On Saturday the World Music Institute’s concert series brought famed South African vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Times Square’s Town Hall.
Most famous for their collaboration with Paul Simon on his seminal 1986 album Graceland, world music’s answer to Rockapella has had an exceptional career performing its sublime Zulu a cappella for 48 years.
Mirroring the difficult racial struggle of its home country, Ladysmith Black Mambazo got its start in the traditional Zulu isicathamiya music of black South African mine workers in the 1960s before becoming one of South Africa’s most visible cultural exports. Along the way they’ve survived the violent deaths of four of their members, performed at Mandela’s inauguration and Peace Prize ceremony, won multiple Grammys and yes performed with Paul Simon.
Led by founder Joseph Shabalala and now including four of his sons this nine-piece group combines its beautiful harmonies with distinctive choreography based in the traditional tip-toe dances of the mine workers, designed not to wake up the guards.
Their show Saturday night kicked off with a perhaps ironic nod to their inescapable Graceland association, curtain music by Vampire Weekend, one of the big new bands of 2008 whose Kwassa Kwassa influenced sound has often been falsely accused of ripping off of Paul Simon.
But vampires and short American musical icons have nothing on the real deal. The show was a well paced and energetic affair that despite two 50-minute sets and an encore felt like it was over much too soon. Its tight complex harmonies seamlessly switched from English to their native language accompanied only by the percussion of their hands and throat clicks. Their set list covered a broad range of their expansive career though the biggest crowd responses were predictably to “Homeless,” off Graceland, and “Halala South Africa (Congratulations South Africa),” its song celebrating the end of Apartheid.
The musical performances were complimented by high kicks, dancing, histories of the band, banter and even a singing competition between the group and the audience. At stake, ultimate victory in the 2010 World Cup, being held in South Africa. Football purists may grimace but the win was given to the crowd. And we were all invited to stay with the band when we come to the Cup. Of course, we have to bring our own sleeping bags.
Until then there is always World Music Institute’s continuing series including Sidiki Conde & Tokounou of Guinea on March 20th, Yacub Addy’s Odadaa! of Ghana on March 28th and Habib Koite & Bamada of Mali on April 18th. Information on these shows and more can be found at worldmusicinstitute.org.
(Lack of photos due to Town Hall’s strict prohibition on cameras.)