Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Photo by Shane Doyle
This month’s Orchestra Hall concert by Ladysmith Black Mambazo takes me back to the 1980s. Information traveled in haphazard ways in that pre-internet time, yet there were a few intersecting factors that opened the minds of my generation coming of age in the Reagan era (and paved the way for the world we live in now).
The first was an awareness of the overwhelming whiteness of MTV. Other than Michael Jackson, you were hard pressed to see any musical developments there from soul, funk, R&B, or the early, thrilling days of hip-hop—unless a white artist repackaged them and slipped them past the gatekeepers of the record labels and cable czars. (Debbie Harry and Blondie scoring a hip-hop hit while Kurtis Blow’s commercial breakthrough was years on the horizon? Please.)
The second came in the middle of the decade. It’s difficult to convey the power of the LP The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, which dropped seemingly out of nowhere in 1985. Good lord: Even those of us who made regular stops in the World Music section were utterly blown away by this compilation of music from the townships of apartheid-torn South Africa. Driving, funky, passionate, all over the place stylistically—somehow the reality of race-based oppression on the other side of the world was arriving in the form of impossibly catchy music, the sounds of common humanity and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
And then, the next year, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Faced with a period of creative paucity, the master songwriter had jumpstarted his muse by traveling to South Africa and working with black musicians. Most of the record’s songs were about relationships, and wry takes on love—the apolitical territory Simon so often traverses—but the musical collaboration was startling. Amazing vocal energy, fresh rhythms, a palpable sense of joy throughout.
Simon was then rightfully slammed for breaking cultural boycotts against Apartheid, and for exploiting and appropriating music in an act akin to colonialism. It was strong stuff, and Simon responded by touring with South African musicians and generally promoting artists such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, neither of whom I might have known about if not for Simon’s efforts. Today the controversy seems dated. But at the time it was hard to imagine that Apartheid would ever end.
It’s stunning to realize that vocal combo Ladysmith Black Mambazo only appeared on a few tracks on Graceland (even the Everly Brothers dropped in to cameo on one). But what songs they were, especially “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” in which their lush, breathy harmonies wedded with white American pop and made those who listened feel, in the context of the times, that this was the sound of racial barriers falling, that this was what the future felt like.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo had been around for 26 years by that point (their early tune “Nomathemba” literally means Hope), and has persevered in the roughly 30 years since. The product of visionary founder Joseph Shabalala, today they refer to themselves as a “mobile academy” spreading South African culture into the next phase of world history. And what a culture: such beauty and freedom of the heart amid massive wrongs and once-seeming unchangeable tides of history. Two lines into any of their songs is still enough to transport me to a place of hope.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo