These eight men comprise a Portable Village. They bring the feeling of the village and the values of the village to the American Stage, so longing as we are and so needing this as we are as a culture.
My relatives treated me to a concert by Ladysmith Black Mambazo in St. Louis, Missouri. One of their concerts is a quick trip back to Africa…the magic, the humor, the community, the deep sense of purpose, the lineage, the artistry.
I discovered that my long-time friend Stephanie Farrow–poet, memoirist, and editor had just come back from a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on their same tour.
Stephanie and I met in Ghana in 1973-1975 when we served in Peace Corps there. We renewed our friendship when we both moved to New Mexico in the 1980s. Since that time, as I moved to California and now back to the Midwest, Stephanie has been a constant friendly, fun, and wise presence in my life.
When Stephanie came home from the Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert she shot me a short email saying: “My heart is full.” There is so much in this brief phrase from her poet-self. It’s amazing how this group of eight men evokes such feelings.
This series of phrases appear on the cover of the 5th landmark season brochure for the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of St. Louis:
For me, my evening with Ladysmith Black Mambazo was like that. The evening with these eight men from South Africa with the big voices and
bigger hearts was all of that…and more, if possible.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo Portable Villagers
Joseph Shabalala (founded group in 1960s)
The program notes say that Mambazo is a Zulu word for axe, “a symbol of the group’s ability [when it was first formed] to ‘chop down’ any singing rival in competitions.”
When Shabalala converted to Christianity in the ’60s, “the path that the axe was chopping suddenly had a direction.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s mission became “to bring this gospel of loving one another all over the world” without being religion-specific. “…This music gets into the blood, because it comes from the blood,” Shabalala says.
Their discography includes over forty recordings. “Their philosophy in the studio…continues to be…just as much about preservation of musical heritage [born in the mines of South Africa..pronounced “is-cot-a-ME-Ya”] as it is about entertainment.”
Paul Simon’s landmark “Graceland” collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo not only launched the group on the music scene, but also was
instrumental in “introducing world music to mainstream audiences.”
Their album “Raise Your Spirit Higher—Winyukela,” 2004, arouse out of personal tragegy and coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 10-year anniversay of apartheid’s end. It went on to win the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album. And the beat goes
on, with more recordings and more tours.
OBSERVATIONS & DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1) How would you describe village life and village ethics to someone who has not been there?
2) How does Ladysmith Black Mambaza embody the village on stage?
3) The audience at the Touhill Center was among the most integrated of any I’ve seen at African-American and African culture events I’ve attended in the St. Louis area. How does LBM draw such a diverse crowd?
4) The evening at LBM was a gift from my niece’s family. Throughout the evening, it was such a pleasure to look over at my great-nieces to see their entranced, open faces and bodies leaning into the music. We went on a Sunday night and it made a late night for them, but as the usher said as we walked up the wide staircase to our seats: “They gonna learn something tonight.” There was an age range in our audience, slanted towards a Boomer crowd, possibly because of the expense of the tickets and possibly because of the importance the Graceland album had for our generation.
5) I met a woman from Cape Town in the ladies room.
6) There were many Obama supporters wearing buttons and chatting in the surrounding seats and at intermission about the campaign.