“They’re saying they have four Grammys and you have zero,” jokes Thulani Shabalala, indicating to his eight band mates. His casual dropping of facts about Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s achievements while needling the audience to sing louder is justifiable pride rather than arrogance.
Brought to prominence in 1986 when they worked on Paul Simon’s Graceland, the male choral group has since toured tirelessly on a “mission to spread our culture of South Africa”.
With an ever-evolving line-up, the longest standing member tonight is Albert Mazibuko – who joined in 1969 – while three sons of founding member Joseph Shabalala share the vocal lead. This inter-generational, intra-family aspect gives them unity and the kind of harmonies that are rarely found outside of relatives.
With one lead vocal, most of the songs are built around the gradual introduction of two or three bass harmony lines. Interspersed with the tongue clicks that are part of their native Zulu, they act as rhythmic breaks that are otherwise provided by occasional clapping.
Rich and soulful, their take on traditional folk music also hints at doo-wop (their encore of ‘Amazing Grace’) and blues (‘Homeless’). With an immediacy of emotion, they convey meaning that easily transcends any language barrier.
Uplifting even when singing about apartheid (‘King Of Kings’) and the mining industry (‘Kwathatha’), they add elements of theatre that further entertain. Combining synchronised gestures –- hands crossed over hearts and raised fists –- with impressive high kicks, their energy and enthusiasm is testament to the politics of music to overcome challenges.