Led by Joseph Shabalala — who formed the ten-man group almost 30 years ago and has been recording with it for two decades — Ladysmith Black Mambazo is one of South Africa’s most popular ensembles. For sheer vocal ecstasy, few organizations can equal its lush, comforting and sophisticated choral harmonies sung in the open mbube style. Simultaneously sorrowful and optimistic, the music originated in South African dormitories housing immigrant workers who’d left their townships and families for employment in the area’s diamond and gold mines.
Mbube is characterized by a cappella harmonies and short phrases, either sung in unison or against an overlapping call-and-response pattern. Reflecting on matters both familial and spiritual, the music is tied closely to the group’s Zulu culture. They generally sing in Zulu; the occasional English-language songs are a pleasant shock.
Noted ethno-music appropriator Paul Simon got wind of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and, despite the African National Congress’ cultural boycott of South Africa, recorded part of Graceland with them in Johannesburg and London. (He also featured the group on two subsequent tours and produced Shaka Zulu.) All that American attention led to the group’s remarkable commercial exploitation by 7-Up, which adapted “Beautiful Rain” from that album for a TV spot.
On Umthombo Wamanzi, Mambazo changes its strategy slightly, emphasizing ensemble work rather than call-and-response structures or a leader singing over backing voices; this accentuates their irregular punctuations and stop-start rhythms. As with previous records, it provides an almost overwhelming atmosphere of emotional power and grace. The unadorned human voice has rarely sounded so godlike.
Shabalala and Mambazo pay tribute to Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and god (although not exactly in that order) on Journey of Dreams, ending the record with a lovely gentle rendition (in English) of “Amazing Grace” that features Simon.
Taking the regrettably inevitable step into fusion, Mambazo recorded some of Two Worlds One Heart with musical backing. At the mixture’s mildest point, Mambazo sings the handsome “Rejoice” over traditional instruments with no harm done. But Shabalala’s duet with American gospel star Marvin Winans (which employs synthesizers) is an incongruity next to the group’s unaccompanied efforts, and the funk track co-written and co-produced by George Clinton makes it sound as if Mambazo were merely sampled into the mix — an undesirable effect considering whose album it is.
Although consistent enough to sound like it was recorded in one go, Classic Tracks is a compilation of tracks from the group’s first two dozen or so albums. As annoying as the lack of annotation may be, there’s no faulting the music, which is unfailingly magical.