Hats, bell-bottoms, and high-heeled boots: Mollie Beese speaks to Gio Arlotta about the iconic fashion of the Zamrock music scene
A few weeks ago, I decided to watch a video that was recommended to me online, which detailed the history of the Zamrock music scene. Zamrock is a term used to describe the psychedelic rock scene of 1970s Zambia. This video described how Zambia’s independence from the UK in 1964 saw a rise in Zambian creativity; the first President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, decreed that 95% of music played on radio stations had to be of Zambian origin. Zamrock can be described as a mix of traditional African music with psychedelic funk and rock elements, with influence from musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones. I was instantly captivated by this scene, and surprised that I had never heard of it before.
I was determined to discover more, as I could only find a few images online of Zamrock bands and their fashions. I noted one band called WITCH (We Intend To Cause Havoc) and was struck by their outfits. They wore a mix of traditional clothing with Western-style elements, and the most incredible floppy hats with brims so low that they disguised the faces of the band members. Luckily, I found that WITCH had an Instagram account, and saw that a film had been made about the band in 2019, directed by Gio Arlotta. The film documents the history of WITCH, the life of its sole survivor, Emanyeo ‘Jagari’ Chanda, and the subsequent re-formation of the band. I sent a message to see if I could find out more about their fashion and received a reply from Gio saying he could help. After watching the film, and kindly receiving a wealth of images and information from email correspondence with Gio, I got the answers I was searching for.
In my first email from Gio he stated that the fashion aspect of Zamrock is one of the things that drove him to make the film. In the film, we are introduced to Emmanuel Kampembwa, the Zamrock tailor who made the clothes that WITCH wore back in the 1970s, and still creates outfits for them to perform in today. A particularly fascinating design by Emmanuel is the big floppy hat, which is fitted at the head, then secured with an adjustable buckled strap, with the deep brim falling in sturdy pleats from the forehead. Jagari, a self-proclaimed hat enthusiast, commented in the film that the hat was useful for when you didn’t want to look at certain people in the crowd, and allowed the musicians to follow their feeling inwards. Gio stated ‘that the hats slowly became a staple of their look both to protect from the sun since they often would play during the day, but also to create an interior space of reflection while onstage’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). Pictured below is Jagari wearing a hat and suit designed and made by Emmanuel, which reminisces to the hippie style of the 70s with the bold, geometric patterns and warm colour palette.
The hat is one of the defining accessories of WITCH from their performances in the 70s. This film still of Jagari illustrates how the buckle allows for adjustments around the head, although Emmanuel tailors each hat to fit the head of the wearer perfectly. The brim can be worn down to cover the face, as demonstrated in this image, to give the wearer more privacy. Alternatively, the volume and thickness of the hat fabric also allows for it to be folded back over itself, to reveal the face of the wearer.
Gio also shared with me some photographs of Emmanuel modelling his own creations in the 70s. These photographs are truly special. They reveal elements of what was fashionable to wear in Zambia with the signature style elements of the Zamrock scene being noted through the wearing of bell bottoms and high-heeled boots.
These everyday looks designed by Emmanuel appear to be popular across the Zamrock scene, and young Zambian people at the time, regardless of gender. As seen in this photograph of Violet Kafula, dubbed the ‘Godmother of Zamrock’. She is pictured wearing typical 70s squared sunglasses, with her subtle paisley print shirt tucked neatly into her trousers.
Gio informed me that Emmanuel is still a full-time tailor. He sometimes creates his more flamboyant looks like the suit worn by Jagari in the first image, as well as day to day outfits. Either way, they are always completed with his signature flair.
One of the key style elements of Zamrock that stood out to me through examining these images were the platform boots. An article from the late 70s from The Times of Zambia appears in the film, titled ‘Those Boots Weren’t Made For Walking!’. The article describes the new fashionable fad of high heeled boots, which were being hand made by young people in Zambia from planks and animal skins. One of the photographs sent to me shows Jagari in 1975 wearing an incredible pair of platforms. The muted yet bright colours of yellow, orange, blue, and teal are composed together in a contrasting striped pattern. His jeans are cut just above the knee to ensure maximum exposure of these statement boots.
These boots do not appear to be handmade in the way the newspaper described, although Gio informed me that the boots were ‘bought and made in Nairobi, Kenya – still handmade, but in a more professional way.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). The Zamrock band, ‘Ngozi Family’ can also be seen wearing platforms, barely visibly under their bell-bottoms. Each member wears a stylish coat, identifiable to their 1970s era by the exaggerated, tapered collars. Tommy and Chrissy wear matching baker boy style hats, a style more familiar to the Western eye than the Kapembwa designed hats for WITCH, but still in theme with the popularity of wearing hats for performing.
The wearing of hats gets even more fascinating when looking at a performance photograph of the band ‘Salty Dog’. The one member wears a Scottish Tam O’Shanter bonnet, complete with a fringed leather waistcoat. Certainly not what you expect to be seen worn by a rock band in 70s Zambia. I discussed the effect of globalisation with Gio, as the crossing of cultures and fashion across borders kept standing out to me through these images and the film. This is illustrated in the film when Jagari went to visit his friend Groovy Joe. In his house a Tom Jones record is pinned to the wall, which excited me as a proud Welsh native, alongside other records by Black Sabbath and Cliff Richard. While globalisation may have played a part in influencing Zamrock fashions, the key ingredient was to stand out. Regarding Zamrock bands, Gio explained that ‘whatever could make anyone stick out from the others was their preferred choice, so they would just get their hands on anything they could find and just make it work.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020).
The process of learning more about the fashion on Zamrock at first appeared limited due to the lack of resources I could find. However, Gio’s research of this scene in Zambia, and subsequent film, has shed light on this extraordinary moment in time. The fashion of Zamrock can be summarised to three elements: hats, bell-bottoms, and high-heeled boots – ultimately, the final looks are demonstrations of individuality and boldness.
Gio described that ‘in a way their approach was very much an “anything goes” one, and often the more outrageous it was, the more they liked it (Jagari going onstage with torn pyjamas was something that many remember) and still to this day, before shows Jagari goes and looks for the most outrageous clothes he can find to wear onstage, be it at thrift shops or high street fast fashion shops.’ (Gio Arlotta, email correspondence with author, 2020). Jagari, and the re-formed members of WITCH, continue to perform in those special hats designed by Emmanuel, revitalising the 70s Zamrock scene and its fashion for a whole new audience of today.
Special thanks to Gio Arlotta for answering my many questions, and for sharing these amazing images.
View the trailer for ‘W.I.T.C.H: We Intend To Cause Havoc’ here:
‘W.I.T.C.H: We Intend To Cause Havoc’, film directed by Gio Arlotta, 2019
Email correspondence with Gio Arlotta, 24th-25th August 2020
The Times of Zambia , ‘Those Boots Weren’t Made For Walking!’, c.1975/76, ‘W.I.T.C.H: We Intend To Cause Havoc’ film still (34:26)