The voices of Africa reverberated through Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur recently when award-winning Zulu a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) returned for a one-night outing to Malaysia.
Through their brand of music, the South Africans took us on a spiritual voyage and showed that music indeed transcends culture and time, and is the universal language of love, peace and harmony.
A mix of two South African musical forms, isicathamiya and its precursor mbube, with a dash of Christian gospel music, LBM’s music gained national prominence in their homeland decades ago, as they repeatedly swept the isicathamiya competitions that were held in the men’s worker hostels in Durban and Johannesburg.
The troupe was so good that they were only allowed to perform as artists and not as competitors. But it was only in 1986 when they gained international acclaim through their collaboration with music legend Paul Simon on his landmark Graceland album.
On April 10, they demonstrated why their music has taken the world by storm. Singing in their native language and in English, they picked a selection of songs from old and new albums.
From the first note sung in Nomathemba (meaning hope) and the subtle tongue-clicking that followed, we knew it was going to be a magical night with these altos, tenors and bass-men.
Isicathamiya groups sing in four-part harmony, typically led by a tenor soloist, but all vocal ranges are represented even though the bass vocalists are the greatest in number.
The group’s repertoire consisted of songs, which told stories, songs of praise and songs with the message of hope. English songs such as King Of Kings, Tough Times and Long Walk To Freedom talked about the struggles during the apartheid era.
Each member was given a chance to shine in the two-hour concert and shine they did as they took the microphone and exhibited their vocal prowess.
Their performance was underscored by warmth, informality and playful antics among the nine tightly-knit members of the ensemble, who included founder Joseph Shabalala’s four sons.
Oh, and their style of dancing, was out of the blue and had plenty of rhythmic clapping, high knees and high kicks, even by the two oldest members of the troop: Albert Mazibuko, 68, and his brother, Abednego Mazibuku, 62, who are both Shabalala’s cousins.
With their tight voices and polished harmonies blending nicely with synchronised footwork, agility and plenty of stamina, they had the audience cheering and foot-tapping along.
Deliberately or otherwise, there were times during the performance when the ensemble stepped away from the microphones and, in their clear, unamplified voices and syncopated dance movements, we caught a glimpse of brutally-worked, meagrely-paid South African miners finding solace in songs sung so softly, it wouldn’t disturb the neighbours.
LBM, often called post-apartheid South Africa’s premiere cultural ambassadors, brought their performance to a close with an encore of Shosholoza (meaning go forward), which expresses heartache over the hard work carried out in the mines,
As the lyrics go, “Push, push, pushing on and on/there’s much to be done/shosholoza/push, push, pushing in the sun/we will push as one.”
Standing ovation was the order of the night and I couldn’t help walking away thinking how the pure, sustaining power of this music has survived sorrows and kept the people going in their fight for freedom.
Let’s hope we won’t have to wait another 15 years for LBM’s next performance here.