Posts Tagged ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo’

Saturday Single No. 36

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 13, 2007

One of the nicest things about living in St. Cloud is that – for a city of about 60,000 – the area has a fairly wide range of cultural and entertainment offerings. That’s partly a result of some active organizations – both civic and commercial – that bring a good range of performing artists to the area. It’s also because of the presence here in the city of St. Cloud State University and in St. Joseph and Collegeville – about eight miles away – of, respectively, the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

We don’t go out much, the Texas Gal and I. We’re pretty much homebodies. But every once in a while, we see something in the local offerings that grabs us. And last weekend, we met our friends Sean and Stephanie for dinner and then the four of us headed out to St. Joe to the College of St. Benedict for a concert.

The program was one of numerous performances hosted during the academic year at the college’s Benedicta Arts Center. I’d been there frequently during my high school years. Two or three times a year, the St. Cloud Tech orchestra – in which I played cornet – would clamber onto a school bus and ride out to St. Joe and the arts center. Once there, we’d listen as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra gave a special afternoon performance for students in advance of its regular performance in the evening.

On the program last Saturday was something quite different: a performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the legendary South African vocal group formed by Joseph Shabalala in some forty years ago. (All-Music Guide says 1974, but the program from the concert says the group was founded in the early 1960s; Wikipedia says 1964.) The group’s three-part name – according to the program – comes from three sources: Ladysmith was the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown; “black” was chosen as a reference to oxen, “the strongest of all farm animals, and “mambazo” is the Zulu word for “axe,” a symbol of the group’s ability to figuratively chop down any singing rival that might offer a challenge.

The group was well known in South Africa for years but came to wide attention in the U.S. in 1986, when Paul Simon had Ladysmith Black Mambazo provide background – and sometimes, it seemed, foreground – vocals on his Graceland album. The move earned some criticism for Simon, as some observers saw it as a violation of the cultural boycott in place at the time against the apartheid government of South Africa. Those criticisms always struck me as silly, as the art and music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was, if anything, representative of the culture repressed by the apartheid system.

Since 1986 and especially since the dismantling of the apartheid system in the early 1990s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been one of South Africa’s most visible cultural symbols, taking its irrepressible music and spirit around the world.

As I watched Joseph Shabalala, now sixty-six, lead the other seven members of the group through their ninety-minute performance last weekend, I wondered: If someone had told Shabalala in the early 1960s – when he was a farm boy turned factory worker and an amateur musician – than he would, over the next forty years, become an internationally known performer, what would he have thought? Shabalala’s journey is nearly as remarkable as his – and the group’s – music.

I’ve had a few of the group’s albums – one on vinyl and one on CD – for a while, but I haven’t yet ripped any of their music from those records. Still, I couldn’t let last week’s performance pass by unnoticed, so I listened again to Graceland. Though Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s work is laced throughout the album, it’s perhaps most noticeable on “Homeless,” which is this week’s Saturday Single.

Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo – “Homeless” [1986]