Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Raise Your Spirit Higher (Wenyukela)

[22 January 2004]

By Jason MacNeil

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is one of those acts that everyone should go and see. The sweet South African harmonies of this band, which was brought to these shores thanks mainly to Paul Simon’s Graceland record, are still as strong as ever. Having worked with everyone from Dolly Parton to Eric Clapton, the ten member group, led by founder Joseph Shabalala, has released a new album but under rather tragic circumstances. While on tour in 2002, Shabalala’s wife Nellie was murdered by a masked gunman outside a church in South Africa. There are still no leads and no suspects. So after enduring hardships through apartheid, this is possibly the hardest album for the group. But it is also one of their best.

Shabalala’s vocal starts off the title track, which slowly gives way to the group’s a cappella greatness. From the rolling of the tongues to the give and take Shabalala leads the other nine through, the sound is a bit somber but there is a hopeful spirit in it. The melody near the halfway point is another plus. It’s a good introduction into the rest of the record. “Uqinisil’ Ubada (Lord Is the Light and Truth)” is more upbeat and up-tempo, despite still being void of any instruments aside from voice. Shabalala starts the refrain that is the foundation of the song and then proceeds to sing over and at times under the rich tenor and bass harmony.

One plus to the record is that they rely solely on vocals and hit pay dirt far more than they should. “Selingelethu Sonke” is a gorgeous song that begins soft but then rises in tone, creating an easy sing-a-long quality to it. In its native tongue it could also read as a travel pitch, as Shabalala explains in the liner notes how it’s a plea for people to visit and travel to his homeland. More rolls of the tongue and sound round off the tune. The band, which also loaned his help to The Lion King, Part II gives “Wangibambezela (Message from His Heart)” a jungle, animal-like beginning with images of horses, birds, and other exotic animals all around you. It possesses a hypnotic, relaxing feeling also, as if you’re traveling through some unknown forest. If there’s one negative to it, it tends to go on just a tad too long for its own good.

“Wenza Ngani (How Did You Do That)” has a slower and much softer tone to it, as if the band has been to told to sing just above a whisper. Although the song gives a lullaby quality, the narrative is about a discussion between a racist and non-racist. One of the odder moments is “Udidekil’ Umhlaba (Lord’s Work)” which starts off with the groups quasi-lisping the vocals. Here the band winds their way around various tempos and tones, making it more adventurous than other performances. And it flows quite well into the toe-tapping “Iyahlonipha Lengane”, a song Shabalala describes as “praising the respectful nation and urges respect back to our nation.” It also one of the few times English is used on the album. One of the two poignant moments has to be “Wamlul’ Umshado (Beautiful Wedding)”. The title says it all, but one can’t help but think of Shabalala’s tragedy during the track.

The last few numbers are performed in English, beginning with the simplistic yet pretty “Because I Love” and followed by “Black Is Beautiful”. The latter follows a similar pattern of Shabalala leading and the others joining in. “Music Knows No Boundaries” is another sparse and beautiful track that has Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing what they do best and mentioning it in the song—“building bridges through music”. After a song that is more of a public service announcement, “Tribute” is a hip-hop tribute from Shabalala’s grandsons to their grandfather and late grandmother. “She is in your heart and that is where she will stay,” they sing. And from this album, she would be proud of the band and its leader.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ladysmithblackmambazo-raise/