Zambush: Zambian Hits
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cd cover Zambush Vol. 1: Zambian Hits from the 80s
Zambush Vol. 2: Zambian Hits from the 60s and 70s

Sharp Wood (

The popular music of Zambia has remained relatively unknown to worldwide audiences in comparison to that of its neighbors Zimbabwe and Congo. The SWP imprint from the Netherlands has attempted to remedy this situation by releasing a series of recordings from this culturally rich nation. Although it is difficult to pigeonhole the sounds of such a diverse nation, Zambian popular music is often characterized by delicate and sinuous electric guitar lines, tight vocal harmonies, and lyrics from a diversity of indigenous languages that tend toward the narrative or didactic, sometimes resembling short moral essays. Volume 2, which contains material from the 1960s and 1970s, focuses on three important artists from the period: The Big Gold Six, Emmanuel Mulemena, and Nashil Pichen Zazembe.

The Big Gold Six's secret weapons were sublime multipart harmonies and the sharp, cubist guitar stylings of Bestin Mwanza. Filled with an exuberance that so characterizes African pop music in the post-colonial 1960s, Big Gold Six saw their country as moving inexorably toward unity and prosperity ("One Zambia One Nation," "Copper Ebuboni" ["Copper Means Riches"]), while remaining deeply grounded in indigenous culture, as evidenced by their clever re-shaping of the country's diverse traditional music. These are not earnest nationalists, however. Indeed, one of Big Gold Six's most beautiful pieces, "Mumbanda" ("My Heart Yearns for You") is lyrically among their least characteristic, a lilting paean to love and desire.

Emanuel Mulemena was a master of the steel string acoustic guitar, his rhythmically sophisticated playing approaching the syncopated alternation of bass and rhythm playing found in US Delta blues. On these pieces he is accompanied by an unnamed guitarist and singer, and the way in which these two players lean into the harmonies is a thing of beauty. Mulemena's lilting music provides a stark contrast to its lyrical themes, which deal with cautionary tales of mayhem ("Mbokoshi Yalufu / Box of Death" about an auto accident), adultery, drunkenness, and the promise of life after death for the Christian faithful ("Shuka Shuka / Lucky Lucky").

Interestingly, the most widely beloved Zambian artist of this period was Nashil Pichen Kazembe, a Zambian expatriate who recorded most of his earlier hits in Kenya and relied heavily on Swahili and Zairean rhumba styles. Although addressing some of the same themes as Mulemena, Kazembe had a wry view of human foibles that contrast with the former's moral ascetism. "Mpandileko Kabwanga" ("Can You Make a Charm for Me") displays Kazembe's skills as an arranger, with its complex multi-part harmonies sung in the style of his native people, the Lunda. "Chuma Chivuta" ("Money is a Problem") is an incredible electric guitar workout, both subtle and elegant, where Kazembe shifts from shimmering rhythms to leads that are the essence of joy and economy.

cd cover Volume 1 covers the 1980s, which represents in many respects a high water mark for Zambian pop music. In the early 1970s, President Kenneth Kaunda decreed that 90 percent of the music played on national radio would be from Zambia, and by the end of that decade, a critical mass of new acts were gaining widespread exposure. By the 1980s, there was an increasing interest in incorporating rural sounds with Western instruments, and groups from the countryside poured into the recording studios in Lusaka. Some, like the propulsive Julizya Band and the hypnotic groovemeisters Amayenge (the latter represented by two stellar tracks), would flaunt their rural-ness, and by extension their Zambia-ness, by appearing onstage in full warrior regalia. But regardless of sartorial presentation, the best of these groups display the characteristically fluid electric guitar, multipart harmonies, complex bass parts and an increasing interest in revamping traditional songs into a pop idiom. An additional lyrical concern during this period was social status, which was addressed satirically, often with sexual undertones, in such tunes as the Green Label's Wurlitzer piano-driven call and response "Kwacha Ngwee" (a reference to Zambia's old and new currency), and the Black Power Band's humorous "Imisango Ya Ba Chairman" ("Behavior of the Chairman"): "He goes around the neighborhood carrying a piece of paper and a pen, pretending to be working when he is actually peeping to see if the husband is out so he can get with the wife".

These two volumes present a unique time capsule of a rich and diverse music scene that was ultimately overcome by tragedy. The collapse of the Zambian economy, coupled with widespread music piracy, led to the closing of the Teal record plant in 1993, which pressed nearly all of Zambia's hit records. These collections thus rely on vinyl records for their source material rather than master tapes, which results in some sonic thinness on a number of tracks. Perhaps most tragically, these collections represent an epitaph not just for the Zambian music scene, but for the musicians as well. Nearly all of the musicians in Volume 1--as well as Nashil Pichen Kazembe, Zambia's most beloved musician--have subsequently died of AIDS. All we are left with are these recordings, filled with joy, dancability, and a deep cultural richness. - Michael Duke CD available from cdRoots

CD available from cdRoots

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