Over the Rocky Mountains

2012-09-08 08:52

Donna Bryson attends a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert in Denver, Colorado, and speaks to a veteran band member about a lifetime of performance

As the sun goes down over the Rocky Mountains, a ragged vuvuzela note blares across a grassy Colorado Amphitheater.

South Africans, eager for sweeter sounds from their homeland, have joined Americans at a Denver concert that brought together Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Johnny Clegg, who have more than seven decades of performance between them.

The multiple-Grammy-winning Zulu group known for the power and beauty of its a cappella harmonies, toured North America last month. The group performed a series of Graceland reunion shows with Paul Simon across Europe in July.

In 1987, the year Graceland won the Grammy for album of the year despite accusations Simon broke an anti-apartheid cultural boycott to record it, Simon produced Shaka Zulu, the first American release for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Shaka Zulu won the best traditional folk recording Grammy in 1988, the first of three Grammys for the band from Ladysmith.

Since Graceland brought the group to the world’s attention, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has shared recording studios with performers ranging from Welsh choirs to Lou Rawls. Albert Mazibuko, a longtime member of the vocal group founded and led by his cousin, Joseph Shabalala, says among the most memorable musical partnerships was with Dolly Parton.

“She’s a favourite of our wives. They play her music so much,’’ he says. Mazibuko adds that when he and other members learnt they were going to meet Parton, their first thought was how pleased their wives would be to see pictures of their husbands with the country music star. Parton sings a charming version of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door with the group.

Shabalala began Ladysmith Black Mambazo with his brothers and cousins. Now four of his sons are members. During segments of their North America tour, Shabalala would introduce “the next generation of Mambazo’’ and sit on the sidelines while his sons took turns leading.

The young Shabalalas are more nimble dancers than their fathers and uncles, kicking higher in the group’s trademark white trainers and red socks. The youngest son, Thamsanqa, sings in a sweet tenor that contrasts with his father’s trademark growl.

But they are unmistakably Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

“We want to stick to our tradition,’’ says Mazibuko, a proud uncle, “because we think it’s beautiful.’’

The North America tour has been gruelling, with so many stops that when Mazibuko was interviewed by phone in Seattle, he wasn’t sure what city was next on the itinerary. Keeping track, he says, is “a manager’s job”.

Being with family made the travel easier, he said.

“The quality time that we spend together, especially with our sons, is special,’’ Mazibuko says. “The things that they know, the way they see the world is different. We learn from them and they learn from us. They grew up mainly with other cultures. They didn’t experience what we did”.

The group has a signature song about Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, the title taken from Mandela’s celebrated autobiography.

“We tell the story of what was happening before and what is happening now. South Africa still has a long way to go to develop. We still need to develop,” he says. “The good thing is that the country is free.’’

Then, a final nod to Mandela: “It’s in our hands now.’’

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