The scene is Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010 during the World Cup. The players are John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba. Withers at the time was in his early twenties, and was making music on his computer, while Nzaramba was in his mid thirties and had only been living in the South African city for a year. The two men, from different backgrounds -- Withers a university grad was working in TV, while Nzaramba was a Rwandan refugee whose parents were Hutu and Tutsi -- had been traveling around the continent his whole life after the Rwandan genocide, until he landed in Cape Town and was working as a security guard at a cafe, when he met Withers. When the two men hit it off, they started creating music that combines all African influences, hip-hop, electronica, ambient, but most of all, something so creative and dreamlike, it is hard to imagine in this day and age of every style and sound available, something like this was never made before, or if it had, it was not this good. John Wizards was finally born.
Last year, the band released one of 2013's best albums with their self-titled debut, and now, as the music and story of John Wizards gets passed around the music world, this African band will take their sound global. I spoke with John Wizards brainchild, Withers. Take a look at our interview below:
How do you plan to break the mold of what we know of South African music?
JW: I'm not completely certain of how South African music is perceived, or how well documented it is overseas. Often, if you're a South African abroad, and you make this fact known, you'll be questioned about Die Antwoord. If this is our point of reference, I think that the approach is quite different.
In recent years, Civil Twilight, The Parlotones and BLK JKS, all very different sounding bands, have gained some attention here in America, but never achieved the massive rise they should have. Do you feel that it is much harder to break it in this country coming from your country?
JW: Even without the visa, exchange and proximity problems that come with being a South African, America is such a large and competitive country, that I'm sure it would be difficult to "break it" there. I'd imagine that making a name for oneself in South Africa is a bit easier than in America. Maybe ask Rodriguez.
The sound of this band resembles Cape Town itself. It is so unique, fresh, exhilarating and vibrant. How has the city influenced your work?
JW: I'd like to think that my music is rooted in my experience of Cape Town, and since coming back home, that feeling has become stronger. It's very easy to find inspiration in such an unusual, diverse, problematic and beautiful city.
From The Guardian, Complex and even Pitchfork, critics are praising your work, how do you respond to the acclaim?
JW: It's all very abstract, and difficult to grasp. I'm flattered, but I'd be worried if it were something that I felt very connected to.
After a few years together, writing and recording, what was it like to finally make your debut?
JW: There had been a great sense of anticipation building up to this, and the release of this tension and excitement was a relief. It has been a wonderful, bewildering and memorable time in my life.
The album plays like a cosmic daydream, do you feel this represents you wanting to escape something? If so, what?
JW: The music is not so much an escape, as it is an expression of release. In creating music, I experience some of my strongest emotions, and this is what compels me to write.
The story of this band begins around the time of the World Cup in South Africa; it was a magical time for the country, but also a magical time for all of you; this is when the band began to form.
How did each of you get in contact with one another?
JW: That period has a special feel to it. I had finished university, moved out, and was truly independent for possibly the first time in my life. I met Emmanuel that year, and the band began to take shape, in the form of old friends. A little while later, a friend was kind enough to lend us her family's barn to have our first practices in. I have a strong sense of what this life was like.
Singer Emmanuel Nzaramba is a Rwandan refugee who has both Hutu and Tutsi parents, something which led to the wars in 1994. Having this background, has it played a role in his lyrics and story telling?
JW: I can't speak for him, but I do know that themes of loneliness and longing reoccur in Emmanuel's lyric writing. He's is actually back in Rwanda at the moment. It's the first time that he has been there in 15 years, and he has already been writing lyrics and songs about it.
Emmanuel sings in various languages, who came up with the idea to do this?
JW: Much of the music that I listen to isn't sung in a language that I understand, and so it felt natural to encourage Emmanuel to sing in whatever language he felt most comfortable.
You are 25 and Emmanuel is almost 40, is the gap in age a factor when making music?
JW: It's not a consideration. When I first met him, Emmanuel told me he was 30. He's young in both appearance and demeanor, so it didn't cross my mind that he might be older until I helped him sort his passport out a few months ago. That's when I saw "Date of Birth: 22 January 1974." He has aged quickly in these few years that I've known him.
Being a band that is as diverse as you are, what does music represent to you?
JW: It is a thing without power of representation, with no necessary relation to the world, yet capable of bearing tremendous joy, sadness, reflection and solidarity with others.
Being in a band from the part of the world that you hail from and it's history, do you feel John Wizards now represents all of Africa, and not just your country?
JW: Africa has many gifted musicians that represent a vast spectrum of traditions and social changes, who can be placed within and represent many cultural contexts. One of the things that I have encountered a lot since people have begun to ask me about my music, is a tendency to both oversimplify and politicize African music. Personally, John Wizards represents nothing more than a compulsion to create music and explore my place within South Africa and the rest of the continent.
A longer version of this interview appears on Officially A Yuppie.