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Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

South African a capella vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, though most often singing in Zulu, has developed a sound that many listeners nonetheless recognize instantly, so distinctive has its style become. Paul Simon first brought widespread acclaim to the group on his famous Graceland album, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo has distinguished the soundtracks of The Lion King, Part II and Coming to America. A heavy touring schedule has exposed the octet to enthusiastic audiences who appreciate not only its tight harmonies, but also its uplifting messages. Now, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has released a tribute to Shaba Zulu, little known in the West, but regarded as the single personal force who joined disparate tribes into the start of African nationhood during the 1700’s. And so, all of the group’s signature elements are in place, but this time they are in the service of an overriding theme of respect and honor.

As with other revered figures whose stature grows through successive generations, Shaba Zulu has attained numerous attributes that countrypeople celebrate. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has separated these attributes into various noteworthy themes in their songs of praise, starting with that of the album’s title. Ilembe, meaning "The Greatest Warrior," obviously suggesting that at least some degree of physical force and perhaps much of it convinced the tribes to unite through accumulating victories. As always, though Joseph Shabalaba the groups founder, leader, composer and lyricist finds uplighting, not to mention spiritual, themes for inspiration from Shaba Zulu’s example. Even in the face of tragedies, including the murder of his wife of 30 years in 2002, Shabalaba determines that there are lessons to be learned from all of life’s experiences. And so, from The Greatest Warrior, rather than through conquest, Shabalaba discerns personal improvement, as sung in "Kuyafundw’ Osizini (Ilembe)," or "Learning from the Obstacles." He writes that "you will teach others how to conquer [NB] the same kinds of obstacles" when a person confronts obstacles and learns from them, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings the lyrics without rhythm as if it were a recitative before the call and response.

Politics? Well, Shabalaba covers that too in "Let’s Do It," as he embraces idealism, rather than cynicism, but explaining that "everyone says politicis is a dirty game, but it can be channeled to do good." Well, yes, it can. More importantly, it should be. But the vocal octet espouses its lesson of social improvement by expressing that message before the repeated three-note chorded pattern that allows the solo voice to explain the theme for inculcation. Goodness? Jealousy? Success? Shabalaba addresses those universal themes too, always adding his own interpretation to involve optimism as the result. Regarding goodness, the lyricist’s perspective in "hlala Nami" considers the value of maintaining contact with a good person for continuing enlightenment. No doubt, you get the idea now that the lyrics of Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu are fraught with much importance of meaning, and they are.

But with spirituality too.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings "Prince of Peace" in English, confirming to English-speaking audiences its connection to the virtues of Christianity as well, including sacrifice, love and patience like Job’s. Despite the group’s origins in South African music derived from miners’ songs, it has incorporated some spiritual elements similar to those of gospel music, and so even though the words may not be understood, the sentiment and feeling are communicated nonetheless.

Just as important is the beauty of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music, with its tight harmonies, distinctive voices and metirculous attention to sonic details unique to its members. For that reason, the group has remains one of a kind, without any effective imitators, even though it has been in existence for over 40 years. Even though one doesn’t understand the lyrics to a song like "O Mmu Beno Mmu," its feeling communicates the group’s thematic intentions. Its musical devices parallel spiritual incantations heard throughout the world with its use of cantor, choir, narrative, religious fervor and moral improvement and its spiritual intent is intuitively understood. On top of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s gorgeous harmonies from like-minded singers performing without the benefit of rhythm, they embellish the songs with vocal devices such as ululations, clicks, percolations, sibilances, locomotive dynamics and falsetto, among others. And Ladysmith Black Mambazo ends Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu not only with the sounds of nature’s rustling and bird sounds, but also with a witty two-note "kook kook" as if it were the percussiveness of a hollow log or yet the bird call of another species.

The power of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the reason for its longevity, are the universality of its spiritual, celebratory and moral themes, even as it is based in the native elements of its origins.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • CD Title: Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Heads Up International
  • Tracks: O Mmu Beno Mmu, Kuyafundw’ Osizini (Ilembe), Vela Nsizwa, Let’s Do It, Umon’ Usek’ Esweni, Sizobalanda, This Is The Way We Do, Iphel’ Emasini, Asekhon’ Amatshitshi, Hlala Nami, Prince Of Peace, Iphel’ Emasini (Nature Effects)
  • Musicians: Joseph Shabalala, Albert Mazibuko, Msizi Shabalala, Sibongiseni Shabalala, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala, Russel Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko
  • Rating: Four Stars
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