During each of the 30 winters since Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s work on Paul Simon’s Graceland vaulted the South African a cappella group to international fame, the ensemble has toured the United States. Every year’s voyage is slightly different from those before it, yet the current trek — which includes stops at Diana Wortham Theatre on Monday, Feb. 27, and Tuesday, Feb. 28 — has already distinguished itself. After the shows, attendees have been approaching the group and expressing concern about this nation’s hostile political climate, prompting the musicians to respond in the best way they know how.
“That is why we chose some songs that have been [an] encouragement to our country when we were in the situation like this, the songs that [are] encouraging people and making people stronger and inspiring them to solve the problem in a peaceful way,” says Albert Mazibuko, a group member since 1969.
Americans have good reason to seek Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s counsel on such matters. The singers’ creations worked wonders for the South African people in hard times, especially during the incarceration and rise to power of the late Nelson Mandela, who went on to dub the ensemble a cultural ambassador of its nation’s music.
“[Mandela] is the one who told us, when we first met him in 1990, that our music has been [an] inspiration for him and that also, after the other political leaders that have been exiled, when they come back, they say they have been singing our music, even in the camps,” Mazibuko says. “They were marching and then training using our music. So, it was giving them hope and energy [to] carry on.”
Other than Asheville, Phoenix and Berkeley are the only cities on this winter’s tour where Ladysmith Black Mambazo will play back-to-back nights. Mazibuko says the group knew one show wouldn’t be sufficient in those cities. The musicians approach the performances as if the first show’s audience will return the next evening, and it’s clear that many in the crowd do just that.
“At the show, there is a song where we involve the audience, so … when [we] engage them in that particular time, we see it on the second show that they’ve been here the last day,” Mazibuko says. “It’s very encouraging.”
He continues, “It feels like we have made a friend yesterday, like when you are meeting someone and then you say, ‘I’m going to meet my friend again the next day.’ It’s a wonderful feeling because we are looking forward to that. It is more comfortable than it was, because when we met for the first time, there was that kind of being tense, but the second date, you are more relaxed.”
The concept of encores also factors into Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s 2016 album Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers, the group’s first studio recording in five years. While most of the 15 tracks are new, the musicians also revisited Graceland’s “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles Of Her Shoes.” The 30th anniversary of Simon’s album and the ensemble’s annual U.S. tours sparked questions among the musicians regarding their sustained popularity abroad. They’re continually amazed and grateful for the dedication of their fans.
“So, that’s what inspires us — [the music is] something that we should revisit and then look at it and then experience it and then see how can we do it. Maybe we will do it better this time with the fresh voices, especially the next generation of Ladysmith Black Mambazo,” Mazibuko says. Group founder Joseph Shabalala’s sons and grandsons are now members. “They want to experience [what] was it like when [we] were in the studio recording these songs. We said, ‘OK, we are going to give you this opportunity.’ So, that’s why the title says you are Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers, because it speaks of the next generation.” For these efforts, the album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music Album category (Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble’s Sing Me Home won.)
Of the Simon songs, Mazibuko says, “Those two, I call them the big stars in the dark skies. So when you are looking at the stars, you can see those. Those songs, they are a great mark of the group’s success. You cannot leave it out even when you are performing. People will say, ‘Oh, you didn’t sing these,’ so we make sure every time when we sing. If we are given to sing one song, we choose one of the two.”
WHO: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Monday, Feb. 27, and Tuesday, Feb. 28. $45 adults/$40 students/$20 children