John Wizards are a band from Cape Town, South Africa. They’ve written one of the most singular and intriguing records of the year, and one of the loveliest to boot.
Maputo, Cape Town and Dar es Salaam; these are the three places that band leader and producer John Withers has either travelled through or lived in, and he feels have had a marked influence on his music. They also happen to be the cities in which Emmanuel Nzaramba, John Wizards Rwandan singer has lived too.
John and Emmanuel met a few years ago, while Emmanuel was working as a car guard outside a coffee shop. He noticed John had a guitar strapped to his back, and they began to talk about music. John says “He told me that he had moved from Rwanda to Cape Town to become a musician, and I told him that I had been writing music that required vocals. We didn’t get around to recording. Emmanuel quit his job, lost his cellphone, and moved to a new place before I had the chance to find out.”
A year later in 2012 John had moved to a new apartment, a place on Loop Street, when he ran into Emmanuel again – they were living in the same street. Emmanuel liked the new songs he had written and John would invite him over to sing on them after work. The outcome of these evenings can be heard on the album.
Since John and Emmanuel first met, the duo have grown into a band and have recorded an album that gently but persuasively gets under your skin, through the strength of its beautiful melodies and strong, smart arrangements. ‘John Wizards’ is a brilliant combination of African music, R&B and and chamber pop, filtered through gentle electronic arrangements that cross-pollinate with South African house, Shangaan Electro and dub, and it’s the sort of music that effortlessly captivates you in with it’s beauty and richness.
Opener ‘Tet Lek Schrempf’ starts things off with a gentle waltz before crashing in with a flighty mix of conch shell, handclaps and pitched-up guitar riffing. Next up ‘Lusaka by Night’ charms you with its catchy highlife riffs and spacious pools of electronics, while Emmanuel’s auto-tuned voice flutters atop the mix. ‘Limpop‘ is a tribute to Shangaan Electro, in which skittering drum machines and synth bass dissolves into the lush funk of ‘Muizenberg‘, all highlife guitars and muscular riffy bass, breaking down into John’s soft falsetto and piano. ‘iYongwe‘ is based around joyful, lovable deconstructed 80’s funk-pop chords, while ‘Finally’ breaks out from a ambient haze, into the choppy, detailed techno-like dub and rolling guitar riff of ‘Jet Up‘. ‘Maria‘ is sung by Emmanuel in Kinyarwanda, a heartfelt love song to the girl of the title, with a happy recorder melody.
On side 2 ‘Jabu Ley’ is a richly constructed ballad, with a touch of 80’s pop and nostalgic melody, while ‘Jamieo‘ opens in bombastic R&B mode, rich with Rhodes chords, rhythm guitar and brass, but its seriousness is undermined by the parping bassline and daft lyrics. ‘LEUK‘, slows things down to a shape-shifting mix of R&B and pulsing post rock repetition. Twisting once again, ‘Durvs‘ is essentially a house track with its highlife guitar sounding like it’s routed through early British techno. ‘I’m Still A Serious Guy’ tells the story of how the song almost didn’t come about, while ‘Lushoto‘ opens with thumb piano and guitar, breaking into John’s vocals and a galloping melody. The album finishes on the gentle ‘Friend’ making a nod to Mali’s meditative music, with harp-like guitar and Emmanuel’s voice fed through a delicate dubby treatment, dropping an extremely satisfied listener off at the end of the album.
01 Tet Lek Schrempf
02 Lusaka By Night
06 Finally/Jet Up
08 Jabu Ley
12 I’m Still A Serious Guy