The distinctive sound of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is one of the finest expressions of African music. As one of the better-known musical groups from southern Africa, Ladysmith has for more than 30 years popularized Zulu traditional music. Although founder Joseph Shabalala and his fellow a capella singers are now internationally recognized (with the help of Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland), the group began during the apartheid era and became local favorites as they sung songs that invoked hope, joy, and pride in being African at a time of institutionalized racism.
Ladysmith's music has continued to address social problems, and their conversion to Christianity has added a strong spiritual dimension. This integration of spirituality and social issues reflects the holism inherent in African spirituality, where spirituality permeates all of life. Hence, their music is not only joyful and inspirational, it is also instructive and prophetic. Their latest CD reflects this distinctive mix of themes. As with their earlier albums, Raise Your Spirit Higher ("wenyukela" in Zulu) is a fusion of traditional Zulu and Christian gospel music - songs of worship and faith mix with songs that express concern for pressing social issues in their communities.
In keeping with Ladysmith's African roots, the music is rhythmic and repetitive - it is meant to be danced to! The sounds are enriched by the "clicks" of the Zulu language, especially the song "Uqinisil' Ubada" (Lord is the Light and Truth). The mix of themes includes songs of celebration, such as "Selingelethu Sonke," which honors the advent of democracy and freedom in South Africa, and "Wamlul' Umshado," which celebrates a wedding and offers advice to the couple.
The challenge of racism is expressed in "Wenza Ngani?" which asks why people love some races and despise others, and then issues a call to those who have found a way of loving all people despite their race to come forward to teach others how to love. "Music Knows No Boundaries" celebrates the power of music in transcending boundaries between people. The global influence on the CD is reflected in the last song, titled "Tribute," which is a hip hop song sung by Shabalala's grandchildren as a tribute to their tragically murdered grandmother, Shabalala's wife of 30 years. The inclusion of rap is an example of some of the musical influences that are currently shaping the youth in Africa.
Another example of "instructional lyrics" is "Fak'Ibhande" (Don't Drink and Drive), which addresses the problem of reckless driving that results in many deaths each year on South African roads. Such songs resonate deeply with local audiences and reflect the strong relationship between this music and its context.
More than anything else it is the beauty and rhythm of Ladysmith's music that has resonated with listeners all over the world. Raise Your Spirit Higher links music to realism and provides hope in concrete situations. It's a treasure for any music lover and a worthwhile addition to your music collection.
Nontando Hadebe is development assistant at Sojourners and a native Zimbabwean.