Well, it wasn’t exactly the kind of serenade one expected on Fat Tuesday. But in its own way, last night’s sold out performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort was suitably ceremonious.
Granted, the acclaimed South African vocal ensemble’s songs were removed geographically, stylistically and perhaps even spiritually from the musical bacchanalia of New Orleans. But hearing the a capella group celebrating a child’s beauty (and, repelling the advances of an imposing witch doctor in the process) on Yinhle Lentombi was festive in an manner more poetic and reflective.
Throughout the two set, two hour concert, group leader Joseph Shabalala (even his name is musical) led a nine-member version of Mambazo through songs of peace and playfulness. Some were offered in English, although most were sung in zulu with ensemble movement that was less like dance and more like improvisational gymnastics. While the group included four of Shabalala’s sons, all of the singers, young and old, engaged in moves that promoted the kinds of aerial kicks that would have done 1982-era Van Halen proud.
Still, the elder Shabalala appeared and sounded more frail than in past Kentucky visits (the last was nearly a decade ago), which likely explained why he sat out for long stretches in both sets. In his stead, however were sons Thamsanga and Sibongiseni Shabalala. The former, the youngest of the siblings, employed a high, still-developing tenor during Paulina and King of Kings while the latter exhibited a deeper, more immediate lead on Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.
Just as appealing as the singing, and the robust group harmonizing it encompassed, were the song structures. In many cases – the show openers Ofana Naye and Unomathemba, among them – choruses were repeated like chants that, in turn, served as a foundation for all kinds of vocal and physical bedlam.
On Phansi Emgodini, a quiet labor anthem about miners’ rights to fair pay, the music essentially became bedrock for dances performed in pairs that were dramatically physical but deeply animated. Despite the tune’s comparatively heavy subject matter, the music quickly evolved into playtime.
The last word went to father Shabalala, alone onstage after an encore gospel medley framed around Amazing Grace, who offered a parting prayer of peace. All the revelry of Mardi Gras couldn’t have matched a moment so simple and exuberant.