Show Review: Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Sheldon, Sunday, February 14

Show Review: Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Sheldon, Sunday, February 14

Several inches of snow hushed the city last night night, but the rhythms and harmonies of many voices bounced off the walls inside the Sheldon Concert Hall. Without radio play, typical chart-topping hits, stage production or even instruments, Ladysmith Black Mambazo drew a sold-out house eager to hear the group's traditional South African choral singing.

First, a little history: Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a world-famous male a cappella group, formed in South Africa almost 50 years ago. The group sings isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), a form of traditional Zulu vocal music originated by laborers in the diamond mines. The term isicathamiya roughly means "Tip Toe Guys," referring to the workers who combined traditional vocal harmonies of mbube and dancing to create an expressive yet muted music so as not to disturb mine camp guards.

The group formed in 1964 after former factory worker Joseph Shabalala had auspicious dreams. Pulling the original lineup from brothers and cousins, the group has had about 30 different members and released more than 30 albums since its formation. Though it enjoyed success in South Africa for decades, it was in 1986 that Ladysmith Black Mambazo skyrocketed to international attention due to its collaboration on Paul Simon's landmark album Graceland. Thirteen Grammy nominations and three wins later, including the latest in 2009, Mambazo retains its status as a treasured national symbol in S.A. and enduring favorite in the genre of "world music."

The eight members filled the intimate stage, standing in a straight line behind eight separate microphones. Shabalala is the music master, the professor, the visionary, and at age 69, he is still the group's leader. Standing in front of the other eight, he leads the call-and-response, his distinctive high alto rising above the hushed currents of baritone, bass and tenor. Early hit "Nomathemba," performed second, illustrated how a Mambazo song begins as a cohesive harmony, dissolves into parts and then re-forms. Shabalala's voice is a ringing rattle which directs the progression, shuffling over the polyrhythmic lower layers, punctuating the growing sound with throaty growls, coos, breathy bursts and trills. I have no clue how he created half the sounds I heard.

Mambazo performed six songs before intermission, two of which included some words in English. With or without the occasional explanation -- "This song says, 'I miss the place I come from'" -- lyrical comprehension didn't seem crucial to getting the emotional gist of the music. To keep things light, group members threw in elements of physical humor: pulling faces, bumping into and teasing each other or diverging from the choreography by knocking off booty-shaking or Vanilla Ice-style dance moves.

After intermission, Mambazo made four songs last another hour, adding fun elements of crowd participation. The audience was loose and ready to laugh, enthusiastic to repeat after the vocalists and sing along. The set culminated in Shabalala picking audience members to join the stage and dance. Zealous show-goers, including Beatle Bob in Mardi Gras beads, needed no invitation and jumped onstage to high-kick with Mambazo.

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