South Africa: Voices On High

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You just have to put two and two together. Zulu and Xhosa music from Southern Africa has been all about song for as long as any historian—academic or tribal—can recall. Ancient church music from Europe blends many voices into a collective whole through hymns and choral music. And since both traditions are fully focused on spiritual communication, it's only natural that they would find kinship when white men first took South Africa as a colonial home.

Of course, race relations in South Africa have been entirely black and white for the entirety of the country's colonial history (and far beyond through the apartheid era). When African labor was first harnessed for mines on the Strand, men working under the harshest conditions turned to music on Sundays for release. In short time they birthed a unique style known as isicathamiya : call-and-response vocal music, sometimes matched with rhythmic dance.

When Africans were prohibited from consuming alcohol, they turned to illegal drinking places known as shebeens that were as much cultural hubs as anything else. That in turn led to South African jazz and popular styles known as kwela and mbaqanga , which of course fed right back into church music on more sober days. And so two and two yield six in the case of the South African sound. But back to the church...

Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Raise Your Spirit Higher: Wenyukela
Heads Up

Maybe two and two is ten in the case of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a vocal tentet that has endured many changes since its founding in the early '60s by Joseph Shabalala. The sixties were a turbulent time in South Africa, a fact that's reflected in the group's name: Ladysmith after Shabalala's hometown, Black after the mighty ox (as well as the obvious), and Mambazo from the Zulu word for axe.

(Such names were not unique. One of the greatest records in South African history is Mankunku's 1968 masterpiece Yakhal' Inkomo , whose title refers to the sound a bull makes when taken to slaughter.)

But make no mistake: LBM is entirely about peace, consciousness, respect, and reconciliation. There's no violence or roughness in this music—just spiritual communication of the highest order. According to Shabalala, "it comes from the blood." Indeed. These vocal harmonies will remind Western ears of hymns and our own gospel music, and that's entirely appropriate given the embedded message of love. They may also recall the gentle ripples of Paul Simon's 1986 recording Graceland, probably the greatest hunk of South African music the world has ever swallowed en masse. Call and response between man and man, man and God.

On Raise Your Spirit Higher the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing nine spiritual anthems in Zulu, three in English, plus an odd hip-hop tribute to the leader's late wife by his grandsons. Gentle waves of open harmonies break on the shore, individual voices rising throughout in counterpoint and call-and-response. The music is particularly warm because of the deep pitches of the male voices involved. Intermittent fluttering trills, breath, and clicks accent certain features—especially prominent in "Because I Love," a tribute to the group's home town, and appropriate given the vastly expanded sonorities of the Zulu language.

Raise Your Spirit Higher stacks up there with the very best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's output (over 30 records strong at this point). It's impeccably produced, thoroughly organic, and a spiritual tribute of the highest order. "Black Is Beautiful." Indeed. Now close your eyes and listen.

Visit Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Heads Up on the web.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide to South African Gospel
World Music Network

The third volume in the series to address music from the tip of the Dark Continent, the Rough Guide to South African Gospel strikes right at the heart. It's a fine complement to the South African Jazz guide from 2000, since jazz and gospel share common roots that sink deep into religion, race, and culture. And, of course, voices raised in praise.

For the black majority in South Africa, church music found a willing partner in tribal song, especially since the church was the warmest place Europeans had to offer the underclass. Blacks found solace, respect, and literacy in Christianity, and today over 80% of the country's black population considers itself Christian.

The liner notes claim that gospel is South Africa's most popular music today, bolstered by the fact that singer Rebecca Malope's seventh record ( Shwele Baba, from 1995) sold over 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. South Africa is hardly a well-oiled market by American standards, which makes that figure all the more impressive.

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