Searching for Zambia’s Mick Jagger
Gio Arlotta writes about his new documentary “We Intend to Cause Havoc,” chronicling his journey in search of Jagari, lead singer of Zambia’s most popular ’70s rock band, WITCH.
It’s Feb. 15, 2012. As I’m waking up in my apartment in Milan, I get a notification on my phone: My good friend Victoria has just posted on my Facebook wall, as it was done back then. “Happy Wednesday,” it said, accompanied by a link to a song which quickly became my favorite. The song managed to emanate oneiric and exotic landscapes with its lyrics of “drifting on the Nile with Marianne, in a small boat feeling free,” seeing “ancient Kings lying in their tombs,” and “snails being caught,” all before “the devil kissed my face and I realized it was a dream.” All this on top of a groovy psych beat peppered with a chiming twelve-string guitar. I was hooked.
After giving the song a few spins, it was time to find out more about the band. WITCH, they were called, and they hailed from Zambia. The album was Lazy Bones. Fast-forward two years and I was working for a small publishing house in Milan, unhappy with the job I had and feeling that something was missing from my life (my greatest passion, music, felt as though it was slipping through my hands). So, I quit the job and started a music blog. Writing soon turned into producing video sessions of psych bands that passed through Milan. Having no experience and little money, I bought myself a VHS camera and watched a few editing tutorials on YouTube. After a couple weeks of training, off I went on my journey of interpreting the music I was hearing through video.
That summer, a group of childhood friends got in touch with me: “We’ve been hired to travel across Africa to market two 4x4 trucks, we’re three and need a fourth person to help us with driving and to take some photos, all expenses paid.”
After some convincing, and scoping out the route we’d be taking—starting in Angola, passing through the Congo, then through Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia, before finishing the journey in Djibouti—I thought, “Wait a minute, Zambia? The country that birthed WITCH? Oh man, wouldn’t be it be a dream to shoot a session with WITCH for the blog?”
I did some research and found out that only their lead singer was still alive and went by the name Jagari, an Africanization of Mick Jagger’s name owing his affinity for the Rolling Stones frontman’s swaggering stage presence. Some internet digging led me to a few interviews with him. He seemed larger than life, and as I began preparing for the African expedition, I started thinking that maybe I could ask him questions about the music scene back then and have him show me some of the Zamrock hotspots of his day in service of a short documentary. I found his email address through another blog and reached out. He replied in less than 24 hours and agreed to meet me.
As I dove further into my research, his music started to speak to me more and more. I could visualize their trajectory, from a simple three-chord garage punk album, to prog, then Afro Rock, followed by a stop at disco. All of it was meticulously performed—and like nothing I had ever heard before. I started fantasizing about the Zamrock scene—its venues, the fashion, and what it must have been like to be smack in the middle of it, creating something that drove a whole generation to express a new form of freedom through fuzzed-out guitars and bell-bottomed trousers. I kept thinking about how the story would have changed had the band been born or based somewhere else. Although immensely popular in their home country, they were virtually unknown outside of it, and with a catalog like that, I knew it had to be heard by as many people as possible.
Then I learned more about Jagari’s life story. He formed the band in his twenties after completing high school—a feat that wasn’t very common amongst musicians in his area (in fact, he was the only member of the band to have done so). What was strange to me was his journey from the rockin’ days of WITCH to a life of relative anonymity. The causes were both personal and tied to the country’s history.
Jagari left the band as Zambia’s musical tastes shifted from rock to disco, since Jagari wasn’t feeling the disco vibe. He instead chose to pursue a higher education in music, and really the only way to do so in Zambia at the time was to train to become a teacher. He then was arrested in the ’90s for his unproven involvement in a drug-smuggling deal, found God, and became a miner, only for his music to be rediscovered in the autumn of his life. What a journey.
One month later, I was sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Edinburgh in Kitwe, located in Zambia’s Copperbelt region. I was exhausted after having spent a sleepless night on the Congo/Zambia border, where corrupt officials threatened to “arrest us or come to an agreement.” We were supposed to meet at noon, and around 2 p.m., a man dressed in white chinos, a yellow button-down Oxford shirt, and a white baseball cap—with a guitar swung across his back—entered the room and greeted me with a big smile and laughter. “Is it only you? There’s no crew?” Jagari asked. Only me—armed with a camera, a microphone, and a big dream that would play out in ways neither of us could have possibly imagined.
As we got into his friend Peter’s Toyota pickup truck, he whipped out his guitar and started strumming the chords to “Strange Dream,” the song that got me into his music. It was actually happening! One of my favorite songs straight from the source, and it had never sounded so good. We cracked jokes, and a friendship began to form. He took me to his childhood home: a three-room shack by a riverbed that would flood during the rainy season, and told me of the radio he hid in his bed so he could listen to Elvis late at night. He showed me the house where WITCH all lived and practiced, following a strict routine: covers in the morning and originals in the afternoon, no girlfriends allowed in the practice space, and if you didn’t get your part right you couldn’t go out that night. We then arrived at a club where they’d played, only to be greeted by a man cooking some fish over a portable stove on the floor—a floor that, decades earlier, was blanketed with women fighting over who Jagari would point at during their signature intro song, whose refrain went, “I want you, I need you, I need your loving baby!”
Seeing these places in their present state stirred something in me. I wanted to transport as many people as I could to Jagari’s rock-god heyday, and so I made a promise to myself, Jagari, Zamrock and Zambia to do whatever I could to bring this music and story to the world.