Another day, another fantastic reissue from an underappreciated sector of Africa. This time, it’s the turn of Zambia, thanks to Now-Again Records astounding 4CD/6LP reissue of the entire recorded output of WITCH, the Zamrock movement’s most famous group. Lead by vocalist Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda, the musicians were full-fledged rock stars for most of the seventies, playing to enormous crowds of fans, indulging in a variety of less-than-safe lifestyle choices, and generally living the part to the hilt. Unfortunately, as is true for so many highflying bands, a terrible low came after the party drenched high. Sadly, Chanda is the only member of the group to survive to the present day, something most likely attributable to his turn to Christianity (and subsequent abandonment of a hard partying lifestyle) after a drug bust landed him in prison.
Influenced by American and British groups like Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones, WITCH carved out a zone somewhere between the type of psychedelic garage-rock epitomized by the Nuggets/Pebbles compilations and the proto-metal of late 60’s electric blues groups. Over the course of the five albums included in this box set, the band throws down some pretty serious jams, moving from the relatively straight-ahead garage-rock of “Introduction” to the psychedelic vibes of “Lazy Bones” and the Africanized swagger of later albums like “Janet (Hit Single).” However, even at its most intense, the band’s music carries an odd, difficult-to-place feeling of disconnect, a result of the sheer distance that separated them from their musical influences. The guitars, drenched in fuzz and wah-wah, play the right kind of riffs, but they’re always somehow lighter, more airy then their western counterparts. The same holds true for the drums and vocals- for all their energy, they aren’t ever quite able to reproduce the molten groove that defines the best psychedelic rock (the bass player, to his credit, does somehow manage to correctly nail the leaden thump of the seventies).
Given this, the question of how to consider this music becomes increasingly complicated. Obviously, a certain segment of the record buying public (one that makes up a large part of the audience for reissues such as this) is in a constant state of hunger for new rarities- 60’s garage, 70’s psych, 80’s disco, etc. The problem lies in weighing the extent to which the story behind the music obscures an accurate assessment of its actual quality. Or, to rephrase the question, if WITCH’s output is, at its best, as good as Deep Purple or Grand Funk Railroad, is there a clear reason to listen to one over the other? Or, to turn it another way- are the people salivating over this 6 LP set actually blasting those other groups? Or do they primarily appreciate WITCH for the circumstances that surround the music?
Of course, as already mentioned, WITCH didn’t manage to sound like a group from America, and its failure of imitation created a body of music with its own unique sounds. And that’s really the answer- this is neither the most original nor the most transcendently powerful music in the world. Instead it’s a set of pretty good records by what is essentially the African equivalent of a second string psych-rock band, as well as a fascinating document from a time and place that don’t tend to get all that much critical attention. Listen to it in the hopes of garnering a new perspective on both western rock and African musical culture and you won’t be disappointed. Go in looking for an unheard masterpiece and you might be out of luck.
For more information about ordering the set, check out Now-Again’s Website.