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(Credit: Yevgeniya Fedorova / Far Out)

Music

Off the Beaten Track: The brilliance of Zamrock - Tragedy and hope amid the AIDS epidemic

Music is always entwined with the society surrounding it. You can’t have punk without the temporarily delipidated New York dystopia that spawned it, you can’t picture Bruce Springsteen’s Cadillac ballads without the long open roads afore him, and you can’t hear reggae without being figuratively whisked off to the beach. When it comes to the exuberance of Zambian psychedelic rock, you hear that same collision of time, place and artistry that met at a confluence and exploded into song — some of the best indie songs ever written for that matter.

Rock ‘n’ roll could quite rightly be described as a pure subversive force of individual defiance, embodied by its incredible resilience, its unifying power and its transcendent nature. It is the lifeblood and cultural driving force of our age. The very fact it has reached the far-flung corners of this world is testimony to the seraphic power it holds. 

Behind any uprising, behind any stand of humanity, behind any acquiescence from the currency of power to the virtue of peace there is undoubtedly music, no matter how dusty or how far removed from the centre of any movement that old record in the corner might be, it is unquestionably always there. That was the case with Zamrock, and despite it tragically being ravaged by AIDS, the fact its legacy lives on is testimony to that inviolable spirit. 

On October 24th, 1964, Zambia announced its independence from the United Kingdom. The very fact that amidst the oppressive rule that had gone before, rock ‘n’ roll had snuck its way over like a big creeping benevolent beast, is testimony not only to what is good about music, but what is good about man. Within the paternalistic and authoritarian forces that Europe heavy-handed on the continent, the gift of rock clung like a barnacle of good intention to its malevolent host. 

If the notion that where man goes, misery follows, is imperishable within the history books, then it also has to be duly noted that wonderment often springs forth too. In Africa, despite a grotesque and repressive regime, the seed of inspiration took root in the form of rock. And when that great Boulder was rolled off Zambia, that flowering inspiration did not wilt but burst into sonic bloom. The sound of Zamrock is the sound of celebration. 

When independence came, so did the desire for the country to reclaim its own culture. Thus, prime minister Kenneth Kaunda poured money, now flowing from the copper mines, into the arts. Kids quickly looked to the future by appropriating the rock music that the white folks had shipped over and assimilating that into their natural rhythms. 

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Initially, there were no recording studios or record labels in the country at the time. Not despairing these bands embraced the freedom that music retaining its ephemeral beauty gave them. They simply rocked out for the joy of it. How fitting therefore that when a link to a record pressing facility in Nairobi Kenya developed, one of the very first pieces of Zambian music ever recorded to that point would be Introduction by WITCH, laying down the psychedelic, melodic and catchy beats that would embody the countries music scene. 

What’s more, it has also often been posited that the psychedelic twist to their indie came from the fact that oftentimes the bootlegged albums of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and others spread throughout the country had brought about amplified distortion on the rough records, which was mimicked thereafter. 

The first 200 copies of ‘Introduction’ (as much as they could fit in their luggage) arrived as the nation lifted itself towards its own identity, much like the teenagers who embrace rock the most. Then a golden ticket was handed down to the bands as the Zambian president passed a bill that meant radio stations had to begin playing 90% Zambian music. And that creeping little barnacle that snuck over, grew huge, massive and great. Booming a country into a rock revolution. 

In the midst of all that, a small group of miners and former colonial freedom fighters formed a band called Amanaz. Amanaz would record a song called ‘Khala My Friend’, which, to betray a personal opinion, is my favourite song from the continent. Sadly, however, it is also a record that mirrors the bittersweet reality of the scene itself.  

Zamrock would come to end. Zambia would be ravaged by HIV in the 1980s and nearly all the bands would die. In a country new to records, much of the music would die with it. The region happened to be one of the hardest hit by the virus and this was tragically exacerbated owing to the cultural liberation that the region was enjoying with more young people meeting and mixing than ever before.  

Nevertheless, that ever-determined barnacle would still cling on and about five years ago the master tapes for Amanaz would be rediscovered and reissued, to be heard by the vast majority of the world for the very first time. That is what makes music from the frayed edges great, but what about the song in particular and how exactly does it encompass Zamrock? 

The melody jangles away in the background, instruments harmonise then pull apart like the best poetry where every word is somehow inevitable yet deeply confounding. And over this sweet sweeping sound comes a voice that sounds so lived in, so caring and considerate, singing “the world is full of misery: and yet with the next line delivers the words “my friend” and “I’m gonna miss you” with such truth and such unabated soul bearing, that it not only reminds the listener of what friendship, platonic or otherwise, can be, but it celebrates companionship with a splendour that rises above the malaise of the previous line towards exultant euphoria.

There is attendant wonder to that sweet and non-conceited summer melody. The song is not dragged to the mire of the aforementioned misery by the seeming forthcoming absence of a friend, but it is buoyed by the shared spiritual bond that will live on, not stated in the lyrics but somehow noted in his voice. It does not grapple with the dichotomy it presents, or wage one against the other in a duel, it merely references the misery but mellows it with a sanguine tune and a subsequent smile that subsumes the whole thing with bittersweet contentment. 

Zamrock may well have been haunted by the AIDS epidemic, but there is also a great deal of hope in what the music represents. The songs survive in this capacity to this day, it was both a celebration and a balm to suffering back then and, if anything, that has been amplified in retrospect. You can bask in the sweet sounds in the playlist below.