WITCH – Zango: Album Review

WITCH, originators of Zamrock, return with their first album in 39 years.  And they pick up right where they left off.

Release Date:  2nd June 2023

Label: Desert Days Sound

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Download, Streaming

One way or another, 2023 is turning into one heck of a year, as far as new music is concerned.  My list of potential candidates for my Album of the Year is already a mighty long one but, this afternoon, a few candidates had to step aside, because Zango, the new album from WITCH, originators of Zamrock and now back to serve up a stunning second helping of that very commodity, is a stunner.

Back in the early and mid-70s, Zambia was the place to be to hear the Western rock, soul and funk styles being given a distinctly African twist.  The sounds of Hendrix, The Stones, Cream, Sly, James Brown and British heavy rockers like Deep Purple and Trapeze were causing quite a stir with the local youth; added to that, the rich copper deposits in newly-independent Zambia were attracting migrant workers from all over southern Africa – all with their own cultures and musical traditions to feed into the burgeoning music scene.  The result was a distinctive brand of no-holds-barred rock, infused with percussive and resonant African rhythms, all fueled by an attitude that dictated “anything goes.”

Amongst the pioneers of these new sounds were a pair of gentlemen – Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda and Patrick Mwondela who put together their band – originally called Kingston Market, before the moniker was changed first to Footswitch, then shortened to Switch, before being shortened even more to The Witch.  In time, the name evolved into an acronym, WITCH – We Intend To Cause Havoc.  And so they did.

WITCH released their debut album, Introduction, in 1972 and, between then and 1984 released a further six albums, including Lazy Bones!! (1975) – generally regarded as their finest hour (at least, maybe, until now).  The albums defined the heady amalgam of Western and African musical styles; Zamrock was born.

The euphoria couldn’t and didn’t last.  By the mid-1980s, the Zambian economy was in freefall, as the price of copper collapsed, and the country, like much of its parent continent, was being ravaged by HIV.  Music – both live and on record – became an unaffordable luxury, WITCH split up and Zamrock became a footnote in the musical history of Africa.

But it didn’t die.  Not quite.

Interest in Zamrock continued to cause occasional tremors and, in 2013, WITCH reconvened, with founding pair Chanda and Mwondela supplemented by new members from The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland and, in 2021, the new band re-entered DB Studios in Lusaka – scene of their Lazy Bones!! triumph – to re-ignite the WITCH bonfire.  Recording had ceased at the studio some time previously and the equipment was in a poor state of repair.  Chanda takes up the story: “The whole band converged in Lusaka, Zambia in November, 2021.  I had to plead with the [studio] owner.  It was almost a kind of unintentional Zamrock museum, with this gigantic archive of vinyl records of all the Zamrock bands.  We were amazed to find all of the original equipment there that was actually used in the 70s.  One of the local engineers, Michael Linyama, was basically just soldering in the back room the whole time we were there to get all the phaser and fuzz pedals they used in the 70s working again… The studio’s recording machines were outdated and almost obsolete.  We barely managed to salvage some things out of there.  But that’s what makes the sound unique – it’s like the roots, sound-wise, go back to the days of Lazy Bones!!”

Well – all I can say to that is that those tribulations were well worth the effort.  Zango, the first recorded output from WITCH since Kuomboka, 39 years ago, is a stunning, seminal album.  Zamrock lives again.

Alongside veterans Emmanuel and Patrick, WITCH nowadays comprises Dutch multi-instrumentalist Jacco Gardner, drummer and fellow Dutchman Nico Mauskoviç, Bulgarian guitarist Stefan Lilov and German guitarist Jan Weissenfeldt.  These guys clearly know their stuff – Zango is a feast of Afro/European/American culture, a veritable demonstration of what a Bhundu Boys/Sly and The Family Stone/Nazareth convention would sound like; and it’s delicious!

The signature sound of Zamrock is evident right from the first bars of opening track By The Time You Realize.  Wha-wha and fuzz guitars melt into a Chic-soul groove, peppered with African rhythms and local folk sounds.  A relentless bassline drives the song along, whilst cowbells – a regular feature throughout the album – illuminate the “By the time I’ll be gone” chorus.  ‘THIS is going to be good,’ I thought to myself.  And I was soooo right!

Another feverish bassline provides all the funk you could ever want on Waile, the album’s lead single.  This is, indeed, a song with everything; in a short 5-minute burst, WITCH take us through a breathtaking sequence of soul, funk, Afro and heavy rock, whilst Emmanuel’s lyrics consider the struggles experienced by migrants across the African continent.  As he explains, “In Zambia, Angola, The Congo and other nearby countries, there’s a lot of death, sickness, poverty and misery.  The song laments that pitiful situation, that’s the Waile – it’s a word in the Lunda and Luvale language.”

Vocalist Keith Kabawe, former leader of Amanaz – a contemporary band to WITCH during their glory days – guests on Nshinghilile, a delightful mix of funk and African styles with a pulsing bassline and some lovely flourishes of dynamic organ, before things take a lighter, altogether sweeter turn for the wonderful Streets of Lusaka.  Steel and wood percussion and a pulsing bassline provide a rhythm that you’d almost describe as reggae, whilst the whole thing is rounded off by some tasty, subtle and subdued guitar licks.

The ecstatic female vocals and the solid funk of Unimvwesha Shuga had me wondering what these tunes would sound like in a summer festival setting, on a scorching hot day, with an audience fully engaged and rocking, and the ground pulsing beneath our feet.  Unbelievable, I should imagine…

The excellent Avalanche of Love is another song that offers just about everything, including a generous dose of solid 70s rock, a surprisingly melodic interlude and a rap from guest Zambian vocalist Sampa The Great.  Cowbell and bass are again prominent on the trance-like Malanga, before we’re once again stopped dead in our tracks by Stop The Rot, another of the album’s genuine highlights.  The heavy riffing puts me in mind of Atomic Rooster at their 1970 peak, whilst the musical picture is completed by some infectious choppy percussion and a soothing blanket of organ, as Emmanuel’s lyrics take a stance against the ongoing practice of witchcraft on the African continent.

WITCH take a radical diversion from the funk and 70s rock bombast that otherwise dominate Zango for the light, airy, These Eyes of Mine.  Essentially, it’s a 60s-style pop song, put to a southern African rhythm, and it’s awash with glissando guitars.  And the sprinklings of organ need to heard to be believed!

Like every good album, Zango saves the best until last.  Closing track Message From WITCH is, indeed a message, and a brave, essential one at that.  To a compulsive rhythm, an irresistible bassline and copious wha-wha guitar licks, the lyrics confront homophobia, antisemitism and xenophobia, subjects that remain controversial in Zambia and bafflingly persistent throughout much of the world.  They’re messages that need to be sent, in order that some in the world might just listen.  Go WITCH.

Welcome back, Zamrock.  Zango confirms WITCH’s rejuvenation and triumphant re-emergence.  As Emmanuel remarks on the album’s closing track, “It’s like the story of the phoenix, the bird from the ashes.  Zamrock has resurrected itself from its decades-long slumber.”

Watch the official video to Waile – the album’s lead single – here:

WITCH online: Bandcamp

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