Two decades ago, Paul Simon introduced the musical genius and boundless spiritual energy of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the pop music world via his groundbreaking 1986 recording, Graceland. Eight years later, due in large part to the efforts of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African artists bearing witness to racial inequality in their homeland, the centuries-old practice of apartheid came to an end in South Africa.
In recognition of the twentieth anniversary of their ascendancy to the world stage and the dawning of democracy in South Africa twelve years ago, Ladysmith Black Mambazo released Long Walk To Freedom (HUCD 3109, and on SACD in 5.1 Surround Sound, HUSA 9109) on Heads Up International. Nearly 11 months after its release date, the album scored two GRAMMY nominations – one for Best Contemporary World Music Album and another for Best Surround Sound Album.
The album is a collection of twelve new recordings of classic Mambazo songs, featuring guest vocal performances by some of the most progressive voices of the contemporary pop music scene: Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Joe McBride, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant and Zap Mama. Also appearing on the guest roster are a virtual who’s who of South African artists: Lucky Dube, Bhekumunzi Luthuli, Vusi Mahlasela, Hugh Masekela, Nokukhanya, Phuezkhemisi, and Thandiswa.
"I am so happy to share this recording with our friends and fans from around the world," says Mambazo frontman and founder Joseph Shabalala. "Forty-five years ago I had a dream of creating music that might make South Africa – and the world in general – a better place. This dream has come true in so many ways that I could never have imagined those many years ago. It’s wonderful to have so many talented guest artists on this project who share that vision."
The track sequence follows the chronological sequence of their thirty-plus year recording history, beginning with "Nomathemba," the hit song originally released in 1973 on the group’s Amabutho album. The song is delivered here in a context that is solemn and understated, yet powerful at the same time. Zap Mama steps in on the following track to deliver a sensual vocal line atop the pulsating harmonies of "Hello My Baby." "Ladysmith Black Mambazo inspires me," says Zap Mama’s Marie Daulne. "I thank them for making me a part of this project and for opening a new creative vista for Zap Mama."
The tempo picks up dramatically when Melissa Etheridge steps in for a rousing rendition of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Mambazo and Joe McBride, a human jukebox, create all the percussion sounds on this track with no instruments other than their vocal chords and their uncanny sense of rhythm. Etheridge, meanwhile, evokes all the witty intensity of Paul Simon’s original recording of two decades ago, yet adds an edginess heretofore unheard. "Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been an inspirational light in the music business," says Etheridge. "It was my pleasure and honor to sing the Paul Simon hit with them."
Sarah McLachlan participates in a duet version of the hymn-like "Homeless" (another song from the original Graceland album) together with Mambazo’s thickly layered bed of mysterious nighttime sounds and rhythms. She sets the tone with the powerful recurring image of "moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake."
Equally melancholy is "Rain Rain Beautiful Rain," a song originally heard on Mambazo’s 1987 Grammy winning album, Shaka Zulu, and reinterpreted here with the trademark atmospherics of pop chanteuse Natalie Merchant. "It was such an honor to be invited to sing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo," says Merchant. "What an incredible experience to hear the rich texture of their harmonies in my headphones and add my voice to theirs."
Taj Mahal, wielding his raw vocal style and sparse electric guitar, brings an earthy and visceral dimension to the familiar melody of "Mbube." The resulting track is a seamless union of traditional South African vocal music and American delta blues (make no mistake, this lion is wide awake tonight). "I’ve received a tremendous boost over the years from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in terms of what they’ve done musically and socially," says Taj Mahal. "The tendency of music from oppressed people is to be pretty dark and melancholy, but this group refused to let the spirit of their music veer in that direction. They’ve always chosen the high road."
The nod to traditional American music continues in the following track, as Emmylou Harris joins Mambazo in the stirring gospel medley of "Amazing Grace" and "Nearer My God To Thee."
The South African anthem "Shosholoza" positions Mambazo alongside a star-studded septet of the highest-profile South African artists: Lucky Dube, Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Hugh Masekela, Vusi Mahlasela, Nokukhanya, Phuzekhemisi and Thandiswa
The album closes with the bonus track, "Thula Thula," a brand new composition not previously heard on any Mambazo album. This simple song features the lone voice of Mambazo leader and founder Joseph Shabalala, who displays the broad dynamic range and emotional depth that has served as the driving force behind his history-making a cappella group for more than thirty years.
The story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is about more than just music. It’s about the historic struggle of a great nation. Much of that rich and bittersweet history is captured on this new recording. Join this legendary group and their cadre of stellar guests on the Long Walk To Freedom