concertgoers were transported to far off lands by the unique sounds and harmonies of the South African singing group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Friday.
The group was formed in the 1960’s by founder Joseph Shabalala, who was inspired by a dream he’d had involving unusual harmonies in traditional Zulu music. In 1985, Paul Simon asked Shabalala and the band to collaborate on an album, and the legendary “Graceland” was recorded. This brought the band prominence around the world. Yet, over the last five decades, the band has suffered some tragedies – one of the original members (Shabalala’s brother) was murdered, as was at least one other group member, and Shabalala’s wife. Despite this, Shabalala has retained his positive outlook on life, and continues to spread his message of “peace, love and harmony” around the globe.
The Landmark stage on Friday was empty except for nine microphones – an unusual sight. The concert was completely a cappella – all sounds and music were produced by the singers. The group’s lineup has changed over the past decades, and currently includes Shabalala as the front man, with eight other singers, four of them Shabalala’s sons.
It’s very hard to describe their sound, which consisted of unusual spot-on harmonies accompanied by vocal growls, hoots, trills and clucks. The songs were primarily in Zulu. The band was unbelievably athletic, including Shabalala – who is in his 70s. While the song leader (primarily Shabalala, although his sons took turns as well) stood in front, the rest of the band was lined up across the stage singing while stamping their feet, doing incredible high kicks (ala the Rockettes) and occasionally crouching down and doing what appeared to be Slavic dancing. I believe I may have learned the origin of break dancing – periodically, one of the group members would break rank and run to the front of the stage and do a solo dance, usually involving high jumps, kicks and, in one case, a somersault. Then the singer would run back to his place and a few minutes later someone else would burst forth and dance. This dancing is not easy. Both my concert companion (my dad) and I tried some of those high kicks at home later, with pitiful results. Yet the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo could not only dance but sing, in intricate harmony, at the same time.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo did several songs off their latest Grammy-award nominated CD, “Songs from a Zulu Farm” – a collection of original and traditional songs about life on the farm. Band members took turns explaining what each song was about, or its origin. A highlight for me was “Homeless,” co-written by Shabalala and Paul Simon.
The audience, comprising people of all ages, was enthralled. “If you close your eyes,” said my concert companion, “you feel like you’re in South Africa.” And if you open them… oh, what a wondrous sight to see such joyous singing and dancing. The concert ended with, among other things, a Zulu version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
The next concert in Landmark’s World Beat series is Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul on April 28, following by the World Festival (a free program co-sponsored by Landmark and the ) on April 29. For more information, visit Landmark’s website.