Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings signature sound to Aspen
ASPEN – Unless you understand the Zulu language, you probably won’t notice anything strikingly different about “Songs From a Zulu Farm,” the new album by the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The sound is an a cappella call-and-response between a lead voice and a small male choir; the harmonies are gentle and intoxicating; the timing, phrasing and coordination are precise. And even if the words are unfamiliar, the spirit in which they are sung is unmistakably uplifting.The album’s final track, though, gives it away: It’s “Old McDonald,” sung in Zulu but to the tune familiar to any American, with the “ee-eye-ee-eye-oo”s intact. It turns out that “Songs From a Zulu Farm” is a children’s album; the liner notes reveal that most of the tunes have to do with animals (in English, the titles translate to “The Biting Chicken,” “Away, You River Snakes,” “The Donkey’s Complaint” and “Praise the Cows & Bulls.” Other song titles include “Puddles!” and “Don’t Leave Home Too Soon.”)It’s a striking thing, that Ladysmith Black Mambazo can make an album of children’s songs – they are, in fact, the songs that the older members of the group grew up hearing and singing – without breaking stride from their usual sound. Even more impressive is that, over some 45 years and dozens of albums – and of course tremendous upheavals in their home country – the group has never felt a need to alter their style or experiment with new approaches. They have done their share of collaborating – most famously, contributing to Paul Simon’s landmark 1986 album “Graceland,” but also working with the English Chamber Orchestra on 2005’s “No Boundaries,” and bringing in guests Sarah McLachlan, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris and Vusi Mahlasela for 2006’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” But mostly, Ladysmith Black Mambazo found its sound and has just kept at it.”No, I cannot say the music has changed,” Albert Mazibuko, who has been a member of the group since 1970 – a few years before Ladysmith Black Mambazo began releasing albums – said. “But it has developed. It has a little change, in a good way.”One way to look at it is that the music was handed to them, perfect and complete. Isicathamiya, the vocal style that more or less describes Black Mambazo’s approach, had existed among the Zulus for decades; the 62-year-old Mazibuko says that the fathers of the group’s members sang isicathamiya. But in 1964, Joseph Shabalala, a singer and guitarist who was leading the group Ezimnyama (which translates as “The Black Ones”), had a series of dreams in which a specific way of blending voices was revealed. Shabalala reconstituted the group, drilled them in what he had heard in his sleep, and entered the popular Saturday night competitions around Durban and Johannesburg. The group was a wild success, winning virtually every contest – and getting themselves banned from competing in the process. Shabalala renamed the group for the town his family hailed from (Ladysmith); the black ox, a symbol of strength; and the axe (“mambazo”), for the group’s ability to chop down the competition.”Joseph made a new style of singing. We want to stick with this sound because it represents Ladysmith Black Mambazo as we made it,” Mazibuko, a cousin of Shabalala’s, said from a tour stop in Baton Rouge. “When we collaborated with other groups and brought in instruments, the fans would say, No.”It’s hard to argue the decision to stick to what they have done. Their first album, 1973’s “Amabutho,” was the first album by a black South African artist to go gold, and they became full-time musicians. In the early ’80s, Black Mambazo made its first trip outside the southern part of Africa, to perform in Germany. The audience, Mazibuko said, went wild. The group had its spotlight in 1986, when Paul Simon went to Africa in search of African musicians to work with, and found Shabalala. In London, Black Mambazo added their voices to such songs as “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless”; the album would go on to earn a Grammy for best album, and help open up American pop to outside influences.But Black Mambazo has hardly faded after that peak moment. Between 1999 and 2009, they were nominated for six Grammys, and won twice, for 2005’s “Raise Your Spirit Higher” and for 2009’s “Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu.” Though Shabalala is 69, and is handing off some of the leadership of the group to his four sons – with the youngest, Tommy, being groomed as his successor – Black Mambazo still tours extensively, every year. Their current tour – 41 dates over two months – takes them across the U.S. and Canada, and stops in Aspen Friday, for a show at the Wheeler Opera House. In May, they embark on a 26-date tour of the U.K. Shabalala remains a prominent part of the concerts: “He says, When we leave him home, we will come back to find him dead,” Mazibuko said. “He’s still the bandleader.”If Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music had taken some turns over the decades, there would have been good reason for it. In 1975, Shabalala converted to Christianity and the group’s repertoire moved toward Christian themes. But the songs had always been spirituality, peace, community and overcoming oppression.”When we started, our message and mission, it was to tell people to stay together and be strong and fight for freedom,” Mazibuko said. “Unity is still the main theme – that’s what people should have, whatever we are doing.”In the early ’90s, the official South African policy of apartheid came to an end, culminating in 1994’s open elections and a victory at the polls for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. It was a celebratory time for Black Mambazo: Their 1993 album “Liph’ Iqiniso” closed with “Freedom Has Arrived,” and the group accompanied Mandela to the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. But the songs maintained their sense of social urgency, addressing issues from racism to fair trade to drunken driving.One change that did come about was in the lyrics. After apartheid, messages could be delivered directly, not cloaked in metaphor.”You were free to sing any song, without fear of saying something that might provoke the government to go after me,” he said. “But our music is always about encouragement and inspiration, always.”Black Mambazo holds a place of enormous prominence in South African music. Mazibuko said that the group’s influence spreads beyond traditional styles.”They have so much influence, it’s in most every group in South Africa,” he said. “You ask other groups where their influence came from, they say Black Mambazo. They say they got the positive messages from us. Even in other genres of South African music. My sons, they like the rap and hip-hop. But they always tell me Black Mambazo has been a great influence. They come to me with their songs to see if they’re alright.”Isicathamiya is more popular than it has ever been, according to Mazibuko. “The fans who fell in love with the style, that’s all they want, is the Black Mambazo music,” he said. “They like that we sing in the traditions. They are trying to stay close to their traditions as much as possible. It’s a universal language.”Imagine is the Beatles had stuck with their mops tops and songs along the lines of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or if Bob Dylan had not gone electric, and kept playing traditional folk songs on an acoustic guitar. They would not be the Beatles or Dylan as we know them. But in those cases, circumstances dictated that they move forward and push the boundaries of music. For Ladysmith Black Mambazo, circumstances seem to dictate that they keep making the music they have always made, just doing it a little better and bringing it to more people.”We are willing to stick with this kind of music because we feel there is a demand for it,” Mazibuko, who has never ventured into other musical projects, said. “If we don’t do it, who else will do it? We believe it’s a sound that people need to hear.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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