Ladysmith Black Mambazo | 02.10.08

lbm.jpgThere’s nothing more universal than a group of dedicated, passionate people singing their hearts out with such an inclusive, loving spirit.  





Touhill Performing Arts Center, St. Louis

It happens very rarely that I’m afforded a truly singular musical experience; one that, in all probability, will never be repeated; one that stretches my perspective of the world as much as it thrills and entertains me. I can name only a few concerts that I’ve placed in this sacred section of memory. Last Sunday was just such an occasion.

Equally as unique, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have spent the last 50 years carving out one of most revered musical histories of this and the last century. Their strong, beautifully-honed harmonies command as much respect now as they ever have. The group weaves a traditional South African vocal style (called Isicathamiya) with contemporary sensibilities, furthering a message of "peace, love, and harmony."

"Indigenous music is like a tree, planted by God," Joseph Shabalala, the group’s founder, said, as he introduced their third number of the night. Just before the choral powerhouse began to sing, he added, "We want to make its roots deep." Then the eight men joyfully sang, their notes flowing out of the octet like a waterfall, showering the near-capacity audience with lush harmonies, and really displaying what the human voice is capable of.

A brightly colored Dashiki adorned Shabalala’s short, thin frame. The sleeves stopped short, exposing the deep brown wrinkles of his forearms, which were in constant gesticulated motion as he passionately waved and danced with every syllable he sang. The aging front-man plans to retire this year, and leave the group in the direction of his son, Thamsanqa (Tommy) Shabalala.

In addition to their unquestionable musical talent, they were also funny. At the end of the group’s first set, Shabalala stood alone onstage. After professing his gratitude for the audience, he said, "I think now it’s time for you to get up, and go outside, and see things of beauty," he paused, "There’s so many beautiful things out there, like CD’s, and DVD’s, and shirts…" Chuckles rippled through the crowd.

The second set included a crowd favorite, and Paul Simon classic, "Homeless." Shabalala’s calm voice sailed under-the-radar with silky confidence, as the other seven vocalists, including four of the elder Shabalala’s sons, sang as if they were one man. The deep bass provided a foundation for the altos to sail over. This song also included an impressive call-and-answer portion, where the altos and tenors called to the deeper voices to respond.

Towards the conclusion of the night, each member broke from formation, and took center stage to display their unique dancing styles during an extended verse of a song. One of the most animated members extended his legs over his head (one at a time) in an oddly acrobatic kick, and then quickly slammed the bleach-white tennis shoe that encased his foot on the wooden stage. This stomp-dance was repeated by the group, and then by some select audience members, as he ushered a collection of children and young adults onstage. This was indicative of the warm, inviting atmosphere that seems to penetrate everything the group does.

On the surface, Ladysmith seems like a very niche ensemble. It was only after I experienced their concert I realized, it’s just the opposite. There’s nothing more universal than a group of dedicated, passionate people singing their hearts out with such an inclusive, loving spirit. The authentic sincerity and innocence with which they sang was as awe-inspiring as their unworldly talent. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has proven itself to be both venerable and timeless, putting out more than 40 recordings over their 50 years. As the young Shabalala takes the reigns from his father later this year, the group will certainly continue to spread the love. In a world of suffering, violence and injustice, there will always be a place for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. | Glen Elkins

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