For more than three decades, the story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been just as much about physicality and choreography as it has been about brilliant vocal harmonies. For this Grammy-winning a cappella group that merges South African music and dance traditions with Christian messages of compassion, love and global harmony, the music alone is only half the story. Simply put, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has to be seen to be understood.
Heads Up International offers a visual glimpse of these icons of South African music and dance with a DVD, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live (HUDV 7149), scheduled for worldwide release on January 27, 2009. Recorded in Akron, Ohio, in 2008, the set captures not only fourteen songs performed on the stage of EJ Thomas Hall at the University of Akron, but also forty minutes of in-depth interviews with founder, leader and musical director Joseph Shabalala and other members of the group.
Shabalala, a South African farmboy turned factory worker, first began gathering talented vocalists and arranging multi-layered and tightly woven harmonies in the early ‘60s. After a series of records throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the group rocketed to international fame in 1986 with their appearance on Paul Simon’s landmark recording, Graceland.
The thematic elements in Mambazo’s music that appeal to South Africans, says Shabalala, are the same elements that appeal to a universal audience in all parts of the globe. In that sense, the group has come to be recognized as South Africa’s musical ambassadors to the world.
“People love our music because we have a story in this music,” says Shabalala. “It’s a very deep story about tradition, about taking care of yourself, about reminding people to get together and work very hard for themselves. We are treated like kings because of this music. When the police and the politicians [in South Africa] listen to this sound, they love us. They say, ‘This is the African sound. Therefore, let these people go wherever they want to go and spread this music around the world.’”
Spanning more than ninety minutes, the performances within Ladysmith Black Mambazo Live are riveting – not just in their layered musicality but in their sheer kinetic energy. Beginning with their opening number, “Nomathemba,” and throughout the performance, the nine-man group is almost constantly in motion – sometimes as individuals, sometimes as a unit – with simple hand gestures, giant leaps and bounds across the stage or overhead kicks that seem to defy the most basic laws of anatomical flexibility.
Other highlights include the thoughtful “Ekulupekeni” and the stirring “Long Walk To Freedom,” the title track to their 2006 Heads Up recording that recognized twelve years of democracy in the Republic of South Africa. Further in, “Thulanhliziyo” features some light-hearted call-and-response with the audience, while the quiet and pensive “Rain Rain Beautiful Rain” celebrates the inherent beauty and spirituality of the natural world.
The set closes with two emotionally resonant encores: “Shosholoza” (also from