This a’capella group from South Africa first entered our collective radar screen as part of Paul Simon’s Graceland album in 1986. The tour after release of that album was as joyful and successful as anything in proximity.
But Simon took much heat for breaking the cultural boycott; South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid. My preliminary thinking was that Simon had brought awareness to several groups, Ladysmith Black Mambazo among them, that would still be struggling in obscurity. I also thought that culture can rise above politics, transcending limitations imposed by politicians.
Over time, I realize the arguments are more nuanced. Ry Cooder bumped into horrible financial consequences after his brilliant Buena Vista Social Club excursion.
Nonetheless, apartheid has crumbled (and flights now leave daily from Miami for Havana). LBM is embarking on a US tour, and their first stop in California was joyful. They move north up the coast and then through the heartland over the ensuing weeks.
The Belly Up in Solana Beach was sold out, and a rapturous audience watched the nine man group intently. With a five decade history, the choral ensemble has a rich heritage on which to draw. The group’s founder Joseph Shabalala (is there a better name for an a’capella group member?) created a unique stage delivery including deft footwork. His sons carry on the tradition. A highlight of the evening was “Long Walk to Freedom,” a tribute to Nelson Mandela.
LBM has garnered numerous Grammy awards and has recorded with an amazingly diverse array of artists (including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge, among others).
Undoubtedly LBM had played a role in breaking down barriers across the globe.