Even in the catch-all ecosystem of “world music”, few groups’ trajectories have seen their fortunes mirror their home country’s like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The all-male chorus, singing in the mbube and isicathamiya a cappella tradition (a tradition that took on new importance when industrialization and economic marginalization forced many African men to migrate to overcrowded cities for work), became locally renowned in their namesake city for tight harmonies and lively, stirring renditions of Zulu songs. Their founding in 1960 precipitated nearly two decades of internal development that, per the laws of cultural segregation, was relegated to African-exclusive spaces.
At a time in which the apartheid regime had forcefully isolated African artistic development (and the left-leaning artistic world had forcefully isolated that regime), Ladysmith Black Mambazo was hand-picked by Paul Simon to contribute to his career-reviving Graceland and subsequent tour. Inspiring exuberant praise and postcolonial criticism in equal measure, the album nonetheless propelled the group to worldwide acclaim and frequent festival-circuit tours as apartheid’s long shadow faded into the chaotic sunrise of ANC rule.
Even this most renowned of South African groups proved unable to escape the violence of either the 1980s Emergency or the contemporary crime epidemic. Several group members and their family members have been senselessly murdered. Stacked against the textbook rockstar-overindulgence tragedy, LBM’s struggles read more like tales of political dissidence or treason.
But years later, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, South Africa has embraced pluralism in all of its problematic and complex dimensions. Likewise, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has weathered trauma and evolved into a historic institution, dedicating itself to education and invisible boundary-crossing every time they perform or lead a workshop. With a nine-person line-up that now includes some children of older members, this group has worked itself into a timeless institution whose performances provide near-sacred ecstasy and musicological education in equal measure to audiences in every corner of the world. Continue reading →