It is perhaps unavoidable to approach Ladysmith Black Mambazo and not be guided in part by American sensibilities.
After all, the multi-Grammy-winning Southern African vocal troupe was introduced to this country largely through collaborations with Paul Simon’s on his landmark 1986 recording Graceland, even though the a capella Mambazo was singing songs of peace, spiritualism and heritage over 25 years prior to the meeting.
A host of other Americans eventually flocked to the group’s enchanting music. In fact, Mambazo’s 2006 album, Long Walk to Freedom, teamed the group with such domestic celebs as Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and Taj Mahal.
Shoot, Mambazo even once let their singing orchestrate a Life Savers commercial. How much more American can a South African group get?
But the real test comes with concert performances. In the wake of Graceland and the group’s first North American album release, 1987’s Simon-produced Shaka Zulu, Mambazo has toured the United States on a near-annual basis, singing songs mostly in the native Zulu tongue of isicathamiya. And yet, year after year, Stateside audiences seem to absorb enough soul and sentiment from the songs to comprehend at least a portion of the foreign lyrics.
African music. American ears. Strangely enough, the combination continues to work.
“There is no language barrier,” said Albert Mazibuko, who has been singing tenor with Mambazo since 1969. “In fact, it amazes me because the people, they understand the message. I think it’s because the music has its own language. With the music, you receive a feeling and that feeling tells what the song is about.
“I also think that people all over the world are facing the same problems, problems we try to address in our music. I think that’s why people always relate to our singing. So our mission is this – we want to tell people that they should be together and solve their problems and strive to do good things all the time.”
Here sits one of the most curious contrasts within Mambazo’s music. The ensemble’s singing is often pastoral – a fact that is perhaps not surprising given the high spiritual content of its material (among the group’s many in-progress recording projects is an album of American gospel music). But there are also songs representative of social, work and political life within a still-fragile post-Apartheid South Africa. And those tunes sound just as angelic as the spiritual works.
Among them is Phansi Enigodini (Deep Down in the Mines), a tune about native mine workers that has been absent from Mambazo’s repertoire in recent years. It is being revived for the group’s current United States tour, which comes to Frankfort’s Grand Theatre on Tuesday.
“South Africa has been free for almost 18 years now,” Mazibuko said. “But we still have some struggles. Some people still live in poverty. Some people when they work are still not enough paid. So the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider all the time.
“We brought back this mining song and the message that people should share the wealth of the country. We have also brought back those songs that talk about people who refuse to be involved with any violence. Because we see how the violence could come back to our culture.
“In December we were singing for our government, our President. All the government people were there and we performed some of these songs. They were laughing because we’re saying, ‘Be careful. Just treat people right.’ So I can say South Africa is a good country but we still face challenges. I hope those challenges will be conquered because they were conquered before.”
Mambazo is backing that pledge with more than just performance. Under construction at present is the Mambazo Academy, a school and studio to help promote the country’s native music among its youth.
“We just built a small place around Durban, which is easy to reach but is still in the countryside. We’re not trying to build a big one, so we’re going to start with a small one and it’s going so well. I believe we’re on the right track, so our dream is coming true. It’s a cultural center where the young people show their talent and where we have time to work with them.”
This month, though, Mambazo is doing what it does best – serving as performing musical and cultural ambassadors before American audiences. After 44 years, Mazibuko hasn’t tired of the job, especially since several of the group members are literally family – among them is his cousin, Mambazo founder and leader Joseph Shabalala. The current Mambazo lineup also includes Mazibuko’s brother and several nephews.
“We are a happy family on the road. It is always exciting. I was thinking yesterday morning, ‘Were so fortunate.’ Being part of this group keeps me young all the time. It makes me reflect on all of the good things that happens to me and then makes me want to grow more.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb.12 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. The performance is sold out.