An Introduction to Zamrock: 70s Psych Rock from Zambia
Here is a playlist of a bunch of songs, some of which I didn’t have space to mention, but I recommend listening to as you read along.
Over the last few years I have been exploring 60s and 70s rock, enjoying the classics from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the Stooges. Music which I have now come to associate with suburban dads and indie kids ‘born in the wrong generation’. Through quarantine I stumbled across an album: ‘Introduction’ by Witch, and found a mix of 70s psychedelic rock with afrobeats as part of a movement called Zamrock. It was a new exciting sound (at least for me), far from the American garages, but originating in post-colonial Zambia.
In 1964, Zambia gained independence from the British. Keneth Kuanda, the first president of Zambia, tried to educate and modernise the republic in a somewhat idealistic fashion, seizing control of the copper industry and keeping the profits within his borders, theoretically allowing more wealth and prosperity for Zambians. At the same time, the few upper-class Brits who stayed behind began to import records from the Beatles, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones, which would begin to be available to the emerging middle class. People started emulating these styles, and cover bands such as the Lusaka Beatles and the Rave Five (following the Rolling Stones) were created. None of this music was ever recorded, as there were no recording studios in Zambia at the time.
The musicians in these bands began to find music to be more profitable than their day jobs. Leading to the formation of early Zamrock bands such as Witch, who began producing original songs, with their premier album ‘Introduction’, produced in the nearest record plant 2000 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya.
Up until this point all of the music had been in English, the country's constitutional language, and modelled after their western counterparts. This began to change with Musi Tunya (the original name of Victoria Falls). They were inspired by the Ghanaian Afrobeats band Osibisa, who sang in their own tongue and embraced their traditional culture and heritage. This led to the album ‘Wings of Africa’, which used afrobeats along with fuzz guitars and rock.
The genre really began to take off in 1975 when the president announced that 90% of all music played on the radio station should be of Zambian origin in an attempt to boost the national identity. It was around this time that a radio host coined the term Zamrock, and bands began to play huge stadiums, gaining celebrity status. New bands were emerging and began to produce some of their best work; it was psych mixed with punk, garage, afrobeats, and Zambian folk music.
One of my personal favourite albums from this time is Witch’s ‘Lazy Bones !!’, which is innovative in its lofi fuzz-rock aesthetics, reminding me of Brian JonesTown Massacre’s music 20 years later.
There was also more political music such as ‘The Peace’ (a band formed of ex Witch members), whose debut album ‘Black Power’ was influenced by Detroit pre-punk and James Brown. Along with more mainstream songs advocating for love and freedom in Bemba (one of the most spoken Zambian languages) such as Ubuntungwa by Keith Mlevhu (an original member of Rave Five). One of my favourite of these albums is ‘Africa’ by Amanaz; a band made up of miners and colonial freedom fighters, who created clever earworms such as ‘Khala my Friend’.
Unfortunately, socio-economic factors began to change, bringing an end to these creative outlets. Beginning with a drop in copper prices, Zambia's exports fell along with wages, meaning people could no longer afford records. They were also threatened with war from surrounding countries who were still under colonial or apartheid rule. A national curfew was put in place, preventing bands from playing at night, forcing musicians, dependent on nightly gigs, to find day jobs instead. There were a few underground concerts but participants had to be locked in for 12 hours to avoid being caught. This led to the rise of DJs and Disco who could play multiple bands and genres throughout the long sessions. Then came the HIV/AIDS crisis, which hit Zambia hard: approximately 13% of the adult population was infected. The rock and roll lifestyles of the Zamrock bands led to particularly high infection rates, and only a few of the original ‘godfathers’ of the genre who left the industry or the country survive today.
Without the means to produce new records, or the musicians to preserve the master tapes, by the mid 90s Zamrock was merely a memory, with few surviving records.
In recent years music blogs began writing about Zamrock, and scratchy recordings of records would appear on Youtube. This generated curiosity and record labels such as ‘Now Again’ began to reintroduce some of the classics, creating deals with surviving musicians and even finding some of the original masters, which were then put on Spotify for bored white kids like me to find and enjoy.
Here are the links of where you can by the re-released albums and LP’s:
Zamrock LP & Book Boxset from Now-Again Records
Zamrock Reissues from Strawberry Rain
WITCH Bandcamp (w/ LPs for sale)