When Joseph Shabalala formed the acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1960 in South Africa, his goal was to share peace, hope and harmony. Considering that apartheid was not abolished until 1994, it's a wonder anyone outside the country ever found out about the all-male group.
Then came Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkle fame). In 1985, Simon traveled to South Africa looking for musicians to collaborate with him on an album ("Graceland"). Simon brought the group to the recording studio in London. "Graceland" sold over 16 million copies and gave the group international exposure. "Homeless," a song written by Simon and Shabalala became one of the CDs signature tunes.
The original group has undergone many incarnations, but they're still performing, eight strong, with Shabalala as the front man.
On Sunday, they kicked off a 50-city US tour at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas. With all due respect to Walt Disney, for 90 minutes, the Winspear was the happiest place on earth.
They performed songs from their new CD, "Kobuye Kulunge: Songs from a Zulu Farm," and never missed an opportunity to remind their audience that the release has garnered a Grammy nomination. That all the songs (save a haunting version of "Homeless" and a rousing cover of "Old McDonald") were sung in a foreign language didn't really matter. Group members took turns introducing the tunes, giving a brief backstory. Then, they cut loose, singing about mischievous donkeys, pretty birds and beautiful women.
“These are songs from the earliest time in our lives,” Shabalala said at the beginning of the performance. “These are stories our fathers and mothers shared with us, songs our grandparents sang. It is such a joy for us to put these stories and songs together for our fans to enjoy too.”
The stage was bare, save color changes to a blank backdrop with each song. Artistry like Ladysmith Black Mambazo doesn't need any fru-fru. The purity of their sound and the tight harmonies are more than enough. While their voices are not highly trained, they are passion-filled and truly heart-warming.
In addition to great musicality, the nine men took turns doing what must be an African version of break dancing. It was a cross between the funky chicken and the Radio City Rockettes. Let me tell you, some of the guys put the Rockettes to shame, kicking way above their heads. Their joy lept over the footlights, spread throughout the hall and settled in the hearts of everyone present.
As we filed out of the venue, there was a lot of dancing in the aisles. How often does *that* happen at the Winspear?
For more information about Ladysmith Black Mambazo, click here.
Click here to watch a video of the group performing "Homeless" at the Nobel Peace Concert
To watch a video of Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" from his album "Graceland," click here.
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