LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO

(February 9, 2016; WILDEY THEATRE, Edwardsville IL)

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Before jumping into the night’s music, a quick word about the venerable Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, Illinois. The theater opened as a vaudeville venue in 1909 and still carries much of the charm of the era, as well as much of the Art Deco styling of a major mid-’20s renovation. This was my first experience at the Wildey and I was quite impressed with it as a concert venue; if a place can capture the unique ability to be both intimate and expansive at the same time, it is the Wildey Theatre.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Pius Shezi; Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala;  Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongiseni Shabalala (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Pius Shezi; Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongiseni Shabalala (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

I imagine that, like most Americans, my introduction to Ladysmith Black Mambazo came through Paul Simon’s incredible 1986 album, GRACELAND. However, the group has a rich and storied history going back to 1960 when Joseph Shabalala formed Ezimnyama, the precursor to LBM. The group still features four of Shabalala’s sons, Thamsanqa, Msizi, Thulani and Sibongiseni. Like their home country of South Africa, the history of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is littered with death and violence; in 1969, the longest serving member of the group (aside from Joseph, who now acts as the group’s musical director), Albert Mazibuko and his younger brother, Milton, joined the band. In 1980, Milton was murdered; the Mazibuko’s younger brother, Abednego became a member in the mid-’70s. Joseph Sabalala’s brother, Ben, also a member of LBM, was murdered in 1991, Jospeh’s wife, in 2004. Life is not easy for Ladysmith Black Mambazo but, through their continuing struggles, they have never lost their optimism or their joyous, uplifting sound.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Thulani Shabalala, Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongisen Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala; Thulani Shabalala, Sabelo Mthembu, Abednego Mazibuko, Sibongisen Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a short introduction, the nine-member group took the stage and, after taking a bit of time to relate the meaning of the first song, they jumped right in. Along the way, each took their turn dancing out front and performing as frontman, with lead vocals that soared over the others’ backing. One of the highlights of the first set was the stirring “Long Walk To Freedom,” dedicated to the late freedom activist and former South African president, Nelson Mandela, in celebration of the country’s twenty-two years of freedom and Democracy. Even though we come from very different backgrounds, moments like this bring us all together; these are the times when the color of a man’s skin or his geographical heritage become secondary and we all join together to celebrate the Human Race.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko; Pius Shezi; Sibongiseni Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Albert Mazibuko; Pius Shezi; Sibongiseni Shabalala) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

After a brief intermission, the singers greeted us with a short intro and snippet of “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes.” The second half of the show featured a great deal of dancing and some audience participation. Throughout this set, several members offered introductions to the other men onstage, as well as introspection to the meaning of most of the songs. Highlights from the latter half of the night included “Homeless” (a song co-written by Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon, which appeared on GRACELAND and Ladysmith’s ZIBUYINHLAZANE album of the same year) and my favorite song from the second set, “Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a timeless sound that somehow conveys nostalgia and spiritual depth at the same time. Seeing the group live is truly amazing… even if you aren’t fluent in Zulu.


NICO AND VINZ: BLACK STAR ELEPHANT

(WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS/5 STAR ENTERTAINMENT; 2014)

Nico and Vinz cover

Norwegian pop duo Nico and Vinz (Kahouly Nicolay Sereba and Vincent Dery, formerly known as Envy) blend danceable new wave vibes (there is more than a cursory nod to the Police and their rock-Reggae-ska hybrid), a retro New Jack soul cool and an urban hip-hop swagger with their Ghanian and Ivorian musical heritage. The vibrant aural stew of BLACK STAR ELEPHANT is joyful, inspirational and something that is utterly… Nico and Vinz.

After a brief “(Intro),” the album’s lead single, “Am I Wrong” (which went Top 5 on BILLBOARD’s Hot 100 Singles chart), gives the album legs right from the get-go. While the guitar riff and melody line are straight out of the Police hit “Message In a Bottle,” the tune has more of an American urban pop sound, featuring the duo’s faultless vocals, an unobtrusive but effective horn chart and an infusion of African percussion. “Last Time” has a little more of an uptown, Bronx sound in the vocals, lyrics and overall groove. It makes this old heart happy when you can actually hear a sense of jubilation in a voice and, here, you can almost see the brilliant smiles on the faces of the background singers (Nico and Vinz, themselves, along with Elisabeth Carew). Though it has yet to be released as a single, this one has Top 40 radio supremacy written all over it. “(Leave Us)” is a short, spoken word outro to “Last Time,” with an ominous male voice (African, I’m guessing, by the dialect) that intones a warning, “You have to go.” I’m thinking that many of these short interludes come from a movie (maybe THE GOOD LIE, as the soundtrack features a track from Nico and Vinz and the albums were delivered to me in the same package). The next song, “Know What I’m Not,” sorta reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s “Senegalese period,” at least instrumentally. The song has an infectious melody; the vocals have a slight resemblance to Police-era Sting, with just a dash of doo-wop style scatting. “Miracles,” another beautifully upbeat lyrical piece, begins with a bit of down-home pickin’ (which remains the main musical touch point throughout the track) before adding some minor key piano chords and a combination of acoustic and electronic percussion to sweeten the already brilliant musical pot.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

A bit of neo-Zydeco goofiness, “(New In Town),” leads straight into “My Melody,” an atmospheric number with lyrics delivered in the Mumuye language of Nigeria and Cameroon (as identified elsewhere). There’s a nice Reggae-sounding break before the English verses, which features a heartfelt rap about dreams and reality that could come off as just another “woe-is-me” rhyme, but there’s a definite sense of hope shining through. “(Powerful)” is a philosophical interlude that leads into “Another Day,” a sing-songy rap about overcoming (or, at least, surviving) the struggles of life: “Another day goes by/And I thank God that I’m alive.” “People” is more Police-like Euro-Reggae about… living; the song is just flat-out inspirational (“People will always be people to me/We do wrong, we do right”). It features a cool backward guitar (or is that… an accordion?). Speaking of cool guitar, “Runnin’” has one that sounds oddly Frippian in tone. The descending bass line and piano really add a nice touch and what can I say about those vocals? They are continually upbeat, joyous and infectious. “Imagine” is a slow groove with a Bob Marley kinda vocal. The backing vocals are highlighted by some awesome throat singing; this is one instance where the rap sorta ruins the overall vibe of the song. The album’s second single, “In Your Arms,” seems like an obvious bid for a Top 40 hit (probably at the behest of the record label), with a definite Bruno Mars thing happening. Despite that, I actually think the tune isn’t all that bad.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Homeless” is a jaunty little folk thing, with harmonica(skillfully provided by Ntirelang Berman), acoustic guitar and a more uplifting message than the name implies. There’s some great harmonizing (with other voices and with nature) on “(Lakota),” the rain-soaked intro to the funky “Thought I Knew.” An excellent arrangement and orchestration inform the number, with understated guitars, nice percussion and a cool bridge with piano, cello and violins. A cosmic sounding “(Arrival)” urges, “My son, use the knowledge and sing your song.” And, sing he does, accompanied by piano, fretless bass and a guitar that would not seem out of place on a King Crimson record, on a tune called “When the Day Comes.” It’s another joyous exclamation, punctuated by more great African percussion and amazing background vocals. “(Kokadinye)” is a beautiful lullaby with suitably subtle guitar. The interlude leads into the spiraling, thumping groove of “Imaa Imaa,” with its nods to such groups as Osibisa and the Ebony Rhythm Funk Campaign… even a touch of El Chicano and mid-’60s psychedelic pop. The song is a terrific album closer.

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

Nico and Vinz (photo credit: SARA MCCOLGAN)

The production on the record is split between William Wiik Larsen (who also goes by the moniker Will IDAP) and Thomas Eriksen, with the interludes produced and performed by Raymond and Kouame Sereba (Nico’s brothers?). Eriksen and Larsen also provide most of the instrumentation and programming on the tracks they are credited as producers, with some help from various musicians and backing singers along the way. This is such a great album and Nico and Vinz appear to be as likeable and uplifting as their music; I have to hope that this much deserved success doesn’t go to their heads and adversely effect their music. That would certainly be a shame.