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Musical wizardry

This interview was originally written for the South-African music & pop culture website Pressto, now defunct.

We’re counting down the days to the STRAB festival: that haven of boozy bliss and blues music on the pristine Ponto Malongane beach in Mozambique.

A place where suburbanites can stop washing their hair, haul out their baggy shorts and wooden beads and go “pub” hopping from one straw-covered hut to the next, guzzling Laurentina Pretas and listening to… Gerhard Steyn’s Baby Tjoklits blaring from the dinky pub speakers. Yes, this really happened, and created existential holiday dread of epic proportions. For, when in Mozambique… Shouldn’t the sounds be suitably Mozambiquey? The Afrikaans infestation: it happens. Everywhere.

Luckily, then, that Capetonian group John Wizards have decided to make music much more suitable for a citizen of the world-type holiday. It’s a combo of African music, R&B, chamber pop, electronic arrangements, some South-African house and something even more exotic called Shangaan Electro. Global stuff, but still comfy and homey. So you can take their album along and slot it into the closest CD player when a musical emergency rears its ugly head. Down, Kurt!

Their self-titled debut album is a whimsical, restless mix of musical vignettes named after people, places and experiences that inspired them. Travel from Muizenberg to Maputo, Dar es Salaam to Hogsback, Lusaka by night to the Limpop festival. It’s a bit dreamy, a bit sad, always lush.

The core of John Wizards is musical maestro John Withers who cooks up the melodies, and Emmanuel Nzaramba – a Rwandan who worked as a car guard in Cape Town, and ended up joining John Wizards as vocalist after a chance meeting with John outside a coffee shop. Since then, they’ve added a few more souls to round out the group.

Theirs is a sound that doesn’t necessarily translate to a huge, rocking live show – you’d be hard pressed to get a good headbang session going. But if atmospheric slow-groove dive bars and long walks on the beach are your thing, this is what you should listen to.

We got hold of John Withers for some more intel.

John Wizards’ seems to be one of Cape Town’s best-kept secrets, slowly starting to creep into our local consciousness, but already on the radar of some heavyweight international critics and music sites. Do you prefer a slow burn approach to bursting onto the scene and creating a huge fuss?
I like the idea that it’s taking people a little longer to digest and take notice of the music. It allows for a very comfortable anonymity, and makes it easier to not take things quite so seriously.

You have an interesting origin story – tell us a bit more about it?
I met Emmanuel while he was working in a coffee shop around Belvedere Rd. He had come to SA from Rwanda to become a musician, but hadn’t really had much of a chance to record or perform, and found himself just looking after cars. He’s a friendly guy and, seeing that I had a guitar on my back, he started talking to me about music. We recorded a couple of songs together, and then lost touch. I ran into him again when he and I were coincidentally both living on Loop Street a couple of years later. After that we started working on music together properly.

The moment John met Emmanuel – what exactly went down, how did you guys know that here was a musical match than needed to happen?
I don’t think that there was an immediate sense of us being a good musical match. We both have quite different tastes in music, and Emmanuel’s own music is very different to mine. It was only when I revisited something we’d recorded, and played around with his vocals a bit that I became very excited about the potential of us working together. After this, working together and finishing material became much easier and more natural.

Have you had to fend off ideas of being a “Rainbow Nation” band, some form of “musical reconciliation”, because of the type of music you’re making? Do people try to put you into a certain box?
Yes, definitely. I find it amazing that this is one of the first times that I’ve been asked this question. It’s an idea that I’ve tried my best to avoid. Certainly from overseas, there is a naiveté about South Africa and its social dynamics. Creating a musical reconciliation, or having a social agenda has never been a consideration of mine, and to paint it as such glosses over so many details and issues.

Have you taken any flack for being a “whitey” trying his hand at African sounds and culture?
I thought that I might do, but I’ve been surprised and pleased by how irrelevant it seems to be to everyone.

You have a broad geographical musical sense – how much did you delve into the different genres, afro pop and soukous and rumba?
I found myself compelled by a few genres, and tried to listen to and learn as much about them as possible. Congolese Rumba, Afro Zouk, Coupe Decale, and South-African pop music from the 80s all formed a big part of my listening while I was writing.

Summarise the driving force behind your music…
I’m not sure that there is a specific driving force behind my music. When I’m away from it, I feel compelled to write. It’s something that I enjoy.

What does each band member bring to the musical party?
Oh man, there are a few of us.

Alex plays bass, and brings a sense of discipline to proceedings.

Geoff plays guitar and keyboards, and is a bit of an alien.

Tom plays guitar, samples and keyboards, and brings news from the East.

Rafi plays drums, and is the source of beer and cigarettes.

Do you guys have any formal training, or more a general love and “feel” for music?
I studied music in High School, and did a year of music at UCT after I’d finished my degree.

What is the typical process behind the creation of a track?
It’ll usually begin with a single idea or segments that, over time, will be strung together to form more concrete, formed songs.

Your tunes are a bit like musical vignettes, short slices of life more than grander scheme storytelling. Does each song have a specific memory behind it?
Yes, most songs will have something in their character that reminds me of an event, place, or person. They’re usually named after these things.

Is there a reason why the tunes are so short, and almost a bit uncohesive?
I think a couple of things dictate this: The musical process that I described in your previous question, where I’m stringing ideas written separately together, helps create this slightly disjointed feeling. There’s also a sense of fluidity that I’d like my music to have, where one isn’t necessarily bound to exploring and developing a single idea. It slightly disregards the comfort of the listener, but I think it allows for an engaging musical experience.

How easily does your dreamy sound translate to a live show?
When I write, I imagine the songs in a live context. Translating the recorded music has been slightly more difficult than I had imagined though. There has been plenty of editing, and restructuring to create a balance between the live reinterpretation of the music, and the recorded material.

Where would you like to hear your music played?
At a parents’ braai!

Which local bands do you guys like playing with, and why?
Probably Okmalumkoolkat, Beatenberg, and BCUC. These acts all have great live shows, and it feels as though they’re creating something that is representational of a moment in time in South Africa.

John Wizards are hitting some serious festivals this year; in fact, it looks like you’ll be out of the country for most of the year. How are you so connected, huh?
Haha, his name is Will. I’ll give you his number! I try my best to avoid administrating things, so we have a booking agent in the UK who has helped organize all of these shows. We’ve been very lucky.

Which ones are you looking forward to most, and why?
Primavera – I’ve never been to Barcelona.

Dimensions Festival – Because it’s in Croatia, in an ancient Roman amphitheatre.

Worldwide Festival – Because I’m going to lam on the beach.

Which bands are you going to freak out to?
Outkast, Darkside, Ebo Taylor, Floating Points…

John, you’re also a jingle writer for commercials – which one is your trademark “hey, I did that!” tune? And the one that makes you cringe?
Hmmm, it’s technically not commercial work, but I helped with the soundtrack for the Four Corners movie. I had a “hey, I did that!” moment when I watched that in the cinema. I’m not sure I’d want you to hear my Oros jingle.

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