Review by Debbie Bass and photos by Phil Onofrio, Copyright 2011
"Sanibonani," proclaimed Joseph Shabalala, the lead singer of Ladysmith Black Mamabazo as the group ascended the Old Town of Folk Music stage. "That means 'Hello' in our language," he said, as he flashed a broad warming smile--breaking into a dance complete with extraordinary high kicks and wild hand gestures. The nine member a cappella group from South Africa is currently on a world tour in promotion of their latest CD, Songs from a Zulu Farm, which was released in January of this year.
Shabalala has led the group since they formed in the early 1960s in Durban, South Africa--chosing the name because of its unique significance: "Ladysmith" being the name of Shabalala's village; "Black" being a reference to the powerful black ox; and "Mambazo" being the Zulu word for axe, a symbol of the group's ability to defeat any singing rivals who might challenge them. Most famous here in the U.S. for their work with Paul Simon on his Grammy Award-winning, Graceland, the group has continued to reap considerable acclaim, with 15 Grammy nominations and three Grammys, among many other awards received. They have worked with a slew of prominent artists here in the West-- from Stevie Wonder to Dolly Parton, and have overcome personnel changes and several personal tragedies to continue bringing their rich harmonies and message of "Peace, Love and Harmony" to the rest of the world.
Tonight, the group performed a ten song set that includes traditional Zulu melodies from their youth, including: "Homeless" (a song written by Shabalala and Simon), a dance song dedicated to the late songstress Miriam Makeba, and a Zulu style rendition of a childhood classic "Old McDonald Had a Farm." The latter song garnered vocal participation from the audience, while on another song an audience member joined the group on stage for an impromptu dance. Their performance was truly a group effort, with each member taking turns introducing various tunes, as well as performing high energy dance moves effortlessly to the amazement of the audience.
The intricate rhythmic harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo successfully marry together the traditional songs of their youth with the modern day originals and showcase the group's cherished musical traditions of their native South Africa. Chicago's Old Town School continues to present the finest world music from around the globe, and this evening was certainly no exception.