50 years of the music that defined Zambia


 E. Munshya, LLB (Hons), M.Div.

A discussion must be had about the role that Zambian music has played in the making of our nation for the past fifty years. There is great wisdom in the saying that music is food for the soul. However, with regard to nations, music is also food for national identity and national myth making. While there will always be arguments about what really comprises Zambian music, there should be no argument about the fact that music has had an enormous impact upon the identity of our country. In 50 years, we must look back and re-listen to the tunes and lyrics that have come from the minds and hearts of our artists.

Music has united the nation. It has held Zambia together. It has helped ferment political revolutions as well. Music has also helped to teach our nation. Dandy Krazy’s “Don’t Kubeba”, is one of the most politically influential songs in the history of Zambia. There is no song that captivated the political landscape so much as the “Don’t Kubeba” song in 2011. This don’t kubeba song is contentious for the subject matter it deals with and for the genre of the music itself. This genre of music has become very popular among artists in the last ten-years. It is mostly over-processed and generated from computer simulations.

Beyond that, however, the most popular songs in the history of Zambia have seldom been political. In fact, even the most popular musicians to grace the Zambian music stage have been apolitical in many senses. These greats include: Mulemena, Chishala, Chilambe and Chris Chali. To this list I must add the latest singers such as the Shatel duo, JK, and Macky II. The legend PK Chishala for example, never wrote a politically charged song except for “Common Man” which he released much later in his carrier. It might have come as an exception rather than the rule for him. On the other hand, Maiko Zulu can be distinguished as the only of musicians to dedicate almost all of his music to politically themed songs. The “Mad President” track, released during the Mwanawasa regime, is one of the most provocative songs ever done by a Zambian criticizing a sitting president. Petersen Zagaze and, now Pilato have also gone into the political fray.

During the one-party state, all musicians were by default members of the one-party state. They would from time to time be expected to churn out songs in praise of the ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP). But beyond that, Zambian music continued its apolitical stand until very recently. During the Chiluba regime, there were always one or two artists who released a song or two criticising the regime. One of those is “tomato balunda”, which was a hit only for a month or two.

Chishala’s “Common Man” came as a surprise because in his entire career he had shown some indifference to politics. He never sung in praise of the Kaunda regime, and neither did he ever sing for the Chiluba regime. It was therefore a shocker that he would pen a song that essentially acknowledged the difficult economic situation that the “common man” was experiencing under the liberalisation policies of the Chiluba government. Chishala’s hit song was “Pastor”, a notorious song he released in 1985. In that song, he quite controversially, narrated the story of a randy pastor. The most provocative aspect of the song were words Chishala put into Pastor Changwe’s mouth: those talking about the alleged infidelities of Bible characters. Nevertheless, this song proved to be a hit and it propelled Chishala to immediate stardom. After “Pastor”, Chishala would release other songs such as “Church Elder” and “Na Musonda”. He also penned some songs based on Ushi mythology and folklore such as “Impumba Mukowa” and “Muchibolya”. The song “Chimbayambaya Nsenda” almost certainly crowned PK Chishala as the true professor of Zambian music. With his music, the nation sang, danced and together imagined a more thriving nation.

 Amayenge is perhaps the most consistent of all Zambian bands. Whereas, almost all the great bands are long gone, the evergreen Amayenge Asoza continue to surprise. Most importantly, the death of its leader Chris Chali did not lead to the demise of the singing group. The most famous of Amayenge’s song is “Bamu kaika ten wala”, a hit highlighting child marriages and related issues. After 50 years, the nation will continue to benefit from the music prowess of this dynamic singing outfit. Rumour has it that the Amayenge are working on a new album. It should be very welcome considering that Zambia has been bombarded by too much over-processed computer generated music. A few artists however, are trying to deliver us from this over-processed music; these include Scarlet Mwana-Okondewa (whose album used live instruments).

Serenje Kalindula Band also deserves recognition. Their songs based on both Lala folklore and popular culture proved popular in their days. Other bands that stand out include Oliya Band, Masasu Band, Lima Jazz Band, and Green Labels. Masasu’s “Kabelebele” should add to the list of Zambia’s greatest songs of all time. Uweka Stars’ “Grace”, combines the active Eastern beat with some Nyanja folklore. Recently, a band that tried to emulate these great bands was Chingola’s Glorious Band. Under the leadership of Chibesa, Glorious Band tried to revive the fallen Kalindula live music. Chibesa penned songs such as “Isambo lya mfwa” which became an instant hit. A few years after the release of their first album, the same curse that has struck most Zambian bands also struck the Glorious Band: all the band’s team members died within months of each other obliterating any hopes for the revival of live Kalindula music. Compared to musicians in other countries, it is rather astonishing, the rate at which Zambian musicians die.

Pompi and Nathan Nyirenda are the gospel artists that have tried to redefine gospel music. The two seem to have distinguished themselves as Christians doing Zambian music, rather than as Christians doing Zambian Christian music. With “Mwe makufi” Nyirenda has perched himself as one of the most gifted singers and musicians Zambia has seen. Jojo Mwangaza took music to another level by taking rhumba tunes and christening them with gospel lyrics. The result of Mwangaza’s music is that for those Christians who feel they cannot dance to “worldly” music, they are welcome to dance to the same rhumba music only replaced by Bible verses. Some musicians such as Ephraim have made it clear that their music is exclusively “Christian” music and they are “Christian artists” first before anything else. Ephraim has combined nearly all genres, borrowing from Kalindula, R n B, Rhumba and Nigerian music.

Currently, the hit song all over Zambia is “Belinda Nafwa”. Its genre is the same, as Dandy Krazy’s don’t kubeba music. Its lyrics however, seem to be resonating among Zambians due to insinuations about sex and HIV/AIDS. Though over-processed, Chester’s voice proves the fact that the story of the greatness of Zambian music is still in its development. For the next fifty years and beyond, Zambian music will continue to grow and with that our nation.


Suggested Citation: Munshya, E. (2014). “From ‘Pastor Changwe’ to ‘Belinda nafwa’: 50 years of the music that defined Zambia. Elias Munshya blog (www.eliasmunshya.org) (24 October 2014)