Zambia’s 1970s Psychedelic Rock Scene
Updated: May 15
The story of popular music in the late 20th century is never complete without an account of the explosive psychedelic rock, funk, Afrobeat, and other hybrid styles that proliferated on the African continent and across Latin American and the Caribbean in the 1960s and 70s. It’s only lately, that large audiences are discovering how much pioneering music came out of Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and other postcolonial countries, thanks to UK labels like Strut and Soundway (named by The Guardian as “one of the 10 British Labels defining the sound of 2014” and named “Label of the Year” in 2017).
Germany’s Analogue Africa, a label that reissues classic albums from the era, puts it this way: “the future of music happened decades ago.” Only most Western audiences weren’t paying attention—with notable exceptions, of course: superstar drummer Ginger Baker apprenticed himself to Fela Kuti and became an evangelist for African drumming; Brian Eno and Talking Heads’ David Byrne (who also introduced thousands to “world music”) imported the sound of African rock to New Wave in the 80s, as did post-punk bands like Orange Juice and others in Britain, where music from Africa generally had a bigger impact. The fusion of African polyrhythms with rock instruments and song structures had been done, and done incredibly well, already by dozens of bands, including several in the East African country of Zambia, which had been British-controlled Northern Rhodesia until its independence in 1964. In the decade after, bands formed around the country to create a unique form of music known as “Zamrock,” as it came to be called, “forged by a particular set of national circumstances,” writes Calum MacNaughton at Music in Africa.
It's interesting to find Zamrock bands were influenced by the funk and soul of James Brown and the heavy rock of Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Cream—the same music everyone else was listening to. As Rikki Ililonga from the band Musi-O-Tunya says in the Vinyl Me, Please mini-documentary above, says, “the hippie time, the flowers, love and everything, Woodstock. We were a part of that culture too. If the record was in the Top 10 in the UK, it was in the Top 10 here.” But Zambia had its own concerns, and its own powerful musical traditions.
“As much as we wanted to play rock from the Western world, we are Africans,” says Jagari Chanda, vocalist for a band called WITCH (“we intend to cause havoc”), “so the other part is from Africa—Zambia. So it’s Zambian type of rock—Zamrock.” The term was coined by Zambian DJ Manasseh Phiri. The music itself “was the soundtrack of Kenneth Kaunda’s socialist ideology of Zambian Humanism,” MacNaughton notes. “In fact, Zamrock owed much of its existence to the nation’s first president and founding father. A guitar-picker who took great pleasure in song” and who promoted local music “via a quota system” imposed on the newly-formed Zambia Broadcasting Service (ZBS).
Vinyl Me, Please has collaborated with MacNaughton and others from Now-Again Records to release 8 Zamrock albums, “7 of which have never been reissued in their original form.” The video above, “The Story of Zamrock,” reflects their decade-long journey to rediscover the 70s scene and its pioneers. In the video at the top from Bandsplaining, you can learn more about Zamrock, which has been gaining prominence in album reissues for the last several years, and which “deserves to be a part of the musical history of Africa in a much bigger way than it has been up to now,” Henning Goranson Sandberg writes at The Guardian.