We Intend To Cause Havoc
, May 24th, 2012 08:42
There is a fantastically daft book out on McSweenys called All Known Metal Bands 'by' Dan Nelson. It is literally an alphabetic list of 50,000 heavy metal groups with no other information contained within its pages. Even though this is little more than a frivolous coffee table gewgaw it still manages to nail something about the adolescent wish fulfilment of four decades' worth of long hairs the world over. There is nearly a full page of groups called Stonehenge and at least 15 called Death. Featuring amongst the ranks of the multiple entries are groups with the nomenclature Witch. This speaks of a different time, when metal was a purely youthful male concern and the idea of a self-sufficient old woman with rudimentary knowledge of herbs and a pet cat was presumably a more potently terrifying one than it is now. (Unless you happen to be J Mascis of course.)
Women of the dark arts are an international concern however, and so it follows that there have been many groups called Witch all across the globe – and not just amongst the practioners of heavy metal. The greatest of all of them surely must be the Zambian psych rock group who were in existence during the 1970s and 1980s and who have had their recorded output from 1972 to 1977 collected in this excellent box set by Now Again.
When you first get introduced to the craft of WITCH, the thing that is most noticeable is how Western their deep psych sound is; as if they were an idealised Pebbles or Nuggets band. On the opening track of the first disc 'Introduction' we get hit by the immersive fuzz bass of Gedeon 'Giddy Kings' Mwamulenga, juddering organ of Paul 'Jones' Mumba and smoking guitar by John 'Music' Muma and Chris 'Kims' Mbewe. The patterns on some of the stone cold drumming by Boyd 'Star McBoydie' Sinkala give us a bit of a geographic clue but initially it is really only the vocals of Emmanuel Kanga 'Jagari' Chanda that give this away as the recording of an African band. And even then Jagari's vocals are so mannered and hellaciously groovy, that he doesn't sound all that dissimilar to Mick Jagger. This is unsurprising given that he grew up idolising British acts such as The Stones, The Beatles, Cliff Richard and The Hollies.
Jagari and the rest of WITCH were born in Zambia in the south of Africa and lived through some of the most tumultuous years in the country's history. Their nation threw off the yoke of British colonial oppression in 1964 when these boys were entering their teenage years. As these young men were discovering rock music the rest of their country was just embarking on a brief spell of economic growth thanks to the short-lived copper mining boom. However by the time WITCH were reaching the height of their powers musically in the mid-70s, the boom had bust leaving everything – including their career - in turmoil. So despite playing Western music, at the very best you could say that the band had mixed feelings about Western culture. Speaking in the excellent sleeve notes, Jagari says: “The American/European musical influence in southern Africa was similar – especially because Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe were under the same colonial masters as Northern Rhodesia and Myasaland. These masters forced their imported culture on their subjects.”
Perhaps then it was understandable then that WITCH would often sound like the populist youth culture thorns in the side of the US and UK establishment such as The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. (WITCH don't, in my opinion, sound much like Cliff Richard And The Shadows, although they do sound, at one point, like The Hollies.) They admitted themselves that home grown influences such as Tolmeo Bwalya and Iassac Mapiki were very much a secondary consideration. The enthusiasm, hopefulness and joy of the first disc recorded in the early 70s is infectious and it's hard not to love the grooves of 'Like A Chicken', 'No Time' and 'Smiling Face'. These tracks speak of the optimism of both WITCH and Zambia but the second and third discs tell a different story of much darker, more agitated times.
Often the modern psych rock collectors' scene – as with northern soul and funk – privileges rarity over quality, something that file sharing and mass reissue programmes have thrown slightly into disarray thankfully. However, the simple excellence of some of these cuts do go some way to explaining the high price WITCH records can fetch on the odd occasion they turn up at auction. This rarity has been amplified no doubt by social factors as well. When the Zambian economy spiralled into hyper-inflation, the so-called Zamrock scene (not to mention the entire notion of having a record collection or being a professional rock musician) became an unsustainable luxury. Many dedicated musicians wishing to continue pursuing their career fled abroad but they obviously had more pressing concerns than rescuing record collections. Intrepid record hunters visiting Zambia in more recent years often discovered the discs they did find were damaged beyond usability. (All of these recordings come from Chanda's collection, all other members of the band having since died.)
On the second disc, living up to their acronym (We Intend To Cause Havoc), WITCH rock out with lysergic guitar riffs on tracks such as 'Black Tears' and chunky breakdowns inspired by Cream on 'Motherless Child'. However these tracks (which were released originally as the album Lazy Bones!!) feature WITCH at their all-out funkiest and heaviest. Where the material from the first disc was obviously all recorded on the cheap, in a hurry and at lots of different times and studios, the second disc debuts a cohesive sound that owes as much of a debt to classic heavy rock like Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad or Blue Cheer as it does to the funk of James Brown. Audiophiles will be pleased to know that the sometimes murky sound of earlier WITCH recordings improves around this point, with tracks like 'Strange Dream' chiming out with 12 string clarity. If you don't understand what psych rock collectors are doing in the search for ever more elusive records then the track 'Look Out' with its magma-like rivulets of fuzzed out guitar and liquid wah wah funk rock could be exactly the explanation you're looking for – it's a sound that's at once instantly recognisable yet still wild and exotic.
My favourite tracks are all on the Lukombo Vibes disc which mines an even deeper understanding of heavy rock, proto metal, bad ass funk and combines it with a burgeoning interest in 'Afro' conscious dance rhythms and a deepening respect for musicianship – both of which were influenced by a support slot with Afro rock titans Osibisa. The titles on this disc reflect their interest in heavy rock as much they do the deteriorating conditions in their immediate environment: 'Thou Shalt Not Cry', 'Bleeding Thunder', 'Devil's Flight' and 'Blood Donor' all live up to their titles, both sonically and atmospherically.
The last disc Including Janet (Hit Single) is a much more Afro-centric vision and as such perhaps will be less surprising to collectors of Afro rock. The full title of this album WITCH: We Intend To Cause Havoc! The Complete Works Of Zambia's Legendary Garage- , Psych-, Prog-, Funk-, Afro-Rock Ensemble, 1972-1977 is slightly misleading as the band limped on without Chanda into the 80s with a much less well realised disco and soul influenced direction. After a spell teaching, Chanda became a gem stone prospector, with a view to setting up his own school of music. He has mixed feelings about what WITCH managed: “I could say the results were satisfactory, generally, but our goals were not fully achieved. We should have migrated somewhere outside Zambia, away from our family ties, to a place where music is appreciated more. We needed to perform in areas that had bigger populations, and better economic status. We needed stiffer musical competition.” Amongst other things, this excellent box set goes some way to giving Chanda – the only surviving member of WITCH – the recognition and respect he always craved outside his own country.