Ladysmith Black Mambazo
at the Whitaker Center,
Harrisburg, PA
(9 February 2003)

When you see a Broadway-type show like Riverdance, there's no doubt you are seeing something from another culture. But there is no questioning that the performance is not totally authentic in its representation of Irish dance. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, however, is different; you are seeing and hearing Africans performing authentic music of their homeland.

Recently I had the pleasure to see and hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform at the Whitaker Center's Sunoco Performance Theater in Harrisburg, Pa.

Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa in the early 1960s under the leadership of Joseph Shabalala, who is still the group's director and lead singer. Shabalala has also composed most of LMB's music. The group is composed of 10 male singers who perform the entire show a cappella. There are no musical instruments; the only accompaniment is the clapping of their hands and the stomping and kicking of their feet.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has its roots in the "time-honoured tradition of African Zulu male choral music called isicathamiya (which means to walk or step on one's toes lightly)." This tradition began more than a century ago when large groups of African men left their native villages to find work. In order to stay close to their families and homeland they turned to choral singing.

The show is a constant kaleidoscope of movement and color. Dressed in native shirts, the men gesture and sway in time to the rhythmic chanting. Occasionally, some of the men break into high-energy foot stomping and athletic high kicking.

The songs, mostly in Zulu, are often work songs that reflect a deep longing for their homes and villages. The repetitive chanting is frequently punctuated by animal-like growls, clicks and roars. The mood is joyous and spiritual -- a celebration of the survival of the human spirit. Despite the lack of any accompaniment, the men maintain perfect harmony throughout.

Some examples from LMB's repertoire include "Inkanyezi Nezazi (The Star and the Wiseman)," "Khayelihle Khaya Lami (My Beautiful Home)" and "Bakhuphuka Izwe Lonke (They Went Up to the Country)."

For someone not raised in their culture, Black Mambazo's music is sometimes difficult to appreciate fully. Like a lot of folk music, the songs are repetitive in nature and one song sounds pretty much like another. But with a little effort it is possible to detect subtle variations in the cadences and harmony that keep you listening for what might come next.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo will end their current U.S. tour in early March and will perform in Holland until the end of the month. In May they will begin a month-long tour of the United Kingdom.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is definitely worth listening to: they are joyful, uplifting and very entertaining.

- Rambles
written by Bill Knapp
published 15 February 2003

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