Graded on a Curve:
Ngozi Family,
45,000 Volts

In 2017, the Now-Again label released the compilations Welcome to Zamrock Vols. 1 and 2 on double vinyl and compact disc, with the sets delivering an ample serving of the fuzzy, funky rock music made in 1970s Zambia. Two tracks from the Ngozi Family stood out as highlights, one of them from the band’s ’77 LP 45,000 Volts, which is fresh out on wax through Now-Again in its first official reissue. Featuring guitarist-lead singer-band leader Paul Ngozi with bassist Tommy Mwale and drummer Chrissy Zebby Tembo (both of whom add appealing harmonies), the contents groove and glide amid plentiful amplifier bite. Rather than a mere approximation of US-UK hard rock, this album is its own sweet thing.

A characteristic that’s often shared by compilations shedding retrospective light upon hitherto unheard realms of sound, especially when the music on the records is of consistently high quality (this is the case with the Zamrock volumes detailed above), is the sense of mystery over whether the assembled music constitutes the tip of a worthiness iceberg or instead represents the delectable cream skimmed from atop a larger but lesser body of work.

Of course, mileage will frequently vary depending on an individual’s level of investment in a particular style. To elaborate: if some enterprising label dishes a comp of previously unheard vault recordings by ’60s garage bands from the state of Nebraska, what many listeners will chalk up as not much more than competence will strike a fervent few as another delightful chapter in the history of the genre.

A big part of the Ngozi Family’s success on 45,000 Volts derives from its solidity as an album as it’s the most recent reissue illuminating Zamrock’s qualitative depth, following earlier editions from Now-Again by Chrissy Zebby Tembo, Witch, and indeed, a prior set from the Ngozi Family, the 1976 album Day of Judgement.

What this latest LP shares with those predecessors is a reinforcement of Zamrock as musically distinct, which means there’s no need to worry that 45,000 Volts is a platter best served to genre specialists. And the disc’s opener “Nizakupanga Ngozi” makes Ngozi Family’s hard rock bona fides immediately and abundantly clear with a play, delay and repeat guitar riff motif that’s likely inspiration is Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”

But there’s no attempt to surpass or even equal Sabbath’s heaviness across the track’s 6-plus minutes as the band instead alternate the Sab-like pattern with passages of gliding fuzz and vocal harmony. It’s the next cut “Everything Is Over” that really spotlights the merger of funky (but still rock-aligned) rhythms, more grouchy fuzz and servings of dusted post-Cream soloing.

It’s this persevering attention to groove that sets the Ngozi Family apart from their hard rocking Western influences. “I’ll Be With U” is, at its core, a danceable entity (encouraged as much by the guitar as the drums and bass in this regard), but it’s bookended with bursts of distortion and wiggly effects-pedal reverberations that suggest a Zambian Frijid Pink.

“Atate” shifts toward a ’60s-style R&B groove, with the trio really putting the funky rhythm guitar and tougher rock soloing at the forefront. It feels like it could’ve been a single, but then so does “U Don’t Love Me,” with a chorus (“How can you say-ayyy/that you don’t love me”) that I suspect was inspired by the repeated refrain in the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

But then again, maybe not. However, the beginning of “House of Fear” makes it obvious that Hendrix was a major influence on Ngozi’s guitar playing, but when the full band kicks in, the groove inches nearer to Traffic’s “Rock and Roll Stew.” From there, “Timwenge,” with its native tongue call-and-response and beaucoup hand drumming, is a sweet combo of trad African style with tinges of funky guitar, while “Hold On,” which was featured on Welcome to Zamrock Vol. 2, returns to the ’60s R&B zone; it and “Atate” strike my ear as a slightly akin to Archie Bell & the Drells’ “Tighten Up.”

But the constant gnawing psych guitar sets it apart, as does the lack of horns as 45,000 Volts is a stripped down low-budget affair focusing on the power trio instrumentation. The closing track “Tichenjele” registers as a reengagement with trad African influence, though the cut is also playful as the vocal dialogue features a band member affecting a higher pitched voice and clearly playing a character.

“Tichenjele” delivers warmth that easily transcends the barrier of language. The singing in English on 45,000 Volts often delves into unexceptional relationship stuff, but after numerous spins, that never becomes a detraction. Instead, it lends the Ngozi Family a strain of the universal as they stand so casually apart from their inspirations. There’s an utter lack of strain to these nine tracks, with the whole radiating highly positive vibes.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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