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Culture, Music

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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