At the heart of Zamrock

Words: Joseph Callow

Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa, gained its independence from Britain in 1964. The economy which the new nation inherited was largely undiversified – it centred around the mining and exportation of its abundant copper resources – but highly profitable.

From the time of Zambia’s independence until the mid-1970s, copper prices were high, and the nation enjoyed prosperity atypical of newly independent African nations, especially in its urbanised areas around the Copperbelt and in the capital, Lusaka. It was from these regions that Zambia’s rock explosion emerged.

The circulation of western rock music through jukeboxes and radio in the wealthier regions of Zambia had created a youthful rock fandom who liked to cover the music of artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Cream. In subsequent years, Zambian rock bands began to define their own sound, combining British and American rock music with the musical styles and languages of Zambia to encapsulate musically the hopeful mood of independence. The innovative and original music that emerged was dubbed ‘Zamrock’, and came to dominate Zambia’s music scene for much of the 1970s.

At the forefront of this movement was the band WITCH, an acronym for ‘We Intend To Cause Havoc’, whose debut album Introduction was the first to be commercially produced in Zambia. WITCH was the most popular group of the Zamrock era and its frontman, Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda, was the nation’s first true rock star. The domestic success of the WITCH grew with their later releases – particularly 1975’s Lazy Bones, which is now considered a landmark album in both Zamrock and psychedelic rock as a whole – and the notoriety they gained from their live performances. 

Chanda’s behaviour at shows was so energetic that it earned him the nickname ‘Jagari’, a deliberately localised version of Jagger, since his outrageous and often suggestive antics were reminiscent of the Stones’ frontman. His provocative performance style led to the band’s arrest and imprisonment in 1974 after it was deemed that they were creating a noise disturbance. Rumours soon circulated that this arrest had been demanded by the Minister of Home Affairs, whose house was nearby. 

The WITCH’s three-day imprisonment in Kamwala remand prison typified the ambivalent relationship between the Zambian authorities and 1970s Zamrock. Zambia’s inaugural President, Kenneth Kaunda, and his first Vice President, Simon Kapwepwe, were both guitarists and intimately understood the political power of music; Kaunda had himself performed ‘freedom songs’ to gain support in his campaign for independence. This understanding led Kaunda to legally guarantee Zambian musicians 95% of the airtime on domestic radio in the hopes that this would create a distinctly Zambian cultural and national identity.

But Zamrock came to fill this musical vacuum, and while the music was unique to Zambia, its blend of western and southern African styles was far from what the government had envisioned. Despite Zamrock capturing the zeitgeist, government support for the genre and its musicians quickly waned in the face of other issues deemed more pressing.

The oil embargo led by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) from 1973 to 1974 had dire consequences for the Zambian economy. The increase in the price of oil brought on by the embargo drove a rapid decline in the demand for Zambian copper. It was also in this period that President Kaunda actively pursued a policy of regional interventionism, supporting rebel groups in neighbouring Angola and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Namibia’s struggle for independence from apartheid South Africa. Kaunda’s support for these rebels, and his willingness to shelter the refugees of the resultant conflicts in Zambia, drew the ire of the region’s white minority governments. 

South Africa’s retaliatory bombing of Zambia’s power stations brought rolling blackouts to the nation, further worsening the living conditions of those enduring the economic crisis. The government’s response to the growing disaffection which resulted was the introduction of increasingly authoritarian measures, chief among which were strictly enforced curfews. These circumstances – the nation’s economic crash, its geopolitical turmoil, and its increasing authoritarianism – dramatically reduced the quality of life for most Zambians and severely impacted the music of Zamrock.

Fewer of Zambia’s citizens were able or willing to spend their money on records and gig tickets. The resultant dwindle in the income of Zamrock bands forced them into innovative, yet inevitably less profitable, attempts at survival. The commercial production of new music domestically became financially and electronically unfeasible and bands came to rely almost entirely on the income generated by their live performances. 

With the unemployed less able to afford to watch live music, and those still in employment working during the day, Zamrock bands resorted to playing at 12-hour overnight lock-ins to greatly reduced audiences at significantly smaller venues in order to avoid breaking curfew. This technique proved unsustainable and the popularity of many Zamrock bands began to wane. While the economic and political unrest of late 1970s Zambia contributed to Zamrock’s decline, the government’s response to this crisis inadvertently undid its previous attempts at cultural development and temporarily made the nation inhospitable to artistic expression.

As for WITCH, the pressures of the late 1970s brought an end to the band’s original line-up. In 1977, Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda left the band to train as a music teacher. The rest of the group, after recruiting two new vocalists, moved away from Zamrock as a genre and turned to disco for its greater international appeal. In the early 1980s the band was gradually fading into obscurity, a fall from grace experienced by nearly all of the Zamrock legends. 

The most significant blow to Zamrock came with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Zambia suffered heavily as the nation’s youthful population proved highly susceptible. Zamrock musicians were no exception to this, with many dying in their late thirties and early forties, including all members of the original WITCH line-up, other than Chanda.  

The death and social upheaval caused by AIDS seemed for a couple of decades to have brought to a final end the music of Zamrock. But the genre has been enjoying a significant revival in recent years. Much of the Zamrock discography, largely unknown outside of Zambia during the 1970s, has been rereleased globally. Many bands, including WITCH, currently enjoy a greater international following than they did during their most active years. 

The renewed interest in Zambia’s rock revolution has led Chanda back into the music scene. He now fronts the new WITCH, a band largely made up of European musicians, which tours globally, playing the best of the band’s works to new audiences, and paying homage to its former members and the lost greats of the genre. 

learn more

Joseph Callow has just finished his second year of History at Durham University. He has a particular interest in late modern African history.