Zambian rock band WITCH are back with Zango, their first album in quite a while. Most bands release albums at a steady pace: a debut LP, sophomore a year later, maybe two years after that a tricky third LP written during constant touring, then four or five years later for the fourth release as cracks start to appear in the relationships and everyone wants to release their solo albums (raw garage noise for one member, folktronica for another and someone will want to go acoustic with a full orchestra). For WITCH it has been 39 years since their last album, 1984’s Kuomboka (see ‘fun facts’ below for the longest gaps between releases). I’ll say it again, 39 years!
If you’re a fan of desert blues like Tinariwen or Songhoy Blues but want something a little heavier then WITCH and their ‘Zamrock’ will be for you; think the lighter side of a funky Black Sabbath. They were originally dubbed as ‘Zambia’s Beatles’ but economic crises, social restrictions and the AIDS epidemic led to the band’s first demise when vocalist Emmanuel Jagari Chanda left the band. Like so many people in the 80s there was a disco-inspired comeback but that didn’t last. In 2011 Now-Again Records released a career retrospective album which led to people outside Zambia hearing, and loving, their music although the sad side to this was that many of the original band had died prior to its release. Spurred on by the renewed interest in the band, the remaining band members reformed and this was captured in the 2019 documentary WITCH: We Intend To Cause Havoc which followed the band preparing for their first ever live shows in Europe and America.
The reaction to the live shows emboldened band veterans Emmanuel Jagari Chanda and Patrick Mwondela (keyboards) to go back into Lusaka’s DB Studios (where they recorded their 1975 album Lazy Bones) and joined by Dutch multi-instrumentalist and solo artist Jacco Gardner (who also produced), drummer and fellow Dutchman Nico Mauskoviç (Mauskoviç Dance Band), Bulgarian guitarist Stefan Lilov (L’Eclair), and German guitarist Jan Weissenfeldt, and this became Zango.
Right, history lesson over. The music on Zango sounds incredibly fresh, and the moment the fuzzed guitar and syncopated drums kick in on opening track ‘By The Time You Realize’, I was hooked. The interplay of percussion and guitar on ‘Waile’ is perfect as are the high call and response backing vocals and harmonies.
Songs like ‘Nshingille’ and ‘Malango’ demonstrate how the instruments can dance around rock-solid vocals. There is real bounce to the arrangements which sparkle with the players fizzing around the tunes, playing counter melodies and hypnotic trills and runs. Then there’s ‘Unimvwesha Shuga’ which starts with a force 10 drumkit roll that could level a building.
The towering ‘Avalanche of Love’ builds a bridge between WITCH’s fuzzed rock-funk legacy and young Zambian rapper and singer Sampa The Great who guests on the track and it’s one of the standouts on the album.
Zango’s mix of heavy guitars, swirling keyboards, tuneful bass, thundering drums, frenetic percussion and outstanding vocals is intoxicating, and the album does nothing to harm the band’s legacy. This is energetic and uplifting, easy to stick on repeat, and should also have listeners heading to the band’s superlative back catalogue. ‘Zango’ means ‘meeting place’ and it certainly gives you a warm welcome.
Fun facts: the current record for the longest gap between releases is held by Dean Gitter – 57 years between Ghost Ballads (1957) and Old Folkies Never Die (2014), Napoleon XIV – 57 years between They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! (1966) and For God’s Sake, Stop the Feces! (2023), followed closely by Jack Scott – 55 years, Rainbow Ffolly and The Sonics – 48 years and Harry Taussig – 47 years. The full list is on Wikipedia here.
Review by Paul F Cook