Exactly 25 years after they emerged on the world stage, performing alongside Paul Simon on the album Graceland, one of Africa’s most famous musical groups is on its maiden tour of Kenya this week.
Until that groundbreaking album and the accompanying tour, the cultural and political boycott of the apartheid regime had made sure that groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo remained unknown outside their home provinces in South Africa.
“The Graceland album enabled us to get onto the international stage and to start enjoying Western music,” says Joseph Shabalala, the charismatic founder and lead singer of the nine-man group.
In fact, this was the turning point for African music as the world took notice, not just of Mambazo, but also of Senegalese Youssou N’dour who played percussion on the album.
Two months ago Ladysmith Black Mambazo got together with Paul Simon and his band in Johannesburg for a reunion of the famous 1986 “African Tour”, while filming a documentary on “The Making of the Graceland Album.”
This one-off performance was a chance for South Africans to experience memories of an event that they missed 25 years ago when the original concerts were staged in neighbouring Zimbabwe due to apartheid restrictions.
There is also a whole new generation of fans who have grown up in the years after Graceland and only relied on videos of the moment when Simon introduced this ensemble of harmonic acapella singers, clad in colourful shirts with extraordinary dance steps on songs like the timeless “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes.”
The Kenyan musicians in attendance during the rehearsal for the Wednesday night concert at the Butterfly Pavilion in Bamburi, Mombasa were left in awe as the rich range of harmonies of Shabalala and his group boomed from the speakers.
“This is the biggest acapella group that Africa has produced,” says guitarist Polycarp from Sauti Sol, who were the opening act during the first of the Classical Fusion concerts headlined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“Our parents are so proud of us because we have been chosen to share the stage with a group they have always admired.”
He says his band was amazed to hear the stories of the struggles and the successes of this influential group from the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa.
“Thanks to this tour, many fans in Kenya will realise that this band has had a long history, way before Paul Simon went to South Africa,” says Polycarp
In fact, Shabalala wrote his first song in 1965 and Ladysmith Black Mambazo released their first album Amabutho in 1973, a good 13 years before they worked on Graceland. “I had a dream,” says Shabalala, “I heard these beautiful sounds of people singing. The dream lasted six months and I listened until I learnt to imitate all of the voices.”
During those early days, they would crisscross South Africa, singing all night Saturday and Sunday, then driving all night, in time for their day jobs back in their hometown.
The group comprises three local families from Ladysmith, a town in the province of Kwazulu-Natal. Black Mambazo literally translates as ‘black axe’ – referring to the way the voices cut through the ears, like cutting forest to create a path.
When the group started, they were so good that organisers barred the group from entering competitions so that other acapella performers would have a fairer chance of winning.
The complex vocal harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are based on two concepts: The lead vocals cut through the choruses like a bomb (Mbube), while the quiet dancing is known as Isicathamiya (tip-toe men).
These dances originate from the times when the men left their villages to work in the goldmines and factories and a stomping dance would accompany their traditional songs.
However, because of the noise, the song and dance was banned and the men were left to surreptitiously tip-toe their movements.
It is these performances that have enchanted the millions of music fans the world over who love Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Their first show in Nairobi takes place at the Nairobi Arboretum tonight. They will be at the Impala Club Grounds for a Grand Concert on Sunday afternoon.
In addition to their classic tunes like Homeless, the group will introduce their Kenyan fans to their latest album Songs from a Zulu Farm. As the title suggests, the songs here are traditional chants popular in the hills of KwaZulu –Natal, that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Highlights to look out for include Yangiluma Inkuthhu (The Biting Chicken), Imbomgolo (the donkey) and the old nursery rhyme Old McDonald Had a Farm sang in Zulu.
Last year the Classical Fusion featured concerts in Nairobi and Mombasa by another renowned South African group, The Soweto String Quartet performing alongside Kenyan acts like Eric Wainaina and opera singer Rhoda Ondeng.