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Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 6/2/2016

  by Lisa Torem

published: 8 / 3 / 2016

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 6/2/2016


Lisa Torem watches South African ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform a spectacular A Cappella concert at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music.

Few vocal groups can hold a candle to Ladysmith Black Mambazo when it comes to crystal-clear performance and energy but even fewer can match their mission. When Nelson Mandela designated them ambassadors of their native country, they took that role seriously, doing concerts at least six months out of the year. They sold-out the first of two concerts at Old Town School of Folk Music and provided nonstop entertainment, striking a balance between hymns, American standards, heartfelt ballads sung in the nine-piece ensemble’s native Zulu and much camaraderie. Then factory worker, Joseph Shabalala, born in the village of Ladysmith (which is located between Durban and Johannesburg) founded the all-male South African A Cappella group in 1960. Why does the moniker include “mambazo" (the Zulu word for axe)? Essentially Shabalala declared that this ensemble couldn’t be chopped down. In fact they were forbidden to compete with other choral groups in South Africa because of their perfect harmonies, although they were permitted to entertain. This dream choir was actually inspired by Mr. Shabalala’s dream series that took place in 1964. He dreamed about a pitch perfect choir, which used traditional Zulu harmonies (isirathamiya) to create a beautiful, unique sound. The concert was well balanced. The light-hearted moments were contrasted by profound themes. ‘Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes’ was one particularly touching song, which brought to life the hardscrabble existence of the South African mining community. Nature was also a popular theme, and it was delightful to hear the vocalists sprinkle their repertoire with curious imitations and gestures inspired by South African flora and fauna. The group got on the international map when they sang on and helped arrange, certain parts of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album in 1986. Since their inception they have garnered four Grammy Awards and worked on projects with Spike Lee and also Dolly Parton. They accompanied Nelson Mandela when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. It was easy to get lost in their masterful arrangements. Poignant phrases flowed like honey. The four Shabalala brothers took turns leading the call and response sequences but each man contributed greatly to each story through animated movement, mime and imitations. The audience enthusiastically joined in when prompted. The concert included lullabies and tributes to Mr. Mandela and to Mr. Shabalala’s family. ‘Homeless’ was introduced with a touching story about the less fortunate in South Africa and implemented with the same degree of earnestness. “We are celebrating 21 years of democracy,” one Shalala brother announced before they sang, ‘Long Way to Freedom’. Their faces were etched with pride. The encore, ‘Amazing Grace’ encapsulated their mission of spreading peace and understanding across the nations, one concert at a time. Photos by Philamonjaro www.philamonjaro.com

Also at Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 6/2/2016

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 6/2/2016

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 6/2/2016

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