Ladysmith Black Mambazo returned to Denver last night and performed for a full house at the L2 Church on Colfax, presented by Swallow Hill Music. The South African vocal ensemble has been entertaining audiences around the world for more than five decades, traversing the globe and historical milestones. Over this long career, the group has performed with pop stars like Dolly Parton, Melissa Etheridge and Josh Groban, and famously collaborated with Paul Simon on the blockbuster 1986 album Graceland.
Though founder Joseph Shabalala has passed on leadership of the group to his sons, Ladysmith remains as active and relevant as ever. This year their new album Music from Inala, featuring Ella Spira and the Inala Ensemble, was nominated for the Grammy for Best World Music Album— their sixteenth Grammy nomination (they've won four).
The history of the group begins with Joseph Shabalala, who was born in the township of Ladysmith, South Africa. In 1960, he founded the group, which sings an a cappella style called isicathamiya, the traditional music of the Zulu people, one of the largest ethnic groups of South Africa. Unremitting success in local music competitions and radio airplay helped the group's fame grow rapidly in the ‘70s. Though Ladysmith put out its first record in 1973, its collaboration with Simon led the way for a much larger international audience and recognition.
In 1994, with the abolishment of Apartheid system, President Nelson Mandela named Ladysmith the country’s “cultural ambassadors.” After fourteen more years of rising fame, Shabalala retired from the group in 2008 and handed over leadership to his son Thamsanqa (Tommy). Ladysmith Black Mambazo continues to tour worldwide and spread a message of “Peace, Love & Harmony."
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Boulder-based Selasee (of Selasee and the Fafa Family) opened the night, performing vocals and guitar accompanied by Atta Addo Vanderpauye on general percussion and the kpanlogo (pahn-lo-go) drums. His fusion of upbeat Highline (a Ghanaian style of pop music) and breezy reggae warmed up the crowd, which was enthusiastic though they may not have been familiar with this musical style.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo began with a Zulu welcome song. The group charmed the crowd with heartwarming humor and introductions for each song. Several songs into the set, they sang “Long Way to Freedom/Halala South Africa,” and dedicated it to Nelson Mandela.
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The choral arrangements of the group consist of lead, alto, tenor and bass, and the group incorporated sound effects throughout the performance, including noises invoking nature and everyday village life. The song “Phansi em godini (Down in the Mines)” is about the treacherous work miners endure everyday in South Africa. The exquisite reverb from the acoustics of the L2 Church and the echoing vocals mimicked the vast expanse found in deep underground caverns. The song ended with a cheerful dance routine and the audience clapping along ardently.
After an intermission and outfit change, the band returned to the stage and brought the audience rushing back to their seats with a brief version of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” which was co-composed with Simon. Reaching further back into their repertoire, they then performed “Rain Rain Beautiful Rain," which carried overtones of gospel music. Shabalala converted to Christianity in the ‘70s, and apart from traditional Zulu music, their performances include arrangements inspired in part by American gospel.
The group performed arguably its best-known song, “Homeless,” before introducing the vocalists, some new and a few whom have been with the ensemble since the ‘70s. The night closed with “Amazing Grace," which the members performed with abundant energy and ever-present smiles. Feelings of serenity and humility lingered in the room among the performers and audience members. On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the power of Ladysmith's heartfelt performance served to remind listeners that music can transcend contrived notions of mankind’s differences, even if only for a couple hours.