High on Harmony

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

At Campbell Hall, Thursday, April 6.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

Over the years, certain milestones of western awareness of life in South Africa have focused attention on one of the country’s prime and most globally beloved exports, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Paul Simon turned a high-wattage international spotlight on them with his 1986 album Graceland, and guests like Sarah McLachlan, Hugh Masekela, and Emmylou Harris have helped push their new album, Long Walk to Freedom, to higher heights of public acclaim. Even the recent Oscar win for the South African film Tsotsi somehow retrains attention on the signature group sound, even though they’re not on the soundtrack.

In a way, these are all peripheral elements in the continuing saga of the a cappella group founded by former miner Joseph Shabalala in the township of Ladysmith in the ’60s. Forty-five years into the group’s history, they need nothing more than their richly, tightly entwined voices and their genuine core message of “love, peace, and harmony” to massage ears, heart, and soul.

As the eight singers filed onstage in a sold-out return to Campbell Hall last week, bedecked in traditional brightly colored garb, that message rang out again. Led by Joseph, the band often engages in call-and-response patterns, and plenty of gospel-fueled groove-riding, breaking into choreographed moves and agreeable hamming. Stylistically, the indigenous musical tradition of Isicathamiya shakes it up with doo-wop and Christian hymn-ifying, as when they closed with a soulful medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”

They’re no strangers to shtick and injections of humor. Opening the concert’s second half, an audience participation episode had the crowd singing in Zulu and clapping, essentially guiding the band back onstage. Many of the tunes were from the new album, including the inspirational anthem to emancipation and Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom,” and the lovely “Nomathemba,” which translates to both “hope” and a woman’s name. They also dipped into 2004’s Raise Your Spirit Higher, and sang the Shabalala/Simon tune “Homeless,” from Graceland. As they sang the new “Rain, Rain Beautiful Rain,” with its ambivalent refrain “oh come, never come,” weather-beaten Santa Barbarans could relate. Then again, universality has never been a problem for this band.

Mambazo’s remarkable legacy continues to inspire and evolve: In February, veteran member Jockey Shabalala died, but new generations of singers — younger than the band itself — keep the tradition going. Theirs really is one of the most instantly heartwarming sounds in the known musical universe, instantly affecting and identifiable.

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