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September 29, 2023

Ladysmith Returns to the Raven

South African vocal group persists in a new generation

Paul Simon’s plaintive lyrics and doleful delivery on his Graceland album made Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo an international sensation. 

The group contributed to three tracks on the album, including “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” about being displaced by natural disaster.

Graceland was a breakthrough recording for the choir (and arguably for Simon as well), winning a Grammy for album of the year in 1987. But in South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo had long been widely known—they appear on a cassette called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto that Simon cited as his inspiration for the Graceland project. 

The music that Shambalala and his extended family clan created was so infectious and captivating it brought global appreciation for Zulu mbube music, and the softer sound known as isicathamiya.

Yes, it’s a mouthful, especially if it’s pronounced correctly, with a “dental click” on the letter c. Its strength lies in emphasizing the resonant harmonies of an all-male choir, rather than percussion and electric instruments. Evocative, simple choreography accompanies each song as well, making for a meditative experience for chorus and audience alike. 

Over time, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has collected no fewer than five Grammys on their own amid 16 nominations. They have resurrected a music long forgotten, and earned Nelson Mandela’s endorsement as cultural ambassadors for South Africa to the world. 

Now 36 years after Graceland, and more than 60 years after the Shabalala family started harmonizing in the industrial city of Ladysmith, South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo continues to tour, though founder Shabalala passed away in 2020 at the age of 79. They have been a remarkably consistent group for much of their career— it’s a family tradition in the purest sense—and there are currently four Shabalala men in the 11-man ensemble.

A favorite Sonoma County concert group, they return Aug. 12 on their first post-COVID tour in three years, and are wasting no time reconnecting with their fans: In August alone, they play 20 U.S. cities, stopping in Healdsburg after the previous night in Seattle. 

October finds them no less busy in Northern Europe, from Holland to Scotland—this is the touring season for the band, who have long built their career by playing live half the year and living quietly in a coastal town outside of Durban the rest of the time.

Healdsburg should consider itself fortunate to have Ladysmith Black Mambazo in town again, doing what their calling demands—spreading the music of Southern Africa far and wide.

They will be in concert at the Raven Performing Arts Theater on Friday, Aug. 12, at 7pm. Tickets are $40, $60 and $85 at raventheater.org.


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