Since Joseph Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo over forty-five years ago the all male chorus has embodied the sound of South Africa by bringing Zulu a cappella to the world. The group’s international fame—initiated by 1986 contributions to Paul Simon’s album Graceland and continuing on through countless collaborations—has also given Mambazo great responsibility as it serves as a South African delegate, spreading knowledge of its nation around the world. Naturally, such responsibility has sacrificed Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s identity in return for accessibility in many instances in the chorus’s long musical history. However, Songs From A Zulu Farm resembles no such shortcoming.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s 2008 release Ilembe represented a return from the international music community to the group’s roots in the African countryside. It has continued in the same direction and spirit in Songs From A Zulu Farm, reinvigorating the soul of its isicathamiya (a sort of Zulu a cappella) harmonies and style, while also reviving the songs that leader Joseph Shabalala grew up singing.
As the group’s reputation suggests, each track promotes the broad instrumental nature of the Zulu voices. The absence of instrumentals never presents a burden, but provides the appropriate canvas to display the phenomenal quality of Mambazo’s expansive timbral brilliance. The track, “Wemfazi Ongaphesheya” utilizes a vocal percussion almost reminiscent of beat-boxer Rahzel’s work on Bjork’s Medulla, all over a simple African chant. The majority of tracks consist of native Zulu lyrics, though fragments of English can be found. Continuing with the farm theme from beginning to end, the final track, “Old MacDonald Zulu Style,” offers a cheesy platform that segues into an appropriate conclusion combining recorded animal sounds along with members of the chorus mimicking similar animal noises with oddly amazing ability. Kid-friendly? Sure. But it will leave you with a smile on your face.