Ladysmith Black Mambazo Warm Hearts With Levity And Joy In Los Angeles REVIEW: Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Walt Disney Concert Hall 3/3/23
LOS ANGELES, CA- Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Disney Hall was a dream come true for me. I’ve loved their music since I first heard them back in the 90s, but I’d never been able to see them live before – and not for lack of trying. After years of dates that didn’t work with my schedule, let’s just say that the show I had tickets for on March 19, 2020, didn’t exactly turn out as planned. So this performance was one more moment of attempting to recapture what was lost over the past few years.
Opening for the group was Madison McFerrin, daughter of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” singer and conductor Bobby McFerrin. Looking like Ariel the Mermaid hitting the town on a night out, she mixed a jazzy vibe, lighthearted jokes, and serious commentary. After cracking jokes about how what sounds like a breakup anthem is actually about Bernie Sanders’ loss, she switched to the topic of music production. Explaining to the audience that only 2.8% of music producers are female, she talked about how the lockdowns led her to learn to produce most of her own tracks – and the audience cheered wildly. Overall, she was sweet and charming, and she worked the crowd well throughout her set.
Hailing from South Africa and founded in the 1960s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo grew prominent singing songs of hope and resistance in the face of the apartheid regime. Many people in the rest of the world, however, came to know the a cappella group through their work on Paul Simon’s groundbreaking and controversial Graceland album. They sang beautiful harmonies on tracks such as “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” both of which are part of their current repertoire alongside Zulu isicathamiya melodies borne from mine workers’ traditions.
Each song is also accompanied by exuberant choreography, as they perform distinctive high-stepping moves in their trademark white shoes. They also regularly acknowledged the crowd seated behind them, important for a theater like Disney Hall with seating all around the performers.
My one regret is that I didn’t see them in their heyday with founder Joseph Shabala at the helm. After largely retiring in 2014, he passed away in early 2020. His sons now run the group and take turns singing lead throughout the performance, carrying on the family’s legacy for a new generation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Joseph Shabalala Tribute” was a particularly moving part of the show and underscored the gravity of the loss of such a musical giant. So, too, was “The Long Walk to Freedom,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela.
Overall, however, the concert was full of levity and joy. The singers made quips throughout the show, such as telling the audience that they should sing along if they thought they knew the songs but that if they didn’t know or the language was too difficult, they should “sing louder!” They joked about a “new” member who had joined Ladysmith Black Mambazo 15 years ago, then introduced a singer whose father had been in the group by saying, “there’s a lesson to be learned – be careful what you do in front of your children!”
Their overriding message is encompassed by the titles of some of their songs: “Joy, Peace, & Happiness” and “Tough Times Never Last.” This is music for resisting, enduring, and hoping. It’s music that sustains your soul and tells you never to give up in the face of hardship, and it is timely even now – decades after they began their journey.