John Wizards on Being South Africa's Most Unusual Export

The pair at the heart of John Wizards talk about overcoming xenophobia and unlikely friendships.

27 November 2013, 11:00am

John Wizards came about as a collaboration of pure coincidence. Songwriter John Withers was in a studio recording the latest of jingles for his day job when he met roving musician Emmanuel Nzaramba. The two kept meeting randomly but bonded over a shared love of South African music, eventually forming the band, with John writing the music and Emmanuel singing over the top.

Their self-titled debut album is the bridge between the afrobeat inspired New York bands and the band’s own roots in traditional South African music. I met with John before the band’s Rough Trade in-store later that day. Upon asking whereabouts his musical partner Emmanuel is he replies that he’s “somewhere near”.

Before he gets here, me and John talk midnight mixing sessions powered by South African house and the perils of making music with someone prone to disappearing.

YNTHT: So John, did you ever expect blogs to pick the record up so quickly?

John: Yeah, it’s so difficult to judge. Music’s always been the dream. I thought it’d just go under the radar.

Friendship’s a big theme on the album, the album even ends with a song called “Just A Friend”…

It was the last song that was written; I was desperate to get it finished. I was working through the night for months on the album just trying to finish it off. Emmanuel did the best vocal take I had ever heard for it. I finished mixing at seven in the morning celebrating with a bowl of Frosties and a haircut. I had to get out of Cape Town that day but I nearly killed myself driving with such little sleep listening to high energy kuduro music from Angola, it really kept me going.

What about your own music? I feel it’s a bit misunderstood.

People always take one look at my work and write solely about my jingle writing and don’t look as closely at the actual music. Writers are constantly asking me about what the South African scene is and I can never really give them a straight answer because it’s so diverse. Music there can be distributed through taxi drivers playing house in their cabs, it’s crazy.

So how does your partnership with Emmanuel work?

I met him years ago. I’d already written the music, he’d come over and sing something off the top of his head. Without him I’d probably be singing and I don’t know how good that would be…

You allude a lot to Emanuel disappearing for long periods of time during the recording of the album, where does he go?

He’d go around from place to place looking for a job, trying to make enough to survive. Keeping track of him is very hard to do. He actually disappeared just before we announced the tour, that was a big stress for me.

Is he prepared for the level of success you’re receiving?

It’s weird for him, because with this sort of success you don’t see a financial return, for him that would be the best measure. He takes music pretty seriously.

I guess it’s pretty hard for a Rwandan refugee to get a job in South Africa.

Not many people ask about Emmanuel’s social status, there are very serious issues about xenophobic violence against immigrants in our country.

[After talking about Emanuel so much he miraculously shows up greeting everyone with laconic tales of getting lost in London. He’s become the mysterious figure of the band doing few interviews and leaving much of his life shrouded, all that I had been able to find out was much of his family had been massacred in the Rwandan genocide. Left to fend for himself he had spent most of his time roaming around Africa, playing music and taking up whatever odd job he could find.]

So Emmanuel, have you always been musical?

Emmanuel: My father was a musician; though he couldn’t depend on music to make any money because he had to support my family. So when I got older I thought about achieving something that my father never had the chance to. I’ve always been on the road playing guitar.

That must have impacted the music quite a lot?

Yeah, I’ve met a lot of different people on my travels. I once met a Chinese musician who told me if I wanted to play music for a living that I’d “die poor”. Later on, someone stole my guitar and I had to go back to Uganda. I had to take a job washing cars on the road; I met a lot of producers that way.

Just afterward you met John, how would you describe your partnership?

John is like my best friend the relationship is so strong. My parents saw how many friends I had on Facebook, they were asking me, “do you realise how many friends you have?” I told them I have only one friend and that is John Withers. Him and me have the same dream, all my brothers are gone from the genocide and now John is like my brother.

What music has affected you the most?

I’ve always been a reggae man. People always look at me when I’m walking down the street and shout “rasta man”. I’ve been inspired by Bob Marley but I’m not Bob Marley, I just make my own music.

What’s the process for you when you’re coming up with the lyrics off the top of your head?

Coming from the church, there was a lot of thinking; the messages always came into my mind. Sometimes I’d be lying on my bed and I’d get an idea for a song, or I’d have a dream where Bob Marley would be singing a new song to me.

So, apart from music did you have any other hobbies?

When I was young I was a sport master, training at the gym doing yoga, karate, kung fu. I gave those up for music. They train you to do push ups with only two fingers; I learnt how to eliminate pain from my mind.

I heard you had a job, selling pirated CDs in South Africa?

A lot of people can’t afford to buy music from the shops so people from Nigeria can sell music from ten rand (60p). I had just lost my job at a coffee shop and had nowhere to sleep, so whilst walking around I started talking to a woman who offered me a chance to make money selling CDs. After a while of doing that it got too dangerous having to avoid the police.

Now you’re living a more stable life, what’s the future for you and John Wizards?

I want to stay in South Africa, in my country, Rwanda, a lot of things are changing; we aren’t allowed to be refugees anywhere in the whole world. I’m gonna set up my own music school, maybe even try to release two albums this year! Who knows...


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