By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The rhythm of the saints
Many Americans became acquainted with South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo through its appearance on Paul Simon's Graceland album, but remain unaware of the band's importance as a cultural force. From the group's familial beginnings in 1960, through its country's polarizing political and social unrest, and into the emerging era of collective unity and strength, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has challenged adversity with a message of faith and hope. During times of strife, the group's music became a source of strength to its peers, and where once white South Africans were barred by law from attending their concerts, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is now deemed a national treasure--ambassadors in song to the world.
Leader and songwriter Joseph Shabalala calls the group's a cappella singing "tip toe harmony," a gentle blending of voices and spirit rooted in the reverent vocalizing their families and ancestors have used to celebrate everything that is a part of their daily lives. Ladysmith's original music encourages respect, spirituality, education, and a continuance of traditions, but the group has also dabbled in the more commercial vein, attempting to widen their appeal.
Unfortunately, the group's recently released 35th record, Heavenly (Shanachie), puts its own wonderful iscathimiya (their native style of music) songs on the back burner in favor of high-concept versions of gospel standards like "Oh Happy Day" and popular songs like Billy Joel's "River of Dreams." Why American producer Alan Abrahams thought he needed to improve upon the group's exquisite harmonizing and beautiful songwriting by having them sing back-up to Dolly Parton on a cheesy version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is beyond comprehension. Promoting the group's wider acceptance here is always an admirable goal, but the convoluted way it is attempted on Heavenly gives the listener only a glimpse of the wonders its members possess.
Their powerful message is not lost on an audience however, and the captivating skill of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's live performances remains the heart of its enduring appeal. The singers' graceful blending of tones and rhythms, and the joy of living they bring to every song, makes for a concertgoing experience that's rare and empowering.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo plays the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth on Saturday, January 31.