How Zambia Rocks

by Dish Staff

Chris A. Smith navigates the tumultuous political history of post-independence Zambia through the prism of Zamrock, the 1970s psychedelic rock scene that produced bands like The Witch (an acronym for “We Intend to Cause Havoc”), heard above. Smith describes The Witch’s sound as “incendiary, all crystalline guitar lines and supple rhythms, topped by [singer] Jagari’s plaintive voice”:

Zamrock was the energetic sound of a nation that had just thrown off the British colonial yoke. Though Zambia is now one of the poorest countries in the world, at independence it had the second highest GDP on the continent thanks to its copper industry. Zambians expected great things—prosperity, modernization, and equal standing with the West. With its fuzzed-out guitars, propulsive beats, and cosmopolitan outlook, Zamrock provided the soundtrack to this hoped-for future.

That future never arrived. Instead the country was brought low by a series of crises, external and internal, that would render it a ward of the international community by the 1980s. The Zamrock scene, devastated by economic collapse, the AIDS epidemic, and changing musical trends, withered and died.

Last summer, Jagari, once Zambia’s biggest rock star, made his debut concert appearance in North America:

In San Francisco, Jagari opens for the indie beatmaker and DJ Madlib, and the nightclub is packed. Most of the crowd probably doesn’t know who he is, but they go nuts anyway. In response, Jagari turns back the clock. He jumps and screams, flirts and teases, runs in place like Mick Jagger and duckwalks like Chuck Berry. The closer, “October Night”—a song about the band’s 1974 arrest for playing too loud—sprawls into a nine-minute, Latin-infused space jam. He exits the stage, and it feels like a triumph. … He is philosophical about his late resurgence. “I had hoped for this much earlier,” he says. “But that’s the human point of view. God saw it differently. He was grooming me for the challenge.”

(Video: The Witch performs on 1975’s Lazy Bones)