Ladysmith Black Mambazo

There are nine microphones and six monitors on the stage, that’s it. It’s Spartan with all of the wires neatly wound, lined up and bound. The nine men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo come onto the stage like a football team to cheers, applause and with an energy that leads straight into song. There is so much energy on stage the audience can’t help but get involved. It’s too bad the best you can get out of the usual stodgy Toronto audience is a polite clap. Ladysmith Black Mambazo presented a fine performance. Audiences in Kingston, London and St Catherines still have an opportunity to see them in action in the coming days. The group’s Toronto engagement at Koerner Hall was sold out.

Founder Joseph Shabalala isn’t with the group on this particular tour, but four of his sons are. Two members of the group are singled out for long service, the Mazibuko brothers. Albert has sung with the group since 1969, Abednego since 1974. The group pays tribute to them for “paving the way.” Their stories in between songs help warm the audience to their music.

The consonance and warmth of the sound was incredibly pleasing. The lead singer stays in tonality as the group plays with the melody, but the warmth of the sound comes from the eight other voices who share in tonic, mediant, dominant and octave. The modes of these relative intervals make the sound distinctively consonant. The effect with all-male voices contributes even more to this solidity in the sound. It makes for a sound like a warm sunset at the end of a vacation day, or the first sip of a fresh dark roast coffee after a huge meal.

Most of the songs of the evening are from the group’s newest CD, the Grammy nominee Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers. Nelson Mandela described Ladysmith Black Mambazo as “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.” They paid tribute to the great man, well-loved in Toronto as well, with their song Long Walk to Freedom. It’s a remarkably bare piece with these lovely, well-measured swoops into the starts of lines. There are few words and they repeat a powerful message: “Let us work, and work together. Long way. Long walk to freedom.”

The songs are quite Spartan, repeat lines over and over (“Tough times never last, strong people do”), but they never lose energy and intensity. The ensemble is remarkable in their ability to infuse their songs with story, power it with energy, and steer it with well-rehearsed control. Everything, from inhalations to sound production, is clear and precise. There are many sounds that Toronto audiences don’t hear often like clicks, and throaty hums. Even ornamentations like swoops and dynamics are all neatly lined up, organic and fresh.

And then there’s the choreography. This isn’t tight, ballet-corps dancing, it’s rehearsed but feels fresh and spontaneous. I’m sure some of it truly is spontaneous, and the singers know each other and the dance vocabulary so well they can just pick up and go when someone leads. Their high energy finale gives shape to the music and makes repetition feel different. The repetition gives the dance a place to spring forth. They all dance, they all sing, and they all have a great time.

This is the first time I’ve ever experienced a fully amplified concert at Koerner Hall. The space is capable of carrying voices and these aren’t amateur singers so I was surprised to find them so heavily audio engineered. From my seat in the first balcony, the amplified sound was less than ideal for what Koerner is known for.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at Koerner Hall, Toronto, February 14. They perform February 15 at the Grand Theatre, Kingston; February 16, at the London Music Hall, London; and February 17 at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St Catharines.

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