The sumptuous beautiful warmth of the human voice times nine flew up, in and around our brains and hearts as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an a capella nonet that needs no instruments to create its full-bodied and deeply profound sound, took the stage at the MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Besides the splashy visual feast and the informative introductions of its songs by lead singer Joseph Shabalala—who not only told you the name of each song but the derivation of its meaning—there were comedic aspects, and singular vocal acrobatics that literally brought out the oohs and ahhs from the mostly white crowd.
When Paul Simon made this incredible vocal band internationally famous in 1986—in their 12th year of existence—on his Graceland album, it sent them off on world tours to wild acclaim starting with that legendary Saturday Night Live appearance before the album was even released, one of the greatest moments in televised music history.
Shabalala put this act together in 1974. 30 albums later, the seven bass voices, one alto and one tenor combine for thrilling vocalese, and it matters not that most of their lyrics are in Zulu. When those deep bass rumbles hit you, you feel it in your sternum. Combine that with the high keening wails, the howling ululations, the grunting, the foot stomping, the percussive powers of the human voice, and you’ve got some big-time entertainment.
Did I mention the choreography? The humor comes into play when one of the younger members gets a little too carried away and has to be restrained by the others à la James Brown and his famous cape routine.
The week before LBM rocked my world, The Wailers—that’s right, Bob Marley’s band—continued their post-Marley legend (Marley died in 1981) by putting on the kind of show that had this rock ‘n’ roll fan alternately mesmerized, hypnotized, narcotized, stupefied, yet energized enough to be up and dancing. The “riddims” on song after song—including “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Stir It Up,” “One Love,” “Redemption Song” and oh so many others—insinuated themselves into my psyche to the point where I was still hearing them hours after the show ended.
Only big bad bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett remains from the original band—his brother, drummer Carlton Barrett, was murdered in 1987 by a hit man hired by his own wife—yet this particular assemblage of singers and players was born into this music, especially lead singer Koolant, whose soulful joy was infectious.
The scene of these reveries, the MusikFest Café at Steel Stacks in Bethlehem, PA, is an hour away from North Jersey, five minutes off Route 78, and one block past the Sands Casino. Their booking policy rivals any New York City club and the parking is on-site and free. This spring looks loaded: The Irish Rovers March 12, Dr. John March 13, Graham Parker & The Rumour April 5, The Fixx April 13, The Mavericks April 18, Keb Mo April 26, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band May 9, The Red Elvises May 11 (this is a hip-swiveling band from the former Soviet Union dressed to the gills in red leather who pump out the rockabilly and what they call “Siberian Surf Rock” with accordion, sax, clarinet, trumpet, flute, mandolin, tuba and ukulele), and Chick Corea May 22.
I know baseball always plays havoc with my concert-going every year but with a lineup like this so close to home, man, is there an actual need for me to ever venture into Manhattan again?