Ladysmith Black Mambazo: No Boundaries

Matt Cibula

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, but his new collaboration with a chamber group comes up short.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

No Boundaries

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2005-01-25
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.