The renowned Zulu vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo presents a unified sound and aesthetic - a rich array of simpatico bass, tenor, and alto male voices blending on songs of "love, peace, and harmony." And yet there is ample room for individual expression, an enlivening component to their Kimmel Center performance Monday night.
The storied four-Grammy-winning a cappella outfit (the African counterpart term is isicathamiya), whose origins go back 55 years to founder Joseph Shabalala's first artistic stirrings in their South African township of Ladysmith, certainly weave their voices to enthralling effect. And the vocal magic is often accentuated with deftly coordinated steps and shimmies in matching white shoes. But every member gets repeated chances to come forth and get down in his own way, from the oldest to the ebullient young Babuyile Shabalala, the founder's high-kicking grandson and first third-generation Black Mambazo member.
Monday, he joined his father Thulani (and wished him a happy 47th birthday) along with various uncles and cousins. (Semi-retired patriarch Joseph, 73, reported to be still recovering from back surgery, was not with the group.)
Individuality came through in the voices, like that of Thamsanqa Shabalala (already tapped by his father as his successor in leading Ladysmith), who has gone from the lighter alto of his earlier years to more flexible, wide-ranging vocals. Or it came in offhanded moments, as when the lithe Thamsanqa humorously showed off his considerable ballet moves while nephew Babuyile introduced the intricate "Nom' Ungangishiya / Zobuya Nini Na? / Uhlulekile Umakoti," from Ladysmith's latest CD, Music From Inala: A Zulu Ballet with Ella Spira & The Inala Ensemble, a dance work presented last year at the Edinburgh International Festival.
There were both songs presented with playful hi-jinks and also the beautifully solemn "Izembe Mfana," a track off last year's Always With Us, a collection of recordings left by Joseph's deceased wife, Nellie (shot in a 2002 robbery), and since finished by the group. And of course there were nods to Graceland, Ladysmith's 1986 international breakthrough collaboration with Paul Simon, including a particularly affecting "Homeless." On tunes from their 2013 album Live: Singing For Peace Around The World, as well as "Halala South Africa (Long Walk to Freedom)" - their anthemic salute to the late Nelson Mandela and two decades of South African democracy - there was much palpable, irrepressible, fitting joy.