Welcome to Zamrock: Musi-O-Tunya’s Zambian Psych Revolution

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 03.11.14 in Features

Zambia combo Musi-O-Tunya’s debut Wings of Africa isn’t simply the first “Zamrock” album — that’d be “Zambian rock ‘n’ roll” — it’s also a stunning psych-fuzz head trip, one that deftly blends Afrobeat’s relentless, ricocheting rhythms with distortion-caked guitar licks. Recorded in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 1975, the album feels like a frenetic combination of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Ghana fusioneers Osibisa. When Now Again founder Eothen Alapatt asked him some three decades later about the nature of the group’s rollicking, riotous sound, guitarist-songwriter Riketzo Makuyu Ililonga replied, “I liked to think it was pretty progressive in a poppy kinda way. But I also liked the idea of psychedelic, from all the acid I was popping at the time.”

Musi-O-Tunya was definitely peaking when they recorded Wings of Africa three years into their career — whether it was Ililonga or another guitarist, Akwila Simpasa, who created the group from other Zambia combos remains a subject of debate. In the local Tonga dialect, “musi-o-tunya” means “smoke that thunders,” the local expression for spectacular Victoria Falls, which lies on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. Zambia’s population was only about 5 million in 1976, making Zamrock almost a niche style compared to Nigeria and the Congo. MOT’s sound, according to Ililonga, was a cultural compromise acknowledging both young Zambians’ demand for Western rock and soul, and the authenticity program of Dr. Kenneth Kauna, Zambia’s first post-independence president, who demanded that radio stations broadcast no less than 95 percent Zambian music. Kauna’s edict was a blessing for the dreadlocked afrohippies in Musi-O-Tunya and fellow Zamrock stars like Witch and Paul Ngozi.

But conflict was always part of the package as well. Ililonga claims to have left the group in frustration, blaming the unprofessionalism of the band’s formidable Zimbabwean bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Ndara “Derreck” Mbao. Brian Changala Shakarongo, however, who replaced Aliki Kunda on drums after Wings, recalls a deep feeling of “relief” with Ililonga’s departure. “Rikki had a habit of quitting the band and coming back whenever he felt like it,” Changala recalls via email, “maybe when things didn’t work out for him on whatever project he was working on. The band felt like it was being used as a stepping stone.” Changala suggests that Ililonga didn’t quit the group so much as he was pushed out.

(As it turned out, Ililonga didn’t need those guys. Zambia and Sunshine Love, the pair of very solo albums that accompany Wings on last year’s revelatory Now Again collection Dark Sunrise, suggest that if Musi-O-Tunya was Zambia’s first real pop group, Ililonga was its Paul McCartney.)

Recorded in a two-day rush in December — just 11 months after its predecessor — Give Love to Your Children, the group’s second record, echoes Wings‘ eclectic disposition, even if it lacks the latter’s excitement of discovery. Guitarist Wayne Barnes, who replaced Ililonga for these sessions, has a terrific overdriven, fuzzed-out sound; but Rikki Ililonga had a seemingly unlimited supply of ideas. And as Barnes says of the sessions, “The band had good music, we looked good, we were well managed, and everyone took lots of cocaine…which really does not help the creative juices flow.”

Despite having been recorded under such adverse conditions — increasingly dismal intra-band politics only exacerbated the effects of the white powder — Give Love to Your Children has much to recommend it. The horn arrangements have more personality and bite than on Wings, and Barnes unleashes an unending series of screaming Santana-esque solos. The tunes are tighter, for better or worse, so you may miss things like the sprawling adapted warriors’ chant on Wings‘ darkly thrilling eight-minute opener, “Mpondolo.”

“We recorded Give Love to Your Children on two-track equipment at Sapra studios,” says Changala. “We had to play together live, and if you made a mistake, the whole band had to start all over again. The good thing is that we had been playing the songs together for a long time.”

For all its feedback and funky bass grooves, Musi-O-Tunya remained irreducibly African in its volcanic blend of Western traps and African percussion, tribal vocals and Derreck Mbao’s random homemade-flute blasts. “Bashi Mwana,” written by Changala, contains no guitar at all.

“That song talks about a father who has wrongly accused a young man of something he didn’t do,” explains Changala, who composed it on one of his long bus trips from Zambia to Kenya, where the band spent much of its time. “In the song,” he continues, “the young man calls all the people in the village and announces to them that the father of the child has accused him of a crime he did not commit. The young man says, ‘I do not know about such a thing.’”

Musi-O-Tunya’s recording career didn’t last long, and neither did Zamrock. Zambia’s copper industry began tanking in 1974, record piracy ran rampant, and AIDS would kill millions, decimating Zambia’s music community throughout the ’80s. Musi-O-Tunya broke up, after several rocky years, in 1978. In the end, even they were touched by tragedy: Rikki Ililonga lost five siblings to AIDS, which also took former best friend Derreck Mbao and other Musi-O-Tunya members. Ililonga, though, tries to keep the Zamrock dream alive from his home in Denmark, playing European festivals with Witch frontman Emmanuel Jagari Chanda, continuing to fan the smoke that thunders.