During Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we were reminded how a strong and motivated speaker, his words, and his delivery can help change a nation. Last night, we were reminded how the power of the human voice in music can be an equally efficacious ability if mastered correctly. People tend to forget exactly how powerful the voice is without any accompaniment. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a nine-member acapella singing group from South Africa, made the audience remember this last night at Fitzgerald's.
A little (necessary) background before we begin: founder, musical director, and lead singer Professor Joseph Shabalala had a series of dreams in 1964 in which he heard isicathamiya, traditional harmonies of the Zulu people. Soon after, he formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo, naming his choral group after the town he was raised in.
Isicathamiya dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when men would leave their homelands in search of work in neighboring cities. It is usually all-male choral groups who use various vocal styles and chanting to create distinctive harmonies.
When the concert began -- five minutes before it was scheduled to start -- Joseph yelled, "Sanbonani!", a Zulu greeting which, literally translated, means "I see you all." He then told the audience that his grandparents sang most of the songs they were about to perform, and he was now passing them down to his own children and grandchildren. "Our mission is to spread the culture of South Africa; of love, peace, and harmony."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is made up of some of Joseph's close relatives, including four of his sons. Joseph's youngest son, Thamsanqa Shabalala, will take over when Joseph retires from international touring. After Joseph led three songs, he took a break and let the youngest son take his place. Thamsanqa is an alto, singing a few pitches higher-and a little softer-than his father's. He spiritedly led the group in a few songs, including an English song called "This Is The Way We Do."
When Joseph returned, the group performed a few songs from their most recent album, Songs from a Zulu Farm. The album features songs about various animals on the farm, probably inspired by the farm in Ladysmith where Joseph grew up. They performed "Uthekwane", a song about a vain bird who can be found looking at herself in the water and "Leliyafu", a song to get rid of the clouds. "Wemfana" is about an ornery donkey who has a tendency to bite people in the ass.
During one song, the professor began selecting members of his group to come out from the line and dance at the front of the stage. Each performed a version of a particular Zulu dance, making their own variations of the Zulu high kicks. The professor then invited members of the audience to jump on stage and dance with them. The first to get on stage was a dread head white Rastafarian dude, who did his best to mimic what the group had just done. Respectfully.
While we couldn't understand the words to most of the songs, the group's collective energy gave the audience clues as to what the lyrics might have been about. It was the energy-and dancing-that kept an otherwise inattentive audience captivated for the duration of the concert.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Personal Bias It was probably the second most moving concert we've ever seen at Fitzgerald's, next to the Girls Rock Camp performance.
The Crowd Older, world music fans. Hippies being hippies.
Overhead In The Crowd The crowd was shockingly quiet for a Monday night, but we probably didn't want to overhear anything anyway.
Random Notebook Dump Flexibility knows no age.