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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