The South African male choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought their unique and infectious rhythms to the Music Center at Strathmore on Feb. 8 for a show that did not disappoint a house full of enthusiastic fans.
Founded in 1960 by singer Joseph Shabalala, the group, known as South Africa’s cultural ambassadors, have recorded more than 60 albums and have become one of the most successful world music groups in history.
Their low gruffs growls and “clicking” noises, accompanied by amazing high kicks, have thrilled audiences around the world. Adding to their popularity is their message of love, peace and harmony, ensuring them concert engagements for nearly six months out of the year.
Originally named “Ezimnyama” (The Black Ones), the group’s name changed after Shabalala had a series of recurring dreams over six months in 1964, featuring a choir singing in perfect harmony.
He strove to teach group members the isicathamiya harmonies from his dreams, isicathamiya being the traditional music of the Zulu people. The music had developed in the mines of South Africa where black workers were taken by rail to labor six days a week, living in poor housing and receiving minimal wages. Far away from their homes and families, the miners would entertain themselves by singing songs.
The three elements of the new name were: Ladysmith, the hometown of Shabalala’s family; the black ox considered to be the strongest farm animal; and Mambazo, which means “axe” in the Zulu language, and is symbolic of the choir’s impressive vocal strength.
The singers released their first album, “Amabutho,” in 1973, and their collaboration with singer Paul Simon in 1986 paved the way for international acclaim and 19 Grammy Award nominations.
The prolific recording artists have had 30 members over 45 years since its founder retired in 2014, leaving his son, Thamsanqua, to lead the nine-member group.
At Strathmore, they kicked off a two-hour show with their signature tune, “Nomathemba,” a girl’s name meaning hope. Shabalala’s younger son then led the group in an upbeat, lilting rendering of “Love Your Neighbour,” before moving into “Thalaza,” a song about a man who missed his home, including the nearby mountains, birds and rivers.
“Unkulunkulu wethu” was a call to never kill out of hate, “because we are all the same in the eyes of God.” The audience nodded approvingly as the lyrics repeated, “different languages mean nothing to me. Different cultures mean nothing to me.” More applause rang out when it was announced that South Africa on that night was celebrating 25 years of Democracy, an emotional moment given the country’s former racist, apartheid government.
The group dedicated their 2006 album “Long Walk to Freedom” to former South African president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela who had the group accompany to him to Oslo when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The group also performed at his inauguration in 1994. The four-part harmony of the group, with their acapella voices, mimicked a world-class orchestra, with each group member interjecting his own distinct persona into each song.
In addition to Thamsanqa Shabalala, the group consists of three other Shabalala brothers: Thulani, Sibongiseni, and Msizi. Cousins Albert and Abednego Mazibuko round out the ensemble that also includes Sabelo Mthembu and Mfanathuni Diamini.
Playful banter and onstage humor add to the group’s charm and appeal, belying the racism and tragedies that the group has experienced over the years.
During the height of apartheid, and prior to gaining worldwide fame, the members were often stopped by police guards and made to lie down on the ground while being searched.
In 1991, Shabalala’s brother, Headman, a bass member in the group, was shot and killed by a white off-duty security guard in a racially motivated attack. In 2002, Shabalala’s wife of 30 years, Nellie, was shot and killed by a masked gunman, and Shabalala’s hand was injured while trying to protect her.
At Strathmore, however, the group’s members only spoke of unity and peace between races while closing out the evening with such audience favorites as “Diamonds,” “Tough Times,” “Rain, Rain,” “How Long” and “All Women.” The emotional and deeply moving “Homeless” garnered a standing ovation and “Wena othanda” ended the night, as thunderous applause rang through the hall.