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.
To start, opener Tet Lek Schrempf starts out familiar, its piano chimes not too far removed from any given Vampire Weekend song. But Tet Lek Schrempf eventually explodes into a flurry of electronica, blues and soul, never staying in one place. Second track Lusaka By Night is much more subdued, with Afropop guitar riffs, muted, autotuned and vocoded vocals, and a deep, throbbing bass. And third track Limpop stutters along with video game noises, drip and 8-bit sound effects, and French vocals, sounding kind of like Flying Lotus’s lost experiments with Algerian music. Lushoto also sounds like 8-bit inspired African music, but without the vocals. To contrast the contemporary electronic world of many of the songs here, album closer Friend sees more traditional instrumentation and Nzaramba’s vocals unaffected and gentle, a fitting close to an album that’s wild enough to need something calming at the end of it.
Finally, while time is needed to digest everything John Wizards presents, the album contains some clear standout tracks. Fourth track Muizenberg combines pop, fuzzy guitars, a hip hop beat and orchestral synth swells to create something that invokes vague nostalgia and emotion, while Finally/Jet Up shows the duo impressively transforming from ambient to dance over the course of two minutes. And I’m Still A Serious Guy is sparkly synthpop and showcases Ezra Koenig-like vocals, its beat being almost a dead ringer for the M.I.A.-sampling Diplomat’s Son; its main difference in comparison is the wobbly bass that so many of John Wizards’ tracks employ so well.
Even more interesting than the music itself is the story and racial context behind it. Withers, who is white, and Nzaramba, who is black, met when Nzaramba was working as a car guard at a coffee shop at which Withers was a regular customer. The two started making music after discussing their mutual love of guitars. In interviews Nzaramba and Withers have admitted that it’s rare for black and white South Africans to play in bands together, but they smartly haven’t let that societal racial tension become an obvious or even implied part of their music.
They’re simply interested in mixing together Western and African styles of music to create something on which a genre cannot be pinned, and that keeps the listener coming back in order to figure it out. Whether John Wizards’ debut album has lasting power is impossible to know, but for the moment, they’ve wholly succeeded in at least making something to appreciate.