When in the 1980s African artists began to make their way to world music circuit, the biggest acts — Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Ali Farka Touré — were also the most unadulterated, their music with clear lineages back to their highlife, juju and griot roots. But in the 21st century, the African acts most likely to break through are instead a messy and bright jumble of genres. The Very Best, the acts on the Shangaan Electro comp and Cape Town’s John Wizards offer a panoply of sounds both African and Western, traditional and modern, mashed together in a way that defies separation.
As the music project of John Withers — in conjunction with Rwandan vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba — John Wizards dials back the cacophonous density, aggressive BPMs and neon-bright synths of their contemporaries. On their debut, they instead meld together the languid, leisurely sounds of everything from reggae to R&B slow jams. Chameleonic opener “Tet Lek Schrempf” feels dreamy but soon picks up the pace, with shimmering synths and pygmy song at its core. “Limpop” percolates in neon bubbles much like Shangaan Electro would, but cuts the latter’s 160 BPM rate with some chillwave. “I’m Still a Serious Guy” evokes the synthetic tropical sound of Level 42 and I-Level, but the vocal melody of Withers here most resembles Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who was once criticized for aping African music. John Wizards suggests that the heartiest musical sound might be a mutant strain.