Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Raise Your Spirit Higher
Genre: Inspirational African vocal music, unaccompanied
Label: Heads Up/Telarc
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Anyone who was paying attention to popular music in the mid-1980s remembers the strikingly original sound of South African vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group played a major role in the then-groundbreaking worldbeat fusion showcased on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. While Ladysmith’s stock rose appreciably in America during that period, they have since continued on with the work they feel called to do - preaching the universal gospel of music. Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala’s vision for his group’s sound - a melding of native Zulu traditions with Christian choral church music - followed his Christian conversion in the early 1960s. Their new album, Raise Your Spirit Higher, overflows with a simple joy that speaks of deep faith without ever pushing it - or the God they worship - into the spotlight. Their approach is a gentle one that freely intertwines their love of Jesus with political and social issues, their belief in music’s power, and national and racial pride. While tracks like "Uqinisil’ Ubada" and "Udedikil’ Umhlaba" focus on spiritual truth, the disc touches on many topics - sometimes in the same song.
The few cuts with English lyrics exemplify Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s penchant for sentiments that seem almost childlike in their simplicity yet manage to exude a quiet confidence. This unassuming approach, free of irony, cleverness or activism-fueled angst, is likely to seem as alien to Western ears as the Zulu musical forms used throughout. "Fak’ Ibhande," a song about road safety, neither relies on intimidation or sloganeering, opting for the unpretentious and sincere "brothers and sisters, don’t drink and drive - we still need you here." Ditto for the touching "Because I Love," the antithesis to edgy racial anthems like James Brown’s "Say It Loud - I’m Black And I’m Proud." Here, Shabalala sings to his comrades and receives a richly harmonized reply: "I’m proud to be an African like you/ I’m happy to be black, black like you." Rather than being self-justifying, the song (according to the liner notes) is a tribute to the singers’ hometown and the family bloodlines residing there
Musically, the disc resonates with the warmth of Ladysmith’s bass-dominated voicings, which provide the foundation for Shabalala’s tremulous, austere tenor leads. Vocal effects like sweeping, throat-produced glissandos, clucking tongues and bird calls add welcome decoration to the a cappella arrangements, helping to offset the tendency toward sameness from track to track. The biggest challenge for would-be converts may be the repetitious melodic phrases and unfamiliar language. Adventurous listeners, though, may find the effect mesmerizing. They might also find agreement with a line from the classic Crosby, Stills and Nash cut, "Wooden Ships": "if you smile at me I will understand/ ‘cause that is something everyone does in the same language." If you can hear nothing else on the charming Raise Your Spirit Higher, you can surely hear the sound of smiling.
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Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.