Nearly two months ago, right as I was becoming distracted away from frequent blogging, I mentioned the World Music concert series from which we'd chosen a selection of shows to attend. Last Friday was our first show of the Spring 2008 series - Ladysmith Black Mambazo, at Sanders Theater at Harvard.
The South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo became very famous in the US after they performed on Paul Simon's blockbuster album Graceland, but even by then they had already been doing their thing for many, many years - the group was founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala, who still leads the group today. In their early days they performed in singing competitions in mining townships, and they were so good that they demolished the field - eventually they were asked to retire from the competitions to give someone else a chance to win.
Today, most of Mambazo's original members have retired or passed on, and Shabalala's four sons are carrying on the tradition along with the other family friends and professional singers that make up the nine-man group. But Mr. Shabalala is as energetic as ever, and seemed tireless in Friday night's performance, jumping and kicking and dancing with as much verve as any of the younger men. Indeed, the dancing - the men's exuberance - was the best part of the show. The songs themselves are pretty - the singers' mastery of tight harmony and complex rhythm is awesome - but a little unvarying; every song is at the same tempo and in the same mode, and each song concludes with a lengthy and repetitive vamp segment.
Some time ago I read a review of a Youssou N'Dour album that dug at the genre of "world music" for being "as tedious as the dinner parties at which it is played." Being a hungry consumer of music from all over the world, I bristled at this characterization, but I also understood the reviewer's point. There is a certain strain of world music that feels particularly packaged for the West, for an NPR-listening, liberal-voting audience. Ladysmith Black Mambazo suffers a bit from this ailment, perhaps as a result of having been Paul Simonized so long ago (they did perform "Homeless," a tune from Graceland, at Friday's show). Still, they are an easy introduction to African music for people new to the sounds. The choral stylings are unquestionably delightful, and the guys put on a charming and entertaining show.