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Can Zambian music shake off foreign influences?


A debate raged in Zambian public sphere when the country’s foremost crooner, Jordan Katembula, also known as JK, released ‘Allow Me’ and ‘Open’, songs so Nigerian that many Zambians doubted they had been composed by a local. Is the Nigerian influence stifling originality in Zambian music?

The shadow cast by Nigeria on Zambian pop music and religion is so pervasive that Zambia might as well become a protectorate of the west African country. Listening to the radio, you will often be hard pressed to guess if the song playing is by a Zambian or not. You have to wait until the end of the song for the DJ to name the artist to find out whether it is by a local.

Small wonder, then, that many older people in Zambia shake their heads and bemoan the trend in current Zambian music: Musicians are slavishly copying the sounds and styles of other countries, resulting in music that is lacking in what you might call a Zambian identity. These are the same purists who are nostalgic for the golden age of Kalindula (melodic rhythms that draw on Zambian folklore) and Zambian Rock (popularly known as Zam Rock) as examples of authentic Zambian music. What these purists forget is that those two genres also had foreign influences.

That was then…

Zam Rock was popular in the 1970s and 1980s and some of its exponents were Smokie Haangala, the band Witch and Paul Ngozi. Kalindula also had its moment in the sun during the 1970s and 1980s and its greats included PK Chishala, Amayenge Ensemble, Mulemena Boys, and many others.

No matter the influences that went into the making of Zam Rock, Kalindula, Zam Reggae and Zam Disco, the sound was instantly recognisable as Zambian by the listener.

Zam Rock, as you would expect of rock music, featured electric guitars and the lyrics were sung in English and/or local languages. Kalindula, on the other hand, used mainly acoustic guitars and was sung solely in local languages. It also had a distinctive Zambian guitar tempo and style. These two sounds – Zam Rock and Kalindula – were highly ‘Zambianised’: Even though the musicians borrowed from Western and other foreign sounds, you could hear the music’s distinctly Zambian origin.

Anna Mwale Photo: cdandlp
Anna Mwale Photo: cdandlp

In many ways, that era borrowed from Western music, Anna Mwale, the queen of Zambian Disco, and Patrick Chisembele, a Zambian version of Michael Jackson. Chisembele also dabbled in rock, with the Witch band. Reggae was also represented – here some of the heavyweights were Larry Maluma, Spooky Mulemwa and Rikki Ililonga.

No matter the influences that went into the making of Zam Rock, Kalindula, Zam Reggae and Zam Disco, the sound was instantly recognisable as Zambian by the listener.

The Grim Reaper strikes

We fast-forward to the late 1980s and the advent of the dark ages for Zambian music. A large number of top Zambian musicians died in their prime, many falling victim to the AIDS pandemic that ravaged every segment of Zambian society. We buried them in rapid succession. The tribute songs sung by the survivors did not make the pain less or the emptiness they left any less gaping. But as the greats went out, so too did the popularity of their genres, opening up the territory for new genres to thrive.

So it was that in the 1990s a new era for the pioneers of Zambian rap emerged. As you would expect, the early days were heavily influence by American hip hop. One example of this was Keith Mutale, a Tupac look-alike who, not surprisingly, mimicked Tupac’s rap style.

We also had a rapper known as MC Suicide, who penned, ‘Love Has No Colour’, a popular song that talked about racism. As there isn’t much racism to talk about in Zambia, the song was more suited to an American audience.

Even though most Zambians (like most Africans) are more comfortable in their own languages, the majority of Zambian MCs back then rapped in English, a development that excluded many potential fans who could speak only native languages. This explains why Zambian music was unprofitable for quite some time. As a result, many record studios closed down.

The arrival of Mondo

Then, in the early 2000s, along came Mondo Music to save the day. Mondo Music was a record label and recording studio founded by former DJ and businessman Chisha Folotiya. They sought to identify Zambian musical talent and to record and sell their CDs and cassettes. Mondo produced a music compilation that introduced new artists, who dominated for a while, like the all-girl duo Shatel, who sang pop songs in Nyanja, Lozi, Tonga and Bemba;, the local language-rapping duo Black Muntu and the rapper Cri$is, among others.

JK – Open

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The success of these and other Mondo Music greats such as Daddy Zemus, a Zam Ragga artist, and JK, Zambia’s number one crooner  and others opened the floodgates for musical talent to flow.

 The influence of the Internet

As the Internet became more accessible, making beats easily downloadable, many Zambian producers had access to sounds and styles that could not be ‘Zambianised’. Everything from kwaito to Indian beats flooded the airwaves. Autotune gave many the chance to sing, with a new hit single dropping every other day.

As the greats went out, so too did the popularity of their genres, opening up the territory for new genres to thrive.

For a long time, the capital, Lusaka, dominated the music industry, but then the balance was altered by the Copperbelt-based artists, who defied the odds and created their own style of song and dance. This is how Kopala Swag was born (Kopala is slang for Copperbelt) and two Kopala artists, Macky 2 and Dandy Krazy, dominated the Zambian airwaves for some time.

JK – Allow Me

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After a long hiatus, it seemed that nationalist fervour had returned to our music industry. The singing, rapping and dance styles were uniquely Zambian. But we should not have celebrated so soon, for it was a trend that would slowly fade.

Jordan Katembula: JK/Facebook
Jordan Katembula: JK/Facebook

Slowly and increasingly, the stage acts of the Macky 2 and Dandy Krazy became influenced by foreign styles. Micky 2’s style and stage act draws on American hip hop and Dandy Krazy draws from West African dancehall star Daddy Shoki.

The undeniable truth and the future

Zambian music, like all other music genres, has and will always be open to outside influences. These influences are easily detectable. From Jimi Hendrix influence on Paul Ngozi, in Jagari Chanda of Witch naming himself after Mick Jagger; Patrick Chisembele imitating Michael Jackson’s dance and dress style. We see the shadow of Shabba Ranks in Daddy Zemus, and the ghost of Tupac Shakur hovering over Keith Mutale.

Some might say that the way in which Zambian artists are influenced by external artists is a weakness, but it might also mean that Zambian artists are not one-track-minded; that they are experimenters who can take a sound from elsewhere and make it their own. You could certainly say that about the past generation of Zambian greats. But I sincerely doubt that you can say the same of this generation who, at this rate, might as well go to the Nigerian High Commission to apply for their Nigerian passports.

The Witch – Living In The Past

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Paul Ngozi – Size Nine

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Madzi a Moyo  Derick Mbao, Rikki Ililonga, Larry Maluma,, Olu Cocker

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Masiye Band – Dziko La Mulungu

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Anna Mwale “Kabuku Langa”

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Daddy Showkey – Somebody Call My Name

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Kolopa Dot Com – by Dandy Krazy Ft. Afunika

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Mami Niuze – Macky 2 Ft Afunika & Flavaboy (Official Video)

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