Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Symphony Hall

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Last Friday, I went with my friends from Magenta to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Having heard their sound, both from their own albums and from their collaborations with Paul Simon, I found it something of a revelation to see how they perform too.

It was not a surprise to see them moving as a matter of course – I rather expected this to be a genre where song was fully integrated with physical movement, and you can pretty much tell this from the vocal inflections and gestures in the recordings. The content of the movements was interesting, though. On one hand, there are hand gestures that are generally correlated with the verbal content of the lyrics – and these appear mostly early on in the songs where the content is more narrative. On the other hand, there is a collection of very athletic leaps, kicks and squats that appear more in the later, more iterative parts of the song.

Even more interesting than the content of the movements was their quality. The hand movements were obviously choreographed – they all did them together – but they were performed almost absent-mindedly. It looked as if they weren’t being particularly displayed to us, they were just part of how the song goes. If you’ve ever seen a dancer running through a sequence of steps in ‘fast forward’ mode to check their memory, it had that quality. Or when people cross themselves on entering church – the gesture isn’t for anyone else to see (well, apart from God of course, but he presumably just knows anyway), what matters is the fact of doing it.

This quality contributed strongly to the sense that the performance was both very polished and quite relaxed and casual. Everybody knew exactly what the plan was, but they also kept their separate identity as individuals as well as contributing to the whole. The athletic moves gave this sense too, and added a sense of playfulness. There was more sense of overt display here (well, it would be odd to do repeated high kicks absent-mindedly), but it was less a sense that this was a display put on for us, the audience, than a game the singers played between themselves. Or, maybe it was both at once. They certainly enjoyed impressing us, but they also enjoyed competing between themselves for our attention.

I have been thinking a lot about the role of empathy and identification in the relationship between performer and audience (as regular readers will know), and it was certainly a major part of the pleasure of the evening to witness people being so good at what they do, and so confident, and having such a good time. And, sure, it didn’t spoil my evening to see a bunch of good-natured and physically vigorous men flaunting those qualities.

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