group veers closer to pop and straight-ahead funk material — as on “Look Out,” “Off Ma Boots” and the title track — that deeper, nagging deficiencies emerge. The melodies are forgettable if not slightly grating, and they get little help from lead singer Chanda, whose nasal delivery doesn’t have enough gravel or swagger to match his band (when it isn’t overwhelming him) but does have occasional problems with pitch.
It’s hard to argue with crate-digger DJ and reissues extraordinaire Egon — who helped coordinate the CD release of Lazy Bones!! and wrote its new liner notes — when he says these are good times for new old African funk releases. Still, few recordings from Zambia’s first full decade of independence from British colonial rule have managed to surface among western collectors (or on their obscurantist music blogs). Fortunately, there are now at least enough such time capsules to give Lazy Bones!! a whiff of context. Those looking for something like Afro-beat in Zambia should look to Paul Ngozi, and a more compelling introduction to Zam-rock can be found in the bass-heavy trances of Amanaz or the blissed-out, almost southern-American roots rock of the Peace.
dustedmagazine.com, written by Benjamin Ewing
When I first saw that Witch had a new album out, I was pretty stoked. Witch is the stoner metal off-shoot of Dinosaur Jr., and I’m a sucker for both stoner metal and Dinosaur Jr. What I discovered is that Witch is ALSO a Zambian rock quintet from the ‘70s. So, instead of the outsized retro-riffing of J Mascis’s band, I got something that sounded truly retro: bare-bones psych-rock with a slight Afrikaans inflection, mastered so flatly that you’ll be fiddling with the volume seconds into the first track.
It was a nice surprise, to say the least. Lazy Bones!! is the sound of five talented Africans playing their own Woodstock in someone’s cramped basement. Whereas Witch’s Western counterparts paid professional to smooth over their rough spots, though, it’s exactly these rough spots that make Witch special (their name is, according to the press notes, an acronym of “We Intend to Cause Havoc”). The mic often blows out, as if the limited recording equipment could barely contain the performance. It lends even funk cracklers like “Look Out” some proto-punk urgency while enhancing the making the melancholic “Black Tears” resonate like a warfront diary entry. This scruffiness notwithstanding, though, Lazy Bones!! is still perhaps too subdued and reverent to stand outside of time. But it’s hardly a mere curiosity either, and as a fun wah-wah-and-fuzz-guitar trip, it’s solid gold.
popmatters.com, written by Benjamin Aspray
WITCH were a Zam Rock band active in the mid-Seventies, when the troubled Republic of Zambia saw a thriving rock scene that included Musi-O-Tunya, Amanaz, and Peace. Their records were originally released on a small label, and had been out of print and incredibly rare for decades. In 2007, Stones Throw general manager and Now Again Records owner Egon came across a Myspace page by Zam Rock pioneer Rikki Ililonga. Egon and Ililonga began corresponding, which led to Ililonga getting Egon in touch with WITCH vocalist Emmanuel Jaguri Chanda. Chanda was more than happy to see his records in print again, and the result was a reissue of WITCH's "Introduction" and "Lazy Bones!!"
"Lazy Bones!!" doesn't get off to a promising start. The sound quality isn't great. The record seems to be mastered from a scratchy vinyl copy, and the sound is muddy and full of imperfections. Lead track "Black Tears" is a clumsy, lumbering song. It begins with a turgid opening, and when the band starts to cook at the minute-thirty mark it just serves to highlight Chanda's amateurish vocals. At their worst, like on "Black Tears," WITCH sound like a high school garage band playing a facsimile of rock music with more enthusiasm than talent. After listening to "Black Tears" I was almost ready to write WITCH off.
I kept with the album, though, and happily discovered that "Black Tears" is a misleading false start, the weakest track on the album. Things immediately pick up on "Motherless Child." The band coalesces into a strong groove. Drummer Boidi Sinkala hammers his set like Black Sabbath's Bill Ward or Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell. Bassist Gedeon Mulenga completes the rock solid rhythm section, while guitarist John Muma lays on the fuzz guitar and wawa, complimented by Chris Mbewe's lead. All the musicians are excellent, and provide some wicked if occasionally sloppy grooves. Even Chanda's thin voice sounds better on the rest of the album, his earnestness compensating for his lack of polish.
Musically, WITCH combine the heaviness of Black Sabbath and Cream with the playful psychedelic elements of early Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, or the Creation. "Motherless Child" and "Off Ma Boots" sound like Southern rock, while "Tooth Factory" and "Havoc" are heavy acid rock. "Little Clown" and "Lazy Bones" could have been recorded by a San Francisco band in 1967.
While the horns, polyrythms, and indigenous instruments typical of African music aren't present, WITCH do add a slight African twist to Western rock. It's subtle, but like Chanda's South African accent, definitely present. This is especially true with the lyrics. On the surface, they tackle standard sixties material like psychedelic trips ("Strange Dream," "Off Ma Boots"), or calls for peace and understanding ("Havoc"). However, its all informed by their experience living in the Republic of Zambia during an uncertain time. The turmoil they were describing were very close and real for the members of WITCH. As a result, "Lazy Bones!!" feels realer and rawer than most of the Western rock from the same era.
Despite the dodgy recording, muddy sound, and Chanda's iffy singing voice, "Lazy Bones!!" is an incredible album. It's trippy, it's rocking, and it has moments of fierceness matched with moments of beauty. There are hooks galore, and the lyrics go a shade deeper than most acid rock I've come across. "Lazy Bones!!" is highly recommended for anyone who wants to explore a side of African music not often heard, or who just wants to rock out. This album is an uncovered gem, and a ray of warm sunshine during this cold winter.
1. Black Tears
2. Motherless Child
3. Tooth Factory
4. Strange Dream
5. Look Out
7. October Night
8. Off Ma Boots
9. Lazy Bones
10. Little Clown
Labels: The Witch