From Vampire Weekend's Ghana-inspired motifs to LV's flirtations with kwaito, the sounds of Africa are as attractive to the wider world as they've ever been. Hearing from the people who actually originated these sounds, though, is rare outside of compilations and reissues. John Wizards is one exception. The solo (and sometimes band) project of Cape Town's John Withers is somewhere between indigenous and pastiche. Instead of hewing to one style, he jumps all over the map, as likely to affect a South African house strut as he is to nick a West African guitar riff. His self-titled debut album for Planet Mu has all the giddy reverence of a musical explorer, plus a perky personality that makes it pretty much irresistible.
When he's not making music as John Wizards, Withers works in a commercial studio writing jingles for a living. This heavily informs the way he writes songs: for one, his tracks are short and sweet—we get 15 of 'em in under an hour. And he knows his way around a hook, so they tend to get stuck in your head. Take the buoyant guitar that opens "Muizenberg": it sounds just familiar enough to be exciting without feeling hackneyed, not unlike what you'd hear in a well-done commercial.
That said, Withers is far from one-dimensional. His gift for simplicity applies to all sorts of musical modes; "Lusaka By Night," the album's first single, is suave with its manicured guitars and saccharine vocals, while "Maria" is a vulnerable and heartfelt love song. "I'm Still A Serious Guy" imagines a Caribbean groove as heard from the Sahara, topped off with a New Wave vocal. It's touches like this that lend the record a multicultural flavour, but that's not all down to Withers. He also partners with Rwandan singer Emmanuel Nzaramba, who delivers an authenticity and emotional flair that Withers can't quite muster on his own.
Bringing his music even closer to home, several of the tracks are named after parts of South Africa, and like little aural postcards, they all convey different themes. Most striking is "Hogsback," named for a near-mythical town in the Amatola Mountains that's prized for its gorgeous views. The natives of Hogsback were almost completely displaced (and out-priced) by white settlers, and it remains out of reach to them today. There's a certain emptiness to the song, soaked in reverb and dramatic guitar strums, and the quietly hopeful melody turns heart-rending when you know the story behind the village. For a jingle writer whose album is almost relentlessly upbeat, his music can cut surprisingly close to the bone.
Buy John Wizards - John Wizards at
Tracklist: John Wizards - John Wizards 01. Tet Lek Schrempf
02. Lusaka By Night
06. Finally/Jet Up
08. Jabu Ley
12. I'm Still A Serious Guy
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