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Raising spirits higher

Maria Smith | Friday, March 18, 2005

orty years ago, the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo could not have dreamed they would end up where they are today.It isn’t easy for a group to carve its own niche in the musical world, but this is exactly what Mambazo has done. Their unique music, strongly based in the traditional South African style called isicathamiya, can easily be recognized wherever it is played, and it is played often. Since being catapulted to world fame in 1986 with their performance on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, Mambazo has performed for Noble Peace Prize ceremonies, movie soundtracks, commercials for Life Savers, 7-Up and Heinz Ketchup, Sesame Street and on numerous other occasions. In between performances the group has released numerous albums. The group has also performed with American artists including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, George Clinton and Ben Harper.In 1987, the group won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Art Album for “Shaka Zulu,” their first United States album release. Mambazo was awarded another Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album on Feb. 13 for their recent album “Raise Your Spirits Higher.”Mambazo’s roots go back to the mines of their native South Africa where isicathamiya was born. Under apartheid many black South African men were forced to leave their homelands and find work, and often lived in large barracks or dormitories. The men often formed choirs and competed against each other in contests as a way to pass the time and remind them of their homes. “It was important to sing about their homes and families when living in these inhuman conditions,” professor of anthropology and ethnomusicologist Greg Downey said. “These contests were amazing. Because of curfews on weekend nights the men had to go to the barracks before curfew started and leave in morning, so they went on all night.”Mambazo also competed in the contests, but was so good that the singers were soon asked not to enter the competitions. They were of course welcome to come and entertain.The name Ladysmith Black Mambazo came about as a result of their success in competition. “Ladysmith” is the hometown of former farmer and factory worker Joseph Shabalala, the founder of the group. “Black” refers to black oxen, considered to be the strongest animals on the farm. “Mambazo,” a Zulu word for ax, refers to the group’s ability to chop down their competition.There are several things that set Mambazo apart from their fellow isicathamiya musicians as well as from other genres of music. Mambazo’s polished harmonies and ability to meld their voices tightly together were not the only thing that distinguished them in competition. Mambazo has the ability to be loud and joyous, but also performs softer and subtler numbers than many of their peers were able to do.American music often emphasizes tenor voices, but Mambazo’s sound is characterized by the rich and full bass. Although Shabalala himself often sings higher parts, the majority of the group often sings a complicated bass harmony that sounds new and original compared to most choirs.Mambazo’s music is a point of pride for many South Africans, not least because it represents a sort of artistic victory over apartheid. Mambazo’s success is proof that the regime, which was so devastating to so many people, was still unable to silence the artistic voice.Their music is not strictly traditional, but the vocal style and many of the other elements certainly reflect their home.”There are rural elements, like a distinctive call boys will make to call cattle,” Downey said. “These are elements that remind South Africans of life in the rural countryside.”As members of the original group have retired, Shabalala has begun to recruit members of his own family to fill in the ranks and keep the group performing. Four of his sons now perform with the group.Ladysmith Black Mambazo is only one of several institutions of the musical world to visit Notre Dame this year, but they are certainly one of the most unique. Students who get a chance to go are certainly in for a fantastic show.Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform Sunday at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for students, $26 for seniors, $28 for faculty and staff and $35 for the general public.