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Ladysmith Black Mambazo is still mesmerizing

Observer Scene | Monday, March 21, 2005

Not many groups out there have been touring as long as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and it shows.

The singer-dancers in the group took the stage so comfortably you would think there wasn’t a huge crowd of people watching them. And yet there were nearly 1000 mesmerized spectators at the show.

Mambazo is a cultural icon, and their music is technically excellent, but even beyond that their performance is simply infectious. Mambazo has a goofy stage presence that promptly breaks down any barrier that might stand between a world-renowned group and its audience. Being able to clown around onstage is a mark of a natural performer, and Mambazo catches its audience by doing exactly that.

Mambazo’s performance was certainly not silly. Several songs related to political and other important issues from the group’s native South Africa. The group performed “Homeless,” its most famous hit ballad from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, which despite its tranquil sound is about a dark time in South African history.

And yet there remained a sense that just as South Africa’s history couldn’t keep Mambazo from worldwide fame, neither could it keep the singers from enjoying their music. Some lines of the songs were beautifully poignant, but overall the show was joyful.

Some of the performers in Mambazo have retired and been replaced over the years – four of founder Joseph Shabalala’s sons have notably begun to sing with the group – but some have been singing for decades. Shabalala and several others rank right up there with Bono for staying in amazing physical shape throughout a career. All eight performers danced and kicked their feet up through entire numbers and barely broke a sweat. Few men Shabalala’s age would have the urge, or the capability, to dance and jump right alongside their sons onstage.

Mambazo recently won a Grammy Award for their release “Raise Your Spirit Higher,” proving that as members have come and gone, the quality of the group’s music has not decreased. Mambazo sings with the same tight, smooth harmonies that brought them to world attention 30 years ago.

Mambazo also released an album with the English Chamber Orchestra in 2005. While the recording is as excellent as all of Mambazo’s crossover work, this performance was proof that the group’s music needs nothing else to back it up. The strong bass, and the distinct tone of Shabalala’s tenor, might sound strange to American ears at first, but it doesn’t take long to realize that these singers are masters of a capella harmony and performance. The way Mambazo’s music started may still be its best face.

Mambazo’s universal appeal is obvious – their music, and their shtick onstage, is the kind that can appeal to anyone of any age. Forty years on the road have not slowed the group down, and if Sunday night’s performance is any kind of evidence, they won’t stop touring anytime soon. Mambazo’s recordings are excellent, but seeing the group live shows an entirely different face of their performance style. Anyone who had the chance to get this first-hand feel for the singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was lucky to catch the group in action.