Most Americans know Ladysmith Black Mambazo from their work on the Paul Simon album Graceland. This seminal album is also sited for helping spark interest in what would become a World Music inferno. The South African vocal group's roots can be traced back to 1960 when now 66-year old leader Joseph Shabalala founded the earliest incarnation of the band based on the traditional African music called Isicathamiya.
The fact that Shabalala has been performing this music for 47 years is an accomplishment in itself, but his longevity is only a testament to the sound he's helped bring into the consciousness of the world, and his commitment to keep it alive after he's gone through the Mambazo Foundation. The importance of this music goes well beyond entertainment.
When I went to see the eight-man a cappella group perform at the Belk Theatre in Charlotte, NC, I came with the context sharp in my mind. However, we all know that a 2+ hour performance cannot be carried on historical significance alone. When it comes down to it, we attend concerts to be entertained. And I was pleasantly surprise in how entertaining the show was. Mind you, there were no instruments, or fancy lighting, or props of any kind, but what was there (in addition to the mind-boggling vocal harmony) was a group of men shining with an aura of joy, humor, and goodwill.
Although Mambazo did perform "Homeless" from the Graceland LP, the remainder of the songs were from other albums, and this was fine with me. They sang about love, they sang about friendship, they sang about unity, and they transitioned from the lighthearted to the profound without trouble.
As a group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo are one. Their voices blend into an uplifting chorus of calm, and if you're the musically educated type, you'll be at a loss trying to figure out who is singing what part for the whole of the show.
What I was not expecting was the wonderful banter, jokes, and dancing that was integrated into the performance. This physical movement and storytelling was important, as it was the way each individual became real to the audience. But even if the concert was devoid of these key elements, the music would have been enough to keep you in your seat. Shabalala has a way with melody and the voices meld into a style that is absolutely unique and beautiful. Melodious harmony mixed with clicks, chirps, percussive grunts and hand claps to forge a wonderfully enthralling experience.
It was fun watching the little tricks the band employed, like utilizing distance from the microphone to highlight dynamics, or how they introduced movement to kill repetition in its tracks before it could be noticed, or how Shabalala exuded an aire of master and teacher (which he is), without conceit.
I entered the doors of the Belk theater in Charlotte not understanding how an a cappella group could hold my attention for a complete evening, I left wishing I could see it again.
The UK still has the Rolling Stones, the US still has Bob Dylan, and Africa still has Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and it would be a mistake not to see them if the opportunity presents itself. If you do, you'll not only enjoy the show, but carry the experience with you for a very long time.