There are a handful of South African musicians whose music is synonymous with the struggle against apartheid, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) are among them. On Long Walk To Freedom, this peerless Zulu acapella group celebrate their 20th anniversary on the international stage with re-recordings of 13 of their songs.
Guests dropping in include Emmylou Harris (who does a great ‘Amazing Grace’), Natalie Merchant, Taj Mahal and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, to say nothing of a host of local talent. It’s a big party. But the curious thing about Long Walk is its calendar: LBM was formed by Joseph Shabalala in the early 1970s, not 1986, and the 20th anniversary that this album marks is actually the release of Paul Simon’s Graceland. The accusations and counter-accusations that swirled around Simon’s record might seem distant history now, but there’s no doubt that it was Simon’s clout that brought LBM out to a global audience.
The two songs that Shabalala co-wrote with Simon, ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and ‘Homeless’ – with Melissa Etheridge and Sarah McLachlan as the respective leads – retain their sonorous quality on Long Walk but it’s the vocal harmonies that lift the songs to another level. This Zulu singing style is not called ‘tread softly’ for nothing. The sweet harmonics swell slowly, the dynamic ratcheted up by changing tempi.
‘Mbube’, with its famous ‘wimowe’ chorus, is the perfect example of being conquered by sheer stealth. Compare then the album’s title track, with its soft and insistent sense of destiny. ‘We came a long way. Do you understand that?’ asks a song that takes in Mandela and democratic elections. It’s impossible not to be moved.Louise Gray