Only two weeks after the release of their border-crossing new CD, No Boundaries (HUCD 3092) on Heads Up International, the legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo earned a Grammy for last year's Raise Your Spirit Higher. South African President Thabo Mbeki said, "The Grammy Award that has been so spectacularly won by the Isicaphamiya group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, makes us all proud to be South Africans... The people and government of South Africa salute this remarkable group on their achievement and wish them continuing success in their future."
Meanwhile, the new No Boundaries recording finds the South African a cappella powerhouse joined by the strings of the English Chamber Orchestra for a unique project pairing their isicathamiya (a Zulu word meaning “to tiptoe”) singing with the likes of Mozart, Schubert and Bach.
Joseph Shabalala, founder and leader of the world-renowned Zulu singing group, has often found his group’s voices used in many ways: movie soundtracks, Broadway musicals, and television and radio ads. Furthermore, the group has often collaborated with Western musical artists, combining their unique African voices with more contemporary sounds. Their work with Paul Simon is legendary. They have also sung with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Ben Harper, and many others.
When asked if using his group’s voices for such “non African traditional” work was a bad thing, Joseph answered that in fact it is a very good thing. “Our music, our singing, our tradition must survive and grow. We love for people to hear us and it’s good when people say to me ‘Hey, didn’t I hear you on that TV commercial?’ ‘Yes, that was us,’ I say. ‘Maybe you like it and want more of our singing,’ and usually they do.’”
South Africa’s International Classical Music Festival commissioned Isak Roux to arrange the pieces that make up the unique No Boundaries collaboration. By introducing African music to composers, musicians, and music educators worldwide and by commissioning new works combining indigenous and traditional African music styles with Western classical, the ICMF seeks to promote Africa’s musical heritage nationally and internationally. Roux—a South African-born German pianist and composer—had already been interested in exploring African music in the European classical context having grown up in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Our tradition is meant to be spread around the world,” Joseph continues. “Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a mobile academy that teaches the world about Zulu people and culture, about South Africa and all that is wonderful here. So when people came to me and said, ‘Hey, maybe you can sing with a full orchestra who play classical music,’ I said ‘Why not?’ After all, our singing is a sort of Zulu classical singing.”
“From the outset it was clear that the project would be a challenge, not only in terms of logistics, but also due to the tensions between African folkloristic freedoms and European classical constraints,” says arranger Isak Roux. “I was determined not to tamper with the typical vocal sound of the ensemble, with the orchestra playing a subtle role in the combined sonic tapestry. Since we were working with a chamber-sized orchestra, it proved possible to avoid the pitfall of an overwhelming and romanticized instrumentation. The arrangements were inspired by the early classical and baroque masters.”
The CD alternates between classic Mambazo pieces and classical masterpieces. Newcomers to Mambazo might be taken by the orchestrated rendition of Paul Simon’s “Homeless” or an Africanized version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.” Highlights also include a striking interpretation of “Amazing Grace” and the closing Zulu lullaby “Walil’ Umtwana (The Child Is Crying).”Being released to coincide with the group’s upcoming three month tour of the United States, and coming less than a year after their 2004 Heads Up debut, Raise Your Spirit Higher (Wenyukela), which was nominated for two Grammy Awards (Best Traditional World Music Album and Best Surround Sound Album) and held the #1 spot on Billboard’s World Music chart for several months, Ladysmith Black Mambazo are here to spread their singing and cultural story to all points of the USA, with a tour that starts in Hawaii and continues until they reach Harvard University. No Boundaries kicks off the 2005 Heads Up Africa series, a critically acclaimed collection that spotlights some of Southern Africa’s finest vocalists and instrumentalists.