Blog February 19, 2019
In Homage to Zambia's Brian Chilala

One of Zambia’s best musicians Brian Chilala, known as "The Rebel," died in a car accident on Sunday evening, Feb. 10, driving home from a gig. He was 55. I first met Brian in 2004, at a hastily organized workshop by the National Arts Council for the Zambian Union of Musicians, with me telling them all about how to approach the world music business in Europe. A big guy, with cap and Rasta locks and a gruff voice, I thought it excellent that at first he didn’t trust me – something he made no attempt to hide. I also liked the way he parked his car: he parked it his way, not adhering to any apparent behavioral rules. We became friends. Brian was direct, honest, and had no time for nonsense. Later on, he called me Bad Boy, and I called him Mr. Jombo. He was a tough guy, but with a big heart. So he wasn’t really a tough guy at all. As a performer Brian Chilala was energetic, explosive, fearless, with sharp lyrics satirically addressing both moral and political issues.

A protégé of Zamrock legend Paul Ngozi, and then Amayenge leader Chris Chali, Brian went on to perform his own songs from 1997 onwards with his own backing band Ngoma Zasu, taking the homegrown style of kalindula forward, and never looked back. There was an occasion in 2010, while driving around in the Lusaka night, Brian put on Oliver Mtukudzi for me and said this was what he listened to, as there was nothing worthwhile from Zambia – Congo and Zimbabwe are streets ahead of us, he said. I found that a sad moment, yet another instance of an inferiority complex by a top Zambian musician. I disagreed with him, saying that the vocal sound on his 2008 album Yavundumuka is beautiful and world class. He then played some studio recordings of his backing band, Ngoma Zasu, and asked what I thought. This music is wonderful, I exclaimed – so unmistakenly Zambian, kalindula at its best! By 2014 I had put a compilation album together in my head. Back in Lusaka, with the help of Evans "Clement" Sakala of Ngoma Zasu and Jack Sakala, the man who made the recordings, I dug deep to find the original mixes so that I had the best possible sources from which to remaster those tracks. The result is the cd Vangaza!, released in 2015 on my label SWP Records, with Chilala and Ngoma Zasu recordings from between 2004 and 2010. My last day of that 2014 visit consisted of organizing the photo session for the cd booklet, after which I basically got kidnapped for the remainder of the day before my evening flight: I hope you like whisky, Brian said, because you are not allowed to be sober when I put you on that plane!

 

He and the Ngoma Zasu musicians were truly enthusiastic about the sound on Vangaza!, which pleased me greatly, when we met again in 2016. The music was critically acclaimed by the press in Europe and America - "Here's a rare and special find out of southern Africa. These nine tracks have a delightfully retro sound, featuring ripping fast 12/8 grooves with restless percussion, stinging electric guitar licks, and rich vocal harmonies.. A huge memorial service took place at Lusaka’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Feb. 14, after which he was buried. Mr. Jombo is now up there with Paul Ngozi, Chris Chali and all the others - down here he will be sorely missed. 

Michael Baird was born in Zambia and is a drummer and composer, who runs the record label SWP Records.

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