Who knew 1970s Zambia had its own thriving musical genre? This modest documentary revisits the brief, almost-forgotten history of “Zamrock” – or at least what remains of it, which appears to be very little beyond the back catalogue of its leading band, Witch. Witch’s rhythmic blend of British blues, funk, psychedelic and garage rock has aged very well, and reissues of their albums in the 2010s found a new audience, including Italian film-maker Gio Arlotta, who consequently undertook an expedition to Zambia to try to find the band, accompanied by two young Dutch musicians, Jacco Gardner and Nic Mauskovic.
There’s now a well-trodden route for such musical travelogues, laid down by the likes of Buena Vista Social Club y Searching for Sugar Man, and while this lacks the polish or drama of either of those, it’s an engaging and uplifting journey. One of the problems it runs into is a lack of surviving footage of Witch in action. Arlotta and co scour Zambia’s pre-digital archives, but the best they come up with is some unseen footage of James Brown. Nor does it help that most of Witch’s original lineup are dead.
Fortunately their frontman and lead singer, Emanyeo “Jagari” Chanda, is not. Jagari (whose name was inspired by Mick Jagger) was apparently a legendary performer, renowned for his onstage athleticism and oversized hats. Forty years on, he is getting by as a small-scale gemstone prospector and has not performed in decades. Unlike in the west, he explains, it was practically impossible to sustain a living as a musician in Zambia. Jagari remains a lively and charismatic presence, sin emabargo, and he seems to visibly rejuvenate as he is reacquainted with veterans of the Zamrock scene, including guitarist Victor Kasoma, a polio survivor in a wheelchair not averse to playing with his teeth, Hendrix-style. Almost inevitably, the admiring young Europeans form a backup band and bring a new incarnation of Witch to perform in Europe. It’s an upbeat ending to an amiable, if orthodox film that doesn’t scratch too far beneath the surface.