World Music

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The Independent Culture
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO

RFH, LONDON

PASS THE soup bowl, and I'll tell you a secret. This was comfort music. Watch the audience: not the usual itching-to-dance sway for other African groups, but rapt, smiling faces with a glow in their eyes. Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) has a hot line to the northern European's craving for inner warmth. The agency that coupled its television ads to "The Star and the Wiseman" knew the score exactly

It really should do family afternoon dates, as LBM's appeal is totally homely and direct, but the act itself is a pretty sophisticated affair.

Once they'd run on and limbered up like a football team they were in charge. When on-stage audience participation seemed to be getting out of hand, the founder and lead singer, Joseph Shabalala, had it sorted in a flash. The harmony of the 10 a cappella singers was spot-on, the rhythms floated, the choreography - anything from mock warmongering to simple clowning - was fast and almost aphoristic: a pose could tell a story. They sang, softly, about basic life, emotions, religion and roots, trouble.

After three decades of polishing, the music is a brilliantly worked collage of traditional melody; choral texture sometimes in several layers; voice percussion; and sound effects. Typically songs begin with a call-and-response chant, then a steady tempo sets in and gradually the music gets into a groove. This is more hypnotic than on disc, though only once, in the last-but-one number, did it go on long enough to hint at real excitement. Mostly it soothed the British public.

LBM is clearly seen as a South African national treasure, a threat-free area of black music, and this was an old-fashioned love-in. "Repertoire" was one of their greatest hits, with the hit single half-way through and "Homeless" at the end. Shrewdly handled, though: when the once-controversial Graceland collaboration came up , they made the audience sing the tune that used to be Paul Simon's.

Plenty of energy too from Busi Mhlongo in support. Her diminutive presence shuffled about in front of a five-piece band and backing singers, hitting you in the face with a soaring, sometimes wordless high line. Later you could hear LBM's lower voices set up the same rhythms. On Monday it went down well without catching fire. The guitar work was solid, rather than dynamic and Busi's less assertive moments found her competing with it in the middle register.

Extra show: RFH, Monday, 7.30pm

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