Graded on a Curve: Welcome to Zamrock! Vols. 1 & 2

For decades, the prime fount of Afrobeat has been Nigeria. However, turning retrospective attention southward to the landlocked nation of Zambia reveals a distinct strain of ’70s African rocking; Now-Again Records’ two Welcome to Zamrock! compilations spotlight this movement with appropriate depth. The CD editions come with a 104-page hardcover book co-authored by Now-Again’s Eothen “Egon” Alapatt and Zambian music historian Leonard Koloko, while the 2LPs are accompanied with an edited booklet and a WAV download card. Together, they offer 34 tracks recorded from ’72-’76 that in the label’s words represent every important Zamrock band.

The music blog wave has long ebbed and without much in the way of commiseration, but it’s worth noting that an occasional curatorial gem did shine amidst the sea of digitized record collections. For example, music blogs are where this writer first heard a pair of Zamrock’s most prolific acts, specifically the Ngozi Family and WITCH; in a positive turn, Now-Again has licensed full-length reissues of both (amongst others) and awarded them prominent positions on these two overviews of the style.

In terms of groove, Zamrock is certainly related to the sounds that emanated from Nigeria during the same period, but overall, the Zambian approach is distinguished by a larger ratio of rock in the mix, a circumstance that can be attributed to the impact of colonial rule. Having broken free from Britain less than a decade prior to the start of Welcome to Zamrock’s timeframe, the country’s reality is succinctly expressed in Now-Again’s choice of subtitle: How Zambia’s Liberation Led to a Rock Revolution.

The Ngozi Family’s “Hi Babe” is illustrative of the Zambian recipe, and it smartly opens side one of Vol. 1. The cut’s most striking element is a distortion-soaked guitar riff that registers far beyond fuzzy to the point of being downright serrated, the garage-like production bringing it a slightly muffled quality as the sharp crack of the drums strengthens the hard rock foundation.

Indeed, for crusty gray-haired cats in Blue Cheer t-shirts haunting record bins for pedal residue, “Hi Babe” (from their ’76 Day of Judgement LP) is just what the doctor ordered, but Vol. 2’s “Hold On” (from ’77’s 45,000 Volts) infuses a ’60s-ish R&B foundation with amp grumble and underscores the Ngozi Family’ range. There is also depth of discography, with the punchy rocker “Born Black” (on Vol. 1) and the more psych guitar-infused “I’m Not Made of Iron” (Vol. 2) credited to family member Chrissy Zebby Tembo.

That one was previously reissued by Now-Again on a 45 back in 2014, and for experienced riders of the Zamrock train, some of this territory will be familiar. For instance, the label has done a thorough job of documenting the work of groundbreaking outfit Musi-O-Tunya and the solo work of their leader, known as the Godfather of Zamrock, Rikki Ililonga, though it doesn’t appear that the wickedly funky riff-rock of Vol. 1’s “Musi-O-Tunya” has been reissued prior.

Frequently cited as the originators of Zamrock, Musi-O-Tunya’s “Katonga” derives from their second album, ’76’s Give Love to Your Children. Its blend of horn charts and burning solos reinforces the synopsis of the style as a combination of funk, soul, and hard rock, though the track nicely eludes the oversimplification of Zamrock as the JB’s meet Hendrix. “Stop Dreaming Mr. D,” Ililonga’s solo cut from Vol. 2, is better described as harmonica-laden folk with ominous urban tension.

WITCH (an acronym for We Intend to Cause Havoc) also largely eschew the merger of funk and rock, with Vol. 1’s “You Better Know” (from ’74’s Introduction) aptly tagged as garage rock of a mid-’60s Stones variety, while Vol.2’s “Strange Dream” (from ’75’s Lazy Bones!!) is in a folk-rock bag with accents of light psych.

And hey, WITCH wasn’t alone in diverging from Afrobeat norms; Vol. 1’s “Everyday Has Got a New Dream” by Dr. Footswitch is essentially a sunshiny pop tune slathered in guitar jizz, while the same band’s “Otenta” (found on Vol. 2) is a far more bent affair complete with flute, vocal whoops and even some outbound guitar suggestive of the ballrooms of San Fran.

“Umwana Wakusanga Mung’anda” by Fireballs mingles expansive guitar playing, ample groove and distinctly African vocals; it’s directly followed on Vol. 2 by the multifaceted seven-minute groove vessel “Umbwalwa Ne Chamba” by Peace. Perhaps more typical of Zamrock are riffy body-movers by small ensembles a la Vol. 1’s “Running” by Blackfoot, though two cuts by Five Revolutions hit both sides of the spectrum, as Vol. 1’s “Fwe Bena Zambia” tills more typically Afrobeat soil and Vol. 2’s “Poor Man” explores a vocally harmonious corner of the garage.

Salty Dog also gets a chance to flaunt versatility; “Fast” (Vol. 1) comes off like an early ’70s up-tempo Motown joint overloaded with wailing fuzz guitar, while “See the Storm” (Vol. 2) chooses clean brittle string plucks across a slower glide capped with a smooth lead vocal. It’s important to note that much of Welcome to Zamrock combines modest fidelity with oft-rugged playing to a result that’s at once workmanlike and unique; this is at the heart of its appeal.

“Really,” Crossbones’ opener to Vol. 2, is illustrative, fusing Nuggets-psych to manic R&B revue theatrics and getting close to Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” but with more guitar and sans organ, and that’s way cool. But the storm clouds heard at the start of the same band’s “Rain and Sunshine” reveal a lack of inhibition over utilizing studio-derived enhancements, a scenario additionally observable in Salty Dog’s “See the Storm.”

The title of “Funky Lady” (Vol. 1) should be a tipoff to Teddy Chisi’s intentions; loaded with horns and hand percussion, Zamrock doesn’t get much nearer to the James Brown template than this, though it lacks the acidic edge that makes Tinkle’s instrumental “Mpundu” (Vol. 2) such a pleasure. That one pairs well with the druggy hard rock flight of Oscillations’ “Request to God” from deeper in the same volume.

There’s enough material across these eight sides that Born Free’s “I Don’t Know” (Vol. 1) can kinda connect like standard stuff, but its melodic-rock structure is still quite distinct from Western models, and that a specific point of influence isn’t glaringly obvious adds value. However, the same group’s “Mad Man” (Vol. 2) is an attractively concise garage-psych instrumental.

Ricky Banda’s tempo shifting and instrumentally rich “Who’s That Guy?” (Vol. 1) is impressive in its pop savvy, and it’s followed by Machine Gunners’ “Changa Namwele,” which is assertive rhythmically yet buoyant in guitar and organ. Through an incessant rhythm, repetitive singing, and dual guitars (one strumming, one raw and soaring) Jesper Siliya Lungu’s “Hot Do” (Vol. 2) feels like a refined peak of the style.

Not far behind are the two contrasting entries by Amanaz, the relatively gentle “Khala My Friend (Reverb Version)” (Vol. 1) and the grinding guitar centerpiece “History of Man” (Vol. 2). Both are from his ’75 LP Africa. Also amongst the stronger selections are two by Keith Mlevhu, with “Dzikolino Ni Zambia” (Vol. 1) wielding an unperturbed rhythmic engine and “Love and Freedom” (Vol. 2) presenting a trim hunk of tough psychedelic soul.

“Poverty,” Cosmos Zani’s keyboard-drenched slab of instrumental psych, closes Vol. 1 by getting substantially far afield of the expected strains of Afrobeat. Per its subject, it’s suitably dark, but Mike Nyoni’s “SM” gives Vol. 2 a more upbeat soul-rocker for a finale. The goodness is distributed well on both sets, with most of the material seemingly not reissued previously, so folks already conversant with the Now-Again’s array of retrieved Zambian wonders won’t want to miss either of these utterly classy compendiums.

Welcome to Zamrock Vol. 1

Welcome to Zamrock Vol. 2

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