Connecticut College News
Ladysmith Black Mambazo - By Lilah Raptopoulos ´1102/11/2009
They took the stage of Palmer Auditorium on Thursday, February 5, and the first words spoken were in Joseph Shabalala´s raspy grind: "Our mission is to spread our culture, our culture of South Africa… of love! Of harmony." Ladysmith Black Mambazo is prone to the same imperialist struggle that many African artists have to face, and the same questioning of motive that all under the spotlight will eventually ask themselves: How did we get where we are? Is it at odds with who we are? The group spreads a pure, traditional message of love and peace, with lyrics like, "Problems can be solved when people come together/The sun rise and set forever." And yet the men were thrust into the global spotlight by the white-as-white Paul Simon, who "discovered" them during a search for inspiration in South Africa. Their message could be muddled by their multimillion-dollar profits and the money they´ve made for Disney, Michael Jackson and Graceland. Their traditional garb last Thursday was offset by their Rolex watches and perfectly synchronized choreography. They´ve been to the Grammy Awards. They´ve won Grammys. And yet somehow, the message pervaded all. If it takes integration into the capitalist system that has torn apart Africa in its effort to "develop" Africa to teach a few white Connecticut College students a lesson on unity, so be it. If that makes them a personal friendship with Nelson Mandela and invites them to sing of togetherness to the Queen of England, we´ll take it. And then we´ll buy their DVD. The internationally acclaimed group was brought to Connecticut College by OnStage, that brings performances to campus for students and the greater community. They opened in 1998 with The Flying Karamazov brothers, a juggling slapstick comedy group, and since have booked acts featuring the campus-known David Dorfman Dance Company, the lesser-known Flanders Recorder Quartet - four men in tuxedos that play various sized recorders - and the Vienna Boys´ Choir. But never have they brought in such a widely-known group as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which made for an overwhelming mix of faculty couples, students, young children and upper-class Connecticut suburb dwellers in our Palmer Auditorium. In the audience, an African-American mother and daughter swayed in their seats. A white-haired woman shook her outstretched hands silently, with vigor, at LMB in applause. With the start of the second act came a change in the theater´s atmosphere from that of cordial acquaintance to full-on friendship. The audience began to collectively cheer through the end of every song, the last five minutes of repeated phrase that allowed for the group´s coordinated knee lifts, hand shaking and ninja high kicks. We unabashedly sang Zulu lyrics that translated to, "This woman is beautiful/She has a beautiful set of teeth." Twenty students left ther seats for the last song to dance on stage, and during the group´s encore, "God Bless Africa," not even a seat squeaked. It´s like Ladysmith Black Mambazo are people and gods at the same time. They have Dad Humor and call each other "the guys," and give high fives. They wear bright white Reebok sneakers with black pants and poke each other in the middle of songs. And yet there is another tension, one of informality versus tradition. Founder Joseph Shabalala is described by his sons as more of a deity than a daddy. He is reverentially referred to as "Mr. Shabalala" - as in, "This was the time Mr. Shabalala was inspired to write all of these beautiful songs." Shabalala´s influence was, and is, untouchable. He was presented as the force of the group´s 48-year career, as the founder and father of four current members. He would leave the stage inexplicably between songs only to return with a wide smile and words of wisdom such as, "The indigenous music of our culture is a mirror - it tells us who we are." His authenticity was, if anything, believable. The individual voices of Shabalala´s group came together harmonically, from son Thulani´s light soprano to cousin Albert Mazibuko´s low, tribal Barry White rumble, to form this sound that you couldn´t walk away from skeptically. Ladysmith Black Mambazo couldn´t be anything but genuine. It would be an insult to the sheer delight these men brought their audience to call the show insincere. They were singers with a message, throwing around the word "Love" with no hesitation, sure, maybe giving in to The Man, but doing so with a deep bow and the lyrics Paul Simon made famous in "Homeless": "We should take care of one another."