Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Ladysmith Black Mambazo seems to have solved the problem all successful groups have of renewing themselves over a period of time. The 2017 version manages to be full of youthful energy while remaining true to the dream Joseph Shabalala had well over 50 years ago when founding the group. Now Joseph no longer tours, but the tradition is maintained by the benign presence of his cousin, Albert Mazibuko (40-odd years with the group) while the vocal leads are shared between three of Joseph’s sons, his youngest son, Thamsanqo, fielding a voice of soaring purity.
It’s easy to think of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as some sort of folk ensemble, singing traditional Zulu songs in perfect harmony and dancing with uninhibited energy. Certainly the harmony is perfect and the dancing is pretty uninhibited, but otherwise, this could not be more wrong. For a start, the style of music they have brought to an international public, isicathamiya, only developed early in the 20th Century as more popular elements mixed with traditional Zulu music. Then there is nothing simple and folky about Mambazo’s message. Any black group functioning in South Africa from the 1960s onwards was making a political statement simply by existing and Ladysmith Black Mambazo intends to keep the political message alive.
So the appeal of this wonderful group comes down, in part, to a series of contrasts. Their concert in the Howard Assembly Room was huge fun, but deadly serious. The nine singers were clearly enjoying themselves enormously and this transmitted itself to the audience, but the message of peace in King of Kings was there throughout and Long Walk to Freedom was a heartfelt tribute to Nelson Mandela.
Then there was the contrast between simplicity and sophistication. Simple dance moves, performed with athletic energy, involving plenty of stamping and high kicks, were nicely contrasted with 21st Century by-play and humour. Mazibuko’s half-time gag was a delight. Having chivvied the audience into singing a repeated Zulu phrase, no doubt for an upcoming song, he revealed that it meant intermission.
In some ways, the most appealing contrast was between discipline and freedom. The obvious way to get superb results out of an a cappella group in complicated routines sometimes punctuated by dance is by meticulous drilling, but Mambazo never lost the sense that they were individuals. One might be more extrovert, another more dignified, another joke and clown a bit, another put in an extra move copied by his neighbour. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has perfected the art of being simultaneously well-drilled and loose.
Most of the songs featured one lead voice in call and response with the others or ornamenting a repeated melodic figure sung by the other eight. The rich, bass-heavy choral sound was punctuated by clicks, whirrs, whistles and a sort of percussive hum. Repeated vocal riffs built an unstoppable momentum or moved into “vamp till ready” mode while small groups of dancers hurled themselves about front-stage.
For many of us in the West, Ladysmith Black Mambazo became known through Paul Simon’s groundbreaking 1986 album, Graceland. At the Howard they acknowledged Simon in a briefly affectionate Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes and a heartfelt Homeless, but reminded us by their music that they were part of a longer tradition.
To obtain the four-times Grammy winners for two concerts is yet another remarkable coup for the Howard Assembly Room.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed