In Zambia & Nigeria, a Pan-African Music Movement Takes Shape
Alex Siber
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Catalog
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Lrdmnd
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November 29th, 2022

Explore a rising scene of African artists who are crafting heartfelt contributions to Afrobeats, R&B, rap, and folk in Zambia and Nigeria. Written by Lord MND. Edited by Siber. Featuring original music from Nemesis vs. Ladyryn, Ace Daphlex, Theresa Ng'ambi, Tulile Siyumbwa, and Lady Light. Record collection curated by Lady Light. Learn more about Catalog’s Curation Cycles program here. Trigger warning: mental health, domestic abuse, drug use, and death.

“Zesco power cuts are part of everyday life.”

Liseli Akayombokwa smiles as she references the electrical grid woes that disrupt businesses in her city of Lusaka and beyond. There’s too much joy going around to let outages sap it away. 

Known to reverential ears as Lady Light, Liseli has turned heads with self-described Afro-Fusion music that she often performs in her native siLozi tongue. Equally exciting is the sense of togetherness in her orbit. After years of country-crossing friendships and regular sets at local Zambian mainstays like Alliance Francaise Lusaka, Modzi Arts, Circus, and Ciela Resort, as well as Zimbabwe’s Moto Republic, a collaborative tide is rising, fueled in part by locals hungry for anything with a groove and ingenuity.

“During just one DJ set I can play old school hip-hop, Afro-beat, Afro-house, Rhumba, or Kalindula and the audience will appreciate it all,” Lady Light tells us. “I’m proud of how unified and diverse our community is, and how our relationship with our audience is reciprocal. Moto Republik [a creative haven in Zimbabwe] brought me and three other women rappers from our region to do a curated performance at Shoko Festival, and supported us with content creation.”

Nearly 6000 kilometers northwest, at the edge of Lagos, Nigeria, Afro-beats architect Ace Daphlex makes fresh-faced bops by channeling one of music’s all-time giants, Nigerian icon Fela Kuti. The artist-producer treasures vocal takes as an immortalization ritual — soul fragments that can outlast him. Tribal trumpets, sax, and chants pulse beneath his gratifying croons

Nigeria, a pop heavyweight by any metric, towers above Zambia’s commercial output after a decade of superstardom. Few stages are too big for Tems, Wizkid, and Burna Boy. As sure as night follows day, though, success breeds saturation. The country’s hyper-competitive music industry has artists like Ace looking to forge alliances elsewhere.

“The sub-genre that excites me most is called Highlife,” Daphlex says. “Only a few artists make it these days. When I was a kid, I’d hear it while relaxing. It’s music for unwinding after work, during games in the evening. Nowadays, you only hear it when people listen to oldies.”

The appetite among fans, from Lagos to Lusaka, seems to increasingly reward artistic risks. Around the world, musical hot spots have become emblematic of cultures where all are welcome. This even extends to dialect.

“In Zambia, the most popular songs are usually sung in Nyanja and Bemba as these are the most widely spoken languages,” Lady Light says. “As a result, some artists are inclined to stick to them. However, there's a group of emerging artists who are not so easily swayed and are willing to try out other languages. They’ve actually had hits and positive responses from the public. “ 

Nemesis vs Ladyryn, Theresa Ng'ambi, Tulile Siyumbwa, and Nigeria’s Ace Daphlex — each onboarded to Catalog by Lady Light for our Curation Cycles program — add their own unique weave to this intercontinental fabric. Their bonds to each other, and to their lineages, run deep. Many of their records tap into the past for that magic touch. 

“From an ancestral perspective, Zambians have played and preserved our love for music through a variety of indigenous instruments,” Lady Light says. “There’s the Silimba, a traditional xylophone. The Singubu, a kind of bass drum. Large Maoma drums, mostly played by my tribe, the Lozi people of western Zambia. The Kalimba, a single metal-stringed bow played with a stick. The Nyele Horn Flute, mostly played by the Tonga people of Southern Zambia, plus a wide range of drums and banjo’s played by many other tribes providing a variety of sounds.”

Located on a farm in Makeni, on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka, Lady Light also takes cues from the naturally occurring sounds and movements of the outdoors. 

“We have the birds, with their beautiful varied melodies, like the dusky turtle dove that I plan on sampling. The way the wind blows through the trees, the nighttime insects, the very efficient alarm clocks known as roosters, I’m surrounded by all of it. Nature plays a big role in my music.”

It only takes a few minutes with that music to develop a craving. Folks already familiar with Lady Light’s bolting vocals, Theresa Ng'ambi’s riddims or Tulile Siyumbwa’s reflections know the satisfaction their records bring — like witnessing gymnasts land newly invented aerial tricks. They’ve created their art with next to no public infrastructure. 

“Artists here have received little support from previous governments,” Lady Light says. “Many of us have little to no access to instruments, equipment, Internet access, art supplies, studio time, computers, visibility and opportunities to showcase their work. It’s hard to not feel left out, struggling to make ends meet.” 

Hints of a positive shift appeared last year. In August, the people of Zambia elected opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema to the presidency, a decision that, despite accusations of silencing dissent levied against him, has already yielded significant returns. As inflation skyrockets around the world, consumer purchasing power with Zambia’s Kwacha currency has increased year over year. Hichilema’s administration also quickly invested heavily in education and health, bolstering faith in the future for many citizens. If promises are kept, Lady Light says, artists will also become beneficiaries of this political power transfer.

“One of Hichilema’s first projects is the Citizen Empowerment Fund of which the arts sector is included,” she tells us. “This fund offers loans to arts organizations, which we hope will change to interest-free grants. However, many are still struggling as they lack the finances to create and promote their work. Fortunately, Hichilema realizes the importance of having good internet connectivity, believing this will improve productivity and reduce the cost of doing business. The government has worked with SpaceX to shuttle Starlink connectivity to Zambia by next year. They’re also promoting crypto use, hosting Africa’s biggest blockchain summit this month.” 

Women in Zambia, like so many women around the world working in music (or any industry, for that matter), must also endure the added pressure of predatory studios, producers, and, in Tulile Siyumba’s nightmarish case, domestic abuse. A ‘90s baby whose childhood karaoke sessions and adoration of R&B led to her current spellbinding artistry, Siyumba returned to Zambia after escaping a violent relationship in Malaysia, where she lived for 10 years. Sound engineering studies and indie label aspirations initiated her move to the tropical peninsula. 

“During that time, I couldn't find music that helped me get through what I had to,” she tells us. “I decided to create these songs to help people relate and show the way that there is hope at the end of the tunnel.”

Siyumba, now a full-time performing musician working on her debut album, Dreams of Nocturnal, can already consider her mission accomplished. “Not My Fault,” her genesis Catalog record, is survivor music: a room-silencing portrait of her lover’s vicious betrayal, presented in haunting detail. Defiant, self-affirming lyrics aside, the song’s vocal stacks in the hook and outro could stand toe to toe with R&B’s finest. Her perseverance, akin to that of Nemesis vs Ladyrn and Theresa Ng’ambi, cannot be understated. Fortunately, her old dreams of running a label aren’t out of place in her native country.   

According to Lady Light, a majority of the Zambian recording companies are owned by native Zambians, of which many are independent — a stark distinction from many labels elsewhere in the region, with ties to colonizers and outsiders. Artists here are resourceful and value originality, whether their records begin in Cubase, Ableton Live, or Fruity Loops Mobile. Hip-Hop, Dunka, Zamrock, Amapiano, and traditional folk all have a home here. If social safety nets and studio safety for women improves, Zambia is fertile ground for a renaissance.

In honor of this brilliant music community, we’ll take a closer look at the stories of two featured artists, Nemesis vs Ladyryn and Theresa Ng’ambi. Keep reading to dive into their stories. Collect the genesis Catalog records from Nemesis vs Ladyryn, Theresa Ng’ambi, Ace Daphex, and Tulile Siyumbwa, plus a fresh pressing from Lady Light.

Nemesis vs Ladyryn: Life-Saving Sounds

Caryn Thompson, aka Nemesis vs Ladyryn, reserves the right to express herself.

“My dress sense usually depends on which person I am that day or which personality decides to show up. Nemesis loves to try new things whereas Ladyryn is more of a hippie.”

A rapper, singer and poet from Lusaka, Zambia with a laid-back flow, Nemesis vs Ladyryn pulls from life’s ups and downs to create a cathartic, gliding strain of alt neo-soul and R&B. Her lyrics narrate relatable joys and ravaging toils of the human experience. In conversation, she bravely spares no details, discussing the spiritual wounds she’s endured to heal and help others.

"After losing my grandmother who I loved so dearly to cancer, I turned to drugs to fill up the void caused by grief,” Thompson says. “She was the one family member who had my back no matter what. Her loss sent me over the edge. I lost someone who I considered my soulmate."

Numbing agents became sinkholes: The worst stretch nearly killed her in a month. After backsliding into heroin, she started to crumble. Hunched back, sunken eyes, 20 packs a day. Miraculously, rock bottom triggered a rebound.  

“I  took a look in the mirror and saw death,” she says. “I told my creator I need to quit and not let it control me. I had also lost a couple of friends who OD’d. It pushed me to quit before it became a parasite I couldn’t handle. I basically decided to stop cold turkey. The first thing I did was record.”

While Thompson’s addiction colored much of her adolescence and early adulthood, that period gave way to another release: writing. Thompson’s grandmother, her closest confidante, would often attempt to deflate the self-doubt that roadblocked her creativity. Those encouraging words lasted long after the elder’s passing. 

“It all started when I was only 16, up until the age of 25 or 26. It’s during this time that I started writing poetry based on my emotional state and what I was going through. Now my grandmother’s watching me and probably laughing because I finally took the leap of faith and chased this music dream. My grandmother was the one person who inspired me.”

Other loved ones also offered guiding lights. When a friend heard one of Thompson’s poems  — the gut-wrenching “Cocaine Tears” — they encouraged her to marry that poem’s memorable words with percussion. The friend’s nudge led to Nemesis vs Ladyryn’s origin story. Using her PC mic and Cubase 5 to test ideas, Thompson strengthened her faith in her own musicality. That cathartic passion gradually replaced other temptations. 

"I am now six years sober and a mental health advocate for women and people struggling with drug abuse and depression, spending one-on-one time with local people at different churches The stigma surrounding these issues is quite high in Zambia."

Thompson tends to turn personal struggle into compassionate care for others. One of her dream achievements stems from another issue, one that’s all too familiar to women working in entertainment around the world: men. 

“My industry experience has been overall amazing in Zambia, but I’ve had bad experiences, mostly with studio producers,” she tells us. “It’s common, as a woman, for a producer or even an artist to exchange ‘help’ for sex. Most women have encountered someone who tried to take advantage of them. Again, this doesn’t mean all producers, but it’s bound to happen to women, especially if they are considered ‘beautiful.’ In the future me and Lady Light plan to open an all women studio where we can be free to record and create art in a more comfortable environment.”

Theresa Ng’ambi: Updating the Lineage

Nearby, in Lusaka’s Kabwata neighborhood, a vibrant art scene illuminates colonial shadows. The village market still features huts built in the 1930s and ‘40s by the British, reserved for single men who left their families to work in what was then called Rhodesia. 

Over time, demolition and development projects brought modern flats to the area, attracting a diverse community of Zambian artists and cultural workers. Today, bars and clubs line the streets, and Theresa Ng’ambi, an Afro-traditional folk vocalist, percussionist, guitarist, dancer, and actor, crafts records: both club-ready pop anthems and acoustic poetry as ancient as time. 

Ng’ambi had completed just five trips around the sun when she made her first tune. Family inspired the early start. Her older sister immersed her in the sounds of nature and birdwatching. Her mother shared Catholic hymns and liturgicals. Her grandfather, a retired miner turned Kalimba player, set yet another example. Everyone spoke Nsenga. But it was her grandmother — and the old stories she’d sing to Ng’ambi before bed — that left the biggest mark. 

When she passed away, Ng’ambi could only find consolation in music. Song-making grew even more urgent when she also lost her parents, brother, and grandfather at a young age. Now a widowed mother of two, Theresa uses her voice to support orphaned children with disabilities at the Home of Happiness orphanage. Her recordings often act as diary entries and ancestral reprisals. Audible acts of preservation and permanence.  

“Folk music has been exposed to a lot of negative perceptions hugely coming from religious people, foreign education ideas, and technology,” Ng’ambi said in an interview with UzaCoona. “My only worry is how much damage some of these sentiments have brought to this kind of music and its importance. The perception with the ride of technology, education and religion has contributed to the deterioration of culture, history and tradition of many cultures within and outside Africa. Their identity has been lost and eaten away by the ideas and teachings generated from foreign music, education, and religion.”

Outside forces, however omnipresent, have yet to make a dent in Ng’ambi’s soaring optimism. (Her former stage name, Kanjiba, means “song bird.”). She often draws from the reveries of different tribes for guidance: legends passed down by the Luvale of northwest Zambia, or, in the country’s eastern region, the Chewa lore her late grandmother helped safeguard. 

One such tale, about a man who marries an egg, cautions against prejudice. They live together for years before the egg hatches into a beautiful woman singing Luvale songs. Another story features a goat and a pig, each given enough food to last a lifetime. The pig finishes its supply in a single day; the goat considers its future by grazing slowly. Conservation ensures a path forward. An immortal family tree, with roots that never wither, sustains the foundation.

"My dead loved ones gave me strength to connect with them,” Ng’ambi tells us. “To avoid emotional emptiness."

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