Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been around for 45 years now, but most people only became familiar with them after their working relationship with Paul Simon during his classic Graceland album. Since then they’ve continued to tour almost non-stop, continued to issue high-quality albums, and continued to gain praise from fans and critics alike. But like so many other artists who have been around for decades, it often takes some cameo appearances for people to once again take notice. Santana is perhaps the best example of this, but it seems he went to the well once too often. Fortunately, Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo have picked an A list of singers for Long Walk to Freedom, which revisits the group’s highlights. Yet they also haven’t saturated the album with guest artists just for the sake of having guest artists. What you end up seeing is the best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s exquisite a cappella harmonies mixed with complementary harmonies by some of today’s finest singers.
Long Walk to Freedom is basically a chronological look at the band, beginning with “Nomathemba”, a song Shabalala wrote in 1965 that appeared on their 1973 debut Amabutho. As with all the songs here, it is reworked slightly from the original. This track features their refined, precious harmonies with no additional instrumentation. The ease with which they hit the notes in unison is amazing, given they often have six, seven, or eight voices going at the same time. The song hits its groove roughly two minutes in, as Shabalala and company repeat the smooth, almost hymnal-like refrain. The ensuing “Hello My Baby”, featuring Zap Mama, has Shabalala directing his group as he acts out some of the lyrics, with the sound of a smooch after the line, “Come along, come along to kiss me before I’m going.” Zap Mama can’t be heard in the opening minutes, but then make their appearance as they play the female part of the track, performing the duet quite nicely.
The first true highlight, however, comes during “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, a staple of Simon’s Graceland that this time around features Joe McBride and the pipes of Melissa Etheridge. Etheridge’s traditional raspy rock vocal might seem to rub the lighter melodic sensibility of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but Etheridge pulls it off without any hiccups, taking Simon’s role in the song and at times improving on it. At the same time, McBride gives it more of a funky, up-tempo backdrop as Etheridge nails some of the solos. Though it lasts nearly six minutes, you get the sense that the fade out is still a hair too abrupt. Nonetheless, you quickly forget about that once “Homeless”, featuring Sarah McLachlan, comes along. Often serving as a stellar complement to Ladysmith Black Mambazo instead of the lead vocal, McLachlan shines from start to finish.
Perhaps the one disappointment on the album is Natalie Merchant’s appearance on “Rain Rain Beautiful Rain”. Although she has a lovely voice, the timbre used here is a bit somber and tends to dampen the general uplifting feeling that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music has. Even her solos leave something to be desired. I’m sure it looked good on paper, but it sounds unfulfilled. Fortunately, it’s the exception to what is often a very high level of music, particularly when Taj Mahal makes his presence felt on the extremely catchy “Mbube”, a bluesy, a cappella tune that he adds electric guitar on.
The South African band was also able to get Emmylou Harris to lend her talents to “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God to Thee”, with the singer leading the song while Ladysmith Black Mambazo provides the background harmonies, at times with her and Shabalala singing together. It’s another fantastic moment, as is “Inkanyezi Nezazi (The Star and the Wiseman)”, featuring just the band on its own. Over the course of these five minutes, you realize that McLachlan, Harris, Etheridge, and the others are basically just icing on an extremely delicious musical cake.Another gem is “Shosholoza”, which features a plethora of talent, including Lucky Dube, Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Hugh Masekela, and others. The song is a jazz-tinged number with excellent solos.
The title track, which describes the end of apartheid, is the next to last song here, and serves as a fitting near-conclusion. As they sing the lyrics, it sounds like they might be patting themselves on the back for the excellent album that’s almost completed. “Well done, well done, you did a good job, you did a good job, properly performed”, they sing. If you’re not echoing similar sentiments about Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s singing, please seek professional help.