GNL Zamba is an artist from Uganda who grew up with the sounds of Fela Kuti, Ice Cube, and Gil Scott Heron, all of whom were played on the radio when he was growing up. It may be hard to imagine a sound that incorporates such disparate influences, but that is exactly what GNL Zamba does. And he has succeeded with it to the tune of millions of album sales and more than 50 awards in Uganda.
On his new album The Spear, you hear some of those artists that influenced GNL Zamba as well as a lot more influences that may not appear in his bio.
The album kicks off with “Afrika”, which has an industrial-metal feel. The guitar is loud and distorted, but it also incorporates a frantic beat and some synth sounds that make this song ready for a show at an abandoned warehouse. That’s not the only metal influence you’ll hear on the album. The album closes with “Zim Zim Bombo”, where the guitar sounds a lot like Living Colour.
“Black Caesar” incorporates a similar industrial feel with the addition of strings and rapped vocals. There is something of a Public Enemy vibe in this song – especially in the lyrics. It isn’t just a song. It’s a call to action. You can hear it at the beginning of the song when he sings, “I want you to be empowered. I want to create Black Caesars.” “Who Got the Power” also has a pretty strong Public Enemy feel to it and it’s the kind of song that makes you raise your fist while you sing.
While there is a righteous anger throughout a lot of the album, some of the songs divert from the edgy, angry sound and encompass a more mellow vibe. “No Borders” and “Uganda (Star Taffa)” both bring a lot of Afrofunk and soul sounds that contrast with the edgy sounds of other songs. “NRG” turns more toward an easygoing reggae vibe. The reggae vibe isn’t just in the melody, but also in the lyrics that talk about consciousness, mindfulness, and being a reflection of nature.
The similarity to Gil Scott Heron can be found in “Wake the F— Up,” a spoken-word song in which the lyrics are rapped over an ominous trance-like melody.
GNL Zamba does a great job of keeping the listener guessing. You can never guess what’s coming next. The only thing that is predictable is that you want to keep the volume fairly loud so you can better hear the layers of sound that are sure to surround you. This album is powerful not only because of the unpredictability, but also because of the statements made (loudly) by the artist.
Photo credit: Gats MC Photography