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The John Wizards

The Real John Wizards

by Katie de Klee / 02.09.2013

For a moment he stopped talking, smiled and sighed. “You know, I think I’m getting better at this,” he said. “I’ve done quite a lot of interviews recently and I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

John Withers, front man of the band The John Wizards, has only managed to eat half his lunch, taking bites in between answering questions. My plate has been empty for at least 10 minutes. For a man who came across in emails as being so reluctant to interview with Mahala, John has been incredibly friendly and open.

After a recent gig review Withers felt compelled to get in touch to set the record straight, off the record, requesting that his comments stay off the record (until now).

“I just stumbled across your review of the Assembly show. I’m sure, in the past, you’ve received emails from disgruntled musicians about poor reviews of their performances. I really have no problem with your assessment of the show, and in many ways I agree with it. Essentially, what made me uncomfortable was your description of my “reluctance to relinquish the limelight”, and the tension that ensues when Emmanuel is tucked into the corner. It’ll have been hard for you to judge, not having heard the completed album, but Emmanuel is completely central to the proceedings. He’s a much more interesting performer and a better singer than I am, and this is why he takes the lion share of vocals on the album. Ideally, he’d be singing on almost all of the songs.”

John went on to explain that during rehearsals for the show Emmanuel was “quite literally missing”.

“I knew when I sat down to write that email I shouldn’t have,” says Withers, “I know you shouldn’t react. But it felt so weird reading about myself not recognising it.”

Of course, I’m glad he did, it gives us the chance to put a little something out about the real John Wizards.

Clearly not lacking any interpersonal skills, Withers continues to claim that he is an uncomfortable performer. Singing, he says, is the hardest thing to do on the stage, it draws peoples eyes to your face in a way that strumming a guitar or striking a drum can’t seem to compete with. Emmanuel Nzaramba, the Rwandan John himself brought into the band, doesn’t seem it so much.

The relationship between the two of them is actually quite remarkable. A few years ago a boy called John Withers was living in Rondebosch, and befriended a car guard called Emmanuel, who worked on the street outside a café he frequented. Eventually, through snippets of conversation, they found that they had a love of music in common and began little collaborations. But when Withers came back to Cape Town from a stint abroad, Emmanuel was gone, his old phone number dead and no one had a clue as to where to find him.

John Wizards

Withers moved to a flat in the City Bowl, and started a band named John Wizards. Within a few months he discovered that Emmanuel was living on the very same street. Serendipitous? It’s kind of romantic really.

“I write the songs, and then Emmanuel listens, and then he just starts to sing. He makes up his own parts.”

Emmanuel sings in his home Kinyarwandan language. “He sings about dreams to have a baby boy with a woman, friendship and things that friends should do for one another, and the children of Africa coming together. I suppose it’s slightly different to what I write about, which is mostly based on experience, and doesn’t really explore grand themes like friendship, unity, or love in the same way.”

As to being missing for rehearsals, John simply says that Emmanuel can be a hard man to pin down. His number changes often, or he wont have airtime to reply to calls. He spends most days selling pirated CD’s in town.

“He’s definitely the most likely to be the rock star in the band,” laughed Withers, referring to Emmanuel’s natural confidence. “The only problem is he get’s shy of his ability to communicate. So you’ll notice he never says anything on stage. That gets left to me.

“I’d love to perform with him in France. Emmanuel is very fluent in French and I’d love to watch him communicate in a language he is comfortable in. I think he’d have some great things to say.”

John Withers may well find that his wish comes true. The John Wizards are blowing up overseas. They have been featured in Pitchfork, interviewed and reviewed by the Guardian UK, made a double page appearance in the Irish Independent, and been booked on an international tour later in the year.

“The Japanese leave the funniest comments on twitter. One the other day I translated said something like: ‘you are cool. But I am cooler’. They’re mad.”

Attention on home shores, however, has remained pretty minimal.

“We get about one booking a month, maybe.”

But they aren’t really hustling for bookings either. Maybe here is where the John Wizards are on to something. Not many South African artists have made it overseas, they seem to bump their heads on the glass ceiling after a few years on tour and then return to day jobs. Many SA musicians never even quit their day jobs. But the Wizards have effortlessly caught international attention without even playing once outside of Cape Town.

During the week John Withers composes music for TV ads and films, working on a score for a new SA film by Ian Gabriel at the moment. “I keep hearing Kavish Chetty’s voice in my head when I watch film, I think I know what he’d have to say about it.”

Their self-titled debut album will be available across the world as of today. Except in South Africa. If you want to own it here, you’ll have to import it. Which really sucks!

Post the Pitchfork comment about ‘racial progressiveness’, John has been asked a couple of times if he thinks the John Wizards relationship with Emmanuel is a symbol for better race relations. But he laughs at this and shrugs. Dazed and Confused asked Withers to write a paragraph on Mandela for them to feature in a recent edition “like I was some kind of spokesman. I couldn’t do it. I sat down for a while and tried, but then I just had to tell them no.”

For John their relationship is as simple as this, they are just two guys who like the same music. The John Wizard’s sound is characterised by its eclectic mix of electro and rumba, reggae and pop.

“I get stuck on things, like when I was making the album I was listening to Franco (Congolese Rumba). I don’t think I directly copy the sound, but the feeling it gives me must. The first time I ever saw Congolese Rumba performed live was in Tanzania. The songs are long; you sit and listen for the first 10 minutes, then you get up and dance for the next 10. I love the process that it takes you through.”

“I’ve been out dancing with Emmanuel a couple of times, he’s taught me some of his moves. One day I’d love to get the whole audience dancing. We’d teach them on the stage and then everyone would join in.”

Lost in that imaginary moment, the waitress cleared our plates (John’s finally finished) and we sat quietly for a moment. John Withers shrugged, smiled and shook my hand. He wondered back up Kloof Nek on that sunny winter afternoon, perhaps still imaging sharing their music, and Emmanuel’s dance moves with the world.

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  1. Karl says:

    man I dug this piece, its story and how it was written, but I can’t get into the music. wonderfully outfield though, thanks Katie!

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  2. Mira says:

    Katie, in your last piece on John Wizards you made some, if I may say so, offensive speculations, including this one: “The relationship between John Withers and Emmanuel Nzaramba seems to be a little paternalistic; only in so much as here the white man has uplifted and exposed this young black talent, literally from the streets, but only to the point where he hasn’t taken over the show.”

    The tone of this piece is far more lighthearted. Are we to assume then that you retract your former suggestions? If so, why? In this piece you seem to evade really engaging with that highy-racialised, highly-controversial former statement of yours.

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  3. Andy says:

    key word in that sentence is ‘seems’. In the absence of any feedback from the band or the man, the journalist is left to her own opinions, feelings and interpretations. Nothing to retract or apologise for.

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  4. Mira says:

    So, not being able to get in touch with a manager/member is a license for wild, racially-charged speculation? And follow-up interviews can ethically abandon the continuities/discontinuities of former pronouncements without even acknowledging them? This is a strange form of journalism. Why has the racial component been excised completely from this interview? Katie probably produced a lot of anxieties with that remark, among both the band and a postapartheid public, and now she seems to take no culpability for the effect that those careless words may have had on public discourse. Journalists require more responsibility for their unsupported speculations – they cannot simply abandon them when the “shock factor” proves to be unfounded.

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  5. me says:

    I agree with Mira. That remark was totally unfounded, baseless and uncalled for on every level.

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  6. Andy says:

    ah shut up you little twerps

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  7. Mira says:


    These are pretty legitimate concerns, and addressing them may help save Mahala’s reputation. It’s not cool for your writers to make these kind of unsupported accusations, and then simply retreat when called upon to explain what they mean. It’s a little amateur, to be honest.

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  8. Andy says:

    No Mira, what’s amateur is you harping on about some perceived sleight or injustice. It was never an accusation, it was an opinion borne of a feeling, that she expressed, as is her right in a subjective gig review. She explained how she felt watching them and what she thought subsequently. And the whole paternalism debate is actually still helluva relevant in my view. But Katie doesn’t need to qualify it beyond that. The fact that she made every effort to get to the bottom of it only bolsters her (and our) professionalism. And remember it was John who originally refused to comment and declined to set the record straight. And Katie, and Mahala, were the ones who made every effort to give him the platform.

    Vat so. Have a weekend

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  9. Mira says:

    Are you joking? Being given a “platform” on Mahala is not an honour or privilege, and especially not so when your writers are capable of astounding hyperbole and baseless speculation – it was perfectly within the rights of the musician to refuse your gracious offer of representation. If the “paternalism” thing is so relevant, then why is it not a part of this interview? That’s my question. The race question recedes from view, without any amendement or comment. Having already enflamed your readers with this provocative assertion, it then totally disappears from view. Does that make any sense to you? But furthermore, Katie did not try to “get to the bottom” of the, admittedly, very interesting race question. She simply brought it up in a provocative manner, and then totally ignored it altogether. If she changed her mind, was persuaded otherwise, amended her view, whatever… then where is that though process being played out in this interview?

    This is irresponsible, amateur journalism.

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  10. CB says:

    @Mira, you write well, I’m sure there’s space for you at Mahala if you want it.

    As for the ongoing debate, I would question whether the Mahala comment stream is a productive forum in which to have it. If you are sincerely concerned or offended, maybe a discussion where context, tone and intention are more accurately conveyed would be appropriate. All of which are important in an issue as murky as race relations in SA.

    I would also suggest that ‘astounding hyperbole’ abounds on both sides of the Mahala ‘conversation’.

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  11. Andy says:

    CB said something sensible. Mira you have my email, just click contact below.

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