Ladysmith Black Mambazo Creates Classics for every Continent
Yes, you've heard of them (even if you don’t own any of their 40+ albums). Remember Paul Simon's Graceland? How about those old Lifesavers, 7-Up, or Heinz commercials? Who were those Africans who sang with Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, Ben Harper, George Clinton, or The Corrs? If it seems like you heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on movie and documentary soundtracks, Broadway musicals, award shows, or even Sesame Street, you have. It's safe to say, when most people think of African music, they're thinking of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
On No Boundaries, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is supported by the English Chamber Orchestra for a unique song-set. The resulting masterpiece is appropriately billed as "Zulu Goes Classical." This legendary vocal group led by Joseph Shabalala has long been considered a "mobile academy" of South African musical and cultural heritage, famous for their work with Western musicians, but No Boundaries sets a new collaborative standard.
This bold cultural exchange was conceived by Robert Brooks, Artistic Director of the International Classical Music Festival of South Africa, who in turn commissioned Isak Roux for arrangements. It would seem that Roux--a German pianist/composer born and raised in South Africa, equally inspired by early classical, baroque, and native Zulu traditions--was destined for this project.
Half of the program features Mambazo’s isicathamiya songs (is-cot-a-ME-Ya, a Zulu word meaning "to tiptoe", which is how they originally made music without summoning their white taskmasters). The other half is comprised of Western Classical themes by Bach, Schubert, Mozart, and Roux himself. It’s hard to imagine two musical styles less alike, but the songs are interspersed in a way that blurs any lines. If anything, the orchestra periodically obscures the vocal effect. It’s a good thing Ladysmith Black Mambazo only had to contend with a chamber-sized ensemble.
If there is a common basis between Shabalala’s Zulu compositions and classical music, it’s Christianity. Whether performing for refugees or royalty, Shabalala has always stated his higher purpose: "To bring this gospel of loving one another all over the world.... this music gets into the blood, because it comes from the blood." Like Bach, Handel, and so many others, his music is a form of worship.
All Music Guide accurately described No Boundaries as "a stirring, quiet, dignified album." Other reviewers have called it a "seamless integration", but this is not so. The African and European styles are sometimes starkly juxtaposed, but it works. When sewn correctly, seams are an outstanding part of a beautiful garment.
Like the music itself, the recording techniques employed were 100% authentic: no samplers, synthesizers, or electronic instruments. No Boundaries packages great performances of great songs by great musicians. This is essential listening for fans of "classic" Zulu music and so-called "real Classical" music.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.