Feb 17, 2014

Zamrock: Amanaz - Africa

Take a cursory look at the core of African pop music in the 1970s, and Zambia's "Zam-rock" scene might seem a bit out of place. With township music to the south; Afrobeat, highlife, and juju going on Northwest; and soukous thriving just over the northern border, there's something bluntly Western about some of the music that came out of cities like Kitwe or Lusaka mid-decade. But then, considering the European post-colonial influence that still ran through the country at the time, Zam-rock's fuzzed-out, psych/proto-metal bent shouldn't be that surprising. Neither should the fact that so little of it actually came to the surface until recently; if a dedicated ethnomusicologist is going to take a trip to central Africa, it's probably not to bring back albums that sound like Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum.

Which brings us to a more interesting facet about Zam-rock besides how out of place it initially seems: how out of time it actually sounds. Africa, the sole album by Kitwe five-piece Amanaz, is one of the better examples of the genre's style, and how it was both behind and ahead of its era. It was released in 1975, rock's weird no-man's-land period between glam and punk, but its buzzing riffs and noodly solos place it a bit closer to 1969. That said, it's hard to pinpoint their exact influences, and the ones that come to mind at first listen seem like some kind of projection: if few people in the States or Europe bought albums by the Stooges or the Velvet Underground when they first came out, what's the likelihood that they made it to a Zambian audience even five years later? Yet you get a Ron Asheton wah-wah snarl in "Making the Scene", and there's a pretty Sterling Morrison-style lead guitar on "Sunday Morning"-- which, besides sharing a title with a popular Velvets song, also sounds eerily like "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'".

But it could all just be the shared byproduct of recording straightforward, low-budget rock in an economically depressed environment. For all their cursory musical similarities with the same bands that inspired punk rock, Amanaz were fairly unassuming, even through all the fuzztone. Unassuming in this case doesn't necessarily mean unambitious-- on record, they sound like a band that wanted to ply their trade in heavy rock, folk-pop, and funk all at once-- but there's a rawness on this album that gives it a familiar garage-band appeal. Rhythms shift from minimalist plod-stomps one track to supple grooves the next; lead singer Keith Kabwe's voice sometimes stretches past his melodic range into an off-key flatness that would be more off-putting if it didn't sound so spontaneous, and it's all recorded with a muddy fidelity that, if reminiscent of bedroom tape culture, doesn't do the music any favors by turning what could've been a wall of guitar squall into a flimsy chain-link fence.

Not like much of that can be helped or even really matters, since Africa is one of those albums we should at least consider ourselves lucky to even get a chance to hear. Kabwe had retired to a life of farming by the time this album was proposed for reissue, and out of the other four band members, only guitarist Isaac Mpofu still survives. So hearing Kabwe wail, "Lemme tell you something new/ About the history of the man/ He's got nothing to lose," in "History of Man" resonates a bit more knowing just how little was saved from the Zam-rock scene for future posterity and how close to impermanence Amanaz's music actually came.


In recent years, reissues of obscure African LPs have been sprouting from the shelves of in-the-know record shops around the globe. Turned on by the blend of acid-soaked guitar pyrotechnics and traditional grooves, collectors have giddily forked over cash for recordings by artists from the continent who, during the late-1960s and early-’70s, had their dials tuned to broadcasts of American and British blues, psych, soul and funk. 

In many ways, it makes sense that the African take on these genres would prove attractive to the ears of contemporary followers of such sounds; the song structures and playing styles, schooled on Hendrix, James Brown and Cream, and frequently English lyrics may sound more at home to Western audiences than other, wilder breeds of International rock from the era. However, ease of digestion should not be seen as the only reason why these records are so rabidly devoured. 

The period’s particular combination of timing, location and influences created some rather stunning sounds. A prime example of this fortunate collision can be found in the work of Zambian bands such as Ngozi Family, Chrissy Zebby Tembo, WITCH and Amanaz. Whether combating government, poverty, pressures of youth or just wanting to score chicks, these and other Zambian groups were responsible for a “Zamrock” sound both identifiable and individual. 

Amanaz, who hailed from Kitwe, Zambia’s third largest city, released their sole LP, Africa, in 1975. While often hailed as a lost stoner classic, the album’s charms are far deeper than spliff-smoked riffing. The band — composed of Keith Kabwe, Issac Mpofu, John Kanyepa, Jerry Mausala and Watson Lungu — less hop genres than mould them into a warm, buzz-inducing brew. Benefiting this, the sound quality on the 2010 CD reissue of Africa, which was organized by noted digger Egon’s Now-Again label, is crisper than previous additions — a welcome refinement for those used to hearing these recordings via inferior bootlegs. Those into wax can try their luck locating a copy of the beautiful, and wickedly expensive, LP version courtesy of Shadoks Music. 

The album opens with the instrumental “Amanaz,” which establishes a general M.O. of seamless grooves locked underneath furry electric leads. “I Am Very Far” rolls slow and lazy, chugging along on a muddy blues progression. Highlight “Sunday Morning” approximates the sound of later-day Velvets, had Lou and friends spent some quality time in the sun. 

The record sports nine tracks sung in English, and three in Bemba, the group’s native tongue. While the English cuts are more immediate, their traditional counterparts are often more transporting. The title track, which opens Side 2 of the LP, features a loping melody and animated harmonies that could easily be absorbed for far longer than its four-and-a-half minute length. 

What ultimately is so impressive about Amanaz is the sense that one is listening to a band perfecting a new sound without laboring to do so. It is this delicate balance that makes Africa not only a record of two worlds, but one well deserving of a place in the rock ‘n’ roll canon.


For the past five years or so, around the time that platinum records went near-extinct, record labels have been increasingly putting nearly as much effort, if not more so, in reissuing and repackaging existing albums as developing new artists. This is how we end up with three different versions of, say, Chromeo’s last album, or a wide variety of options when it comes to which edition of Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power to pick up. While some labels have put most of their effort into redundancy, however, others, like the always impressive Now-Again, have turned toward obscure world classics that, otherwise, most of us would have never even heard of, let alone heard.

Having already released a handful of excellent compilations of African music, Now-Again recently took to reissuing the sole album by Zambian psych-rock band Amanaz. Africa, while released the same year as Fela Kuti’s Expensive Shit, has a lot less to do with Afrobeat or funk and a lot more to do with psychedelic rock. In fact, there are strong influences from both American and British psych-rock bands of the 1960s, with vintage fuzz guitar sounds blazing throughout. In fact, an upbeat rocker like “Big Enough,” with lyrics in English, no less, isn’t too far removed from the likes of Blue Cheer or Cream, if not quite as heavy.

Amanaz were part of a movement in the ’70s known as “Zam-rock,” a pretty remarkable if short lived period of creativity that was stifled by the rampant poverty and political unrest in the country during the era. The band-Keith Kabwe, Issac Mpofu, John Kanyepa, Jerry Masaula and Watson Lungu-balanced noisy rock numbers and stoned, groove-based blues numbers with sinewy basslines. It’s on those bluesy numbers, like “Easy Street,” in which the band shows a slightly more pronounced connection to Nigerian or Ghanaian highlife, though those moments arrive between more heavily fuzzed out rockers like “History of Man,” a super cool standout with a disorienting, fuzzy mix in which the guitar sounds almost lower than the bass. “I Am Very Far,” meanwhile, is a more straightforward pop track with a little bit of Byrds jangle, and “Making the Scene” has a sinister enough groove to soundtrack a vintage police drama.

The unearthing of an artifact like Amanaz’s Africa is always an exciting thing, primarily because its relative obscurity makes it something that few outside of the band’s native Zambia will have heard. Frankly, it’s kind of amazing that an album of its kind was not only recorded, but survived for this long in spite of the history of its country of origin. Most importantly, though, it’s an artifact that makes for a highly enjoyable listen, offering a great balance of laid back grooves and fuzz rockers alike.



THE reason some people did not hear much of a band called AMANAZ which rocked the Zambian music scene in the early 1970s could be that the outfit disintegrated soon after hitting fame.
Amanaz was of the class of other greats such as the Tinkles, Peace, Witch, Salty Dog and Dr Footswitch and their beat pointed to the direction of Zamrock which characterised the local scene then.

It was a promising band which tried to consolidate the Zamrock foundation upon which direction Zambia music was supposed to chart.

The heavy Zamrock band whose 1973 release-AMANAZ-Africa album is currently on sale in Europe and the United States of America(US), will never be erased from the Zambian music history and will ever remain a role model for young and upcoming crop of musicians.

Formed in 1973 in Kitwe, A.M.A.N.A.Z an acronym for; "Ask Me About Nice Artistes In Zambia", became an instant hit drawing attention from various music promoters of that time like Zambia Music Parlour Limited(ZMPL) director Edward Khuzwayo and producer Billy Nyati and Teal Record Company.

Former Band leader Keith Kabwe, who is one of the three survivors of the five-man outfit, says it was unfortunate that the band which caused mayhem in various night spots in Lusaka and the Copperbelt, could easily crumble just like that.

"You know sometimes when you become big and hit such fame, that is when things like that happen, you just disintegrate. That is how we broke up in 1976," Kabwe explains in a recent interview.
Kabwe recalls that, the band was getting well known throughout the country with a number of public appearances in Country clubs, Hindu Halls and other renowned places and its fame had spread like wild fire within a short time of its formation.

The band comprised seasoned guitarists that included Keith, who had just joined from the Klasters on vocals and tambourine, John Kanyepa from the Black Souls in Kitwe on lead, Rhythm and vocals, Watson Lungu (drums, vocals), Jerry Mausala from Macbeth on bass and Isaac Mpofu who broke away from the Wrong Number on rhythm guitar.

It was a fantastic combination considering that, all the musicians were well exposed and full of experience producing rare but heavy sounds which constituted the Zamrock beat.

"It was a humble beginning that brought together some of the best musicians in the country," starts Kabwe as he recalled how the band was formed.

Kabwe says it happened at the time when he was working as dispatch clerk at Caltex at the oil terminal in Ndola and one of his colleagues, Watson Lungu and Jerry Mausala who were both with the Mac Beth then performing at Nchanga Hotel, decided to break away from that group.

"Keith Mlevhu had also quit Macbeth and we were looking for more members and at that time, we decided to bring our instruments to Ndola at Jerry's sister in Kansenshi residential but we later shifted to Kitwe where members Isaac Mpofu and John Kanyepa joined us," Kabwe says.

The band then settled in Kitwe and was looked after by a colleague Sundie Ngoma at the Copperbelt University (CBU) campus then called Zambia Institute of Technology (ZIT).

It appeared that the band was now ready for action and started rehearsals in Kitwe putting together numbers which later became memorable hits.

In the same year of its formation Amanaz clinched a deal with both Teal and ZMPL and put their works on record at Malachite studios in Chingola and released their debut album, Amanaz Africa which was well received by the fans.

The 12-track album opened with an instrumental song, Amanaz, then followed by I am very Far, Sunday Morning, Khala My Friend, History of Man, Insunka Lwendo, Africa, Green Apple, Making the Scene, Easy Street, Pick Enough and Kale.

It was all rosy as the band jammed throughout the Copperbelt where they competed with bands such as the Witch and Gas Company for example.

But a few differences here and there soon forced the break up and Kabwe went ahead to form a new band called Drive Unit in 1976 forcing Mausala and Mpofu to leave.

The Drive Unit band which had former President Rupiah Banda's younger brother Ricky Banda of the Chifundo Pa Mutima fame including Webby Kausa in its ranks, recorded two singles namely, Watch Out and Honest Woman but Kabwe seem not to remember very well the songs on their flip sides
"We were sponsored by an Asian business executive who ran an undertaking called Tata in Ndola and we soon embarked on a tour of Mufulira where we jammed at various places in the mining town," Kobe recalls.

But Drive Unit was short-lived and broke up the same year putting an end to the otherwise successful journey of the gifted musicians.

It was short musical experience for the bandsmen which brought so much to the fore, exposing their expertise but then threw their chances to the wind, leaving fans dumb-founded as no real explanation was given as to why the much heralded AMANAZ had to go.

Apart from Kabwe, other surviving bandsmen includes Mpofu who is now a farmer in Chongwe and Mausala who is in Luwingu, Muchinga Province.

Kabwe who is now a born again Christian running a branch of the Apostolic Faith Mission in Mbala, Northern Province, has however put up a number of gospel tunes which he intends to release once sponsors come on board.

He very much appreciates the singing talent among the young musicians but deplores their failure to use musical instruments.

"There has been great improvement on the part of the young musicians, but I think they have to do much on the use of musical instruments and there are only a few young ones who can use these instruments now," Kabwe says.

He wants to assemble formidable musicians such as the much improved Uncle Rex for example, who could help him record his gospel music properly Kabwe now in his fifties and married with six children, is looking forward to the time when local musicians will take it seriously to keep the direction of Zambian music on course.


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