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Saturday, October 19, 2013


(Edmund Mhlongo, writer and director of “Amambazo”)

Edmund Mhlongo pays fitting tribute to Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in top class production. (Review by Caroline Smart)

It is fitting that in the year that Joseph Shabalala is honoured by the city with an eThekweni Living Legend Award, his life’s work is celebrated in another format.

Currently in its last few days in the Playhouse Opera is Amambazo, written and directed by Edmund Mhlongo which pays tribute to the history of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

For the uninitiated, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the iconic isicathamiya group founded by Joseph Shabalala and taking its name from Ladysmith, Shabalala’s town of origin in KwaZulu-Natal. More than 50 years old, the group has received national and international awards and honours and no less than three Grammy Awards. The acappella ensemble has an unmistakeable sound, solid in the bass harmonies and with Joseph’s distinctive trademark rolling chant.

Described as one of South Africa’s best musical exports, LBM (as they are affectionately known) shot to international fame through their collaboration with Paul Simon on his legendary album, Graceland. They featured on Michael Jackson’s block buster, Thriller, and collaborated with various international superstars including Desree and Dolly Parton.

The story begins with Shabalala listening to the advice of his revered mother – a good performance by Nosipho Mkhize – to connect his musical and lyric skills with ancestral music. “Keep your words soft and sweet just in case you have to eat them!” are a few of her wise comments. He sets out to deliver a message of love and unity by singing in a harmonious manner as opposed to the traditional loud and powerful mbube style.

The storyline moves on to the departure of rural menfolk to Johannesburg to work on the mines. To revive their homesickness and miserable working conditions, the men would group together to sing songs of their culture. Often this needed to be while other shifts slept in their hostels which is why the name “isicathamiya” came about, loosely meaning to walk quietly on tiptoe.

Highlights of the show are the appearances - except for Joseph Shabalala - of Ladysmith Black Mambazo themselves.

There are some excellent performances from an all-round highly energetic and disciplined cast. Wiseman Mncube impresses as Joseph Shabalala, alternating with Jabulani Mthembu who sings the lead phrases. With his deep rich voice, Mondli Makhoba is an impressive Nduna in full traditional gear as the male narrator with Nompilo Maphumulo matching his performance as the female narrator.

Other notable performances come from Samke Mkhize as Shabalala’s wife, Nomathemba; Babuyile Shabalala as a couple of crotchety white employers; David Jenkins as Paul Simon and Ntuthuko Ndwandwe as one of the elders.

Included in the close on 40-strong company is a six-piece live band under Musical Director Mthandeni Mvelase. Expect to hear well-known LBM numbers such as Homeless, Rain Rain Beautiful Rain and Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. However, it’s not all isicathamiya, there are also numbers such as Peace Train, Paradise Road and Oh Happy Day.

Wilhelm Disbergen’s lighting and set design is highly effective as is the choreography by Brian Mazibuko and Vusi Makanya. Wantashi Couture has created an impressive range of costumes.

Edmund Mhlongo has paid due homage to his subject and there are some delightful and amusing scenes as well as those with much poignancy. However, while this is an undeniably top class production, it has a serious downside. Often scenes are too long, their length spoiling their effectiveness. Running for three and a half hours, it could do with some careful pruning without losing any of the storyline.

Amambazo runs in the Playhouse Opera until tomorrow (October 20). Tickets from R150 booked at Computicket. The show is supported by the KZN Provincial Government, SABC1, Ukhozi FM, East Coast Radio, eThekwini Municipality, The State Theatre and The Playhouse Company.

If you miss it this time around, Amambazo moves to Ladysmith in December, Pietermaritzburg in January and the State Theatre in April. It will return to Durban at the end of next year. – Caroline Smart