Thursday, February 2, 2012

Show & Tell: Ladysmith Black Mambazo

One of the best parts of living in Appleton is minutes from our doorstep my teenage son and I can walk through the doors of the Fox Cities P.A.C. and be immediately transported transcontinentally as we were last night with the South African a cappella sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their incomparable, distinctive musical style allowed us to temporarily leave our surroundings and immerse ourselves in a night of song, education, and entertainment.

Last night’s performance combined songs from two distinct South African musical traditions. A majority of the songs came from their most recent album, “Songs from a Zulu Farm,” which the group’s seventy year old founder and lead singer, Joseph Shabalala, drew upon traditional farm songs from his childhood. “Yangiluma Inkukhu” (Biting Chicken) and “Wemfana” (Bad Donkey), among others, demonstrated their playful side with songs dedicated to youthful wonderment of birds, animals and forces of nature. Young and old equally enjoyed the pieces which featured vocalizations of chickens, donkeys and other farm animals amidst chants and call-outs in their signature, multi-layered style. Intermixed with “Songs from a Zulu Farm” album, they performed pieces from the musical tradition they are more notably known for, those of the South African mining song rhythms, like the iconic “Homeless.”

Their music is as organic as that which they sing about. As cultural ambassadors of song, their lyrics focusing on nature, love, and social issues, which transcend cultural boundaries and reminds us beauty exists all around us in the quotidian of life.

As a cappella group, there is nothing to hide behind. They bare themselves to us. My son, a percussionist, was most impressed with the group’s ability to use their voices percussively and in the absence of instrumentation, create it so simply, beautifully and uniquely with clucks, whistles, rhythmic clapping and other tools they have developed over the fifty-two years of making music in a style which is uniquely their own. As they combined their music with traditional dance moves, we marveled at the agility, not only of the younger members, but more impressively, for the members of the group who are nearing their 70s, with their high kicks and dances of athleticism.

What is clear is Ladysmith Black Mambazo has broken, and continues to break, musical boundaries with no end in sight. Last month they released their newest album, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Friends,” a two-disc collaborative set of music in virtually every genre with artists from around the globe. Averaging nearly one recorded album every year, combined with an abundance of young talent in the group of nine (four of the nine are Shabalala’s sons), assures me the next time I see them in concert, which would be my fifth time, will be as equally enjoyable and fresh as it was the first time nearly twenty years ago.

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