South African Sorcerers

Cape Town's John Wizards, discuss breaking down their country’s sound barriers with good vibes

Music Feature
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Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

Cape Town-based digital funk squad John Wizards are squeezed around a table in the suburb of Sea Point, trying their best to drown out the sound of the torrential rain battering against the windows. Their laughter suggests that the close-knit crew, centred around 25-year-old ginger-haired musical alchemist John Withers and dreadlocked singer Emmanuel Nzaramba, are all too aware of the irony of discussing this year’s sunniest record while a tempest rages in the background. The epitome of good vibes, their eponymous debut album mixes together Shangaan electro, jazz, afro-stoner rock, 80s disco and synth pop into an aural journey that transports the listener around the continent. “We are a melting pot of sound and culture,” guitarist Geoff Brink says after a loud slurp of his chicken noodle soup. Withers adds: “Each song has a different element, from reggae to house. I may be the maestro but Emmanuel is the prophet.” Then, in a low voice, the singer responds: “We are here to bring the light of Africa to the world. Africa is black and white yet people act as if it is not normal for black and white people to make music together. We are showing the world that Africa is about unity.” 

Friendship between African immigrants and South Africans is uncommon. Music made it possible for very different lives to come together

Even now, 23 years after the end of apartheid, mixed-race bands are still a rarity in the Rainbow Nation, giving Nzaramba’s proclamation a weighty significance. The fact that he, a black Rwandan, and Withers, a white man born and bred in largely segregated Cape Town, can come together to make such surprising, futuristic music is a huge step in the right direction. “Friendship and collaboration between African immigrants and South Africans in my experience is uncommon,” says Withers. “If it weren’t for music our friendship probably wouldn’t have happened. It made it possible for our two very different lives to come together.” 

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Ross Garrett

The pair met in 2011 in Claremont, a suburb of Cape Town, as Withers was coming back from work past the coffee shop where Nzaramba guarded cars. The singer had recently left his home country of Rwanda to pursue music. On the advice of a friend, he chose South Africa as the best place to put down roots and settled in Cape Town. After spotting Withers walking around town with a guitar on his back, the pair became jam buddies. It was fun, but short-lived – Nzaramba moved away and they lost contact. Withers meanwhile went into the studio (well, his bedroom) and began creating the John Wizards blueprint, as well as travelling and spending time in Maputo (Mozambique) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). A year later, as fate would have it, Withers found himself living on the same street as the singer, and invited him over to his place to record. “I didn’t like my voice,” he recalls. “Emmanuel added something far greater than I could.”

Their love of Africa’s diverse cultures informs each song on their debut, with almost every tune named after a place etched in their hearts and memories. “I wanted to get to know the places I lived in,” says Withers. “I was lucky enough to be able to draw musically from some of my experiences of these different cultures and places.” From “Tet Lek Schrempf” to the indie surf-synth slacker guitar vibes of “Muizenberg” and the hectic Shangaan sonics of “Limpop”, the record reverberates with distinctly different African rhythms. “‘Limpop’ has its origins in a trip I took, but it has nothing to do with (SA province) Limpopo,” Withers recalls. “Last year I went to the Grahamstown arts festival with Rey, a good friend of mine, and the soundtrack to the car ride was Shangaan electro. The feeling that the music gave was pretty congruous with the short, fast-paced nature of the trip. Shortly after we returned home, Rey left on another trip. I thought he’d enjoy it if I wrote and sent him a song inspired by the Shangaan music that we’d listened to, so I gave it a go.” 

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Ross Garrett

“Lusaka by Night”, written shortly after Withers took a bus ride to Tanzania with his girlfriend, is one of the earliest recordings to be brought to life by Nzaramba. “It refers to an earlier version of the track which included my own lyrics. They were about a bus ride to a club called Lusaka by Night, and the respite that being in Tanzania with my girlfriend at that time in my life gave me.” Over a wobbly bassline and delicate handclaps, Nzaramba sings an Auto-Tuned tale in Kinyarwanda, his native tongue. 

Hearing about people from across Africa and from very different cultural backgrounds enjoying the music and dancing has been very rewarding

Live, with the other four members in tow, the band draws in all races. “Hearing about people from across Africa and from very different cultural backgrounds enjoying the music and dancing has been very rewarding,” Withers says with a smile. While John Wizards are still the last to soundcheck and bottom of the bill at gigs, they rarely fail to get both black and white audiences dancing whenever they play. While Withers prefers not to draw parallels to such South African musical legends as National Wake and Johnny Clegg – acts whose apartheid-era music was radically rich with traditional rhythms – he does feel inspired by what they achieved. By fusing Zulu and English lyrics and African and western sounds, Clegg created music rich in colour, breaking the segregation that dominated the land. Similarly, the mixed-race punk band National Wake meshed traditional African music with fast-paced funk and punk on their iconic self-titled 1981 debut. At a time where a black man could barely look at a white man without fear of imprisonment, it felt like anarchy. “What I am doing has no political agenda,” Withers says, though he admits that white artists like Clegg were part of his formative memory of South African music. “Their music certainly acted as a gateway through which I began to explore an interest in African music.”

While their country’s heritage and folk tales are at the core of their sound, John Wizards shouldn’t be written off as “world music” or Vampire Weekend wannabes. “We have beef with them! They bullied us in high school!” Brink jokes. “John’s music is difficult to imitate, though. It’s very original.” Withers, who studied with the UCT African music ensemble learning native harp music, feels that the comparison to America’s most Afrocentric indie boys underestimates the struggle John Wizards have had in fusing so many homegrown styles together: “It’s perhaps slightly harder for a broad range of young musicians in South Africa to draw on these different styles, given that many musical traditions or genres are still very centred around specific cultures. There is always a hesitancy when throwing oneself into something that is quite foreign.”

Their approach is so fresh and eclectic that there isn’t one genre that can comfortably hold them. Which is one of the reasons why Planet Mu, one of the most progressive avant-garde labels around, got in touch over Facebook after hearing one of Withers’ mixtapes. “The quality of the music was very high,” says A&R Marcus Scott. “Good songs, catchy melodies but also the depth of the production, the warmth and variation, and a really friendly romantic side that seems to blend together to make their music really open-hearted. The sound of African music isn’t that alien. It’s just good music and there is no reason for it to be treated as world music or have a kind of exotic narrative to it. Africa is very much a part of the modern world.” 

The final part of the jigsaw was bringing together a band of musicians Withers trusted with his vision. “We wanted to make music but it was nebulous as to how we would do that,” says Alex Montgomery, synth and bass player. “We’re in a position most bands would dream of, because someone from a record label took instant notice of us,” adds drummer Raphael “Raphi” Segerman. “We are still in the process of partying right now,” chimes in Montgomery with a laugh when their record deal is brought up. “Alex is the band mom,” Segerman jokes as they finish their noodles and head back to Withers’ flat for a jam and a few beers. 

At the base of it all, they see each other as friends before bandmates – creating some of the most sublime sounds around is a happy by-product. “If we weren’t in a band we would still hang out,” says guitarist Tom Parker. At the studio, where Withers creates music for adverts by day, the joking never subsides. Nzaramba comes out of his shell, bouncing around and shaking his dreads, every inch the seasoned performer. After each song he embraces Withers and they share a laugh. Parker, not playing his guitar tonight, fills in the samples. “Tom is the muscle,” laughs Segerman, downing a brew as Parker helps Withers make sure everyone is in perfect tune. They are soon lost in their own world as they start playing the disco-funk chords of “iYongwe”, the first song Withers made for the album. Breaking for another beer, they start to reminisce about their first gig. “I got sick before we went onstage,” Parker laughs. The audience was made up of friends and family. Brink flicks a dark lock off his face and looks down with a tinge of melancholy. “We wish we got more love here at home,” he says, “but we just haven’t been heard enough yet.” That will soon change. 

After running through their 15-track set, time is called on rehearsal and the crew drift out on to the balcony overlooking the still wet and cloudy Cape Town night. “Band practice usually turns into us hanging out into the night,” says Withers, joining his buddies after making the shocking discovery that they’ve run out of booze. Some of them met in high school and others played together in different bands, but eventually all realised that the best music they could make would come if they tapped into each other’s quirky creativity. In doing so they have become a family of sorts. They rag on each other constantly – Brink, being the baby of the group, is sent on the beer run. 

When a guy has extreme powers in rugby we call that guy a wizard, meaning he is good

Most importantly, they are not afraid to call each other out, which they credit as the secret to their harmonious vibes. Even their girlfriends have become part of the extended Wizards family. But getting a straight answer about the origin of the band’s name is almost as difficult as getting them to define their genre. Montgomery claims his girlfriend contributed to the band’s name after hearing them practice during their early days. Others say it came from their lingo. “When a guy has extreme powers in rugby we call that guy a wizard, meaning he is good,” is Segerman’s version. Some say it’s a play on Withers’ surname. He just smiles in response. And as for the genre of their sonic sorcery? Good luck with that. “Afrocentric fusion pop,” Segerman states boldly. “Heavy metal with African influences,” Brink counters. It’s hard to make out what he says afterwards due to the roar of laughter that erupts from his bandmates as the rain lashes onto the balcony. They are completely oblivious. Nothing it seems, not even a thunderstorm, can dampen the spirits of these musical magicians. 
And long may it last.

JOHN WIZARDS is out now on Planet Mu Records

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