The death and rebirth of the distinctive sounds of Zambia

Legendary Zambian rock band, WITCH, 2021. Image by Esnala Banda, from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

As rightly stated by writer Lisa Insansa, Zambia’s music scene has experienced multiple deaths and rebirths, reflective of turbulent social, economic, and political realities. However, the country’s culture and identity are once again flourishing because of the resurgence of Zambian musicians and the promotion of Zambian music.

Prior to independence, there was a dominant cultural influence from the white colonial rulers. The British upper class living in Zambia, for example, imported rock records featuring popular artists of the time, including Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Deep Purple, and The Rolling Stones. An entire generation grew up listening to these bands, with some Zambian fans even picking up instruments and emulating their musical heroes. 

Traditionally, Zambian music served clear ritual purposes and expressed the social fabric of the culture. Songs were tools for teaching, healing, appealing to the spirits, and simple enjoyment. Despite the decline of traditional music, its influences persist in many contemporary Zambian musical forms today. The African “call-and-response” form is ubiquitous in almost every Zambian song, regardless of the style. Traditional drum rhythms and polymeters also echo in various Zambian music genres.

After the country, then called Northern Rhodesia, gained independence from Britain in 1964, Kenneth Kaunda‘s new government implemented a law that required 95 percent of the music played on the radio to be of Zambian origin. Kaunda loved music and would incorporate songs into his political messages during his campaigns. Two factors — this law stipulating local content on the airwaves, coupled with an economic boom from the country’s copper industry that brought increased industrialisation and urbanisation — helped create a favourable environment for the development of Zambian musicians and their unique sound. Live music thrived, as miners were paid well enough to afford to spend on watching local bands perform. The mining industry played a pivotal role in the development of Zambian music. Zambian musicians and their distinctive sound flourished during a period when the mining sector was thriving. The economic prosperity generated by the mining industry had a direct impact on the local communities, and in turn, the live music scene.  

Rise and fall of some unique sounds of Zambia

One of the unique sounds that emerged and gained popularity during this time — the 1970s — is “Zamrock.” It combined psychedelic rock, funk, and traditional Zambian music, and represented a desire to break away from colonial influences while still incorporating Western musical styles. Bands like WITCH (a backronym for “We Intend To Cause Havoc”) played with imported Western styles but added their own indigenous twist, acknowledging their African identity in their music.

Other noteworthy artists who were known for this music genre include The Peace, Amanaz, Chrissy “Zebby” Tembo, and Paul Ngozi and his Ngozi Family. Ngozi was a legendary Zambian musician in the 1970s and 1980s. He gained popularity as the leader of the Ngozi Family, a local rock group known for their Zamrock music; his songs resonated with society due to their relatable themes.

Here is a YouTube video of WITCH performing to an audience in London in 2017: 

In addition to Zamrock, Kalindula became a popular genre in Zambia. Characterized by its up-tempo rhythm, distinctive bass guitar, and frequent use of traditional drums, Kalindula is a musical style originating from Central-Southern Africa. While its specific country of origin is unclear, many claims point to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its popularity is most evident in Zambia, with well-known artists such as Ameyenge, Emmanuel Mulemena, Chris Chali, Paul Ngozi and PK Chishala, though the sound is also present in neighboring countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe. This music genre was typically performed by bands, including Serenje, Mulemena Boys, Oliya, Masasu, Amayenge Asoza, Mashombe Blue Jeans, Mutende Cultural Ensemble, Distro Kuomboka, and the Green Labels bands. These bands were known for their live performances, particularly on the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) TV.

Many Zamrock classics explored themes reflecting the economic despair and social tensions caused by the 1973–1974 oil crisis, while others captured the issues of politics. For instance, Zamrock songs such as “Working on the Wrong Thing” by Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya and “I've Been Losing” by Chrissy Zebby Tembo & Ngozi Family highlighted themes of migrant workers and everyday injustices, while “Black Power” by The Peace captured the growing awareness in Africa and the world.

As detailed on the Music in Africa platform, Kalindula's lyrical narratives delve into a diverse range of subjects, from traditional folklore and societal values to contemporary issues. The genre often serves as a medium for storytelling, preserving Zambia's cultural heritage and identity through its rhythmic beats and melodious tunes with themes of marriage, customs, daily life, and community.

Zamrock and Kalindula gained popularity during the 1970s but started losing their appeal and momentum towards the end of the decade. This decline was due to economic factors, political instability, and the devastating impact of the AIDS epidemic on the musicians, as highlighted by Ambitious Africa and Amaka. According to the Ambitious Africa article and another article by the Guardian, Zamrock was rediscovered and revived decades later by overseas music lovers, leading to a resurgence of interest in Zamrock and the reissuing of records, allowing some surviving Zamrock artists like Emmanuel Jagari Chanda, lead vocalist from WITCH, to tour and perform for new audiences in Europe and the US.

The sounds of today

After the events mentioned above that shook the country's stability, Zambia's music scene saw a resurgence of heavily imported sounds through the diaspora, including hip-hop, soul, reggae, and gospel in the early 2000s. The increasing prevalence of piracy via digitization further destabilized Zambia's music industry. Nevertheless, Zambian musical output never completely vanished, as artists persisted in creating music despite the economic challenges.

Presently, Zambia's music scene has given rise to a distinct local sound known as Zed Beats (“Zed” is the colloquial term for Zambia). Zed Beats is distinguished by its use of electronic instruments and software, creating a fusion of African sounds with elements of R&B, hip-hop, and other Western musical styles. It encompasses various sub-genres like Zed R&B, Zed Hip Hop, Zed Rhumba, Zed Dancehall, or even Zed “Anything.” It has gained significant popularity, especially among the youth in Zambia. Key Zed Beats artists include JK, Danny Kaya, Petersen Zagaze, Macky 2 and K'Millian. The lyrical themes in Zed Beats songs are diverse, covering subjects such as love and relationships, social and political issues, and more. For instance, songs such as “Kapiripiri Kandi” by JK and No More Love by Macky 2 are about love and relationships, while others, like “Alabalansa” by K'Millian and Petersen Zagaze's “Munyaule,” delve into social and political commentary.

Zed hip-hop is the most promising category in Zed Beats, with popular rappers like Slap Dee, Chef 187, Macky 2 and others. Responding to public demand for a nod to Zambian culture, some hip-hop artists have incorporated a “Kalindula touch” into their work. For instance, Bombshell Grenade's song “Backshot,” as explained in the YouTube video below:

While the Zambian pop music scene has traditionally been dominated by male artists, some talented women artists that stand out include, MampiCleo Ice Queen, Bombshell Grenade Kantu Siachingili, Dambisa, Kay Figo, Princess Natasha Chansa and Salma Dodia.

Zambia’s contemporary music scene has not only evolved to become diverse in genre but in gender too; many women artists like those mentioned above are pushing back against the historically patriarchal musical space.

Find a playlist highlighting Zambian music below, and for a full assortment of eclectic music from around the world, see Global Voices’ Spotify profile.


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