Ladysmith Black Mambazo has long been honored as one of the world's greatest a cappella singing groups, but their Boise performance was an overwhelming reminder of just how much more than nonpareil vocalists they truly are. Their flawless performance was a reminder of how seriously crafted music can transcend linguistic and political boundaries. The act of emotionally—even ecstatically—engaging an Idaho audience for two hours while largely singing in Zulu, without any instrumental backing, was a demonstration of unparalleled musical mastery.
While billed as an event in support of their fine new album on the Heads Up label, Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu, leader and lead vocalist Joseph Shabalala moved his eight fellow vocalists through an evening that was a career retrospective of the band's 47-year history. They combined lush three-part harmonies in Zulu and English with wild choreography, hypnotic storytelling and comic antics. An audience sing-along and even dance-along were part of the atmosphere that encompassed a blend of church revival meeting and extended-family party.
Speaking of extended family, Ladysmith Black Mambazo includes four of Shabalala's sons. The youngest was given a solo turn early on in the concert, and he handled the challenge charmingly. This is as seamless a musical family as could be imagined.
Only two songs sung in English were easily recognizable: "Homeless," rearranged from the version on Paul Simon's Graceland album that launched their U.S. career, and "Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain" that became a popular television-ad soundtrack. The other numbers ranged from a Zulu war chant with fierce cries and spectacular kicks from the dancers, to a coy love song punctuated with kisses, to gospel hymns at the heart of the group's political and spiritual message. They last performed here three years ago. Let's hope we don't have to wait that long again to be blessed by their life-enhancing vocal gymnastics.