Prior to beginning each tour, the elder statesmen of Afro-pop gospel choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo take a rotating cast of younger singers and retreat to the mountains of South Africa, to meditate and fast until sunrise. It turns out searching for higher ground is a running metaphor: The group's latest album, Long Walk to Freedom, crowns nearly four decades as the centerpiece of a South African scene that has influenced everything from Jamaican roots to American blues to European spirituals... really, anything associated with revival music.
"We wish our music could reach every person in the world," explains lead tenor Albert Mazibuko, who learned singing from an insingoma, a diviner common in South Africa who teaches healing through music. "When we play, we play with our souls. We want our souls to be one."
The group much like its sound has organic roots, winning amateur singing nights in late 1960s Durban, a city on South Africa's eastern coast, in a region still struggling with racism and poverty. And also like its sound, Ladysmith has built collective steam, tirelessly recording and rerecording songs in a trademark a cappella style borrowing from traditional South African railroad mining hymns.
This unique style catapulted Ladysmith into the African mainstream soon after its first recording contract in 1970, and then onto the world stage via Paul Simon's 1986 smash Graceland, still one of the best showcases for how African music can add light to the often droll styling of Westernized pop, the sound of the world's best beatboxers sedating themselves with African koans and practicing ten-part harmonies.
While South African gospel has been pigeonholed in some circles as incessantly preachy, at its best the music is elegiac yet subtle, recalling both the organics of Ornette Coleman who inverts sound by using space as an instrument and Hugh Masekela, the South African jazz trumpeter who explores the possibilities of rhythm with a hard, driving African funk.
Having toured virtually nonstop since the '80s, the group is best understood live, where it improvises sounds and lyrics that come at you in waves. "We are a call and response, call and response place," Mazibuko says. "Our mission from the beginning was not lose hope. If you do not stand strong, you will be destroyed."