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by Ellyn Hament

Long before nineteenth-century Christian missionaries and colonial rule altered its fate forever, the country now known as Zambia had many self-governing kingdoms. Each king had his own highly esteemed royal musicians, and each kingdom had its own music, often played at tribal ceremonies. Drums — such as the high-pitched "talking" vimbuzza — were most popular, but stringed instruments, such as the babatone, as well as bows, reed flutes, horns, bells, xylophones, and the kalimba (or hand piano) were played, too. Singing often accompanied instrumental music, with one voice leading while others responded in a chorus.

As the twentieth century overtook the nineteenth, these kingdoms were replaced by centralized rule, and political, economic, and social change buffeted the country. Beginning in the 1920s, the rich ore of Zambia’s Copperbelt was exploited. Zambians poured in from all corners of the country to work the mines. This migration created a melting pot. As a result, musical styles influenced each other and were enhanced by foreign instruments, such as the accordion and guitar, brought into the country by the British ruling class.

Playing and Preserving
As the century progressed, folk music joined traditional African rhythms as the most-played music in northern Zambia’s mining towns. Troubadours travelled between the mining camps, entertaining exhausted workers with music and morality tales. At the same time, an interest grew in collecting and preserving traditional music. In the 1960s, as the British released their hold on Zambia and the country became independent, the Zambia Broadcasting Service (ZBS), Zambia’s radio station, was formed. ZBS made a concentrated effort to collect ceremonial, festival, and work songs nationwide. Alick Nkhata, ZBS’s director and a musician himself, formed the Lusaka Radio Band (later called the Big Gold Six Band). The band promoted Zambian music, translating original rural recordings into Westernized scored music. Go to the Inter-Continental Hotel in Lusaka and you might still find that band playing, minus a few members.

However, most of Zambian radio at the time played the Congolese rumba, popular with former colonials and privileged people in urban areas.

Zamrock 'n' Roll
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, rebellion was brewing in Zambia, just as it was elsewhere. "Zamrock," Zambia’s contribution to rock 'n' roll, served as a soundtrack for protests over a variety of topics, including tribal taboos.

Many Zamrock songs were a mixture of English and local languages, and the music was extremely popular. A Zamrock group called Musi-o-tunya released Zambia’s first commercial LP. Zamrock hit a high point with the band Great Witch, which had a huge following. Still, it wasn’t until later in that decade that Zambia produced what some people consider uniquely Zambian music.

Kalindula: Music That Makes You Move

Smokey Haangala, a featured artist on Mondo Music's Zambian Legacy series.

In the 1970s, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, a musician himself, decreed that no less than 95 percent of music on the radio had to be of Zambian origin. Kaunda’s intention was to create a solely Zambian musical presence, but things didn’t work out exactly the way he wanted. Rather than creating their own music, Zambian teenagers scrambled to become pop stars by playing exact copies of the music of other African countries.

One musician, however, Paul Ngozi, a former member of the Musi-o-tunya Zamrock group, is credited with creating kalindula, a new urban style of music, which featured a lead guitar and a rock/rumba beat. Ngozi infused the music with lyrics in local languages. Extremely danceable, kalindula (named after a traditional bass instrument) became the generic Zambian style of music in the 1980s.

The Way the Music Died
In 1991, Kaunda and his United National Independence Party were voted out of office. Frederick Chiluba became president, and his Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) party promoted political and economic pluralism. Facing a major economic slump, the new government had other issues to focus on besides the protection and promotion of music. At the same time, new radio stations, TV, and video flooded the country with outside musical influences, such as reggae, ragga, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and gospel. And piracy hit Zambia hard. With no safeguards to stop them, bootleggers in Tanzania, for example, were able to make money by copying and selling the music of Zambian artists.

Musicians themselves were battered by the bad economy, and most kalindula bands broke up. Many veteran musicians died. There were a few exciting events that marked the decade: women singers became popular and folk music enjoyed a revival. Nonetheless, notes Chisha Folotiya, managing director of Mondo Music Corporation Limited in Zambia, the Zambian music industry went belly up in the late 1990s. Folotiya has been instrumental in reviving Zambia’s failing music industry ever since.

What’s Next?


Zambia's only professional record company, Mondo Music Corporation Limited, began operations in 1999, and is making a bold attempt to revive the country's music industry. To do this, it offers its audience diversity — everything from traditional recordings to the country's most modern music.

"Our most ambitious release, The Rhythm Nation Project, showcases sixteen up-and-coming artists who we feel will be defining Zambian music in the new millennium," says Folotiya. "Like their predecessors in the 1970s who adapted rock 'n' roll to a Zambian flavor and called it Zamrock, our young artists and producers have interpreted the music they have grown up with — R&B, rap, and ragga, for example—and have given it a local twist."

Again, it seems, Zambian music is redefining itself, stirring its melting pot to produce a uniquely Zambian mix of music. Only this time the stirrings seem to be reviving the music industry, too.

As Folotiya notes, "Our country once had a vibrant music industry that was decimated by piracy during the 1990s. But now we are selling 50,000 albums per year within our own borders, and are targeting 150,000 records over the next two years. Such volume might seem small compared to more advanced markets, but it's a sign of good things when you consider that before Mondo Music, no Zambian artist had sold more than 3,000 copies of anything for over ten years."

For more info about Mondo Music, point your browser to http://www.mondomusic.co.zm/


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