You might not have heard the name. You have definitely heard the voices -- whether on a Paul Simon record, a Lifesavers commercial, or in Invictus or any number of other major films.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo comes to Tulsa Sunday night, bringing with them the tightest, most luxurious harmonies you have ever heard.
It's been more than 40 years since leader Joseph Shabalala formed the group near his rural South African home. Since then, they've won Grammys, toured the world multiple times, been featured in an Oscar-nominated documentary -- all in the name of spreading their gospel of peace, love, and harmony.
For the uninitiated, imagine music with the world music feel, first of all, because you are listening to the music of the Zulu people. Then, if you possibly can, imagine the cleanest harmonies you can think of. Harmonies so tight and so clean that, even though you are sometimes hearing four, five, eight different voices each singing a different note, they sound like one voice. Really. I remember being introduced to these guys when I was in college. I distinctly recall my roommate saying, "Damn, even their vocal bends are together." And he was right. They are perfectly together in what they do.
So Ladysmith Black Mambazo has taken the music of its South African roots, married it to the sounds and sensibilities of Western Christian music, and has created something extraordinary.
What brings them to this art of the world involves a little bit of selfishness on the part of Ken Tracy, founder of Choregus Production, the fine arts group presenting the concert.
"I've known about Ladysmith since [Paul Simon's] Graceland. I've always liked their stuff," he said. "And they're just everywhere. They did music for Cry the Beloved Country, they sang for Nelson Mandela's inauguration. They've just always been on my radar.
So when Tracy got an email inquiry about a year ago regarding booking performance dates for the group, he jumped at the chance.
"They've never been to Oklahoma, as far as I know, and they were planning on coming through this part of the country. It just seemed like a good match," he said.
As far as what the group will sing, since they do much of their material in a foreign language (and not one that even sounds familiar, but one with all those clicks in it), there's less chance of the audience anxiously awaiting its favorite Ladysmith hit. This band of men doesn't exactly have a version of "Freebird." That's not to say there's nothing familiar.
"Probably the one thing that people will want them to sing, that they're most familiar with, is their version of 'Amazing Grace,' Tracy said. "That's the YouTube hit that people know best, I think."
So, just like with the Soweto Gospel Choir, which swung through Tulsa a few years ago, the audience not only gets to hear new and wonderful things heretofore unexperienced, but it also gets treated to a stunning version of what is arguably the most popular hymn of all.
Choregus is also reaching out with this show, Tracy said.
"We're doing kind of an outreach to the underserved community," he said.
In addition to the underserved, Choregus is opening the show to students (Tracy is expecting upwards of 300) and to churches.
"We're reaching out to TPS. The problem, of course, is that it's on a Sunday evening, so it's not your typical school day activity," he said. "We're also reaching out to black churches and churches in general."
Some tickets will be given away, some sold at discount rates, all on what Tracy calls a need basis. Choregus has been empowered to do so through grants revolving around outreach. Doing so, Tracy hopes, will help further fill the Chapman Music Hall.
Shabalala once talked about the group's message, its job. His response was both to the point and all-inclusive, saying that the task at hand was to spread the gospel of loving each other throughout the world. The all-inclusive part came with him qualifying the use of the word "gospel," removing any specific religious affiliation with it.
"Without hearing the lyrics," he said, "the music gets into the blood, because it comes from the blood."
What he's talking about is that finest of music, the kind that speaks a language without words, the kind where the listener knows the message without hearing a word. That's a regular occurrence when listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. You probably don't speak the language of the Zulu people. But listening to the group, you know what they're singing about, anyway. And that's an amazing success.
Not to be too much of a marketer, but Tracy reminded all of the chance for Tulsa audiences to get to know the Ladysmith sound even better.
"They're always promoting their album, so they'll have them for sale in the lobby," Tracy said. So go to the show, be blown away, buy a couple of CDs in the lobby, live a fuller life.
Brought to Tulsa by Choregus Productions, Ladysmith Black Mambazo helps fulfill Choregus' mission statement, one which revolves around presenting not only quality productions, but giving the community the kinds of shows that no one else is bringing to town. Hairspray it ain't.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs Sunday, Jan. 22 at the Tulsa PAC's Chapman Music Hall at 7pm. Tickets range from $15 to $40 and are available through tulsapac.com.
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