Ladysmith Black Mambazo celebrated South African culture in The Egg’s Hart Theatre Sunday night with laughter, dancing and plenty of spirited singing.
The Zulu a cappella group, known for its collaborations with artist ranging from Paul Simon to Taj Mahal, sang for two hour-long sets before a half-full theater. Though the crowd may have been smaller than expected, the group’s performance was enthusiastic enough to make the show seem larger than life. Covering material from throughout their five-decade-plus career, Ladysmith Black Mambazo brought both vibrant energy and soulful spirituality to the stage.
The nine vocalists of Ladysmith Black Mambazo took the stage shortly after 7:30 p.m., immediately launching into the welcoming song “Ofanan Naye” and filling the theater with a cascading wall of voices. Though the words were unfamiliar, the expressive smiles on the singers’ faces, coupled with their jubilant dancing, made the joyful atmosphere easy to pick up on, and impossible to not give in to.
Perhaps most amazing was the veritable wall of sound these singers created, leaving very little space for anything else. There was no percussion, vocal or otherwise — just pure vocalizing on bouncy, upbeat numbers such as “Nomathemba,” one of the group’s earliest songs. Here, the nine members’ voices blended in perfect harmony, swelling in pulses that almost created the effect of string instruments. Even without a steady backbeat, the group maintained a dance-worthy rhythm throughout all of its songs, which was quite a feat.
Some of the most lighthearted moments in the first set came with the songs on the group’s latest album, “Songs From a Zulu Farm,” which features traditional farm songs from the group’s Zulu culture. “Yangiluma Inkukhu (The Biting Chicken)” featured some clucking and chicken dancing in honor of the song’s titular character, while “Leliyafu (Clouds Move Away)” featured soulful chanting and a healthy dose of the group’s gospel influences.
Founding member and leader Joseph Shabalala ceded the lead vocal mic to his youngest son, Thamsanqa, for a number of songs in the first set. His angelic tenor on “This is the Way We Do” and the aforementioned “Leliyafu” provided a nice change of pace, and a jolt of energy as group members took turns demonstrating their dance moves solo.
The group only upped its energy for the second set, kicking off with “Wemfana (Bad Donkey)” — another new song from “Zulu Farm,” complete with donkey dancing. “Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain” was perhaps the most gospel-influenced song the group performed.
Two long numbers dominated the second set. “Yinhle Lentonbi (This Lady is Beautiful) gave another Shabalala son, Sibongiseni, a chance behind the lead vocal mic, but showcased slapstick dancing from every member of the group. Likewise, the main set closer — a Zulu dance song with a chorus translating to, “Things are upside-down because of you, talkative woman” — gave everyone in the group a dance solo, the choreographed moves coming across as spontaneous and carefree.
Best of all though was “Homeless,” the group’s breakthrough collaboration with Paul Simon from 1985. The rare somber moment allowed Joseph to dig into the vocal part, as the rest of his group responded in kind to create a haunting refrain that eventually faded to thunderous applause.
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