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Gig Review: W.I.T.C.H at the Hollywood Avondale

W.I.T.C.H at the Hollywood Avondale
Wednesday, March 13 2024 

Photographs by Álvaro Fernández 

Words by Rosetta Stone  

“A lot of White Spirituals here aye?” Nic murmurs to me as we weave our way through the crowds at the Hollywood Avondale. A comment that would later lead us to delve into the European and American rock’n’roll influences on what has become the undeniably African Zamrock, and how W.I.T.C.H have retained this authentic sound while bringing it to the Western-dominated music mainstream, and filling the band with European and American youngsters. 

Speaking of Spiritual Whites, Jeremy Toy in a kurta, busting out a tambourine in Dilla-time, and covering John Coltrane was not what I saw on the cards for the night but boy was I pleasantly surprised. We arrived early on in the opening set of Leonard Simpson Group, which I’d partially expected to translate to a slightly poser-ridden, stiff jazz crowd, but was pleasantly surprised to join a collective gentle sway to the smooth sounds of the band. Leonard Simpson Group, typically the duo (LSD) of Detroit-based rapper Guilty Simpson and Toy, is today decked out with some of Aotearoa’s finest; Chip Matthews laying down rude basslines on a stunning five-string, Ruby Walsh bringing rich textures of percussion on the congas and lush backing vocals, and Tom Broone on drums (need I say more about Tom Broone playing drums?)

Guilty Simpson’s absence would have been deeply felt had it not been for his voice memos narrating the set in between songs, and no doubt saving poor Jeremy Toy from his own awkwardly charming stage presence. While the set is flanked with incredible improv, there’s no doubt about the homages paid to some of jazz and funk’s greats, including the late trailblazing producer J Dilla. Other covers from the group include John Coltrane’s ‘Acknowledgement’, complete with the repeated vocal melody and bassline “A Love Supreme” which I can’t help but find a little bit goofy, even in the original. The entire set is electric, with Toy in his element layering plenty of fuzz and wah over groovy solos, and the whole band locked in. The group closed with a defiant rendition of Eddie Kendrick's "My People... Hold on" which was dedicated to the people of Gaza.

It would have been fair to assume that we had come to the wrong venue, as the group of slick instrumentalists hailing from across Europe and America graced the stage… that is, until the explosive entrance of the four Zambians who would front the night's spectacle; original band leader Emmanuel "Jagari" Chanda, keyboardist Patrick Mwondela, and backing vocalists/overall vibe boosters Theresa Ng’ambi and Hanna Tembo. But as the tight afro-beat grooves of opening track, ‘Thou Shalt Not Cry’ ring out across the room and a buzzing crowd began to move, the unmistakable pulse of Zambian psychedelic rock and funk was quickly established. The band, holding down a tight pocket, are nonchalant and almost look bored - but not in a boring way. This of course contrasts starkly with the immediately colourful (both in fashion as well as stage presence) aura of the fronting quartet Jagari, Mwondela, Ng’ambi, and Tembo, who all enter and launch into brilliant dance moves and crowd interaction. Suddenly, the context and history of W.I.T.C.H’s journey to this point felt so utterly intertwined with appreciating the artistry. In front of me, is a rich tapestry of sound and culture that has lived through musicians from across the world, past and present; curated and stitched together by the man who started it all. 

There is a humble cheekiness to how Jagari connects with the crowd, reciting stories and teasing band members on stage, with a dry sense of humour delivered through a toothy grin. Before launching into high-energy crowd favourite ‘Waile’, he declares that unfortunately, the Zango records did not arrive in time for the show. “I was gonna ask you to buy the album,” he starts. “If nobody buys the record, I have to swim home. You have treacherous waters… those sharks.” An adoring crowd erupts with laughter and heckles. “But if you buy the album… I’ll fly!”

The front quartet exuded personality, and a personal highlight of the night would have to be ‘Unimvwesha Shuga’ and ‘Malango’ led by Theresa Ng’ambi and Hanna Tembo, backed by Jagari's additions to an already outstanding percussion section. The two share powerhouse vocals, complementing each other with moments of individual shine and electric dancing around the stage. 

Hilarious quips from Jagari continue between songs, narrating a story of meeting inlaws for the first time and being asked “the million dollar question… ‘what do you do for a living?’” chuckles from across the room as Jagari puffs up his chest. “And you say, well I’m the frontman of this really great band…” the singer refrains himself from poking fun after a cowbell crowd-participation segment of the evening reveals an embarrassing lack of rhythm amidst the audience.

Zango opening track ‘By The Time You Realize’ was another highlight, with those heavy stops that comically contrast the light-hearted reggae section, complete with a perfectly silly organ part from Mwondela. After ensuring us that “there are no lazy people in this country” the band launches into another crowd favourite, ‘Lazy Bones’ which features a cocktail of fresh dance moves from Jagari, from slow motion running to plenty of bouncing and jiggling on stage, the energy is just infectious. 

With all the character amidst the front quartet, it would almost be easy not to pay attention to the youngster band in the back - that is, if it weren’t for the phenomenal grooves of Nico Mauskoviç, a generous amount of wah-soaked guitar shredding from Stefan Lilov and JJ Whitefield, Jacco Gardner’s heavy basslines, and the excellent percussion textures of Charlie Garmendia. Oh, and how could one forget the final subtle brag: a game of musical-instrument-chairs to end the set. 

I speak for just about everyone in the crowd that night when I say that if we could bring back the alleged 7-hour W.I.T.C.H show, we would. Lucky for us, it did not take much to keep these guys on stage for what would become an epic three-song finale. “There's a war between three songs for the encore, what you want, what I want, what the band wants…” says Jagari. “Luckily, we’ve all won. We’ll play three.” A true frontman, who looked almost as sad to eventually leave the stage as the audience was to see him go.