Artist: John Wizards
Album: John Wizards
Label & year: Planet Mu, 2014
By Adrian Martens
“Greetings from John Wizards!” a voice echoes on John Wizards’ polychromatic intro track, 'Tet Lek Schrempf'. This voice is no other than Rwandan singer and lyricist, Emmanuel Nzaramba. Originally from a small African town just two hours south of the Rwandan capital Kigali, Nzaramba grew up in Butare. His influences included the traditional songs of his homeland, and other types of African music from Congolese Rhumba to Afropop. His parents were musicians, and he was exposed to native African music at an early age.
A few years ago, Emmanuel moved to Cape Town where he pursued a career in music. Whilst employed as a car guard, Emmanuel met John Withers outside a small coffee shop. After seeing the guitar John had on his back, Emmanuel brought up his musical interests, and the two struck up a friendly conversation about creating music together. Promptly thereafter, the two met again and recorded their first song. Withers showed Emmanuel some of the music that he was working on, and Emmanuel was impressed. They bounced down some lyrics Emmanuel was working on, and Withers’ produced it. The end product of this was the seminal single, Lusaka By Night. A few months later the pair completed a mixtape, which caught the attention of UK electronic music label Planet Mu. Withers then recruited a full band for their tour to Europe and the United Kingdom.
With elements of Shangaan electro, the Durban GQOM house scene and even reggae – this band amalgamates African and European styles of music effortlessly, creating a slick brand of African pop. Their debut album takes the listener on a unique and exciting musical journey, through the varying styles of African music. There are moments on the album where the listener feels almost teleported to the band’s hometown of Cape Town. Guitar-driven songs like 'Muizenberg' hint at the days in the summer when Capetonians went to enjoy the splendours of the beach. With phrases like “wandering around this mood”, it's hard not to be immersed in the dreamlike headspace that Withers was in when he wrote this song.
This isn’t to say that John Wizards are a “dream-like” band, however. Shangaan Electro influenced track 'Limpop' is a fast-paced and rhythmically complex track demonstrating the band’s use of typical African percussion, laced with electronic vocal samples and exciting melodic phrasing comparable to Shangaan virtuoso, Nozinja. Standout track 'iYongwe' nods to a 1980s synth influence, with pop like elements reminiscent of the late Brenda Fassie.
Apart from African influence, one also picks up a Western influence on the album. 'I’m Still a Serious Guy' incorporates elements of Ska amalgamated with Vampire Weekend-esque verse song structure, and Withers’ unique and creative approach to story telling. Nostalgic lyrics like “I think it’s just like that time when I was eighteen sleeping some place funny in the Transkei, I was in a bad mood I had not slept too much that night” signify moments of Withers’ youth, which he captures sincerely on the album.
Nzaramba sings most of the lyrics on the album in his native language, Kinyarwanda. According to Nzaramba, 'Lusaka by Night' is about the children of Africa, 'Wana wa Afrika' coming together. The poignant album closer, 'Friend' (or 'Inshuti') pays tribute to Mali meditative music, as well as signifying the strong and collaborative friendship formed between Withers and Nzaramba. In an interview Nzaramba mentioned that 'Friend' is about the meaning of friendship. He further reiterated: "A friend is someone who could be near you and keep a secret and not get tired of you. You can eat the same thing and he will not feel to eat more than you.” He then takes a slight pause and says softly, “I have not had a friend like that until I met John."
It’s an album that speaks not only on behalf of the band, but also of all the places in Africa dear to their hearts. No matter where in the world you might be from, there’s no difficulty finding yourself in John Wizards' music.