Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a South African male vocal group which became internationally known after singing with Paul Simon on his groundbreaking 1986 album, Graceland.
In 1964, Joseph Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo in order to recreate the sound of a cappella vocal harmonies he heard in his dreams. His original group members were relatives — mainly brothers and cousins — who sang with him while he was growing up on the farm in Africa where he was born.
Shabalala derived the group’s name from three elements — “Ladysmith,” from the hometown of his family; “Black,” from the color of the ox, considered to be the strongest animal on the farm; and “Mambazo,” the Zulu word for axe, which was symbolic of the group’s ability to “chop down” its competition.
Following the success of the ensemble’s performances at weddings and other gatherings, Shabalala entered the group into various vocal competitions. The choir was declared so good they were eventually forbidden to compete — but nonetheless permitted to entertain — at such events.
With the release of its first two albums in the early 1970s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo established itself as the premier musical group in South Africa, the members becoming professional musicians in the process and adding several new singers to the mix.
Following the success of Graceland, Paul Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s debut international release, Shaka Zulu, which earned the group its first Grammy award. Since then, LBM has gone on to win four additional Grammys and, altogether, has been nominated 19 times, more than any other World Music group in Grammy history.
In addition to working with Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has also recorded with such well-known artists as Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, and Melissa Etheridge. The group has provided soundtrack material for films including Disney’s The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, in addition to a documentary entitled On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, The Story Of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
A favorite of the late Nelson Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo traveled with the future South African president to Oslo, Norway when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, the group performed at the inauguration of the newly elected president. Following a number of additional appearances with the South African icon, Mandela proclaimed Ladysmith Black Mambazo South Africa’s “Cultural Ambassadors to the World.”
In 2014, after leading the group for 50 years, ensemble founder Joseph Shabalala retired, but passed the torch to his four sons, Thamsanqa, Msizi, Thulani, and Sibongiseni. Today, the brothers tour the world with longtime group members cousins Albert and Abednego Mazibuko, in addition to newer members Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, and Sabelo Mthembu.
On Tuesday, February 4, 2020, Ladysmith Black Mambazo made a tour stop in the Northeastern United States, performing a concert at the State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick.
Before the show, audience members at the State Theatre are treated to a pre-show performance in the theater’s second floor mezzanine by a local musical group, The Black Circle Symphony. Comprised of three conga players: Ras Ujimma, Wahkiba Julion, and Pat Fuzer — in addition to saxophonist, Vaughn Stravropoulos — the group entertains the crowd with a unique amalgamation of rhythmic African drumming and bebop saxophone playing.
Whereas many audience members stand to enjoy the ensemble’s music, others sit on on the floor in a semicircle in front of the musicians where they softly drum along on their laps or move their hands in rhythm to the beat.
Leader Ras Ujimma introduces the crowd to the Grammy-winning African musician, Ismaila Diarra, who happens to be in the audience and invites him to perform a solo using all three conga drums while audience members enthusiastically clap along. In addition, dancer Carla Haynes joins the Black Circle Symphony’s musical performance by moving through the crowd and joyfully illustrating the African beat with her flowing choreography.
Following the pre-show entertainment, audience members take their seats inside the historic State Theatre auditorium where the lights dim and the nine male singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo take the stage.
The group opens the show with “Nomathemba” (“Mother of Hope”), a lyrical number which features eight of the nine a cappella vocalists singing in harmony as Joseph Shabalala’s youngest son, Thamsanqa, or “Thami,” beautifully handles the lead.
Sounding playful as they sing with their hands clasped in front of them, the backup singers add hand motions and simple dance steps to illustrate the music before they are rewarded with avid cheers and applause.
Thami welcomes the crowd in Zulu before explaining in English that the group was founded 60 years ago “to spread our culture and love, and peace and harmony, throughout the world.” Moving on to “Love Your Neighbor” Thami does high kicks while he sings in English as his colleagues’ gorgeous vocal harmonies fill the auditorium.
Revealing that the group’s next song is about a man who misses the mountains, river, and birds of his hometown, the singers click their tongues as they sing in Zulu and dance rhythimcally while they perform “Thalaza,” adding bird sounds to the mix and bringing chuckles from the audience for a delightful performance.
After recognizing 26 years of democracy in South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo dedicates its next song to Nelson Mandela. On this number, “Long Walk,” Thami’s older brother, Thulani, handles the lead.
Singing in English, “Step by step, there comes a day we’ve been waiting for/ Long way to freedom/Let us walk and walk/Congratulations South Africa, you’ve reached democracy/Long way long walk to freedom,” the backup singers percussively vocalize accents to Thulani’s melody and lyrics.
Following the uplifting “Hear Our Prayer,” the group provides a vocalized tribute to their founder. Entitled “Joseph Shabalala Tribute,” the group sings, “He is the one who had a dream of spreading our culture/The culture of South Africa/Of love, peace, and harmony.”
After warm applause, each singer shows his personality on the comical “Hello My Baby” with fast singing, hip swaying, and clapping which elicits hoots and hollers from the happy crowd. The group concludes Act I singing and clicking on the lyrical and harmonious “Yibo Laba,” after which all the singers leave the stage except for one who teaches the audience how to say the Zulu word for “intermission.”
During the break, we chat with several audience members including Pat from Edison who tells us, “I came to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo with a group of friends,” explaining, “we attend a lot of live performances together.” Recalling, “I heard them on Paul Simon’s Graceland and thought it would be interesting to see them in person,” Pat notes, “I especially like that the ensemble contains a mix of generations to it.”
Bob from Rahway agrees, adding, “They really sound fantastic,” before joking, “even though I can’t figure out which one is Paul Simon!”
Act II begins with “Wafika Nobani” where gentle voices fill the air with harmony and unity, and the group continues with “Tough Times” where the singers declare, “Tough times never last but strong people do.”
Thami and Thulani’s older brother, Sibonisensi, handles the vocals on “Never Give Up” and — after asking all of the audience members to “Tell the woman sitting next to you she is beautiful” — the siblings’ oldest brother, Msizi, sings lead on “All Women.”
Following a humorous attempt to teach the audience how to utter words in the Zulu language which require the requisite clicking sounds, the group introduces its eldest member, Albert Mazibuko, who joined the choir in 1969. At this point, the ensemble performs a highlight of tonight’s show, its rendition of a song Albert and Co. performed on Paul Simon’s Graceland album entitled “Homeless.” Sounding identical to the recording, the group sings, “Homeless, homeless/Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake/Homeless, homeless/Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake.”
The audience cheers for the ensemble’s stunning performance and they follow up by introducing the newer members of the choir and performing their concluding number, the anthemic “Wena Othanda Abantu” where the singers come forward doing rhythmic dances with arm motions and high kicks.
The crowd stands for these spirited performers and, for an encore, the choir performs a second highlight of tonight’s show — another song from Graceland, “Diamonds on the Soles of her Feet.” With youngest member Thami singing lead on the “He’s a poor boy/Empty as a pocket” verse, the ensemble joins in vocalizing the backup on the “Sing ta na na/Ta na na na/She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes” refrain.
The audience cheers and rises to its feet as the group takes bows and thanks the audience for coming before inviting everyone to come see them again in South Africa.
As audience members exit the auditorium, we chat with several in the crowd who share their opinions of tonight’s performance with us.
Declares Kristin from Old Bridge, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo was wonderful!” explaining, “For me, this was something completely new, and I really enjoyed it.”
Charles from Layton agrees, adding, “I loved it,” asserting, “The clicking was my favorite part.”
Whereas Sue from Middlesex contends, “They were very good, and very athletic,” Mary from New Brunswick describes them as “Excellent,” revealing, “I had never heard them before and I just loved them — their music is so different, I can’t wait to tell my family about them.”
Next, we chat with Susan from Chatham, here with her son, Zachary. Remarks Susan, “I’ve seen Ladysmith Black Mambazo twice. I love them, so I couldn’t resist getting tickets for my birthday — and I brought my 12-year-old son with me.”
Continuing, “I love folk music and my son is interested in all kinds of music, too,” Susan recounts, “I’ve been to Africa and I recognize the cultural significance of all the visual movement which accompanies the music,” noting, “I just love all the jumping and kicking — it’s all part of the overall communication.”
Comments son Zachary, 12, “It was really good,” before acknowledging, “I’d never heard or seen anything like it!”
Lastly, we chat with Sharief, a professional musician from New Brunswick who, as we learn, has toured with the likes of John Legend and Kanye West. Remarks Sharief, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo is amazing — they sound exactly like they do on their records,” before concluding, “Their music permeates the soul!”
To learn more about Ladysmith Black Mambazo, please go to mambazo.com. For information on upcoming performances at State Theatre New Jersey — including A Capella Live on March 7, Celtic Woman on March 17, Straight No Chaser on April 7, and The Temptations and The Four Tops on May 15 — please click on stnj.org.
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