Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

I think the first time I saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on television during the whirlwind Graceland tour. It was on a KQED special and all the groups who were a part of this historic celebration of South African music were interviewed, plus viewers were privy to behind the scenes coverage. I don't remember anything about Paul Simon, but I knew he was the one who once again "discovered" something. The difference between him and Columbus was at least he got out the way once the initial minutes of fame passed. Ladysmith Black Mambazo have now become a household name internationally, especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area where after so long touring the university beat, they have now crossed over into the realm of jazz.

Tonight at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, the all male ensemble literally strutted their stuff, legs flying, arms in the air...balancing multiple tasks as they never missed a note. It was just as amazing to watch as it was when I saw them the first time many years ago in San Rafael or just last year in Berkeley.

With a Grammy nominated album, Long Walk To Freedom, a collection celebrating their 40-plus years as a group, and 20 years touring they have much to reflect on, so for this special project they looked at their extensive repertoire and thought about their fans and what songs are in the top ten--songs they have to sing no matter what the program or many fans leave very unhappy. TAfter making a list the men brainstormed a list of artists whose music they enjoyed who they wanted to invite to the party.

All the artists responded well, and those who couldn't make it to Johannesburg for a studio recording -- and that was most of them, responded to the electronic audio file with a recording of their own, which was mixed in Mambazo studios -- the result an album that is the score to heaven, the range of work here and the artists who join the ensemble is outstanding.

I need not have worried that I'd miss the guest artists. The smaller, more intimate venue allowed the audience to establish a closer relationship with the men. And they were wonderful, each taking turns introducing the songs some from the latest recording other not. The themes ranged from fun love songs to songs acknowledging how far their country has come in 12 years.

One of my favorite songs from the album is a medley: Amazing Grace with Nearer My God to Thee. For the encore, the men opened the piece with Nkosi Sikelel 'IAfrica. All of them standing at the mics in a semi-circle, even the leader of the group was standing with the men instead of out front. Joseph Shabalala's voice hovering slightly above the others.

When I spoke to one of the members, Albert Mazibuko, he told me that though the men will continue to tour, they might be slowing down a touch when the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Hub is completed. This school will be a place where music students and others interested in the indigenous music of South Africa will have an opportunity to study with scholars and teachers, many of whom are getting older now.

The performance was playful, yet serious, the road to freedom frought with much sorrow and hardship. The men are smiling but South Africa has a long way to go yet to be a place where everyone is truly free.

I'll have to ask my friend Albert when I see him again how he can stay up when so many of his countrymen are in need of help and support.


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