Music

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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“We’re a Zambian Band”

Zamrock1

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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H8

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My Discharge piece from last year–in which I chronicle an iconic punk band’s disastrous experiment with hair metal–gets a second life as a supplement to the New Inquiry‘s latest issue, titled “H8.” I’m pleased there’s a new audience for the story, of course. The best part, though, is the new title the editors have bestowed on my piece: “Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You!

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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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More on Discharge

Reaction to my Discharge piece was spirited and generally positive. I particularly enjoyed this comment thread. A sample:

“One thing that article got wrong: Metal sucked then and it sucks now. Up yours metalheads!(except Lemmy)”

I love that.

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Rules of the Tribe: Hardcore Punks and Hair Metal in the 1980s

discharge

My latest feature is about punk and metal specifically, but it’s also about tribal loyalties–and what happens when you violate the rules of your tribe. In 1986, the iconic English hardcore band Discharge–inspirations for Metallica and Slayer, among many others–went glam metal. The band then embarked on one of the most disastrous tours in music history. My story for The Appendix, chock full of multimedia and other cool stuff, chronicles that tour.

The chant began less than two minutes into the first song. An undercurrent at first, just a few hecklers. But it got louder with repetition, each wave building on the last. Soon the chant threatened to drown out the band itself.

“Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

It was tough to take. But it was entirely in keeping with everything else about this disastrous tour. The angry crowd in Long Beach. The broken-down van in the Sonoran desert. Sixteen tickets sold in Portland. Now, onstage in San Francisco, the members of Discharge—the fastest, meanest, most uncompromising English hardcore punk band of the 1980s—must have wished they were somewhere, anywhere else.

The story isn’t available online yet, but I’ll post it when it is. For now, you can subscribe to The Appendix here.

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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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Housing a Movement, redux

utne31The current Utne Reader features a condensed version of my story about Steve DeCaprio, Oakland’s punk-rock squatter guru. I remember Utne from way back–what liberal doesn’t?–so it’s pretty cool to see my work in there. (Here’s a pdf, by the way, of the uncut version that ran in California Northern a few months ago.)

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