The country of South Africa has a remarkably vibrant and distinctive musical culture, and one group has unofficially become the musical ambassadors of this land. Ladysmith Black Mambazo (http://www.mambazo.com/ [inactive 7/04]) played two sold-out concerts at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham on March 2 and 3. Those who are not familiar with the name have probably heard their unique sound.
In 1986, after not having been heard from for several years, Paul Simon released an album called Graceland . Although the title track did allude to the Memphis estate of Elvis Presley, the real significance of this recording, which swept the Grammy awards that year, was the inclusion of Ladysmith. This opened up the ears of the world to the musical riches of South Africa and, many believe, gave rise to the whole "world music" genre. The enormous success of Graceland was not without subsequent virulent attacks on Simon. He was accused of raping the musical culture of an impoverished society that knew little of the complexities of recording contracts, royalties, and copyright. Since this type of behavior by record companies had certainly occurred before, for a while this line of attack soured the musical masterpiece that this was. Fortunately, everyone involved prospered and more importantly, Ladysmith became known beyond the borders of South Africa. Eventually Paul Simon became such a beloved figure in that country that he became known as "the Vulindella" ("he who opened the gate").
The group's name is basically a description of where its members came from and their legendary status in their homeland. "Ladysmith" is the hometown of the Shabalala family (Joseph being the founder and leader), "Black" refers to black oxen, the strongest on the farm, and the Zulu word "Mambazo" refers to an ax - symbolizing the group's ability to "chop down" the competition. Ladysmith consists of the leader, Joseph Shabalala, and nine other male singers, although at the March 3 performance there were only eight. They perform a type of music called isicathamiya , which evolved from the workers in the diamond mines of South Africa. In addition to the unique vocal harmonies and rhythm, these singers also practiced a type of choreography called Cothoza Mfana (which, loosely translated, means "tip toe guys"), used so as not to disturb the mining camp security guards.
Thousands of miles and many years removed from the squalor of these camps, Ladysmith continues to practice this musical tradition that has now made them one of the true superstars of a cappella performance. They honor their history and culture through traditional dress and by performing in front of a huge mural covering the entire stage depicting scenes from South Africa's history. Since this style of singing is passed on through villages and competitions, there are no known "harmonic analyses" of the music, and probably any attempt to have a traditional western male choir sing it would prove futile and silly. It is a rich, sonorous and earthy harmony that is both universal and African at the same time. One noticeable trait is that, almost all the time, all eight vocalists sing at the same time and move in the same rhythm. There is very little, if any, polyphony. Instead, there is a call-and-response aspect between the leader and the chorus.
In addition to harmonies that could never be mistaken for any other style, they also employ a variety of unique vocal effects. These include clicking sounds that are actually a part of the Zulu language, tongue flutterings, and head shakings that produce a warble that adds to the delightful overall effect. And as mentioned before, choreography and dance "contests" also play an integral part. The artists all wear white soft-sole shoes so you can barely hear any of their steps, harkening back to the "tip toe guys" from the mining camps. They also employ a type of running in place and very high leg kicks. During several of the numbers, members of the group broke off to display their particular dance skills.
This was a wonderful example of a group that despite its international fame in the past 20 years has remained true to its roots. While Ladysmith has gone on to accompany some popular western artists and has even appeared in commercials, you can imagine that they still perform as they did in the intense vocal competitions that were an essential part of village life in South Africa.