Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ladysmith Black Mambazo Concert

A night of South Africa in Korea

On Wednesday evening (June 16), I was sitting at the LG Arts Centre in the heart of Seoul. But I wasn't really there! For about two hours, I was in South Africa. How did I get there? By the amazing vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Performing for the first time in South Korea, this male choral group blew the audience away from the moment they appeared on stage.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a South African music group which was formed by Joseph Shabalala in the 1960’s in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal. At the time, Shabalala hoped to give a new meaning to traditional Zulu music. Since their inception, the group has represented the traditional culture of South Africa and are said to be the country’s cultural ambassadors the world over.

The name of the group is quite interesting, but what does it mean?
Shabalala chose the name Ladysmith (the name of the Zulu farming village where he lived), Black (to represent the black oxen that are regarded as the strongest oxen on the farm) and Mambazo (from the Zulu word for “axe” to symbolize the group’s ability to cut down the competition).

The world got to know about the group from their 1986 collaboration with American singer-songwriter, Paul Simon on his Grammy Award-winning album, Graceland. This was one of the best-selling albums of the 1980s. In 1987, Ladysmith Black Mambazo won a Grammy in the Best Traditional Folk Recording Category for the album, Shaka Zulu.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is influenced by Zulu and Christian choral traditions. The clicking sounds, ululations and foot stamping gave me goose bumps. It all felt so familiar to me. I was born in South Africa and grew up listening to a variety of music. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate more traditional and harmonic tunes as opposed to the ‘doof doof, boom boom’ noise we are bombarded with these days.

The member’s gave a brief introduction of their songs before singing, and I was curious if Joo-hyeon, my Korean friend sitting next to me understood their thick South African accent. While the group was taking a breather backstage, one of the singers was entertaining the audience with banter and jokes. He jokingly invited the audience to South Africa next year for the Soccer World Cup, saying that everyone could stay at his house, but on one condition: that everyone brings their own sleeping bags and prepares their own meals!

At one point, he also tried teaching part of a song to the audience. I had to double check with Joo-hyeon that she understood when he said “Let’s lenn the wedds!” in a South African accent. Translation? “Let’s learn the words!”

Those with background knowledge of South Africa will be familiar with the hardship and segregation that my country has experienced in the past. Many of the groups’ songs emanate from tales of racism and freedom. One of their more popular tracks, “Homeless” is haunting and gives the listener a perfect mental image of being homeless and sleeping under the moonlight.

Their dance style is also impressive and very rhythmical. Their moves are smooth and relaxed, yet fast-paced. At one point, it almost made one wonder if they had some Tae-Kwon-Do training before their performance? Just kidding…

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is constantly traveling and performing on stages all over the world. No wonder they look so comfortable under the spotlight. It is evident that they sing with passion and love. There’s a lovely expression, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart”, and I suppose the same can be said for artists and the songs they sing.

“I feel like I’m in a forest somewhere in Africa, with animals around me,” whispered Joo-hyeon in my ear. I answered her by saying, “That’s the beauty of their music!” Their gentle voices allow the lyrics to transport audiences to different locations – whether it be on a mountaintop or in a township somewhere in Johannesburg.

There was a row of African people about three rows behind us (I am not sure if they were South African), but they were ululating. I felt happy hearing these familiar sounds as I knew it indicated their appreciation for the performance. Joo-hyeon, on the other hand thought it was a bit creepy and she told me that it reminded her of a Korean funeral!

The group has recorded with a number of international artists besides Paul Simon, including Stevie Wonder, Josh Groban, Dolly Parton and The Coors. They continue to travel the world and are currently on tour wowing audiences from Asia to Europe to America.

I didn’t expect to feel the way I felt when listening to the sounds of my country, South Africa. For the past two years, I’ve succumbed to listening to the likes of Big Bang and other K-Pop groups. But for one night, it felt like ‘home’ was here right in Korea. It felt warm, comforting and magical. To be honest I doubt I’d have made an effort to attend a local concert if I was in South Africa. But to know how popular this group is and how they’ve spread the colourful cultures of South Africa around the world makes me beam with pride.

*Additional information taken from online sources

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