Faith to Ladysmith
results in new album
that’s a prize

"Raise Your Spirit Higher (Wenyukela)"

Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Heads Up International

Joseph Shabalala's heavenly a cappella group actually performed in Hawaii for their one and only time a little more than 10 years ago. I had the good fortune of speaking to him briefly for a feature article, and I remember his lightly accented voice, coming over the phone from his New York City hotel room, speaking of the mission of Ladysmith Black Mambazo with heartfelt emotion.

But the effusive Shabalala became quiet when he spoke of his brother and group co-founder Headman, who was shot and killed the year before by a security guard.

Shabalala said he almost forgot his calling, but carried on. "And now, when I'm onstage, my wife has said to me that 'Every time I hear you sing, I hear your brother as a part of your voice.'"

That comment now has a cruel irony to it, as his wife Nellie was murdered back in his native South Africa in a church parking lot by a masked gunman in the spring of 2002. To date, no conviction has been made.

Shabalala's faith and commitment to Ladysmith has been once more put to a severe test. But, thankfully, he has rebounded even stronger, resulting in this album, one of his group's finer efforts.

And the man does not grieve alone. "Wenyukela" closes on an affecting note as Shabalala's teenage grandsons pay a short hip-hop tribute to their grandmother, imploring their grandfather to "please hold on" because "she's in your heart."

The album's songs are filled with a renewed sense of purpose, with Shabalala's recognizable falsetto floating over his group's bass voices, occasionally punctuated by the native vocalizations of tongue clicks and trills.

While the majority of the songs are in the Zulu language, two of them are in English. One in particular, "Black Is Beautiful," takes a stock race-pride phrase and transforms it into a beautifully sung declaration, restating the affirmation that every creed and color matters.

Album highlights include "Wangibambezela (Message from His Heart)"; "Wenza Ngani? (How Did You Do That?)," a lesson in unlearning racism; and "Udidekil' Umhlaba (Lord's Work)," which reminds all to, in the spirit of the old civil rights phrase, keep your eye on the prize.

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