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