SOUTH AFRICA/RWANDA: John Wizards - John Wizards
Eclectic electro from innovative individuals, this is an album not to be ignored
John Wizards is the self-titled debut (and to date, only) album from this particular South Africa-based electronic music group. However, to simply call them an electronic music group is to do them a disservice. This is not your average electro album. The sound of John Wizards is hard to pin down, with the band moving from house to funk, shangaan electro to soukous, afro-pop to R&B, often within the same song. The band itself was formed by several school friends from Cape Town, with John Withers being the spearhead of the group’s sound. Initially they were an instrumental band, but it was only when Withers bumped into Emmanuel Nzaramba, a Rwandan refugee who had only arrived in South Africa a year previously who was working at a local coffee shop as a security guard that Withers became gradually convinced of the need for vocals. Though they fell out of contact for a while, they eventually managed to come back together as a group to perform on their debut album, which was worth both the wait and the effort to reconnect with Nzaramba, as his vocals help distinguish the album. Withers himself has lived in several countries, as has Nzaramba, who fled Rwanda due to tensions in his own country, and the sound of the album reflects this aspect to their lives. There are clear African influences in their music, not just South African ones.
“By making creative choices that are unusual or perhaps even seemingly anti-commercial they managed to create their own outsider identity within the South African electronic music scene due to their weaving together of different sounds through strong melodies and classy production.”
In Withers’ own words, the music does not quite fit in with the rest of the South African music scene, though people have been supportive and they have achieved success and popularity with their work. While in Rwanda, Nzaramba also felt like he did not fit in. As a child born to a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, he has spoken of discrimination in his homeland and as a refugee in South Africa from his fellow Rwandans. It appears that John Wizards is a space where he does fit in, and is able to make his mark. The band members have similarly co-opted an idiosyncratic identity, deciding to go their own musical path, mixing and matching genres as they see fit. When I came to re-listen to the album for this review, I was amazed at how little of its sheer inventiveness I had remembered. The funkier songs had stuck in my mind, but the album is much more than that. Though songs like Iyongwe, with its retro stylings that evoke the 1980s pop scene, remain my favourite, it’s not completely in line with the rest of the album. The opening track, Tek Lek Schrempf, begins the album in an avant-garde ambient vein, it quickly opens up to house with strong African influences, also termed shangaan electro, a theme throughout their music. The following song, Lusaka By Night, is a charming riff on modern afro-pop, as evidenced not only through its infectious beat, but also in the fact that Nzaramba sings in his native Kinyarwanda language. It is touches like this that make the album the success that it is. By making creative choices that are unusual or perhaps even seemingly anti-commercial they managed to create their own outsider identity within the South African electronic music scene due to their weaving together of different sounds through strong melodies and classy production.
When listening to this, the eclecticism is what makes it a fascinating listening experience. Songs rarely go they way you think they will. Taking in sounds from Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa, Europe, America, and Tanzania, if you’re willing to go with it, you’ll find rich rewards within. However, while I think it is very good, I do not think it is perfect. There are moments where it lacks some direction, some songs that don’t quite hold the interest as long as they should, but overall these are minor issues, especially as this is a debut album. For me, a good debut album shows the strengths of the band and their raw talent, and if those are strong enough then the rougher edges don’t matter as much, as they will hopefully get smoothened out through practice and experience. Ultimately, I should be left excited about their next project, I should be left wanting more. That is certainly the case with John Wizards.