Let’s get all our prejudices out of the way. I believe that Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the finest vocal harmony group in the world, at least in terms of pop music. They’ve been proving this to the world for 20 years, ever since most of us heard them for the first time on Paul Simon’s Graceland, but anyone with any experience in South African music already knew it. Group founder Joseph Shabalala is a true pioneer in world music, not just for his arrangements and his beautiful voice, but also for his forward-thinking spirit.
And I have no wish to punish Shabalala for this spirit. Some people might be offended that this group is doing a record with a chamber orchestra, but those people take the short view. Shabalala has never had the short view, and he should be lauded fully for it. He knows that African music needs to keep changing or it will die on the vine. He wants his music to go all around the planet, and does not have any myopic fake-ethical notions of “purity” standing in his way.
This record was commissioned by the International Classical Music Festival of South Africa. The ICMF asked Isak Roux to arrange pieces that would incorporate Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a classical context. Roux, a German who grew up partially in South Africa, put his heart and soul into these settings, which include everything from traditional classical pieces by J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert to spirituals like “Amazing Grace” and Zulu melody pieces. It’s clear that Roux honors and respects and loves Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group is in beautiful form, and they seem to relish the challenge of singing in this context. The problem is…
Well, I guess it’s better to describe what the problem is by use of a metaphor. Let’s say you’re cooking something that you always cook. You know how much of everything to put in, you’ve done this a million times, you could do this in your sleep. But you get a little bored, and you suspect that your diners are getting a little bored too. So you try to vary things up a little. You know that some people are going to be upset about this, but you don’t care, because you are an artist. So you decide to add one more spice to your regular dish, a spice which you think will complement the ingredients in a whole new way. So you go ahead and put it in only to realize, when you taste it, that it was the wrong spice, or too much of it, or too little, or something. And you can see from the diner’s expressions (and from your own taste test) that, despite your best intentions, you haven’t improved your dish at all.
That’s what comes to mind here. Roux’s arrangements are, sadly, rather pedestrian. The beginning of the setting of “Amazing Grace” comes on all beautiful, with a clear horn sound floating above a bed of luscious fluffy clouds, and then those gorgeous voices come in — but it doesn’t go anywhere, even when they shift into “Nearer My God to Theend”. And then it gets downright offensive: a great doo-wop segment based on “praise his holy name” gets destroyed by the show-tune string motif that comes along with it. Suddenly, we are whisked from the sublime to the ridiculous, and it sounds less like the greatest vocal group in the world with an orchestra and more like a mediocre community theater rendition of Oklahoma. And I love community theater.
This happens again and again. The gloppy harpsichord on the Scandinavian song “Lifikile Ivangeli” sounds more like a Lovin’ Spoonful “groovy autoharp” sound, and the orchestra is reduced to playing pointless counterpoint over the out-of-nowhere bossa nova beat, with the group struggling to keep up. The group’s signature song to most people, Paul Simon’s “Homeless”, was a good choice, but the orchestral arrangement is pretty much just pizzicato plucking, like it’s “Up on the Roof” or something; you know it’s a bad sign when the a capella section sounds richer and more textured than the parts where 20 other people join in.
It’s not a horror show; even the gross stuff is listenable, thanks to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whom I could listen to anytime. And some songs work just fine. The last piece, the traditional Zulu song “Walil’ Umtwana”, strikes a nice balance between African and European musical traditions — it’s not very exciting, but that’s okay for a lullaby. I also don’t mind the glammed-up buildup to “Umzuzu Nayi Ujesu”, and its corny lope doesn’t take anything away from the melody. But these examples are rarer than I want them to be.
Who is responsible for this? Well, Roux, of course. But I sense another presence, and my detective work is paid off with success. I noticed an extra, unnecessary, “operatic” tenor on pieces like Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Schubert’s “Sanctus”. This tenor, Robert Brooks, is also the Artistic Director for the ICMF. He is also mentioned in the liner notes in the following and very telling way: “Creative Idea: Robert Brooks”. Um, anyone else think that this “creative idea” was “Hey, you should put ME in there”? Anyone else think that maybe it’s not so much a case of too much spice as one of too many cooks?
Listen: our world is richer for having Ladysmith Black Mambazo in it, and I will listen to this CD even after this review is in. But it won’t be a lot. The next time Joseph Shabalala wants to expand his group’s horizons, I hope that he has better luck with his collaborators.