Ladysmith Black Mambazo @BarbicanCentre, London (May 23) | Gig Review

51 years and counting since the group’s inception, the South African institution that is Ladysmith Black Mambazo waxes strong as ever. The still astonishingly spritely founder Joseph Shabalala realised his gift for songwriting through a recurring dream that haunted him for six months. More than five decades later and one million records sold in the UK alone, the world is glad he didn’t ignore his premonitions. He named the group after the South African township where they were formed, adding ‘Mambazo’ or ‘axe’ to denote the powerful impact of their vocals.

Joseph’s band first came to international prominence in the mid-1980’s via Graceland; [yet another] seminal album by Paul Simon. The diminutive New Yorker’s role in bringing the beauty of Ladysmith harmonies to the world’s attention has been met with scepticism by some. It’s as if there’s some cosmic law against cultural cross-pollination between the son of Ashkenazi Jewish émigrés and a Zulu vocal group.

Or perhaps there’s automatically a lot of suspicion when a Caucasian man takes an interest in music of darker skinned peoples. Yet Mr Simon had a long established reputation for musical wanderlust and there was nothing exploitative about his work with Mambazo. The collaboration yielded such classics as ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’ and ‘Homeless’ and hurtled LSBM into the ‘world’ music stratosphere.

This month Ladysmith kick started their 2011 UK tour, playing a packed Barbican for their only London date on May 23. Support came in the form of charismatic Cameroonian musician Muntu Valdo, who impressed Shabalala so much on a previous tour that he was personally invited to open for the South African legends.

Valdo gives new meaning to the expression ‘one man band’. He sings plaintive jazz and blues-tinctured Afro-folk, accompanying himself dexterously on guitar, sometimes simultaneously playing harmonica and working his loop machine. Initial technical hitches aside, a suitably enthralled hush fell upon the auditorium; that was, when Muntu wasn’t convincing the entire audience to sing BGV’s for him. In fitting tribute to LSBM’s renowned acappella style, he ended his relatively brief set with a gorgeously serene, loop machine-assisted four-part harmony imploration to the heavens to heal a broken world.

After the interval the Ladysmith fellows came leaping and bounding on stage, sporting their familiar get up of dashikis, loose black trousers and white socks and with no need for small talk launched into one of their trademark multi-layered harmonies secured by a resounding bass. In possession of a self-deprecating sense of humour (epitomised by their good-natured horseplay and the large caricatures projected behind them), Ladysmith regaled the audience with tracks from their new release, Songs from a Zulu Farm.

The album celebrates the traditional agricultural chants from their region that are passed down from generation to generation. Whether singing in English or their native Zulu, LSBM’s accessible melodies transcend linguistic barriers. Yet one simply can’t help but be fascinated by their nifty footwork too; as breathtaking as their delectable harmonies. The agility of the elderly members rivals that of the younger ones, none more so than the frighteningly flexible Shabalala.

Even the normally reserved Barbican audience cheered enthusiastically as the LSBM gang engaged in some on-stage hi-jinx, neither the quality of their performance or their energy waning. These apparently spontaneous boogie antics are not as easy as they look, judging by the attempts made by brave volunteers from the crowd, trying to imitate Ladysmith’s exhausting high kicks and squatting movements. As the evening drew to a close Mambazo gave a much anticipated rendition of ‘Homeless’. It would have been enough to hear from the group’s current repertoire but this slice of nostalgia was an absolute delight.

LSBM are the ideal blend of machine-like precision (never once did they start on a false note or even have to key themselves) and immense warmth, fun and joy. In a word; enchanting.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo are on tour throughout the UK until 21 June.  For more information visit their official website;