Ladysmith Black Mambazo | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Ladysmith Black Mambazo 

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The South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been together for four decades, touring the world pretty much constantly since Paul Simon brought it to the international stage with Graceland in 1986. So you have to wonder why it took so long for someone to release an album like Live at the Royal Albert Hall (Shanachie), recorded last May--though the singers have put out more than two dozen records, this is the first real document of their onstage prowess. With their matching outfits and traditional high-stepping Zulu dancing, Ladysmith are almost as satisfying to see as they are to hear, but Albert Hall barely suffers from the lack of visuals. Though there are sudden breaks in the middle of several songs (the applause that erupts during "Ngamthola" probably means they've just busted a few of their signature moves) and the disc preserves the endearingly clumsy English patter between numbers (they almost always play it for laughs), the singing is as breathtaking note for note as on any of the studio recordings I've heard. It's also looser and more playful--in part because many of the songs have been opened up. "Phansi Emigodini (Deep Down in the Mines)," for instance, which Americans might've heard under the title "Nansi Imali" on the mid-80s compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, stretches to thirteen and a half minutes from its former five. The group is ten voices strong--founder and lead singer Joseph Shabalala's keening tenor, plus one alto, a second tenor, and seven basses--and as long as Shabalala continues to train new singers to replace retiring members, there's a chance Ladysmith will be around for another 40 years. Thursday, February 24, 7:30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 773-929-5959 or 312-559-1212. Saturday, 8 PM, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; 847-673-6300 or 312-559-1212.


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