SAMPA TEMBO AKA SAMPA THE GREAT HAS A MISSION: TO TAKE ZAMBIAN MUSIC GLOBAL
There is a saying in the Bemba language, “Zambia ku chalo”, which means “Zambia to the world”. It has become something of a philosophy for Sampa Tembo, better known by her stage name, Sampa the Great. Her second album, “As Above, So Below”, released this month, draws attention to the southern African country’s rich musical heritage. In catchy and lyrically inventive songs, the rapper and singer-songwriter brings together local styles with the likes of trap and hip-hop. She celebrates her country’s cultural history while appealing to 21st-century sensibilities.
Ms Tembo was born in Zambia in 1993 and spent her childhood between there and Botswana; as a young adult, she studied music in America and audio engineering in Australia. It was in Sydney that her career took off, first by collaborating with other artists, then through her own work. She released various singles and mixtapes to acclaim, before producing a full debut album, “The Return”, in 2019.
Since then Ms Tembo has won four Aria awards (named after the Australian Recording Industry Association); in 2019 she became the first woman of colour to prevail in one of its hip-hop categories. She is the first, and so far only, artist to have won the prestigious Australian Music Prize twice. In July her song “Energy” was included on Barack Obama’s summer playlist. “That’s when my mum knew I had a real job,” she quips.
She has experimented with African influences before, but Ms Tembo says that returning to Lusaka in 2020, during the pandemic, spurred a fresh appreciation of the continent’s music. “Being in Zambia, you’re working with musicians who heard the same sounds as you growing up,” she says. “It becomes less of a mission to recreate those sounds and more of a mission to expand them.”
Ms Tembo points out that Western listeners have embraced some African musical styles in the past decade. She highlights the popularity of Afrobeats, a hybrid of West African popular music; Burna Boy, a Nigerian singer-songwriter, won a Grammy in 2021. Amapiano, a subgenre of South African house music characterised by sultry piano and percussive basslines, is played in dance clubs around the world. But she argues that, in the main, there is “limited knowledge of how many genres are coming from the continent”.
She hopes that “As Above, So Below” will expand listeners’ musical repertoire. The standout track, “Never Forget”, pays homage to Zamrock, a blend of traditional African music and psychedelic rock which emerged in Zambia in the 1970s. Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, Zamrock often combined Bantu-language lyrics with fuzzy guitar riffs and wah-wah effects. “Can I Live?” features rousing vocals from Jagari Chanda, the lead singer of a pioneering Zamrock band, witch. Elsewhere the album draws on kalindula, a soft, rumba-like genre named after a kind of bass guitar, which itself influenced Zamrock.
These styles were forged in the wake of Zambia’s liberation from Britain in 1964. Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of the republic, was conscious of the relationship between the arts and a sense of national identity, and so encouraged investment in the local music industry. He stipulated that 95% of the music played on radios should be home-grown. Kalindula and Zamrock thrived as a result.
But from the mid-1970s onwards, the young country was beset by crises. “There was the aids pandemic, which killed a lot of people, including musicians,” says Magnus Mando, the executive producer of “As Above, So Below” (whose professional moniker is Mag44). “The copper mines got sold, so there was a lot of joblessness.” Economic decline meant that the average citizen could no longer afford concert tickets. Blackouts and curfews made it almost impossible for musicians to rehearse and perform.
The cultural scene suffered; until the early 2000s, American, Congolese and South African performers dominated the airwaves. Happily, reissues of witch records in 2011 and 2012, plus a recent documentary on the band, have revived interest in Zamrock. Now “As Above, So Below” is repackaging such music for younger generations. Mwanjé Tembo, Ms Tembo’s sister and frequent collaborator, says that “it’s been such an important goal to realise and expand Zambia’s independent sound…Naturally the groundwork set by Zamrock and kalindula music will be challenged, experimented with and will evolve over time.”
That approach is evident on “Mask On”, which fuses looping drums and distorted guitar with a well-known Zambian nursery rhyme about a lonely goat. “Sampa reinterpreted it as G.O.A.T—greatest of all time,” says Mr Mando, the producer. “She is basically saying, I don’t want to go to the rest of the world alone: I want to go to the top with all my Zambian people.”
The rapper is already making good on this idea. In 2022 her band became the first all-Zambian group to perform at the Sydney Opera House, Coachella and Glastonbury. They are currently supporting Billie Eilish in Australia and gearing up for a European tour. But Lusaka is home for the foreseeable future. The past couple of years “have been the most beautiful part of my musical journey. I got to return to the place where the dreams of being an artist began, work with artists who inspired me growing up,” says Ms Tembo. “Zambia will constantly be a part of my story.”
CREDIT: The Economist