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Zambian Grooves

A band can put weeks into rehearsing and getting its sound just right only to have it all fall apart on stage. There´s either feedback coming from the monitors, instruments are out of tune, or it all just sounds terrible and the audience gives up on you halfway through the set.

Last week, all of those things seemed to happen at once to local reggae singer Dr. Mooch. I was at City Limits in Delray Beach checking out his CD-release party for his sophomore album, Eazzy Duzzitt, which flows like a hazy walk through the lighter side of dubstep and straight-ahead reggae. The disc actually came out last year, but it never had a proper release party, so Mooch thought it would be a good idea to throw a show and ideally sell some CDs in the process. It was a good idea, but unfortunately, the performance was a wreck.

Dr. Mooch, born Muchanza Akapelwa, is a Zambian reggae crooner who is small in stature but big in his love for the genre. His style is akin to that of the Abyssinians and Lee ¨Scratch¨ Perry or even British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, with mixtures of African rhythms and dub worked into his songs. He´s still got a strong Zambian accent despite living in the United States for close to 20 years, and it brings a unique sound to his compositions. In addition to being a singer, he´s also an author and playwright, and at the relatively young age of 39, he´s written five books, including two works of philosophy. He´s also an amateur chess champion, spent five seasons working on fishing boats in Alaska, and was a breakdancer back in Zambia before moving to the States. That´s an eclectic mix of talents. I didn´t know what to expect before walking into City Limits to watch him and his backing group, the Skyhigh Band, perform.

What ensued, however, was a performer´s nightmare with a show that started out bad and ended worse. Despite his interests in making reggae music, none of the guys in his nine-piece band are reggae musicians, which sort of defeats the purpose, especially when guitar licks and keyboard skanks are played out of time and off-key. It´s not totally the band´s fault, as most of the guys onstage seemed more in tune with the music of Pink Floyd, and they sounded much tighter as they covered ¨Eclipse.¨ But the reggae portion of the show was a shambles. Mooch´s signature song, ¨Virginia,¨ was a highlight of the night, but it was still hard to understand him, and most of the instrumentation, save percussion and bass, was hard to sit through. During the hourlong set, the room, which was filled with 60 to 70 patrons, slowly dwindled until the bar was empty except the bar staff and the show´s promoter, Steve Rullman of the Honeycomb. By the time they announced their last set of songs, the sound engineer came over the P.A., thanked everyone for coming out, told us to drive home safely, and promptly cut off the stage lights and the microphones. It was bad. And Mooch didn´t sell a single CD.

The following day, I called him to ask what he thought about the show, hoping he wouldn´t be too dejected. Surprisingly, he was upbeat.

¨It was a bad show,¨ he admitted. ¨It was just one of those nights. Everybody has them, but the sound is starting to come together, and you can learn a lot from those performances.¨ Mooch said he wants to scale his band down to five musicians, which sonically should be more enjoyable than nine, and hopefully start off on a college tour and continue to hone his skills. He´s got his work cut out for him, but it´s what he said next that makes me believe he´s intent on making it happen. When I asked him how he got interested in reggae, he cited Bob Marley´s trip to Zimbabwe in 1980, when he was a youth, as his inspiration.

¨Back then, most African countries were fighting for independence,¨ Mooch said. ¨In Zambia, we used to harbor the freedom fighters from Zimbabwe; we were getting bombed by Rhodesia and even the ANC [African National Congress], we used to hide their freedom fighters in Zambia... The message and music of revolution was everywhere... and then Bob Marley came.¨

As Mooch eventually made his move to the United States, those experiences and the liberating effect of reggae stayed with him. Working as a reggae singer is deeply embedded in his heart.

¨The big thing is to help make reggae popular in Zambia and all of Africa,¨ he continued. ¨I want to eventually have an African band and help reggae music grow back home. When I perform, I try to infuse African sounds in my music.¨

I asked him if he´d ever consider giving up reggae and focusing more on the Central African styles of music that he grew up on, and like a philosopher, he considered the question deeply.

¨Dr. Mooch is all about the reggae. That´s what I love. I don´t think I can ever give it up.¨

Although there was a crowd of fair-weather City Limits patrons who probably wishes he would, Mooch hopes to be making this music for a long time.

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Jonathan Cunningham