Ladysmith Black Mambazo: And Friends (Razor and Tie)

Ladysmith Friends 90

Probably the best way we will ever hear this unique outfit. Shabalala Doobedoo.

4.5 Stars

30 tracks / 133 Minutes

Along with Manfred Mann, Hugh Masekela and Dave Matthews, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) must be South Africa’s leading cultural exporters. This excellent compilation brings together two discs full of strong collaborations with some world famous artists.

Like the Chieftains, LBM thrive on working with others. For them it is an expression of unity between people; for the listener it usually means well-judged variations on their velvet vocals. They blend beautifully with some singers, give others a rich backing and add new textures to old songs.

The collection strikingly features strong vocalists, often those who complement the wonderfully-named Joseph Shabalala and his colleagues. It is thoughtfuly arranged so that the bulk of the Western singers (such as Dolly Parton on a highly polished “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and Emmylou Harris on a medley of “Amazing Grace / Nearer my God to Thee”) are on the first disc, leaving the slightly more integrated second disc for African and gospel collaborations with the likes of The Women of Mambazo for “Mamizolo” and Phoebe Snow for a stirring “People Get Ready”.

Not surprisingly, the best of the Western guests is Paul Simon, whose 1986 five-times platinum collaboration with the group, who were already huge in South Africa, brought them to the attention of the world. Two tracks from the phenomenal Graceland album (“Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”) show how sensitively and seamlessly his voice blends with theirs. The same two tracks are repeated on the second disc, but with Melissa Etheridge and Sarah McLachlan as guests.

This collection includes almost half of the songs on their Star and the Wiseman album, billed at the time as an “ultimate” collection – a heavily isicathamiya set so African that, after a while, the melodies can get lost and the sounds become a little dense. By contrast, the more familiar voices, songs and singers on And Friends make this highly accessible without losing the beauty of the South African vocals.

Out of 30 tracks there are only a couple of frustrations. Given the immense skill and beauty of their harmonies, to waste LBM on just grunts in Lou Rawls’ “Chain Gang” cover is insulting; and turning “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah” into a Welsh sporting anthem feels like an act of vandalism. But neither of these small gripes reduces this set’s musical strength.

Other than the Simon collaborations, its highest peaks are often the collaborations with black voices, either because they gel well or because the gospel focus adds that spiritual zing. So “Oh Happy Day” (keeping the Edwin Hawkins arrangement), “Abezizwe (Uniting Nations Together)” and the Spiral Staircase remix of “Inkanyesi Nazazi” are highpoints of a great album.

Rarely do you get a collection that is so consistently strong. Well chosen and carefully sequenced, this release could be the best way that our ears will ever hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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