March 4, 2011
I thought about trying to become the only U.S. reviewer not to mention Paul Simon in a piece on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s new album, but it’s just impossible, isn’t it? (Look, I blew it already.) Nearly any American parent’s first contact with the South African a cappella musicians was the now-classic Graceland album, though the half-century-old group long ago made it clear they were a force to be reckoned with long before Simon brought them to an international audience and Grammy recognition.
They remain so, as evidenced by their latest release, Songs from a Zulu Farm. It’s not exactly a children’s album, at least in the sense of one aimed only at kids; I suppose you could call it more a “family album.” It’s essentially a look back by Ladysmith’s leader, the astonishingly energetic 70-year-old Joseph Shabalala, and some of its other older members at their childhoods, through “the songs from the earliest time in our lives,” as Shabalala puts it.
Most of the songs are traditional, and reference either the animal life of the Zulu countryside (for instance, “Ntulube,” which aims to chase river snakes away so the singers can swim) or parental exhortations (“Imithi Gobakahle,” which calls kids indoors as skies darken before a storm), but there is a new song here as well: Shabalala’s own lovely “Thalaza,” a wistful look back by its writer at the innocence of childhood.
Now, these songs are sung almost entirely in Zulu, so beyond some vocally created animal noises in a few of them, there’s not a lot that makes the album particularly more child-friendly much of the group’s previous work. The good news, of course, is that the beautiful isicathamiya vocal harmonies for which Ladysmith has become rightly famous have great kid appeal. And, perhaps anticipating this very issue, the group has included a bridge to their music for the uninitiated youthful listener: the last track, a warm, charming take on “Old MacDonald.”
By the way, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is currently in the midst of a U.S. tour to support the new album, and will be up and down the East Coast over the next month or so. For dates and venues, check out the group's website.
[Cover image: Courtesy of Ladysmith Black Mambazo]