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Thanks in part to Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo popularized traditional South African a cappella music.

Making the Old New

You know the music, whether you know it or not. During the past 15 years the whispery African vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo could be heard on "Sesame Street," on soundtracks, even in commercials for icons like IBM and Lifesavers.

The language may be Zulu, but the essential meaning is universal. "Everyone who has blood can enjoy the music," says leader Joseph Shabalala, "because it is music from the blood."

The group's performances are a blend of precision singing and amiable humor, the jokes frequently coming from the difficulty in achieving perfect synchronization of tone and movement in a 10-man band.

Paul Simon introduced Ladysmith to the world audience after he heard the group on a bootleg tape and featured it on his acclaimed 1986 "Graceland" album. Before that, even in Ladysmith's South African homeland, its traditional purity was thought old-fashioned.

"When I moved to the city everyone was listening to records and trying to imitate the music that they heard," the country-bred Shabalala says. "The big record companies would listen to us and say, 'Those farm boys still have that old sound.' They thought that no one would like it."

The old sound was a style called isicathamiya- literally 'tiptoe guys.' "It was called that because the neighbors would get mad if you stomped and made music," Shabalala says.

In apartheid South Africa, attracting police attention was a bad idea. The style originated as a way of channeling the Saturday night celebrations of diamond miners into a quieter, if no less intense form. The group performs light-footed dance steps in unison while singing a cappella — with high lead vocal flutters, trills and clicks — floating above a thick bed of rhythmic chording voices.

Shabalala founded the group in his hometown of Ladysmith, and brought its members to regional fame in the fierce but friendly singing competitions that were highlights of the social season. (First prize was typically a goat.) The band's name is a reminder of those days: "Black" signifies the color of the strongest oxen, a power color for a herding culture; "mambazo" is Zulu for "ax," used to cut rivals down to size.

When "Graceland" transformed Ladysmith Black Mambazo's local renown to international acclaim it also revealed the subtlety and beauty of the music to the previously aloof South-African sophisticates. "They were surprised that when Paul Simon came he would look for the farm boy," says Shabalala. "But then people said, 'We had forgotten, but we know this [music].' Now in their music, even the guitar, even the horn, has that old sound." As a result, popular African music has shifted away from rock back to a more traditional African sound.

Making that deeper connection is essential to Shabalala. "Music makes you remember something you forgot. The music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is to encourage the young to respect the old. The old must not be lazy, but must teach; and the young must not be lazy, but produce. What really matters is love, but also remember yourself, try to mesh what is the best about the past with updated things."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has become the premier representative for traditional South African culture, performing at special events around the world: for the Queen in London, for Pope John Paul in Rome, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, he invited Ladysmith Black Mambazo to accompany him; the group played at the Oslo ceremonies.

"We didn't know we had a talent. We wanted to sing, that's all," says Shabalala. The self-described farm boy whose harmonization of the past and present has brought fame, awards (including a Grammy) and honorary degrees, stays close to the values that nourished his success.

"Music is just like food," Shabalala says. "A vitamin for the mind."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo will appear at the Carpenter Center Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets: in person at Carpenter Center Box Office or at Ticketmaster 262-8100.

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