African Warmth in Cold Toronto

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It all began almost 50 years ago, when Joseph Shabalala had a dream – literally. In his sleep, the young South African farm hand and factory worker imagined a new a-cappella male vocal ensemble. Soon the group was a reality, and chose a name: "Ladysmith" was the town the singers came from, "Black" was a reference to black oxen, and "Mambazo" is Zulu for axe. Today, Shabalala still leads Ladysmith Black Mambazo – and from the stage of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on February 25, he proudly announced that he has four sons in the ensemble.

The Ladysmith sound is unmistakable: close harmonies, sung in a lilting rhythmic unison – and of course the breathy sotto-voce vocal production that’s the hallmark of the group. (In Zulu, the style is called isicathamiya, or "tiptoe" singing.) As well, another unmistakable stylistic feature is the ensemble’s well-honed ability to start a note slightly under pitch, and discreetly slide up to the note’s centre. Indeed, the nine vocalists of Ladysmith Black Mambazo never sing a note that just sits there being a note. They always do something with it.

The group’s music has reached millions through over 50 recordings – but anyone who hasn’t seen a live performance (as I hadn’t, until this concert) is in for a few surprises. A kind of giddy, fluid choreography is central to Ladysmith’s presentation: sometimes they resembled the Rockettes with their high kicking, at other times they ran around the stage like a singing football team.

The repertoire for the evening included a number of songs from their latest album, Songs from a Zulu Farm. These were children’s songs: "Wemfana" ("Bad Donkey"), "Leliyafu" ("Clouds Go Away"), and a very South-African version of "Old MacDonald."

On this cold Toronto night, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was in fine form, giving an infectious performance, full of warmth and joy. (At one point, they even got their Canadian audience to clap along to the beat, which is no mean feat.) It seems that half a century of performing hasn’t slowed Joseph Shabalala down a bit.