Release Date: Sep 3, 2013
Record label: Planet Mu
It has been many a long year since a debut record has come bursting out of the ether and tackled me from behind in a huge, glorious bear hug with the intensity that John Wizards’ self-titled debut album has. Imagine, if you will, a combination of the melodic IDM weirdness of folks like Plaid, µ-Ziq, and especially Max Tundra, combined with the abstract, psychedelic dub made by people like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bill Laswell. Add to this a wide variety of traditional and contemporary African genres, with contemporary American auto-tuned hip-hop and pop music thrown in too, and you will be just scratching the surface of what is going on with John Wizards’ spectacular, mind-bending debut record.
When it comes to John Wizards, serendipity has a lot to answer for: a chance encounter on the streets of Cape Town led to one of the most mellifluous and self-assured debuts of 2013. John Wizards incorporates influences that pay homage to the duo's African heritage, but extends well beyond those boundaries into a seamless musical patchwork. The sound refuses to be constrained by any single genre, yet never feels muddled or schizophrenic; rather, it remains entrancing even when it attempts to work through multiple styles in single three-minute bursts—incorporating everything from indie rock to reggae to Shangaan electro.
From Vampire Weekend's Ghana-inspired motifs to LV's flirtations with kwaito, the sounds of Africa are as attractive to the wider world as they've ever been. Hearing from the people who actually originated these sounds, though, is rare outside of compilations and reissues. John Wizards is one exception. The solo (and sometimes band) project of Cape Town's John Withers is somewhere between indigenous and pastiche.
This meeting in Cape Town of a white South African and a Rwandan refugee is predictably cosmopolitan, with elements joyfully colliding in a messy group high-five. The gambolling guitar lines of highlife are here, as are the relentless electro rhythms of the Shangaan tribe, the pinball sound signatures of pirate radio broadcasts, and even a delicate, kora-like plucking reminiscent of Malian griots. But just as mid-century African bands were in thrall to James Brown and boogaloo from across the Atlantic, John Wizards use a loping Caribbean skank on Maria and I'm Still a Serious Guy; and their delay effects, reminiscent of the wah-wah guitars on psych-funk from 1970s Lagos, are given a Brooklynite chillwave tinge.
Usually, once a year, Planet Mu will break from envelope-pushing electronica to release a more pop-sounding record. This year it’s John Wizards, an act formed by chance when Rwandan singer Emmanuel Nzaramba realised he was living on the same street as John Withers, a guitarist who he’d jammed with and who was as mad about the South African music scene as he was. The pair’s debut album celebrates everything they like; a melting pot into which they’ve thrown chamber pop, dub, South African house and heavy-beated tropical imagery that feels like Death Grips sent to Honolulu.
John Wizards is one of those bright, restlessly creative albums that transitions from one idea to the next the way a kid reels off details of a made-up story without ever considering how it might end. The music-- which with the exception of some vocal lines by a Rwandan singer named Emmanuel Nzaramba was recorded entirely by 25-year-old Cape Town, South Africa resident John Withers-- is a bird's eye view of styles that are not only pan-African but, as goes the great promise of cultural consumption in the internet age, pan-global. Click down on one section of John Wizards and you'll hear the peppy end of Ghanaian highlife or the crisp optimism of Withers' native mbaqanga; click down on another and you'll hear 80s disco or swing-heavy instrumental hip-hop not all that far removed from Clams Casino, executed in compact, synthetic sounds that pop in the mix like foil-covered candy from a crystal dish.
John Wizards might be the most globe-trotting band you’ll hear this year: based in Cape Town, the duo also credit time spent in Rwanda, Tanzania and Mozambique as fuel to the sound they’ve cultivated. There’s so much packed into these 15 lush, context-evading songs, though, that map references are pretty futile. As well as jittery highlife guitars, tracks like ‘iYongwe’ and ‘Leuk’ give a starring role to ’80s-style funk synths, like Hudson Mohawke melting into a caned puddle.
One of the craziest and most diverse releases of the year has arrived from South Africans Emmanuel Nzaramba and John Withers, a duo otherwise known as John Wizards. Making electronic African music incorporating elements of r&b, reggae and soul, John Wizards have, unlike American acts like Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend, reversed the musical imperialism with which we’ve become familiar and added staples of American music to traditional African sounds, as opposed to the other way around. While the output can sometimes be extremely overwhelming even if seamless and natural, as the duo genre hops like a teenager’s iPod on shuffle, John Wizards have created something unique with their self-titled debut album: a hodge-podge of genres that doesn’t simply sound like a hodge-podge for the sake of mixing disparate elements, but rather for the purpose of showing the similarities between seemingly foreign musical structures.
The self-titled debut LP from John Wizards is a stylistically diverse romp across Southern Africa, from Dar Es Salaam to Maputo and then over to Cape Town. Those are three of the cities that both producer John Withers and vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba have called home over the years. After a chance meeting in 2011 that was less than fruitful, the pair finally joined forces a year later when Withers attempted to (unsuccessfully) turn Nzaramba onto Jamaican reggae vocal trio the Congos.
John Wizards is a duo made up of John Withers, a white, South African songwriter and musician, and Emmanuel Nzaramba, a black, Rwandan vocalist living in Cape Town. The two met while Nzaramba was working as a car guard outside a coffee shop that Withers frequented; Nzaramba saw that Withers had a guitar and the two started talking music. The band’s origin story is strikingly similar to The Very Best’s, albeit in an entirely more racially fraught environment.
In recent years, the advertising industry has developed into a contemptible archenemy of independent music artists. After Beach House's repeated rebuffs to Volkswagen, which was keen on soundtracking a TV spot with their song 'Take Care', the Baltimore twosome discovered the car company produced a near-exact facsimile of the tune. Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, and LCD Soundsystem were victims of similar apery.