Thursday, January 24, 2008

Live: Ladysmith Black Mambazo

January 23, 2008, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland

Everyone remembers Ladysmith Black Mambazo for their contributions to Paul Simon's Graceland, but the group, formed in the late 1950s in South Africa, has had a prolific recording career to which many people are oblivious. As an a capella group playing traditional African music, there isn't a huge market for their albums here outside of world music circles and their studio performances (without Paul Simon anyway) don't really transcend that boundary. However, seeing them live is another thing altogether.

This is the second time I've seen Ladysmith and both experiences have been...well, amazing. The power of their voices is so much more than that of a rock band with a wall of Marshalls. Joseph Shabalala, their leader and lead vocalist, still has a striking voice. The eight other singers that make up Ladysmith are so smooth that they function as one, even as individuals leave the harmony to sing other parts. Technical perfection is almost always at the expense of heart and soul, but not with Ladysmith. Theirs is a perfection that comes from within and washes over the audience in waves of beauty, hope and joy.

Their traditional dances, unlike the music, seem less perfect, more random and spontaneous, and perhaps this is what brings the very spiritual experience of hearing them sing back down to earth. Don't get me wrong, they're amazing dancers, more limber than I thought possible (and they're not all young men).

The music and dance combine not just as a cultural experience but also to bring Ladysmith's ultimate message: hope. This isn't some superficial, sugary message about a better tomorrow, it's not even so much a message as it is their very essence. This is a group formed out of the hope of people living in the townships under apartheid, the hopes of people who have lost loved ones, the hope that sustains, not the false hope of lies. It's striking to hear this hope in their music while living in a culture that's sarcastic and cynical despite being inundated with comfort and convenience. It was strange to walk out into the Baltimore night afterwards and know that the hope that sustained Ladysmith in times worse than we know in America today is missing. And that's what's killing people, perhaps more than guns and drugs. The group has a humility (and corny sense of humor), despite being international recording artists, despite being able to truly hold thousands with just their voices, that allows the music to speak their message without preaching, without complaint. There is something in Ladysmith Black Mambazo that could change us...if only we listen.

Here are a few videos, but none do them justice:

Live in 2003

With Paul Simon at Graceland - The African Concert



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