Africa

Zamrock!

This month the debut issue of Pallet magazine runs a version of my Zamrock piece, a profile of Emmanuel Jagari Chanda that doubles as a postcolonial history of Zambia. It’s also chocked with cool historical photos. It’s a gorgeous magazine, and full of fascinating stories–an essay on when Johnny Cash met Merle Haggard, a mini-profile of Pliny the Elder, short fiction inspired by Henry Rollins’ tattoos. You get the picture. By design, the magazine doesn’t have a huge web presence (it’s old-school that way), so look for it in the neighborhood bookstore.

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Three Views of Modern Africa

I’m teaching this course at San Francisco State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute starting next week–we cover the post-colonial histories of Egypt, Zambia, and South Africa. Check it out.

 

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Searching for Jagari

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We were in the lobby, lingering over breakfast. “Not to be nosy,” the worker said. “But I saw your map. Are you here in search of gems?”

The Appendix publishes the story behind my Zamrock story, a chronicle of how we tracked down one of southern Africa’s biggest rock stars of the 1970s. It’s a chronicle of lucky guesses, semi-plausible coincidences, and, unfortunately, lost history. Or, as Egon put it, an, “article about why the Zamrock scene is so damn hard to document.”

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Radio Freedom, on the radio

I spoke to Johannesburg’s Power FM today about Radio Freedom, the ANC-in-exile’s revolutionary, anti-apartheid radio program from the 1960s through the ’80s. It was fun, though I wish I didn’t sound so sleepy at first–it was 4am my time. Here’s my piece on Radio Freedom from last year.

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“We’re a Zambian Band”

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My piece on the rise, fall, and rise of Jagri Chanda–once Zambia’s biggest rock star–went up recently on The Appendix. It’s an epic 50-year tale of psych-rock, Quaaludes, post-colonial politics, gemstone mining, and (yes, ultimately) redemption.

“It’s a Sunday morning in Kitwe, a colonial-era mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Clouds hang low, and the air is hazy. In the countryside, farmers are burning their fields in preparation for the rainy season. We’ve come to this recreation area to see an important part of the country’s musical history.

Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda hops out of a truck. Once upon a time, he was the country’s biggest rock star. As one of the founders of the “Zamrock” psychedelic rock scene of the 1970s, Jagari (an Africanization of Mick Jagger) was a household name. His songs were radio staples, groupies mobbed him, he always drank for free. Now sixty-plus years of age, he’s lost the Afro and gained a few pounds, but he retains a youthful, loose-limbed gait.

The recreation area sits on the edge of a manmade lake, and it’s a gently-ruined place. Jagari strides toward the water, past worn picnic tables and fire pits. Beyond the water lie the copper mines that power this central African country’s economy, open-cut gashes in the earth surrounded by heavily-rutted roads and streams running with mine tailings. Jagari grew up around here. He takes it all in, a dethroned king surveying his lost kingdom. “It’s rundown, as you can see,” he says. “Back then it was new.

As singer for the Witch, the biggest Zamrock band, Jagari played to packed stadiums and toured across southern Africa. This recreation area was always one of his favorite venues. Often the band played from a stage backed up to the lake. The crowd—miners, soldiers, office workers, students—caught fish, barbecued, drank, and danced. Sometimes the Witch played at night, other times in the afternoon, the show peaking as the sun set over the Copperbelt.”

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Radio Freedom: A History of South African Underground Radio

rfLast week, The Appendix published my piece on Radio Freedom, the ANC’s revolutionary radio station during the apartheid era. I discovered that, in many ways, the station’s history parallels that of modern South Africa itself.

At seven p.m. sharp, seven nights a week, during the darkest days of apartheid, an incendiary radio broadcast beamed out from Lusaka, Zambia. It began with the clack of machine-gun fire, followed by a familiar call-and-response:

Amandla Ngawethu!

“Power to the People!”

The shooting faded in and out, waxing and waning with the chant.

Hundreds of miles and two countries to the south, people gathered in matchbox homes in Johannesburg’s industrial townships and community centers in the Cape Flats and thatched-roof huts in black homelands to hear the transmission. They hunched over shortwave radios, straining to hear through clouds of static. They listened with the lights off, making sure that nobody had followed them. Secrecy was necessary, because there were informers everywhere. Just hearing this stuff could get you eight years in prison.

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Talking Zamrock

Last week, I appeared on WBEZ’s Worldview radio show, talking about Zambian psych rock and my recent story for Symbolia magazine. Here’s the segment.

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Meeting Me

keithSymbolia’s short Q&A with me on music obsession, being an artist, and zombie preparedness. I wrote about Keith Kabwe and Amanaz (“Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia”) for this excellent magazine’s debut issue. (Illustration of Keith by the great Damien Scogin, whose answers to the zombie preparedness question show that he’s given it a lot more thought than I have.)

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Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia

symIt’s been a long time coming, but the premier issue of Symbolia is out. This brand-new tablet magazine is all about graphic journalism, and my contribution is the story of Zambia’s psychedelic rock movement and one of its biggest stars, Keith Kabwe–anti-colonial freedom fighter turned dope-smoking rock star turned Pentecostal preacher and gemstone miner. My friend and colleague Damien Scogin did the illustrations, which are out of this world.

Ndola, Zambia, 1974.

The equatorial sun has set and the dusty streets are cooling, but you wouldn’t know it inside the concert hall. The place is suffocatingly hot, packed with people. They have come in their multitudes, from mine workers and secretaries to government ministers, to see Keith Kabwe sing.

The band vamps, propelling itself into the song. The drums set a driving beat, followed by the bass and then the guitars, fuzzed-out and in the red. A klieg light illuminates a long rectangular box at center-stage: a coffin.

As the music peaks, the coffin opens. A skeleton springs out, a boneyard apparition in an Afro and floppy bellbottoms. The audience gasps, then roars its approval. The skeleton grabs the microphone and begins to sing. Another Amanaz show has begun.

You can download the iPad version here, and the PDF version here. The iPad version gives you the full effect, with sound files of Amanaz songs and my interviews with Keith. Both are free, but if you like what you see please subscribe to get the next six issues.

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The Thug

thugartRemember the movie Tsotsi, about a South African criminal? My story, “The Thug,” profiles a real-life tsotsi. It appears this month in the literary magazine Carte Blanche.

Most nights the crew headed north to the suburbs. Nigerian middlemen brought them orders from car buyers all across southern Africa–Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe. Maybe somebody wanted a C-class Benz, maybe a 4×4. Often, the Nigerians already had a car picked out. All Bongani had to do was take it: “We’d wait for the owner. We just ask for the keys, nothing else. If he is fighting, then we grab him and tie him with wires or ropes and put him in the house.”

They’d drive their treasure out to the empty spaces of eastern Johannesburg, half-industrial suburbs near the airport where there was plenty of privacy. The Nigerians would be there with the money.

There were four guys in Bongani’s crew, and they stole six or seven cars a week. It was lucrative: he made a few hundred dollars a week when business was good. The thieves couldn’t have done it, of course, without cooperation from the police–both black cops in the townships and white cops elsewhere. “You must have cops who know you,” he said. “You must pay the cops.”

Breaking off his story, he moved to his stoep. He swept his arms out, taking in the whole of Soweto beyond his courtyard. “I could tell you that maybe 30 cars have been stolen this morning.”

Read it here.

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