Music » Music Etc.



Ladysmith Black Mambazo

When Paul Simon first heard the a cappella harmonies of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he experienced a flashback to his own musical youth. The group's sophisticated vocal blend, while new and exotic to Simon's ears, also reminded him of the streetcorner, New York doo-wop he had cut his teeth on in the '50s.

Although Ladysmith reached most Western ears through Simon's groundbreaking 1986 album, Graceland, by that point its members had already been singing together for more than 20 years. Formed in 1964 by singer Joseph Shabalala, the group earned a record deal in 1970, and became recognized as the finest practitioners of "township jive," a vocal harmony style developed by laborers in South African mines.

Simon's use of South African musicians and rhythms stirred controversy at the time, because some saw it as cultural imperialism in the guise of creative curiosity. But one of Graceland's greatest achievements is the way it put Ladysmith on a worldwide stage.

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In the ensuing years, the group has emerged as South African cultural ambassadors: touring the world, accompanying Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk to the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, and singing at Mandela's 1994 inauguration. And, in a way, Simon was right: Ladysmith is comparable to great American vocal groups like the Persuasions or the Blind Boys of Alabama, patenting a sound so distinctive that even lineup changes and the ravages of time can't affect it. •

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