Ladysmith Black Mambazo
"Old MacDonald had a farm, EE-I-EE-I-O!" has exited the mouths of American children for nearly a century, but the traditional song is not quite as relevant as it once was. Today, McDonald's is more closely associated with the farm than Old MacDonald.
Ironically, Old MacDonald would probably feel more at home on the other side of the globe in South Africa, where agriculture is still a major way of life. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's upcoming release, "Songs from a Zulu Farm," celebrates this lifestyle.
The popularity of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was confined to Africa until 1986, when the a cappella group was featured on Paul Simon's landmark world-music-inspired album, "Graceland."
Founded in the early 1960s by leader Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has since released more than 50 recordings, won three Grammy awards and has been featured in several major ad campaigns for Heinz and Lifesavers.
Though they have achieved international success, home has remained a very special place to the nine men in Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They pay it particular praise with "Songs from a Zulu Farm," available on February 2, 2011. The album is the first of a three-part series, called "Our South African Life."
Their ancestors, whose hands were busy harvesting crops in the fields, entertained themselves through the workday by singing traditional songs passed down to them by their parents and grandparents. Ladysmith Black Mambazo appropriately celebrates this custom, using no musical instruments on Songs from a Zulu Farm.
Four of Shabalala's sons are in the current line-up of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It may be assumed with such a rigorous touring and recording schedule, there is little time for the farm. That is not the case, as Shabalala has instilled the importance of being familiar with their roots. He and his family revisit the farmland of his youth regularly.
"When we sing these songs, we are singing songs from our history," Shabalala said.
Their firsthand experience laboring on their family land makes "Songs from a Zulu Farm" a genuine piece of work.
"Songs from a Zulu Farm" is just that, songs reflecting on the simplicity and innocence of life experiences on the farm. For example, "Imithi Gobakahle" is an appeal to free-running children to return home when the skies darken and rainstorms threaten their play. "Ntulube" translates to "Away, You River Snakes" and describes an attempt to chase creatures out of a waterway to allow for swimming.
Animals play a large part on any farm and are prominent on "Songs from a Zulu Farm." Ladysmith Black Mambazo mimics their noises, as well as lyrically describes their encounters with the animals. "Yagiluma Inkukhu," meaning "The Biting Chicken," describes an annoying bird who attacks a man, preventing him from getting any work done in his yard.
"Old MacDonald Zulu Style" is a comical take on the familiar traditional, with the universal "moo-moos," "pok-poks" and "meh-mehs." Children will enjoy the African version of the song as much or more as the original.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings in their native Zulu language, utilizing two African singing styles: Mbube, a cappella sung loudly and proudly, and the softer Isicathamiya, which focuses more on vocal harmony. Their singing abilities are marvelous, effectively eliminating the need for instruments.
Not being able to understand the language of the singers may eliminate some prospective listeners of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Also, the repetitive qualities of their music may be unnerving to a few ears.
Regardless, this group is of the caliber of talent that can transcend language and ears attuned to modern music. "Songs from a Zulu Farm" is yet another culturally-rich offering from Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is online at Mambazo.com.