Think of Joseph Shabalala as Bill Monroe.
Really, how many other musicians invented a style single-handed? And note that both inventions are thought of as “traditional.” Bluegrass is a radio-informed jazzification of ’20s fiddle-banjo-mandolin now regarded as the embodiment of mountain purity by suburbanites nationwide. Something similar happened to iscathimiya, to use the commonest of the many Zulu names for what Ladysmith Black Mambazo made of mbube, in the ’50s the prevalent form of the old group-singing culture of South Africa, where to this day ad hoc choruses can be convened at will. Shabalala’s transformation of the “bombing” style in which every man in the group sang his lungs out on the same notes was literally visionary. Iscathimiya’s esoteric syllable-forming and sound-making techniques, which come easier to Zulu speakers but have to be taught and assiduously practiced, and its smooth surfaces, which required rehearsal on a scale unknown to the amateur men’s choruses of the ’60s, both came to him in dreams where the singers resembled angels. A devout Christian, Shabalala is big on angels.
Far from being traditionalists, Ladysmith revolutionized mbube, though if a single imitator approached their beauty, clarity, spirituality, unpredictability, or humor, evidence hasn’t reached these shores. Barred from the weekly singing contests they always won, they went pro in 1972, recording many successful albums whose covers depicted them as tribal warriors or a heavenly host—images apartheid’s promoters of Bantu authenticity smiled upon. In 1986, the year Ladysmith attracted international attention on Paul Simon’s Graceland, Shabalala formed the South African Traditional Music Organization to preserve the competitions he’d helped render obsolete. Now he opposes Westernization in a land whose hard-won freedom he warmly celebrates. All over the world, his group is a well-loved signifier of South Africa’s heroic, long-suffering, exotic past.
I’ve reviewed 15 Ladysmith albums since 1984 without finding a mediocre one, and the new Raise Your Spirit Higher (Heads Up) is their best in years. But it has nothing on the group’s sold-out performance at Poughkeepsie’s 944-seat Bardavon Opera House February 21, proof for anyone put off by their aura of solemnity or lionization by world-music softies how good they can sound and how silly they can be. More than most harmony groups they seem to sing in one impossible voice, its grain and color and layers of pitch more resonant than George Jones’s or Marion Williams’s, except that usually the 62-year-old leader’s subtle, sharp, lovely, undiminished tenor darts above the bed of a chorus phrase, never compelled to extend itself because this is never a music of solo turns. Also undercutting the one-voice effect are a panoply of sounds and sound effects: clicks, ululations, whoops, whistles, kisses, yawns, yelps, gulps, gasps, glottals, gibbers, whinnies, clucks, birdcalls, r-r-rolled r’s, long guttural trills, the motorcycle noise you get when you expel breath while shaking your head from side to side. Sometimes these are interjected by somebody in back, sometimes by Joseph, given name employed because consanguinity is the rule in a group where Shabalala sons have replaced Shabalala brothers over the decades. The sounds aren’t necessarily funny, just humorous, like the ancient showbiz shtick and modified Zulu dance moves that for two hours divert audiences who can scarcely understand the group even when they speak English. Ladysmith get their share of laughs, and they work for them.
Despite the tendency to perceive Ladysmith as not merely traditional but eternal, they’ve evolved. The durable, definitive Classic Tracks, compiled in 1990 from early non-U.S. catalog, has an acerb quality in which Shabalala’s nasal leads and everyone’s pronounced vibrato undercut a sweetness already far less dulcet than anything cooked up on, for instance, 1997’s gospel crossover Heavenly—or the lovely Raise Your Spirit Higher. From the gentle opening lead (with background clicks) of “Wenyukela,” sounds on the new record are round, timbres soft, harmonies sweet. Three of the nine songs in Zulu praise Jesus, one a wedding. Two advise the young to get it together and show some respect. One promotes foreign investment, another safe driving; yet another quizzes a racist to an end the crib sheet fails to clarify. The English lyrics suggest that the Zulu ones are less banal than their summaries. Not only does the pan-Africa of “Black Is Beautiful” include “black and white, Indians and coloureds,” it admits a strange, moving aside that begins: “We were fearful that our voices would be transferred into the machines.” So figure there’s play and eccentricity in the words as well as the music. But also figure Shabalala means tranquility to predominate.
This is healthy, enlarging, miraculous—as long as it’s understood to be an artifice. Shabalala’s genius is no reason to elevate him into a feel-good saint. His history is that of a taskmaster and patriarch, and his emotional resources far exceed the antimodern, apolitical positivity he preaches, not to mention Western comprehension. Shabalala’s quietism remained resolute in 1991, after his brother Headman died in a roadside shooting by a white security guard. And it sustained again when, in May 2002, as this relentlessly positive album was being recorded, his wife of 30 years, Nellie, was shot and killed, and he himself injured, outside their home. A month later, Joseph’s son and Nellie’s stepson Nkosinathi was accused of hiring the assassin in what police claimed was a funding dispute between Nellie’s group, Women of Mambazo, and Nkosinathi’s, White Mambazo, now known as Junior Mambazo. Six months later, Joseph married a woman he’d just met. Last September Nkosinathi’s trial was suspended after a witness disappeared. And on February 21, Joseph beamed at a crowd of middle-aged folkies in Poughkeepsie as four of his other sons clowned around.
Bill Monroe was one tough bird. I wonder what he would have made of Joseph Shabalala.