In common with, I suspect, many members of this enthusiastic Norwich audience I bought Paul Simon’s Graceland album when it first came out in the 1980s. This remarkable record introduced the world to South African musicians Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but the group had been formed in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala and friends and had already achieved great success including a gold disc with their first album Amabutho.
The band, first called Ezimnyama, was renamed Ladysmith Black Mambazo by Joseph, having originally formed following a dream he had of a group singing isicathamiya music in perfect harmony. He worked hard to generate those harmonies from a group largely composed of members of his own family, and indeed for the current line-up four of his sons are in the current nine-strong group. Isicathamiya is the traditional music of the Zulu people and the group won so many of the competitions in this form of music that they were banned from competing, albeit more than welcome to perform at events! The style of Ladysmith Black Mambazo also is described as Mbube after a song recorded in 1939 by Soloman Linda, a style familiar from records such as ‘Wimoweh’.
While the sound of the band may be familiar to many I was surprised by the physicality of this show. The band vary in age but all move a lot, in particular high kicking to the music throughout most songs. They each have their own distinctive styles of movement, with the younger members happily performing backflips and other complex and athletic moves, all in time with the complex and multilayered rhythms of the songs. They wear matching but unique outfits but all wear spotless white plimsolls, which makes sense when you see them dance and high kick all the while staying in perfect harmony.
Joseph himself retired in 2014 from the touring band – he is 77 now – but the magical spirit that he created lives on and continues to delight capacity audiences around the world. They appear relentlessly cheerful with a message of peace and love and tolerance, all the more poignant when you realise that the Shabalala family has suffered some of the murderous violence which is still all too common in South Africa today. Today the band is led by Joseph’s young son Thamsanqua Shabalala. Every band member gets a chance to highlight their own particular talent, both musically and in their moves, with a bit of gentle competition between each other as they perform. However when the full band harmonise together the sound is breathtaking and deeply moving.
This evening’s performance included two of the songs co-written by Paul Simon and Joseph Shabalala, ‘Homeless’ and ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ both guaranteed audience pleasers. The reputation of this group is so high that it would be easy for them to cruise through a show with the minimum of effort, but this is not the way that Ladysmith Black Mambazo work, they give us a show that is fresh, full of energy and delight and musically stunning. They have been active as a band for 58 years, and I am pretty sure that in another 58 years time they will still be going strong. Another world-class booking for Norwich Theatre Royal as a part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2018.
© Julian Swainson 2018