Over the past year, since John Wizards’ self-titled album debuted via Planet Mu in South Africa it has often been lauded for its lulling, playful melodic spark, bountiful creativity and dreamlike presence. Such a bold and bright imaginative style maintains a connection, echoing even after the record stops playing. This record truly is about as close to living the dream as one can get; it is a beautiful feat, not unlike a magical experience to which critics often relate it. The combination of magic and melody makes this album fantastic, as does the warm story of the musicians’ friendship.
Starting in 2010, using only a handful of musical instruments – a guitar and condenser microphone – and some computer programs, John Withers began putting together the record, working around his day job writing music for advertisements. Having met vocalist, Emmanuel Nzaramba, by chance in Cape Town (Withers’ guitar was a spark for conversation), the two began talking about making music together. Withers invited Nzaramba in to his home and began recording him.
Shortly after meeting Withers, Nzaramba lost his job at the café where he and Withers had met. Nzaramba disappeared and it would be some time before the two would meet by chance yet again on the same street in Cape Town as they had before.
Nzaramba’s propensity to wander was fueled by his conflicted roots. Born to a Tutsi mother and Hutu father, Nzaramba’s struggle for grounding was violently uprooted after the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. As quoted in the Guardian last year, Nzaramba mentioned the conditions of his life as affected by racial politics, “I lost a lot of members of my country, of my family … my brother, my sister, some of my parents and relatives[.] All the hope I had to go to school … I could not afford. No one could support me. Even after the genocide there is avenging, killing each other. If you are Hutu, Hutus support you. If you are Tutsi, Tutsis support you. But me? I look like my mother, a Tutsi, so no Hutu can help me.”
Considering the longstanding history of violent racial politics in South Africa, it is difficult to separate a culture of animosity that has for so long driven apart cultural unity from a recent musical collaboration between a white guy and a black guy. Surely, this isn’t John Wizard’s overarching message; they’re mainly in it for the music. But removing cultural undertones from art is nothing short of sacrilege.
Speaking on behalf of their socio-political dynamic, Withers modestly states, “I guess it’s an unusual thing, it’s not something you see here often . . . I’d be cautious to ever think of ourselves as a progressive band representing any sort of social change in South Africa.” For Nzaramba, the John Withers’ collaboration is more symbolic. “I want to show to people that we are all born in Africa – we can work together.”
No matter the socio-political dynamics of John Wizards, if any band can testify to a meld of different cultures and styles (how many different musical styles can one attribute to their album?) they are surely at the top of the charts. Do social-politics matter? Surely. For music? I’d hesitate to answer. In the end, John Wizards is the very essence and importance of a reality catalyzed by art, however ethereal the record may sound.