Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Live!
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For more than three decades, the story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been just as much about physicality and choreography as it has been about brilliant vocal harmonies. For this GRAMMYr winning a cappella group that merges South African music and dance traditions with Christian messages of compassion, love and global harmony, the music alone is only half the story. Simply put, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has to be seen to be understood. Catch a visual glimpse of these icons of South African music and dance with Live! Recorded in Akron, Ohio, in 2008, the set captures not only fourteen songs performed on the stage of EJ Thomas Hall at the University of Akron, but also forty minutes of in-depth interviews with founder, leader and musical director Joseph Shabalala and other members of the group. Shabalala, a South African farmboy turned factory worker, first began gathering talented vocalists and arranging multi-layered and tightly woven harmonies in the early 1960s. After a series of records throughout the '70s and early '80s, the group rocketed to international fame in 1986 with their appearance on Paul Simon's landmark recording, Graceland. The thematic elements in Mambazo's music that appeal to South Africans, says Shabalala, are the same elements that appeal to a universal audience in all parts of the globe. In that sense, the group has come to be recognized as South Africa's musical ambassadors to the world
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Before the concert begins, we are treated to a very informative interview with the soft-spoken but passionate Shabalala. He explains the group's name, his reasons for writing and singing his songs, and his dream to someday establish a music academy in his South African homeland where the indigenous musical traditions can be nurtured and passed on to succeeding generations.
During the concert, the group uses no musical instruments, but their singing is occasionally embellished with various sound effects, including foot-stomps, hand-claps and tongue-clicks. The men have gorgeous voices, and they harmonize beautifully together, singing mostly in their native Zulu language, but also occasionally in English.
While they are essentially anchored to their respective places on the stage by their floor-standing microphones, the men don't just remain still as they sing their songs; they step, kick up their feet, spin around, and slap their thighs - all in time to the music - adding considerable visual interest to what could otherwise be a somewhat boring performance.
Although their acapella singing stands up very well on its own, I did find myself longing for some instrumental accompaniment to add musical depth to a few of their songs. After the concert ends, there is a delightful bonus video of Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing on the streets of Los Angeles. The soundtrack for this video does include various instruments accompanying the vocals, and the combination is absolutely marvelous!
Given that the concert took place in 1999, production values are not up to today's standards. Audio is available in stereo only, though the quality is quite good. Presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, image quality is certainly not high-definition, but it is adequate for the purpose. The video editing, on the other hand, is especially good: no weird effects, no annoying shifting from camera to camera in rapid succession, just nicely framed lingering shots of the men doing their thing on stage.
For fans of this group, or fans of ethnic choral music in general, this concert DVD is a delight to watch. While the production is not top-notch, it is the best presentation currently available of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in concert. "In Harmony: Live..." is a strong 4-star effort overall. Well worth the price of admission.