Ask a heavy metal fan what they love about the scene, and many will tell you that wherever they travel, they share a common language—a kind of instant fellowship—with other metal fans. While various recent works, (including Banger Films' documentary Global Metal and Mark Levine's book Heavy Metal Islam) have explored the universality of metal culture outside of the West, Africa has largely been ignored. Edward Banchs' new book, Heavy Metal Africa, digs deep into what makes Africa's metal bands unique, as well as what they share with headbangers around the world.
The book, out via Word Association Publishers in late September, sees the author visit metal communities in several sub-Saharan and island regions of Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mauritius. Banchs spent five years traveling to the continent, getting to know musicians and exploring the regions they call home. As a result, the book reads partly as a creation myth about how African metal was born, partly as a travelogue that goes well beyond Africa's tourist destinations.
Metal remains an underground, if widespread, subculture across the African continent. Africans who love metal tend to gravitate toward metalcore and thrash, the latter because, according to Banchs, "that's the genre of those who have something they want to get off their chest." As with metal bands around the world, many in Africa are driven to write about the injustices they've witnessed. They're also driven by a desire to break free from mainstream society.
"Metal represents everything that African youth want: an identity that they discovered and cherish, not one that is chosen for them," Banchs says. According to him, many African metalheads fall in love with the music because they see the scene as a way of striking out against a culture that doesn't represent them.
Banchs, who was born in North Carolina to Puerto Rican parents, discovered metal as a teenager. He became fascinated by Africa in early adulthood, ultimately receiving a master's in African studies from the University of London and later interning as a lobbyist on African matters in Washington D.C. His interest in the continent's metal scenes was sparked by a conversation with a friend.
"I had known about metal in a few countries from trips to the continent, but wanted to see where else it was, and how much of a scene existed in various countries," Banchs says. When he returned to Africa, he was blown away by the continent's thriving metal communities.
Heavy Metal Africa reveals just how dedicated the continent's metalheads are. It opens on the gorgeous island of Madagascar, where young musicians create metal bands out of literally nothing. Kazar drummer Lallar built a drum kit out of cardboard; Balafomanga's Newton made one from plastic.
Ragasy, guitarist for Madagascar band INOX, tells Banchs he started playing guitar along to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath in the 1970s, but even by the mid-1980s, hard rock and guitars remained hard to come by.
So were legitimate metal T-shirts, Banchs writes: "Most of the T-shirts were homemade or bootlegged versions shipped in and sold on street markets. Misspelling of band names, inaccurate album covers and lyrics scrawled on the back that had nothing to do with the associated album on the front were common … but the Malagasy metal fans who were fortunate to own a few did not care."
Partly because of the way they dress—in black T-shirts and pants, or in studded leather—African metal bands have faced false accusations of Satanism and witchcraft. South Africa had its own version of the Satanic Panic in the 1980s; police departments investigated accusations of Satanism, and many young metalheads were hauled in for questioning, Banchs writes. Even when the author toured Africa recently, he was kicked out of a store in Kenya and mobbed by a hostile group of teenagers in Madagascar because of his Darkest Hour hoodie, which features a grinning demonic goat across the back.
However, that same Satanic Panic inadvertently imported metal into some places where the music was difficult to find. One public speaker, former police officer John Seale, would play metal albums to illustrate what Africa's youth should avoid. "He did us a tremendous favor by what he was doing. He went to great lengths to find these bands!" Groinchum's Christo Bester tells Banchs.
While some musicians were accused of Satanism, others have faced trouble for airing social problems. In Madagascar, Black Wizard made a video for its song "Land of Doom" that depicted the extreme poverty of a neighborhood near band member Nary's house. After the video aired on television, police officers came to Nary's gate, scolding him for revealing the nation's destitute regions.
Over time, African nations have built up their own metal histories, with seminal bands who helped create regional scenes and new generations that carry the torch. In a few places, heavy metal touchstones have entered the mainstream. Madagascar's Apost released a doomsday single, "Apokolipsy," which has become a staple cover tune for other bands—and is often played at weddings there.
But in other places, such as South Africa, metal has remained firmly underground -- and metalheads told Banchs they prefer it that way. After apartheid, "We had sanctions, so there were a lot things we couldn't get in South Africa at that time, and [because of the sanctions] a real 'do-it-yourself' culture developed. There was a real brotherhood in the subculture," says Total Chaos' Jay R.
To metal fans who grew up with Western metal, the concept of African metal may seem strange, but Balafomanga's Newton points out that metal ultimately belongs to Africa. "Rock music started here," he says. "It is not Western culture or European culture. It is our culture."
Beth Winegarner is rocking out on Twitter.