In this new regular feature, travel writer and magazine editor Peter Moore writes about his love for African music.
The Bad Will Die – Keith Mlevhu
1977: North West Zambia. A group of university students stand beside a dusty road, hoping to hitch a ride to the local abattoir in the Copperbelt town of Mufulira. As the sun dips behind the barren hills that mark the border with Zaire, a VW Kombi pulls over and the driver offers them a lift.
One of the hitchhikers, David Katebe, notices a battered 12-string guitar on the front passenger seat. The next time the headlights of an oncoming car illuminates the cabin he takes a closer look at the driver. He nudges his friend, who confirms his suspicions. The driver is Keith Mlevhu, singer, multi-instrumentalist and the Godfather of Zamrock.
Zamrock – as the name suggests – was a particularly Zambian phenomenon. It was born out of the country's Copperbelt and influenced by the miners and what they were listening to. The rest of the continent was getting down to James Brown. The miners were digging Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.
It was quite the scene, spawning incredible bands like Amanaz, WITCH, Rikki Lilonge and Musi-o-tunya, and Blackfoot. They were helped by an edict from President Kaunda decreeing that ninety-five per cent of the music played on the radio had to be Zambian. But that didn't stop Zamrock's popularity spreading beyond international borders. Bootleg cassettes of Zamrock releases sold like hot cakes in Malawi, Zaire and Mozambique.
Zamrock typically featured a rock/rumba beat, funky and fuzzy guitar solos and politically aggressive lyrics sung in both English and local languages. A certain theatricality was expected too, especially during live shows. Rikki Lilonge would play guitar with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix. Keith Kabwe from Amanaz would start each gig emerging from a coffin.
The scene's most enigmatic artist was Keith Mlevhu. After cutting his teeth in bands like Dyna-Magic, The Rave Five and Aqualung, he quit to follow his own path. He wrote his own songs, played all the instruments himself and started his own label, Mac Bullet records.
Mlevhu's singular vision upset a lot of people. His lyrics about the corruption and incompetence of the government didn't sit well with Zambia's rulers. And there was constant sniping between him and the other stars of the Zamrock scene like Rikki Ililonga, Paul Ngozi and Jaggari Chanda from WITCH. When Rikki Ililonga released "Superstar Number One", Keith immediately countered with "I Am Your Star". "I am your star, people", he sang. "You've got to realise who I am!"
He had his battles with the media too – famously telling Hicks Sikazwe from the Times of Zambia to "take your scruffy face out of this place" and treating the annual Zambia Daily Mail Music Poll award ceremony as a war zone. His gong as Solo Artist of the Year in 1977 was a rare victory. He was runner-up most years – although on every instrument and in almost every category, it has to be said.
His songs were just as belligerent. The misleadingly titled Love and Freedom LP featured songs like "My Gun" and "I Am Your Warrior". A recent retrospective from Strawberry Rain, The Bad Will Die, continued the theme, gathering together songs like "The Law Must Change", "I Don't Love Nobody" and, my personal favourite, "I Can Fight You All Alone". Each song is steeped in righteousness indignation and unshakeable belief. By the end of the record you are left without a doubt that the bad will die – either at Keith's own hands or those of a vengeful God.
Mlevhu died in 1988, only thirty-seven years old. But listening to the Strawberry Rain retrospective, it is clear that his music has stood the test of time. The fuzzy guitar in "Love and Freedom" gets the blood pumping. When he screams "the bad will die" in the title track, you hope you're not one of them. And when he declares he could fight you all alone, on the track of the same name, you know that he could – and probably would.
As legendary Zambian music journalist, Charles Muyamwa wrote years after the musician's death: "Keith Mhevlu was right."
So, what happened all those years ago when the young hitchhikers recognised Keith Mhevlu on the road to the abattoir in Mufulira? Did the Zamrock legend pull over to the side of the road, make a campfire and strum a few bars of "Ubuntungwa" when they asked?
Like hell he did.
He had a rant about how the government undermined and undervalued artists in Zambia and gave the students a lecture on copyright. Then he kicked them out of the van.
"We had to walk the rest of the way to the abattoir", remembers David Katebe with a chuckle.
Peter Moore is the author of six travel books, including The Wrong Way Home, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted and The Full Montezuma. He is also the editor of The Vagabond Imperative, which you can find here.