New Paltz Times (Highland, NY), Concert Preview >>
In times of injustice, some take up protest signs, others take up arms. Still others challenge their oppressors by lifting their voices in defiant song. Organized while the long, cruel shadow of apartheid gripped South Africa, the a cappella musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been performing for almost four decades. While not inherently political in spirit, their amalgam of native folk music and Christian gospel reflects the unquenchable spirit of a people living as second-class citizens. This year marks a mere decade since the racist institution of apartheid was dismantled. The seamless harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo remind us of the shameful past history of South Africa, but the lyrics staunchly remain focused on a vision for a better tomorrow. These songs of hope will ring out this weekend at the Bardavon.
Expect the concert to showcase numbers from Ladysmith’s January CD release Raise Your Spirit Higher – Wenyukeyla (Heads Up International), their first recording since the Grammy nominated 1999 recording Live at Royal Albert Hall. A commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the defeat of apartheid, Raise Your Spirit Higher does not dwell on celebration, however; the 13 songs address the need to vanquish the current political and cultural ills that persist globally.
Most Americans first learned of Ladysmith in 1986, when Paul Simon hired them to illuminate his album Graceland, ushering in the era of world music. But the ten-man group had been recording in their homeland since 1970, when a radio broadcast brought their first professional contract after years of performing in local competitions. (Their evocative name owes to several sources: the hometown of group founder -; the mighty black oxen of his rural farm life; and the Zulu word for axe – a youthful, braggarty reference to their ability to cut down any rivals in musical contests.)
The music of Ladysmith reaches back generations, created in the crucible of virtual slavery, when poorly paid workers were sent down to the gold and diamond mines of South Africa by their Dutch colonial rulers. They labored in impoverished misery, and often met death in the bowels of the earth, where skimpy safety measures resulted in cave-ins. From this living hell sprang a musical style called isicathamiya (is-cot-a- ME-ya), born of the pain of missing family members and the need to bolster flagging spirits.
While retaining its sobering origins, isicathamiya developed into a mainstream musical style. Joseph Shabalala, a convert to Christianity, wedded gospel themes to the intricate native rhythms. However, the results are not dogmatic, but universal. With the dismantling of apartheid and the phoenix-like rise of revolutionary Nelson Mandela to South African president, the music of Ladysmith became more poignant and relevant. In fact, Ladysmith accompanied Mandela to Denmark when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
The songs of Ladysmith raise goosebumps effortlessly, by the richness of these voices in unison, by their stalwart resistance to self-pity in recalling generations of suffering. The group has recorded more than 40 works over the years. Since their collaboration with Simon, they have recorded with other artists hungry for their caliber of musical purity, including, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, The Wynans, Julia Fordham, George Clinton, The Corrs and Ben Harper. Most recently, Ladysmith performed for the soundtrack of the overlooked Sean Connery film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Failed summer blockbusters aside, the canonization of Ladysmith continues apace. They are both national heroes in their homeland and emissaries of peace throughout the world. For the silver anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II, Ladysmith shared a concert stage with Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and Phil Collins.
However, even world fame has not shielded Ladysmith from tragedy. In 1991, Shabalala’s brother Headman, a founding member of the group, was killed by an off-duty South African policeman. Two years ago, as Shabalala and wife Nellie left a church outside of Durban, she was shot to death by a masked gunman. He was wounded in the attack. Their stepson has been implicated in the murder. A sense of anger and mourning colors the songs on the new CD.
“At the time that this happened, I tried to take my mind deep into the spirit, because I know the truth is there,” Shabalala said. “In my flesh, I might be angry, I might cry, I might suspect somebody. But when I took my mind into the spirit, the spirit told me to be calm and not worry. Bad things happen, and the only thing to do is raise your spirit higher.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House on Saturday, February 21 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28.50 for adults, $22.50 for students and seniors, $22.50 for Bardavon members and are available at the Bardavon Box Office, 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072 or through TicketMaster at (845) 454-3388 or www.ticketmaster.com. For further information visit www.bardavon.org.