Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a 9-piece traditional South African choir, who perform in the Isicathamiya style, that has attained legendary status at this point. The all male ensemble has been performing for 57 years now with a rotating roster of members, predominantly from the Shabalala family. Ladysmith was catapulted to international fame in 1986, when they collaborated with Paul Simon on his controversial and pivotal album, Graceland. Arguably, this popularized the Isicathamiya music of South Africa in the west and influenced American’s understanding of South Africa during Apartheid. Since then Ladysmith has won four Grammys and have been nominated for an astounding 15 more, as well as an Emmy nomination and an Academy Award nomination. They were even name dropped in the 2004 cult classic Mean Girls (“But you love Ladysmith Black Mambazo!”).
Ladysmith Black Mambazo carries with them a mission statement with which they lead every show and which guides them in everything they do: their goal is to spread South African culture to all parts of the globe and to spread peace, love, and happiness. They preach unity and acceptance, which was a painfully poignant way to begin the show given the present American geopolitical climate. On Saturday, February 25th, Ladysmith took the stage at Charleston Music Hall and were fittingly welcomed by perhaps the most eclectic and racially diverse audience that the Music Hall has seen.
Just as Ladysmith cycles through members, it utilizes a cyclical group effort approach to who leads each song. The leader essentially functions as a conductor. As the current frontman sings the melody, along with some improvisation, the other members sing the accompaniment while performing traditional Zulu dances, guided by whoever is the leader. Thamsanqa Shabalala, the son of founder Joseph Shabalala, and also the youngest member of the group, led first. In a way it felt symbolic. The youngest singer taking charge, not only in the performance, but also for the longevity and sustainability of the ensemble. Thamsanqa distinctly sounds like his father Joseph, whose carefree yet always perfectly in tune vocals were prominently featured on Graceland. The effortless timbre and lush vocals of Thamsanqa perfectly warmed the auditorium for the rest of the evening. When Thamsanqa concluded his subset, he announced that he was pleased to pass the mic to his older brother, another son of Joseph Shabalala, which was a trend that continued throughout the evening as Ladysmith performed the majority of their most recent album, “Walking in the Footsteps of our Fathers.”
As intermission approached, and as the performers and audience increasingly warmed up to each other, Ladysmith began to incorporate more dancing into their performance. The space of the stage in front of the ensemble became a dance floor where different combinations of members showed off their traditional Zulu dance moves, which consists of a lot of fluid hip motion, impressively high leg kicks, and an abundance of energy. The audience welcomed the increase in dancing, but according to an interesting gentleman to my left, they welcomed it blindly. He went on to explain that he spends three months of every year in the southern part of Africa and had become familiar with some of the intricacies of the culture. The traditional Zulu dances that Ladysmith was performing for us were in fact derived from war dances, that are accompanied by rather violent imagery. His explanations painted graphic images of the Zulu eviscerating their enemies, and as the dancers made uppercutting motions with their hands, it became apparent that these were not necessarily dances of peace. The gentleman recapitulated their opening mission statement of peace and unity in order to point out the irony of the dances, saying, “but such is the duality of modern society.” It was an interesting point that felt necessary to include, but it did not hinder the enjoyment of the show.
Following intermission, Ladysmith returned for a shorter, but more engaging second half, catering heavily to their American crowd. To the audience’s content, they opened with “Diamonds on the Soles of Their Shoes”, which was made famous alongside Paul Simon on Graceland. It was the song that was widely recognized, made clear by the audience’s cheers as they began. They followed with one of the most emotionally compelling numbers of the night, “Long Walk to Freedom”, from “Walking in the Footsteps of our Fathers.” It was dedicated to Nelson Mandela and the 22 years that have passed since the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Although the song remained in the Isicathamiya style, it felt like a soulful ballad: an ode to the social progress that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has witnessed their country make since 1994. They concluded with “Homeless”, the crowd favorite, and another cut from “Graceland”, which any collection of Ladysmith songs would feel incomplete without, followed by a rendition of “Amazing Grace”, which was especially moving, being in the Holy City with a multitude of Christian influence. As “Amazing Grace” rang throughout the Music Hall, the audience was reminded of Ladysmith’s humble mission to preach peace and unity.