Collaborative Blog 1
March 6, 2017
Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina
The nine Southern African Zulu members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo[i] quietly walked on stage and took their places behind their microphones. One microphone stood in front for the leading tenor and eight microphones stood behind. All members were clothed in matching blue and black dashikis and black trousers.
In their home language, Zulu, the bass, alto, and tenors sang a cappella in major diatonic harmony in the Southern African choral genre, Isicathamiya. I sat in first row of the second balcony and listened to their soft yet sonorous voices resonate throughout the auditorium. Following the first song, one of the tenors introduced the founder and songwriter of the group, Joseph Shabalala[ii]. He then introduced Shabalala’s youngest son, the youngest member of the group, Thamsanqa. He sang lead for their song, “Awu Wemadoda,” a song from a past album that was rerecorded for their newest album, Walking In The Footsteps Of Our Fathers.
In 1960, Joseph Shabalala formed a choir he named Ezimnyama[iii]. By 1965, Shabalala had developed the group into Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an established and competitive Isicathamiya[iv] and mbube group that included only family and friends of Shabalala. It was not until the late 1980s that they began to win Grammys and gained international recognition thanks to their work with Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland. In this performance at Carolina Theatre, LBM sang renditions of two songs from Graceland, “Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” which are featured on the new LBM album.
Joseph Shabalala and other members took turns giving short introductions to most songs, sharing the intended messages of each. Their messages were quite succinct when sung in English, including songs such as, “All Women Are Beautiful,” “Tough Times Never Late,” and “Long Walk To Freedom.” While introducing “Long Walk To Freedom,” the lead tenor expressed the song was a celebration of twenty-two years of democracy in South Africa after the end of the Apartheid[v] policy, a system of aggressive racial segregation and discrimination. The song is dedicated to Nelson Mandela and named after his 1994 autobiography. LBM and Mandela supported each other and their efforts to bring peace to South Africa. Mandela even asked LBM to accompany him at several of his ceremonies including his acceptance of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for human rights.
LBM incorporated light dancing in their performance including hand gesturing and footwork, which seemed to accompany the messages in their songs. They even involved some charming comedic acting to lighten-up the audience. To help the audience embrace their culture, they taught us a few Zulu phrases.
Most of LBM’s songs were in the key of F# with diatonic harmony in a two-octave range of major triads, and a chord progression of I – V – I or I – IV – V – I. The singers would often slur in an upward motion to the first tone of a melodic phrase. The choir sang without a conductor and while most of the songs were in common time with syncopated rhythms, there were also songs that were difficult to measure because they were so expressive. The singers would make great use of their vocals like tongue rolling and click consonants from Southern African languages. They also used the clicks for rhythmic purpose in some of their English language songs. In the midst of songs the members would call out to each other in Zulu, sing birdcalls and other animal sounds, rhythmic humming, and whistling. This expressive form of singing and rhythm could be compared to some of the music we have been studying in class.
LBM’s last song lasted approximately fifteen minutes and was mostly the repetition of one phrase as members took turns having fun with expression, poking fun at each other, dancing, and encouraging the audience to sing along. Many songs were repetitious, repeating the same phrase with little change in dynamics. However, the repeated phrases always had a steady and continuous flow with a rhythmic pulse and a message; a desire for equality, kindness, compassion, and peace.