One of South Africa’s most highly acclaimed singing groups, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s close harmonies, typically sung a cappella, have been heard around the world. But you still may not be aware of the vocal tentet. The group has performed in the background of numerous influential recordings, such as Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland
album, and or it has appeared in very visible projects, like a famous appearance on Sesame Street
or in very audible projects, like contributions to the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America,
not to mention inclusion on Heads Up’s CD of South African music, Smooth Africa II: Exploring the Soul.
So highly respected is the group that Nelson Mandela recommended that the group perform for the Queen of England and the Royal Family; that they were afforded the rare opportunity to sing for the Pope; and that they entertained for not one, but two
Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. And yet the members of the group remain modest and humble. The group’s unique arrangements, usually sung in the members’ native language, may appear on the surface to be its signifying characteristic. However, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s sound can’t really be imitated because of the spirituality, a combination of Christianity and Zulu tradition, infusing its music.
Due to that spiritual content, strengthened through forty years of singing together, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s message--and its mission--have remained unswerving: that of fervent hopes for peace and of converting hardship into a steadfast adherence to faith, assuredly a Christian message. That paradoxical strengthening of belief through sudden and sometimes shocking exposure to adversity became even more evident when Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala’s wife of thirty years was murdered in 2002. Instead of seeking revenge on the unapprehended assailant as his faith was put to the test, Shabalala espoused the need for peace, for a raising of the spirit, even more strenuously. Much of the music on Raise Your Spirit Higher [Wenyukela]
was recorded after the murder. Indeed, one of the most touching tracks, although lacking in Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s rich harmonies as it is sung in unison, is "Tribute," a little-more-than-a-minute-long address by Shabalala’s grandsons to his late wife, Nellie.
Ladysmith (the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown) Black (an allusion to the strength of oxen) Mambazo (Zulu for "axe," signifying the group’s ability to chop vocal competitors) unfailingly presents a message (or messages) for listeners, often in call-and-response fashion. Shabalala’s pleas are answered by a broad spectrum of male voices in surprisingly conventional harmony. For instance, the chorus’ reflections upon Shabalala’s themes of "Wenyukela" are formed as a broadly spaced tonic chord, declarative and simply eschewing such tightly knit and sometimes dissonant jazz harmonies as major ninths or minor blues sevenths. Some of the songs, such as "Wangibambezela," involve parables, and some, like "Uqinisil’ Ubada," reveal self-confessions, and all feature lessons learned or warnings given. Despite the group’s earnestness, its ardor remains contained, never attempting the summit climbing of gospel. Rather, Ladysmith Black Mambazo stays coolly irresistible as its music maintains a fairly constant dynamic range consistent with its roots in the traditions of South African miners, who sang, and ultimately developed a subgenre of music, to relieve the stress of six continuous days of strenuous manual labor.
As Heads Up’s third release in its series featuring South African musicians, Raise Your Spirit Higher
encompasses a universal spirit, eternally present but inadequately expressed by those less articulate than Ladysmith Black Mambazo, that perpetuates hope despite the concomitant presence of faith-testing hardship.