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Digging Deeper: Jagari of WITCH

WITCH are a group who have long had our hearts here at Mr Bongo. Known widely as THE Zambian rock band, the group have received a second wave of support globally following numerous reissues thanks to Now Again, and a documentary about the group recording filmmaker Gio Arlotta as he attempts to reform the band with original frontman Jagari Chanda, Patrick Mwondela and contemporary artists Jacco Gardner and Nic Mauskovic. Making waves with a fresh new single, and a documentary finally released about the band, we had the pleasure of having a second sit down with original WITCH member Jagari Chanda - starting with how they first came to the name.

Initially, Jagari recounts, WITCH was named Kingston Market. However, with no ability to record, the group saved their rehearsals for live shows. "The lineup changed a bit quickly, too quickly before we even thought of recording, as it wasn't common to do so. We didn't have recording studios to do things. Even the one that we used for 'Introduction' and 'Living In The Past' was almost accidental. Initially it was just the actual WITCH, like WITCH on a broomstick. The name came from the sound of the footswitch. We have the wah-wah and things like that. In the rehearsal we thought that the the first name we had (Kingston Market) didn't depict the rock genre of the band. It was more of a reggae orientated-name."

When first starting on his musical path, Jagari was so young his family had doubts. "The manager for Kingston Market wanted me to leave school. I was in grade 11. Form Four. And they didn't like the idea. So I couldn't just go along with that idea. I knew I had only one year to go before I could complete high school. So I said, I can't go on with this. I'm leaving. The manager said 'if you are leaving, everyone is leaving.' Then we parted company. He sold the the gear, but we had not recorded anything with him. And then we started looking for a new manager."
As Kingston Market disbanded, the group began experimenting with their line-up. "The common thing was three, four members in a band. Because that was the same as the Beatles. When we listen to Rolling Stones and other bands with five people, the fashion started changing."

When it came to making decisions, the group enjoyed working as a collective, however, this came with its own drawbacks."It was a collective, until we we had a difference with this other new manager with whom we had recorded two albums. His idea of a contract was misconstrued. I said, now i'm finishing my high school. My family is expecting me to contribute. I had refused to join the mines. It was the the trend that when the guardian or the parent leaves the mine where they worked, then when they retired they would replace themselves with either a relative or with their child or something. And my elder brother brought me up. I only lived with my parents for the first six or seven years of my life. And then this elder brother, the first born sibling, he worked for the mines and decided that it was a good idea that I leave the village to come and find school."

For Jagari, it seemed like his destiny was sealed with a family lineage of working on the Copperbelt, in the mines of Kitwe. His elder brother encouraged him to stick with school, despite his homesickness leading to a few escape attempts: "You go and camp at the school for the whole week. That was the plan, but I didn't yield very good results. So my brother said, you come and join me for the work on the Copperbelt, in particular in Kitwe. So he sent for me and I went to Kitwe. I started school in 1959, but around 1960 I was homesick. I wanted to go back to my parents and I sneaked out and got on a bus. But they're talking about 600 plus kilometers away from where we were. And you had to pass through Congo the pit road to go back to where I was born. My elder brother learned about it and he was not too pleased. So he made arrangements and I was recaptured on the way and brought back to Kitwe. So I re-started school again in 1961. This time I was threatened 'if you try that again....!' So I was kept in check all the time."

"His idea was I could help the financial burden he had for the family. He was like the breadwinner, you know? So he thought by sending me to school, at the end of it, I would help him with the financial burden. But what he didn't really understand was when the destiny is calling, there's no escape. You don't understand it. But in the end, you come to realise 'oh, I was meant to do this and this.' Well, I went to school then in full before I moved away from home, because they didn't approve when they heard that I joined the band. It was unheard of."

Before joining a band, Jagari grew up listening to local live acts, available in part by social amenities setup by the township. "The mining conglomerate would arrange some social amenities within the township. We had the social welfare (not the way you regard it here). We used to go there for sports, boxing, swimming, football and things like that. I used to meet musicians there, you know, and try out what I thought I knew. In school, we had our notebooks where we wrote the lyrics of certain songs. We didn't even know Jim Reeves was singing gospel music, so we were dancing to his music as if it were ballroom dance! I really didn't think I'd be a musician, so I didn't keep track of the interests growing. I saw other musicians drop out of school and that gave me an indication that I should be careful. I knew, if I got carried away by music, I would not concentrate in school. So two forces bullying. My family wanted me to be that side....but the talent was calling me elsewhere."

Jagari and the band learnt how to play their instruments through covering popular British and American groups of the 1960's. Growing up near the mining conglomerate, he listened to British radio, and had a stream of various cultures coming through from South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania and Congo, all coming to work in the mines. Through social events, Jagari found himself immersed in music through events held by various families who had migrated. Jukeboxes also became popular, "The radio would play the hits from about midnight to 4am, so I would pretend to sleep and stay up to hear more. Then, on my way to school I would stand outside the clubs hoping to hear tracks from the jukebox."

As WITCH began to draw more and more of a live following, the group stumbled across a way to get their music onto vinyl. "I met this guy, he had a record in his hand, the seven inch single with his name on it. I stopped him am introduced myself and he said, Where did you get this? How did you have this made? And he said, 'at the record company in Kitwe, your town, the industrial area.' I think it was Polygram or something like that. He says 'You can go and find out from them. If you have material they can press for you.'" Jagari found out they could press masters there, with the record pressing and sleeves being made in Nairobi, Kenya.
With the band all living together in one house, they were rehearsing a lot in the storeroom of a grocery shop and writing their own songs. With nothing written down, everything was played by memory. All that was left was to find a studio.
With the band all living together in one house, they were rehearsing a lot in the storeroom of a grocery shop and writing their own songs. With nothing written down, everything was played by memory. All that was left was to find a studio.

"Eventually we learnt that the mining company not so far away from my town had a subsidiary company making documentaries. That's why they also had this section for audio recording. The manager there was a folk musician called Emmanuel, so we were allowed to record there. We recorded, and the manager and I went to Nairobi with the masters and we had the first batch of vinyl made there. We came back with bags of them. And when we were ready for selling, it was like hotcakes. We sold them at gigs, and there was a real demand for them." As the band reached more traction, Jagari pushed for contracts with their manager. This led to them parting ways, and Jagari taking the lead on future decisions. Having stayed on and finishing school, Jagari knew a musical career had potential and was keen to pursue this, despite his family initially disapproval, they began to see how popular WITCH were becoming.

By this time a recording company had started up in Zambia and were looking for bands to sign. Jagari approached them with word of the master tapes, asking for a repress of the first WITCH release, and explaining their previous success. With their old manager holding their original master tapes, they had to negotiate an exchange of their instruments for the original masters. Eventually, the deal was signed, and the recording company bought them new instruments on the condition they record an album per year for four years. Until the instruments were recouped the group struggled to make an income with no royalty payments, and relied solely on live shows.

Zambia had changed a lot in the time that WITCH were releasing music. With various neighbouring countries in political turmoil, curfews and blackouts and meant that some of their live shows had to last 7-8 hours into the night. All of these issues were overshadowed by the emerging AIDS pandemic, which Jagari mentions sadly eventually led to the death of all other original members of WITCH.

By the time that disco became a popular genre, Jagari was married, had a family and saw his time with WITCH coming to an end. Whilst the band continued without him, he didn't stop composing and Jagari's relationship with music became more than just dreams of fame and fortune, of playing live around the world. He wanted to setup a music school, to teach children.

As time went on all other members of the original WITCH line-up passed away, leaving only Jagari and Patrick, who played keys during WITCH's disco-era. Little did he know, thanks to documentarian Gio Arlotta, some 40 years later he would be gracing stages across the world, performing at Desert Daze, on KEXP, doing what he does best to adoring fans across the globe. One things for sure - we are lucky to have him. 

Watch the film in the UK: https://bulldog-film.com/films/witch/

Stream / Download 'Waile': https://witch.lnk.to/waile