Like most North Americans my first exposure to Ladysmith Black Mambazo came through Paul Simon's Graceland recording. While the album featured other guest performers from various backgrounds, this amazing sounding male vocal ensemble from South Africa stood out from the rest. In those days, the mid 1980s, the idea of world music was still a novelty to most people, and the sound of their voices was enough to make us notice them. During the North American tour that followed Graceland's release they appeared on Saturday Night Live (SNL) with Paul Simon, and I was given a far too brief glimpse of this amazing vocal group's power.
In the ensuing years I've had plenty of opportunities to listen to their music on CD and each time have been amazed anew at their ability to harmonize and the sounds and atmosphere they are able to create with their voices alone. One of my biggest regrets is that I've never had the opportunity to see them perform save for that brief appearance on SNL nearly twenty-five years ago. Thankfully, the perfect remedy is now at hand as on January 27, '09, Heads Up International will be releasing the DVD Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live. Recorded live from EJ Thomas Hall at the University Of Akron in Ohio, the DVD captures not only the music that bewitched me from their recordings, but their awe inspiring ability as live performers.
Those of you who have seen them in performance, either live or through concert footage, know what I'm talking about and how simply listening to them perform fails to capture their complete essence. I'm not just talking about the dance steps or hand movements that are a choreographed part of all their shows, although that is a key component. No, what you fail to experience when listening to their CDs is the brilliance of the energy they exude while performing.
At the beginning of the concert the group's founder and leader, Joseph Shabalala, talks about the power and strength of tradition and how when its properly rooted, people, like the strongest of trees, are able to withstand any storms the world can throw at them. Watching Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform is to see that personified, for what else could explain the mesmerizing influence they have on an audience. Without instruments, without fancy light shows, or any of the other accouterments that we associate with music concerts these days, they hold us spellbound. When they sing they seem to be drawing upon the history of their land and their people and are expressing the feelings of joy that they derive from being who they are.
Even a deceptively simple song like the fourth track "Hello My Baby", that appears to be nothing more than a typical love song, evolves into something far more compelling than the song's title seems to justify. The lyrics aren't overly complicated or even stimulating, nor does the way the group arranges itself on the stage, a row of nine with the tenth, leader Shahbalala, standing alone in front, lend itself to supposing anything dramatic is about to happen.
Then they start to sing. You may not notice anything besides their wonderful voices, the amazing harmonies, and the effortless grace with which they incorporate small and large movements into their singing to start with, but as the song continues you can't help but be aware that something is gradually building. I know. It sounds sort of "New Age" and flakey, but it begins to feel like they are weaving some sort of ritual that takes you inside the music so that at some point what's being said ceases to matter and the music takes on a life of its own.