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There was nothing outlandish or extravagant on the set when Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to Sanders Theatre on Saturday. The stage was not adorned with showy lights or a full supporting dance crew. As the eight man a capella group started singing, it was apparent that their collective voice was the only instrument needed to light up the stage.
Founded in the early 1960s by current front man Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo combines traditional the South African vocal style of “isicathamiya”—a genre developed by black mine workers singing as they worked brutal conditions—with Christian gospel music. Since its early days the group has developed into a cultural icon. It collaborated with Paul Simon on his album “Graceland” in 1986 and won its first Grammy for the album “Shaka Zulu” in 1988. The members were even hailed by Nelson Mandela as “cultural ambassadors” of South Africa after the end of apartheid. They have gone on to recieve worldwide acclaim, winning 2 more Grammys and performing at prestigious events including the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. While their concert at Sanders Theatre meandered at the beginning and was repetitive at times, the group’s infectious gusto and enthusiasm turned the show into a raucous and entertaining delight.
The concert featured material from Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s latest album “Songs from a Zulu Farm,” which depicts the lives of South African farmers through the group’s distinctive blend of South African musical styles. Audience members glimpsed the myriad aspects of farm life in South Africa from songs based on traditional folk tales. One such song is “Wemfana.” The monotonous repetition of the music reflected the weariness of a donkey, but the underlying upbeat rhythm also encapsulated the mood of farmers angrily chastising the naughty beast that is known to bite the bottoms of old men. Though most of the numbers were sung in Zulu, the music transcended language to speak to the audience through the group’s powerful vocals and beautiful harmonies. The singers performed “Wemfana” in a tounge-in-cheek manner and accompanied by dances imitating donkeys conveyed the mischievous nature of the animal. The group also adventurously took on the traditional English nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald” and gave it a unique Ladysmith Black Mambazo flavor through a combination of quintessential Zulu beats and traditional gospel rhythms.
The success of the group’s performance lay not just in the singing, but in the way the music seemed to be an integral part of the performers so that even their coordinated dance moves took on the appearance of instinctive movements to the rhythm instead of rigidly rehearsed steps. Each performer also brought his unique style to the dances. Some kicked their legs high above their heads in a way that mimicked the animals they were singing about, such as the narcissistic bird who serves as the central character in “Uthekwane.” The obvious rapport among the group members allowed the audience to feel comfortably at home while watching this clearly tight-knit family. (Shabalala’s four sons are current group members.) The energy of their songs allowed the audience to feel the lyrics and the music pulsing through their blood.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo aims to spread South African culture through its music. This refreshing a capella group charms with its uplifting music and is a delight to watch.
—Staff writer Claire P. Tan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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