Reviewer Elisabetta cavalli
I have been aware of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, like most people, through their participation in the famous 1986 Paul Simon’s album, Graceland, and I have been very much looking forward to this performance. I also remember the controversy surrounding Paul Simon going to South Africa to make Graceland at a time when most artists, sports people and investors were boycotting the country, especially as the boycott was supported by the ANC. Nevertheless, the tour with Paul Simon gave LBM an international audience that has certainly pushed forward their already long-standing career.
Founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala, LBM are somewhat of a South African institution and have played at pretty much every big shot occasion, especially if it had anything to do with Nelson Mandela. The 9 strong group still has some of the original founder members and it’s fronted by four of Shabalala’s sons, who very proudly spoke about their father and also presented their latest Grammy Award winner album, Shaka Zulu.
The theatre was packed and the performance sold out, which helped creating a lively and enthusiastic atmosphere throughout the concert. After a warm welcome in their native Zulu language they began to sing; their tone is deep, vibrant, repetitive and mesmerizing, mimicking the sound of nature, birds, water and trees.
The performance is also very physical, with amazing and humorous facial expressions, dancing, and throwing legs and arms about as if detached from their bodies! At one point it seemed as if a contest of who could kick their leg higher over the head was in progress, very impressive considering some of the performers were in their 70s!
The repertoire included mainly songs on love, nature, struggle, peace and freedom, very evocative of South Africa and its history and they explained that when they perform abroad they are called by their co-nationals ‘the guys that make us homesick’.
Halfway through the concert, in front of a starry night background, they performed the beautiful and political “Long walk to Freedom” song in honour of Nelson Mandela (whose first book has the same title), celebrating 24 years of democratic elections. The song repeats hauntingly: ‘Long way, long walk to freedom, congratulations South Africa’, and the audience responded warmly.
Of course a couple of songs from Graceland were performed, “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” and “Homeless”, and very much enjoyed by the audience. The finale was an amazing vocal, dancing and agility contest, getting the audience clapping and singing. Naturally they were called back for an encore for which they chose to perform their version of Amazing Grace. I was so hoping to hear their wonderful national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ Iafrika, but it wasn’t to be.
All-in-all a brilliant concert, and an ‘a cappella’ choir experience as riveting as opposite to ‘The Sixteen’ I heard two nights ago. That’s the NNFestival!
(PS: For anybody wondering what the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo means, Ladysmith is the name of the village where the Shabalala’s family comes from, Black refers to the black ox, considered the strongest animal, and Mambazo means ‘axe’ in Zulu, symbolising the group’s ability to slash the competition!)
Elisabetta Cavalli for Culture Shift