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Monday, February 09, 2009

Ladysmith Black Mambazo's South African harmonies get toes tapping

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

  • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
  • Where: Jefferson Center, 541 Luck Ave. S.W., Roanoke
  • How much: $38; $28; students half price
  • Info: 345-2550, jeffcenter.org, mambazo.com

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For Zulu people, the home is where they grew up. The house is where they live now.

For Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Albert Mazibuko, there is another comfortable and familiar spot.

On the road for much of every year with the band, "the place that I enjoy most is the stage," Mazibuko said.

On Thursday, home will be the Shaftman Hall stage at Jefferson Center.

For 40 years, Mazibuko has been on stages around the world, spreading the harmonies, messages and dance steps of South Africa's isicathamiya (is-cot-a-me-ya) musical tradition. Isicathamiya -- a mixture of a cappella singing, Gospel music and "tiptoe" dancing -- rose about a century ago from South African mining camps, where black workers sought to entertain themselves.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo brought the style to international attention in the mid-1980s, backing Paul Simon on his hit album "Graceland." The title cut and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" were in heavy rotation in those days, and it was impossible to ignore the harmonies that gave those songs life.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Ladysmith Black Mambazo continues and is on the road to support a new CD, "Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu." It pays respect to a great African warrior of the late 1700s while addressing problems South Africans face today -- HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime and hunger.

"There are still people that go to bed with an empty stomach, and that is a very sad thing," Mazibuko said.

Mazibuko joined the group in 1969. Only his cousin, founder and leader Joseph Shabalala, has been in the band longer. Shabalala started the group about 1964 -- a dream revealed the harmonies he wanted to explore, he had said.

In the years since, they have recorded more than 40 albums, selling millions, and have collaborated with such artists as Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Ben Harper, Andreas Vollenweider and George Clinton. Mazibuko said that he enjoys the collaborations, but prefers to be on stages, interacting with audiences.

"The most important things, when we perform on stage, this is the way that we are able to create our own world," he said. "We are living in a happy moment at that time."

It's not all about the lush, a cappella harmonies. You'll see plenty of "tiptoe" dancing, too. The miners who created isicathamiya wanted a way to dance that wouldn't disturb the camp security guards at the apartheid-era camps. The choreographed steps might be quiet, but they are loaded with action -- kicks, waves, twists, even humor. If you go, you might wind up on stage with the band, which invites audience members up to try dancing the Zulu style.

It's among Mazibuko's favorite moments.

"When we invite people to stage, oh, it is so wonderful," he said. "This music can be enjoyed by the very young people and the old people."

A boy of 6 or 7 came up recently and did some breakdancing. A woman of about 70 came up early in this tour and did the Zulu dance.

"We want people to leave with a new energy," Mazibuko said, "with a new hope in their life, and they enjoy themselves."

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