Album Review: Ngozi Family – ‘45,000 Volts’ (reissue)

At times it’s hard to keep tabs on the overflowing treasure chest of re-issues from the ever-giving seventies African rock and funk scenes. But here is one gem that shouldn’t be missed- it’s got pedigree, it’s got provenance but more importantly it’s a blast. Originally released in 1977 Ngozi Family’s ’45,000 Volts’ was a sharp cut, defining slice of Zamrock, lost to all but vinyl addicts with serious money to splash until now, with its re-release on the esteemed Now-Again Records(available from 22nd January).

Led by guitarist Paul Ngozi, a pioneering figure in Zambian music, Ngozi Family were up there alongside WITCH in shaping the first wave Zamrock sound. Combining the inevitable influences of Hendrix and James Brown together with a devotion to the power of the riff, the band made music that reflected the political turmoil of the times in their country. Sometimes drawn to the darker sides of rock, dipping into pop psychedelia, rhythmically direct and charged with fuzz guitar, this was reactionary music.

‘45000 Volts’ captures Ngozi Family at their peak during a prolific period from 1976 to 1978 when they released around seven albums. The opener ‘Nizakupanga Ngzo’ announces itself with a characteristic wow and flutter from Paul Ngozi’s electric before switching seamlessly between a crisp rocking, fuzz pumped chorus and a slow hammered chant. Elsewhere on the LP, such nods to Sabbath filter through more clearly especially on the deep riffing ‘House of Fear’ where somehow the understandably low-tech production make this story of living in the city next to the graveyard more real and creepy.

That doesn’t mean that ‘45000 Volts’ relies too heavily on its metal influences to generate a charge. What’s striking as you get further into the album is the connectivity between the trio. The self -referencing Ngozi Family theme tune ‘Hold On’ shows off the band’s grasp on maintaining that glorious funk rock momentum with Tommy Mwale’s elastic bass never missing a step. ‘Everything is over’ also thrives on sticking to its tight 12 note riff without deviation. With the bass and guitar welded to the same lines, Chris Zebby Tembo’s nimble drums add that little snatch of funky swing to keep you on your toes. Even the dramatic pauses and the tired story of ‘man done wrong by woman’ can’t drag the song down. Refreshingly that standard rock plotline gets a neat twist in ‘U don’t love me’, a slower cautionary ballad with a sixties spirit that unleashes some classy lines with a wry smile. ‘She gets a lot of money/ About 500 question marks!’ is a stand out.

Even more intriguing is the way Ngozi Family’s inner Purple and Cream aspirations blend with their own sensibilities and musical heritage. After its sparky wah and fuzz intro ‘I’ll be with you’ introduces the lilt of Kalindula music, a genre that remains at the centre of much Zambian pop today. In fact for many Paul Ngozi is credited with bringing an urban twist to that genre, trading the hand crafted guitars and homemade drum-kits for electric instruments in order to shift the sound up a gear. On this album the rootsy ‘Timwenge’ clearly shows the merger in action, skipping from stripped back chants and congas to an electrified work out and back again. But perhaps ‘Atate’ is the most sparkling extension of the Kalindula style on the LP, all clean melodic lead lines, a relaxed shuffle beat and a hit record vocal hook packed into a three minute booster.

‘45000 Volts’ comes full circle on its closing track with a final nod to traditions in the rich vocal harmonies and tumbling rhythms of ‘Tichenjele’. There’s a characteristic spidery flourish from Paul Ngozi’s twanging guitar but the band play out the album with this folksy song of joyful sway and natural swagger. It’s that confidence to mix it up that really pays off on this record. It could be seen by some to lurch between styles but there is no pretence on ‘45000 Volts’. Ngozi Family weren’t trying to be anything but themselves, filtering the sounds around them to make sparkling music for their time and place. Ground breaking then and still a mighty listen now.

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