Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo

  • Induku Zethu [Shanachie, 1984] A-
  • Ulwandle Oluncgwele [Shanachie, 1985] A-
  • Inala [Shanachie, 1986] A-
  • Shaka Zulu [Warner Bros., 1987] A-
  • Umthombo Wamanzi [Shanachie, 1988] B+
  • Journey of Dreams [Warner Bros., 1988] B+
  • Two Worlds One Heart [Warner Bros., 1990] A-
  • Classic Tracks [Shanachie, 1990] A-
  • The Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo [Shanachie, 1992] A-
  • Liph' Iqiniso [Shanachie, 1994] A-
  • Thuthukani Ngoxolo (Let's Develop in Peace) [Shanachie, 1996] *
  • Heavenly [Shanachie, 1997] ***
  • The Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Vol. 2 [Shanachie, 1998] B+
  • Live at the Royal Albert Hall [Shanachie, 1999] A-
  • Raise Your Spirit Higher [Heads Up, 2004]
  • Long Walk to Freedom [Heads Up International, 2006] *
  • Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu [Heads Up, 2008] *
  • Always With Us (Uyohlale Unathi) [CDBaby, 2014] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Induku Zethu [Shanachie, 1984]
This immensely successful South African vocal ensemble isn't my kind of thing. Their lyrics are in Zulu, which may be just as well, since they probably serve culturally conservative values. They employ no instruments, drums most certainly included, and generate almost no pulse; they sound like a glee club. And since I've never heard them before, I can't tell you how their umpteenth album stacks up. All I know is it's amazing--serious, intricate, droll, eerie, precisely rehearsed, and very beautiful. It's too thoughtful to fade into the background, but like so much good African music it possesses calmative properties. Anyone who thinks he or she might like it probably will. A-

Ulwandle Oluncgwele [Shanachie, 1985]
How does one distinguish between this album of a cappella Zulu gospel music and the other album of a cappella Zulu gospel music available in discriminating record stores? Well, this one came out first back home, which may mean it's purer and may mean it's less advanced and probably means nothing. On this one, they wear choir robes instead of tribal garb and say amen and hallelujah, which may be why it's not as much fun. The easiest way to tell them apart, though, is that the other one is called Induku Zethu. Write it down. They're both pretty good, believe me. A-

Inala [Shanachie, 1986]
Unless I learn Zulu (long shot) or someone starts providing trots (great idea), chances are my favorite Ladysmith album will always be the first one I listened to, 1984's Induku Zethu. But your favorite will probably be the first one you listen to, and if you were busy in 1984 you might help Paul Simon do a good deed and start here. By now you should know what you'll get: a male a cappella chorus comprising two families of brothers and cousins in which Joseph Shabalala's cunning tenor darts in and out of the harmonic brush. Though they can dance to it, you probably can't, but unless you're hopelessly culture-bound you'll soon hear how beautiful it is. As a crossover gesture there's one song in English, full of sly domestic observations that provide welcome insight into how they deploy both words and sounds. A-

Shaka Zulu [Warner Bros., 1987]
Though I continue to prefer the curlicued sound effects of Induku Zethu, the lyric sheet alone (with four songs in English!) makes this the Ladysmith album of choice for any normal U.S. dabbler. Roy Halee separates the harmonic elements just enough to enhance their fit and shows off Joseph Shabalala's grainy tenor, which anybody but a devoted family man would go solo with tomorrow. The politics settle in around a generalized gospel yearning, but the sheer sound is gorgeous enough to embarrass most Americans. Let's just hope they last longer on Warners than Urubama did on CBS, so we get a chance to listen deeper. A-

Umthombo Wamanzi [Shanachie, 1988]
Though it's worse than ridiculous for Grammy tastemongers to classify these slick professionals as folk musicians, they are exotics, subject to foreign pop's law of diminishing returns--after you get past how different it is, you're stuck with differentiating it from itself. So, a couple of hints. One, this is a harmony album; Joseph Shabalala isn't submerged, but he isn't showcased either. That makes for a nice little change. Two, it's a religious album, replete with full translations and 12 ways to sing amen. That one I'm not so sure about. B+

Journey of Dreams [Warner Bros., 1988]
Transcriptions from the Zulu help the student trace the intricate structures in 48-track detail. Lyric summaries reveal three songs about God, three about their career, two that mention oppression in South Africa, two that mention Paul Simon. Simon takes the lead on "Amazing Grace," the "Send in the Clowns" of roots music. B+

Two Worlds One Heart [Warner Bros., 1990]
Joseph Shabalala is a modest fellow only on the surface--black South Africans neglect that role at their peril. From the stylistic revolution he imposed on his chosen style to his principled pursuit of international glory, he has the lineaments of a pop visionary, and here he arrives at a crossover that does the style proud, moving gracefully from Zulu to English within and between songs and pumping the a cappella rhythms with instruments on three cuts. Twice Ray Phiri masterminds suitably simple mbaqanga tracks, but the big man is George Clinton, whose "Scatter the Fire" neither obscures nor ignores the singers with their name on the cover. I urge the Jungle Brothers to volunteer for a remix. A-

Classic Tracks [Shanachie, 1990]
Having beaten Graceland to the gate with the first (and till now best) U.S.-available Ladysmith album, Induku Zethu, and then gotten sandbagged by Warners, Shanachie gives up on the easy way out: instead of licensing yet another high-generic LP whole, it shuffles a dozen of them into a great one. By selecting for "musical quality" from the wealth of product Joseph Shabalala has conceived for his group's presold Azanian fans, Randall Grass concentrates the lively and tuneful while respecting the intricately harmonized and subtly dramatic. One man's sustained vibrato and a whole language's clicks, trills, and amens. A-

The Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo [Shanachie, 1992]
Three tracks from 1990's Classic Tracks (their strongest), three from 1988's Umthumbo Wamanzi (their weakest), four new to me, six culled from the rest of their Shanachie catalogue (including two in English, both from Inala). Flow: liquid, bubbly. Redundancy: tolerable. Verdict: excellent place to start, pretty good one to continue. A-

Liph' Iqiniso [Shanachie, 1994]
Any American who already owns Classic Tracks, or Induku Zethu, plus maybe Two Worlds One Heart or Greatest Hits, obviously doesn't need album 36 from the definitive Zulu chorale. But not only have they avoided the rut, they've reinvented themselves--with one brother murdered, another departed, and a cousin also gone, Joseph Shabalala enlisted three of his sons and pushed on. And if anything, he's gotten better at arranging and producing the comic details that are the unsung delight of the vocal beauty he perfected. A-

Thuthukani Ngoxolo (Let's Develop in Peace) [Shanachie, 1996]
have they ever made a bad record? not that we've heard ("Sisesiqhingini [Everything Is Stupid]," "Hlanganani Siyobula [The Guests Are Arriving]") *

Heavenly [Shanachie, 1997]
Joseph Shabalala & Co. sing the pop-gospel songbook (best cameo: Dolly Parton) ("Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "I'll Take You There) ***

The Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Vol. 2 [Shanachie, 1998]
Absolute masters of a self-invented formula neither they nor their fans ever weary of, Ladysmith are like the Ramones at a higher level of musical if not philosophical development. And now they've outlasted these great rivals. Sixteen tracks, mostly new to U.S. consumers, showcase their a cappella trickery with daunting subtlety and never-ending smarts. B+

Live at the Royal Albert Hall [Shanachie, 1999]
Their first live album in a quarter century of taking it to the stage disperses the pious aura with which their religious faith and the self-righteousness of the world-music ethos conspire to surround them. Their sound effects ought to be funny enough in themselves (try the kisses on "Hello My Baby"), but their awkward repartee will convince the properest sobersides that it's OK to laugh. Their rhythms are more pronounced as well--too bad you can't see the steps. Their English repertoire is limited, so the half where you'll understand the words is re makes; their Zulu repertoire is vast, so the half where you won't isn't. Inspirational Chorus: "Everything's so stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid"--sung with a smile. A-

Raise Your Spirit Higher [Heads Up, 2004]
If you've never heard a Ladysmith Black Mambazo album, that doesn't mean you've never heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The long-running Zulu chorale, introduced to America in 1986 on Paul Simon's Graceland though they had an indie label deal by then, are an exotic staple--educating Sesame Street, serenading Olympians, regaling Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee. What's more, they deserve it--their a cappella clicks and whoops and hollers and harmonies constitute some of the most skillful, witty, and beautiful pop music on the planet. Incredibly, founder-leader-inventor Joseph Shabalala's wife of 30 years was murdered while this album was being cut. More incredibly, it's one of their most spirited and accessible ever. There are more than 40, but why quibble? Start here. [Village Voice: Tribulations of St. Joseph]

Long Walk to Freedom [Heads Up International, 2006]
Works in spite of its prevailing gimmick, which is hooking them up with white female singers ("Long Walk to Freedom," "Hello My Baby"). *

Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu [Heads Up, 2008]
Joseph Shabalala goes out like a pro, relying on his old gimmicks because he finally feels no need for new ones ("Kuyafundw' Osizini [Ilembe]," "Iphel' Emasini [Nature Effects]"). *

Always With Us (Uyohlale Unathi) [CDBaby, 2014]
Often this highly evolved, showbiz-savvy family choir have courted their international target market of congenial folkies by keeping company with their many admirers in Western pop. This has been dodgy musically, and although their filigreed tenor blend is hard to ruin, 2006 collaborations with Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, and Natalie Merchant were not propitious. But on this self-released album a South African female provides blessed relief: semi-retired 73-year-old Joseph Shabalala's late wife Nellie, who was murdered in a murky 2002 incident just as her Women of Mambazo choir was about to go international itself. Through the earthly miracle of magnetic tape, Joseph's men and Nellie's women join their voices, and the differentiation is just the thing to make Ladysmith's fifty-somethingth album ring out. Gorgeous has never been their main thing--they're wittier and more intricate than that. But this is gorgeous. A-

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