Popular music in Zambia

Popular influences have always been part of the Zambian music since colonial times. Zambian popular music has continued to evolve and adapt to the tunes and rhythms that define popular music in both a regional and global context. This text provides an overview of popular music’s historical development, main genres and current status in Zambia.

Zambian singer Cleo Ice Queen. Photo: Facebook
Zambian singer Cleo Ice Queen. Photo: Facebook

Zambia’s popular music industry boasts several genres at different stages of development and growth. Following the rise of Zam-Rock and Kalindula pop music in the 70s and 80s, it is apparent that a lot of changes have occurred and continue to be observed. Interestingly, Zambia’s popular music landscape has managed to originate a new local sound, referred to as Zed Beats, and a variant of hip-hop referred to as Zed Hip-Hop. Other genres that still have a large following in Zambia are Kalindula, R&B, reggae/dancehall and gospel, while jazz, though not as popular, is also part of Zambia’s popular music landscape.

Zam-Rock

Popular music in Zambia can be traced back to the times of WITCH (an acronym for ‘We Intend to Cause Havoc’), a band synonymous with the rise of Zam-Rock. Short for Zambian Rock 'n' Roll, Zam-Rock emerged in the 1970s as a gritty and psychedelic style with dance at its core, typical of Afro-rock in general. The main inspiration of Zam-Rock included artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Osibisa, Deep Purple and James Brown, among many others. Initially, Zam-Rock typically imitated western rock music, until Tolamil Walya and Isaac Makpikwe added a unique flavour to it, drawing on local influences. Musicians such as William Mapulanga, Stephen Tsotsi Kasumali and John Lushi, further ‘Zambianised’ rock by infusing traditional rhythms.

During its decade-long peak, Zam-Rock enjoyed a huge local fanbase, with concerts attracting large audiences, especially in main cities such as Lusaka and Chingola. Zam-Rock brought with it a rebellious sub-culture characteristic of American rock 'n' roll culture that involved defying conservative inclinations.

The main bands and musicians to grace the Zam-Rock scene included The WITCH, The Peace, Amanaz and Mosi-O-Tunya. Other notable Zamrock bands included Tinkles, Aqualung, Five Revolution, Earthquakes, The Blackfoot, Oscillations and Crossbones. The genre’s main pioneers include the Witch's lead singer Emmanuel Jagari Chanda, Rikki Ililonga, Paul Ngozi and Keith Mlevhu, among others.

In the past few years Zam-Rock has experienced a resurgence due to interest from western music lovers and researchers. With the history of Zam-Rock not well-documented during its heydays in 1970s and early 1980s, today’s digital curators and re-issue labels have made contacts with surviving Zam-Rock legends and compiled their songs and stories online. To revive Zam-Rock, American label Now Again Records invited surviving Zam-Rock legends Jagari Chanda and Rikki Illunga to perform in Los Angeles to mark the release of a compilation by Mosi-O-Tunya and Rikki Ililonga, The Witch and Amanaz titled Dark Sunrise. Rikki and Jagari have since staged shows in Gemany (2012) and France (2013) while also being subjects of a new Zam-Rock documentary.


Kalindula

Zam-Rock was followed by the emergence of Kalindula, which offered bands such as Masasu, Serenje Kalindula Band, Junior Mulemena Boys and Amayenge, among others.

Kalindula music was popular from the 1970s through to the late 1990s. It brought with it a feeling of national unity, as evidenced by its adoption of different languages in its lyrical content and social commentary. It fostered Zambians' passion and tolerance for its many diverse cultures. For instance, PK Chishala's song ‘Na Musonda’ resonated with many people's marital challenges (and still does) and promoted the need to observe Zambia's pre-marital rituals and marriage customs.

 

Kalindula music is based on folklore. For instance, the Serenje Kalindula Band was largely based on lala folklore and pop culture, PK Chishala's songs were influenced by Ushi mythology and folklore, while the Uweka Stars ' 'Grace' emanated from the Njanja folklore.

Among the most celebrated Kalindula artists and groups are PK Chishala with hits such as 'Na Musonda' and 'Pastor'. 'Kabelebele' by Masasu Band remains one of the genre’s biggest hits, while the former Glorious Band led by Jonathan Chibesa tried to bring back the glory days of Kalindula by releasing the band's breakthrough hit 'Isamboa Lya Mfwa' in 2002. Before the Glorious Band went into silence, they released four well-received albums: Isambo Lya Mfwa, Ilyashi likaya, Kula Umone and Tata mpeniko amano.

In more recent times, popular appreciation of Kalindula music has failed to dwindle into extinction. The Amayenge Cultural Ensemble has continued to churn out new songs and perform at live shows. This has served as a reminder of the important place that Kalindula popular has in the Zambian music industry. Other emerging artists include Angela Nyirenda with her famous  'Khuzwayo' and 'Chalo chiwama nawako'.

Although Kalindula fans may have dwindled since its heyday, its mark on the Zambian pop music scene remains rooted in Zambian culture and the people’s sense of national identity.


Zed Beats

New music genres have emerged in recent times that are hugely popular among Zambia’s youth. The genre, with a sound unique to Zambia, is known as Zed Beats (‘Zed’ being the colloquial term for Zambia).

Zed Beats are a fusion of sounds that are essentially R&B and pop songs with a noticeable Zambian influence. It remains partly influenced by traditional music and Kalindula in particular. The genre’s rise to the mainstream represents a shift in popular preference for local rather than foreign influences. This can be heard in the music of key artists such as JK, Danny, Petersen Zagaze, Macky 2 and K'Millian.  Other pioneers of Zed Beats starts are Runnel, Baska Baska and Exile, among others.

After pioneering the Zed Beats sound, Danny remains one of the most popular progenitors of this sound. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he uses live instruments during live shows, supplied by the More Fire Band. Danny had released numerous successful albums.

The Zambian pop music scene has traditionally been dominated by male artists. However, the talented Mampi is one of the revered female stars of Zed Beats. Kay Figo is another of Zambia’s leading female artists.

New emerging artists have continued to push the boundaries of Zed Beats, thanks to the likes of Mumba Yachi. Over time, others have emerged such as the late P Jay, Afunika, Drimz (aka Bashi Rhoda or Mr. Muziq) and Chester.  P Jay and Chester in particular are celebrated for their vocals.

Though Zed Beats seem to be flourishing as a uniquely Zambian pop genre, it continues to incorporate different sounds from further afield. This can be heard in J Roxy's 'Auto Pilot', for example, a smash hit that could have been easily mistaken for a Nigerian or Ghanaian track.

 

Eleftherios Mukaka’s sound is inspired by  the globally popular EDM (electronic dance music) sound. His 2013 debut single 'Heart' was well received by the Zambian public.

 

There is constant criticism, however, that Zed Beats offer a temporary ‘bubblegum’ experience. Some blame the lack of live music instruments and the preference for computer-generated beats, which make live performances an issue of performing to backing tracks (playback) or even lip-syncing, to the frustration of many listeners. Munshya (2014) has noted this trend by describing Zed Beats, as well as local dancehall and hip-hop as 'over-processed'. [i]

Zed Beats is currently enjoying a prolonged resurgence in airplay, both on radio and in clubs. Most nightclubs and pubs in Zambia have embraced Zed Beats their lyrical content and danceable rhythms. Hopefully this will challenge new talent to focus on live instrumentation and rich lyrics if they are to be taken seriously.


Zed Hip-Hop

Amidst the global rise of hip-hop, a uniquely Zambian form of the genre has emerged, known as Zed Hip-hop. It has brought with it not just a sound but an entire subculture, as seen in its fashion or lifestyle, closely related to western hip-hop. Not unrelated to Zed-Beats, Zed Hip-hop has been popularised by artists such as Macky 2 and Slap Dee.

In Zambia’s Copperbelt region, the rise of hip-hop has resulted in an emergence of a new subculture dubbed ‘Kopala Swag’, which has become a mark of the Copperbelt's new music sensations such as Chef 187 with his smash hit '99 Jobs'. Kopala Swag is not just a music camp but also a growing fashion trend, as seen by the many T-shirts and caps bearing this brand.

 

The capital city of Lusaka, meanwhile, has also managed to brand its own music mark under the ‘XYZ’ label. It is quite common to have fans supporting either the Kopala Swag or XYZ music camps, seemingly led by Macky 2 and Slap Dee respectively.

Zed Hip-Hop today is largely dominated by Macky 2, Chef 187, Slap Dee and his XYZ Crew. Emerging hip-hop artists include Drimz (Mr Music), Dope G, Cleo Ice Queen, Willz (aka Mr Nyopole) and others.

Both Zed Beats and Zed Hip-hop are characterized by uptempo beats and lyrics offering  various types of social commentary or love songs. Collaborations are common on both Zed Beats and Zed Hip-Hop. Some artists from both genres have also released controversial, politically-charged songs. For instance, Petersen Zagaze, Pilato and Dandy Krazy's 'Donchi Kubeka', stand out among those who have ventured into political commentary in their songs.


Reggae

Reggae music remain popular in Zambia, both in its ‘roots’ form as well as modern ragga or dancehall.

Notable Zambian reggae musician include Australian-based Larry Maluma, who has released songs such as ‘African dream’, ‘Every bank is a prison’, ‘Roots and herbs’ and ‘Warrior’, among others.

Maiko Zulu is best known for his politically charged album Mad President released in 2006. His other albums are In the Ghetto (2001), Pressure (2003) and Monk Square Revolution (2008).

Fusing reggae with Zambian influences, Cactus Agony has released numerous albums and supported touring stars like Don Carlos and Luciano in Zambia. He has three albums to his name: The Bush Territory (2008), The African Dream (2013) and most recently Chasing the Wind (2016). His breakthrough hits include 'Waiting' and ' Body Can't Lie', fusing Afro-jazz, reggae and dancehall.

Davis and The Wings have released songs such as ‘Arise Zimbabwe’, ‘One World’, ‘Let’s Give Love a Chance’ and ‘Father of Life’. Seen as a promising reggae and dancehall musician, Milz released his debut solo album RealVybz in 2010 and followed it with Naisa (2012) and The Teacher (2015).  Another notable Zambian reggae artist is Brian Chengala.


Promotion

Popular music enjoys widespread airplay in the Zambian media on most national and regional radio stations. Coverage ranges from chart countdowns, local music programmes and popular ‘golden oldies’ shows for classic Kalindula and early Zed Beats songs. Websites (such as www.zambianmusic.net and www.hoodboimusic.com) and social media (particularly Facebook) have proved to be a worthwhile exercise for promoting Zambia popular music, both attracting a substantial following.

Corporate sponsors have supported several popular artists (such as Macky 2) and in some cases encouraged collaborations with famous comedians. Various music festivals and award ceremonies, such as the annual Mosi Lager Zambian Music Awards, continue to promote Zambian music.

These days, for every good song there must be an equally good music video. Several talented music video producers and directors have emerged, who are honoured annually at the Born n Bred Music Video Awards initiative that encourages and rewards well-conceived, professional music videos.


Challenges and opportunities

Popular music in Zambia, as in other countries in Africa, faces stiff competition from western popular music. It is not surprising to hear young Zambians confessing to the ‘superiority’ of western genres and artists over their local talent. Furthermore, many American or British songs are widely promoted by mainstream media, which keeps many music lovers glued to international music through People magazine and DStv channels such as Channel O, Trace TV and MTV Base.

The popularity of most Zambian music seldom results in financial success for artists. Consequently, some popular artists depend on the proceeds of guest performances at corporate events, while some have even resorted to part-time jobs outside of music. In the worst cases, some artists have faded into obscurity due to the pressures of a music career that offers little to no financial reward. Clearly, the promotion of arts and culture in Zambia requires concerted efforts involving various role-players.

Zambia’s older generations typically prefer Kalindula, while the younger generation seemingly prefer western or western-influenced pop music. Such a scenario may mean that Kalindula will struggle to remain relevant without

substantial investment to preserve Zambia’s folk music. Initiatives such as the annual Tonga Music Festival in Monze help to promote local music and encourage new talent. But judging by the new talent that continues to release hits on a regular basis, it seems likely that Zed Beats and Zed Hip-hop will continue to attract new listeners and dominate Zambia’s pop music landscape for years to come.


[i] Munshya, E. 2014. "From 'Pastor Changwe' to Belinda Nafwa: 50 years of the music that define Zambia.“ <www.eliasmumshya.org>

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