Ladysmith Black Mambazo Makes A Triumphant Return To The North Coast
March 1st, 2018
Chances are, you've heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo in one form or another. If not from a string of candy commercials ten or so-odd years ago, then most likely as the "backup" band on Paul Simon's hugely successful 1986 album Graceland.
And, while you're probably not familiar with the band's native tongue, their music has had an affect on you. Powerful African rhythms, the nine-member outfit hails from South Africa, sung in a tradition called Isicathamiya, have led the choral group around the world countless times since founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1960.
It's shocking to think that Shabalala's group had been around for almot three decades prior to being "discovered" by Simon, who was looking for an "African sound" to accompany his lyrics for the 1986 pop release. Even more shocking is how well the catchy pop tunes and the African rhythms gel together in such an infectious way. Tunes like "Diamonds On The Soles Of her Shoes" and "You Can Call Me Al" are the two most popular songs from that album, but when the nine-member outfit, in nine-part harmony, are allowed to entertain the listener with "Homeless," sans Paul Simon, the majesty and power of their voices really propel that album into something completely different: A mainstream album that surreptitiously invited its listener to the beauties of World Music and the rhythms of traditional, blue collar African workers.
When Simon took his talents to Saturday Night Live in 1987, the members of Ladysmith joined the folk singer for a performance of "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes." After that episode's airing, Shabalala's group had become internationally recognized. Since that recording and subsequent Graceland tour, they've won five Grammys, performed for heads of state, featured (vocally, at least) in several films and commercials, and have toured for about six months of each calandar year. Shabalala retired from touring in 2008; his sons have joined the group in his stead, carrying on the family tradition of bringing South African music to audiences all around the world.
Last night, in a sold-out performance, Ladysmith Black Mambazo returned to Cleveland and the Music Box Supper Club. Playing for nearly two hours the group, now led by Shabalala's son Thamsanqa, mesmerized the large crowd reduced to a standing room only capacity.
It's really refreshing that Music Box Supper Club owner Colleen Miller takes chances on World Music artists; recently she had some Mongolian Throat Singers at her establishment and the show went over well. Let's hope they'll bring in more of this type of entertainment. Based on the response from last night's crowd, it appears that her instincts were dead on.
After some quick introductions, the music erupted. In the traditional call-and-response style, eight of the singers stood in a Rockettes-style lineup behind their microphone stands. Shabalala stood at the front and acted as emcee. Without much explanation, the group sang and let the harmonies speak for themselves.
One offering, about midway through the set was "Long Walk to Freedom," detailing the harsh conditions that the indigenous people suffered under the brutal yoke of apartheid. Upon Nelson Mandela's release from prison and eventual undertaking of South Africa's presidency, a "bright future" was born. And, boy, does this piece really give musical interpretation to that journey. The distinctive bass, baritone and tenor harmonies blended together in such a magnificent way.
The traditional calls, echoed by the responses, in Zulu, fell deaf on most of the audience's ears. But, oh, the music. What makes this so transcendental is not what they're saying but, ultimately, how they're saying it. The beauty...the power...of Ladysmith is moving their audience who, in this country at least, have no idea what's being said. I don't speak Zulu, nor do I understand a wisp of it. But the rhythms, those rhythms, make me understand their message of peace and love without a translator anywhere near the venue.
And that's the power of it all, right?
Even better, there wasn't a ticket to be had. They'd all been sold.
So I guess I'm not the only person who believes that either, eh?
Photos and Review by Brian M. Lumley