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.
Although Ladysmith Black Mambazo are still up there singing and moving, they are now accompanied by another presence – the music. Okay, I know what that sounds like, and let me assure you my days of pharmaceutical experimentation are long in the past, but there is a quality to their performance that verges on the hypnotic, akin to the chanting that one would associate with rituals used to evoke trances. The more you allow yourself to be drawn into the music the stronger its pull on you becomes, until you can't help but feel it as a distinct, living, and breathing entity.
One of the reasons that you are able to experience this sensation while watching this video is the magnificent job that has been done in filming the concert. The cameras have been situated such that you are right on stage with the performers. Imagine having seats at a concert where you're on stage with the band and have the freedom to wander around so that one moment your standing nose to nose with an individual and the next you have stepped back and are able to take them in as a full ensemble, and you'll have a good idea as to what a good job they have done.
Even more remarkable though was the quality of the sound recording. Like everything else these days you have the option of 5.1 surround sound, but it's what the cameras pick up that make it special. Periodically the members of the group dance while singing, and there are moments when their movements take them out of range of their microphones yet you can still hear their voices singing faint but clear. It's touches like this that really bring the magic of this concert to life in a way that I've never seen done before on DVD.
Included on the DVD are interviews with Shabalala, and other members of the ensemble. Shabalala gives an account of how the group was originally formed and a little of his own personal history. While these are interesting enough, it's the music that makes this disc truly remarkable. Singing in a mix of Zulu and English, unaccompanied by any instrument, a Ladysmith Black Mambazo performance has to be one of the purest forms of musical expression you can hope to experience. Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live brings that vibrancy into your living room via your television and DVD player.
If you've never had the chance to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo in person, this is the next best thing. In fact it might even be better, as the cameras capture moments that you could easily miss while sitting in the audience of a concert hall. Note for note this is probably one of the best concert DVDs that I have ever seen.