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

Ladysmith Black Mambazo 

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No Boundaries (Heads Up International), a collaboration between South Africa's leading Zulu gospel choir and the string section of the English Chamber Orchestra, is in many ways a similar project to Youssou N'Dour's 2004 album Egypt. Both integrate religious music from a foreign tradition: N'Dour uses the distinctive inflections of an Egyptian orchestra to celebrate Sufi Islam, while on its new record Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs European classical devotional music. N'Dour's pan-African exoticism is more likely to surprise Western ears, so U.S. pop fans who are all too familiar with Bach, Mozart, and Schubert might be tempted to discount the aspirations of leader Joseph Shabalala and his crew right around the time they trot out another choral "Amazing Grace." But Shabalala, who's on record as opposed to the westernization of South Africa, is no assimilationist--on No Boundaries Ladysmith willfully claim elements of European culture as theirs to do with as they wish. Shabalala's gentle yet sturdy tenor strikes a beautiful balance with the tasteful orchestrations, even when the wind instruments, piano, and percussion from the International Festival Orchestra beef up the songs. Some of the arrangements, as on "Dona nobis pacem," even recall the pastoral psychedelic sweep of Love. Tenor Robert Brooks bullies his way into "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," and his operatic voice chafes. But Shabalala not only deserves these tunes from Bach, Mozart, and Schubert--he convinces me they deserve him. On this tour Ladysmith is performing material from No Boundaries, but they're not bringing an orchestra. They also perform Friday 3/18, 8 PM, at James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts, College of Lake County, 19351 W. Washington, Grayslake; call 847-543-2300. Sat 3/12, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000 or 866-468-3401, sold out.

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