In spite of the abundant joy Ladysmith Black Mambazo displayed Thursday at Liberty Hall, an unmistakable sense of loss permeated the concert by the South African vocal ensemble.
The 10 members of the a cappella group still mourn the recent death of Nelson Mandela. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was also without the guidance of Joseph Shabalala, its founder and principal member.
“Sadly, Joseph cannot be with us on our current concert tour,” Albert Mazibuko told the audience of about 500. “He’s 73 and is recovering from surgery.”
Contrary to reports that Shabalala is retiring, Mazibuko indicated that Shabalala intends to resume performing later this year. Mazibuko joined Shabalala’s group in 1969. He noted that Ladysmith Black Mambazo was “founded 54 years ago” and continues its mission to spread a “culture of love, peace and harmony.”
The group’s music provided comfort to Mandela while the future president of South Africa was imprisoned. In his introduction to “Halala South Africa,” Mazibuko suggested that Mandela had been “an inspiration to all South Africans to come together to be one nation — the rainbow nation.”
The song glorifies the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mandela in 1993. Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at the ceremony in Oslo.
While Mazibuko served as the group’s primary spokesman Thursday, Thamsanqa Shabalala sang lead on most of the songs. The youngest son of Joseph, Thamsanqa has been tapped by his father as the new lead singer of the ensemble. It’s a wise choice. Thamsanqa has an angelic voice and is handsome, charismatic and agile.
The group’s exuberant dancing almost outshone its shimmering harmonies. All but one or two members kicked their heels above their shoulders as they displayed synchronized dance moves.
Babuyile Shabalala, one of Joseph’s grandsons, was especially energetic. When his bandmates bent down during “Yinhie Lentombi,” he did handstands instead. He also break-danced.
Even without Joseph’s distinctively grainy voice, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s resplendent singing was magisterial. The rich spectrum of sound — supplemented by clicks, trills and birdcalls — was rapturously beautiful on “Homeless,” the song from Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland” that introduced the group to much of the world. The ensemble also shone as it sang material from the new album “Always With Us,” a tribute to Joseph’s wife Nellie. She was murdered in 2002.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s persistence in the face of ongoing adversity bodes well for its future. Even in its current transitional state, the ensemble demonstrated that it’s capable of hosting a profoundly gorgeous celebration.