Straddling Easter, with its well-loved choral repertoire, come two concerts from a very different tradition: African-inspired a cappella singing, which intersects with Christian church music through gospel. Both all-male groups visiting Melbourne soon are giants of the repertoire, one African, the other American. Their involvement with politics and popular culture enhance their position as leaders in this tradition – but it’s the music that has won both many awards.
First up, on March 17, the Melbourne Recital Centre presents Ladysmith Black Mambazo and their latest CD release Always With Us. The MRC explains the name thus:
“Assembled in the early 1960s in South Africa by Joseph Shabalala, a young farm boy turned factory worker, the group took the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Ladysmith is the name of Joseph’s hometown, Black is a reference to the oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, and Mambazo is the Zulu word for chopping axe – a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” any singing rival who might challenge them. However, their collective voices were so polished that by the end of the 1960s they were banned from local competitions, but still welcome to participate as entertainers.”
During the 1970s and early 1980s Ladysmith Black Mambazo established themselves as the most successful singing group in South Africa. Classical music fans might note that, among its many famous recent collaborators the group recorded an album with the English Chamber Orchestra in 2004. However its worldwide fame came earlier (in the mid-1980s), when the group featured on Paul Simon’s album Graceland. In 2014, the group’s recording Live: Singing For Peace Around The World won the Grammy Award for Best World Music CD.
Joseph Shabalala still leads the group but another member, Albert Mazibuko, had this to say about the other singers to visit Melbourne: Blind Boys of Alabama an American gospel group, from the United States, who first sang together in 1944. (The Blind Boys’ Melbourne concert is on April 1, at the MRC).
“My group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has been singing African and American church music for many, many years, just like the Blind Boys”, Mazibuko said at talkhouse.com.
“People say they love our singing because we sound genuine and authentic. We appreciate this because we sing what we feel. We love church music and it comes through in our voices. This is why I love the Blind Boys of Alabama. When I listen to them I hear the voices of people who believe in what they are singing. These aren’t just songs and words, these are emotions from within the spirit. These men have a deep faith and it comes through in their voices.”
Blind Boys of Alabama played a role in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, performing at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They are credited with creating a new Gospel sound for the 21st century, and still receive rave reviews, like this one from The Washington Post.
“Seeing The Blind Boys of Alabama in concert is part living history, part concert, all uplifting experience … the best moments come when the group join forces for stirring harmonies … inspired and relevant …borders on the miraculous.”
Although the two groups have much in common, both in their history and music, they each have a distinctive performance style, as shown in their treatment of the standard, Amazing Grace. Ladysmith Black Mambazo concentrates on the traditional sound and rich harmonies of the piece, segueing easily into another hymn, Nearer my God to Thee. The Blind Boys of Alabama infuse the piece with Southern cool, and a contemporary sound with a strong melodic reference to House of the Rising Sun.
With two such giants of the genre here just a fortnight apart, which gig will you go to? I suggest you follow Classic Melbourne … And go to both!
Ladysmith Black Mambazo Thursday 17 March 7:30pm Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Tickets from $79
The Blind Boys of Alabama Friday April 1, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Tickets A reserve $99 B reserve $89
The image is of the Blind Boys of Alabama.