It is rare indeed when one goes to see a concert featuring a total of fifteen musicians, yet only one instrument is played all night. This is what you would’ve been in for if you caught the mutualistic pairing of Sweet Honey In The Rock with Ladysmith Black Mambazo this past Monday at Ravinia. Both a cappella groups have been around for over 40 years and show no signs of slowing down, though they have rearranged their membership occasionally. Together on this balmy night in Highland Park, they put on a moving and impressive show...their blending voices as refreshing as the evening breeze.
Experiencing Sweet Honey In The Rock is like having four female Bobby McFerrins on stage at the same time. Whether scatting drum beats, mimicking horn blasts, or singing soaring leads, each member contributed equally in creating a big sound full of dense gospel harmonies. Their fifth member is longtime sign language interpreter, Shirley Childress, who signed and gyrated with gusto, even trading licks with the only instrumentalist of the night, bassist Romeir Mendez. Their original songs featured poignant tales about civil rights and injustice, honing in on recent killings in the news, then they would follow up with uplifting call-and-response chants of peace and love. At times, it got a little awkward due to the lack of the audience’s willingness to sing out on the touchy topics, but things relaxed when they treated us to a stirring cover of jazz standard and Nina Simone hit, “Feeling Good.” While the heavy repertoire and bass solos may have been too much for some, these “Honeys” are still a force to be reckoned with.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s sound is immediately recognizable and one-of-a-kind. This nine-piece, all-male vocal group has been around since the late 60’s, making their biggest splash backing Paul Simon on his seminal Graceland album in 1986. Featuring traditional South African Zulu lyrics, rhythms and harmonies, the depth and power of their music can make your hair stand on end, as mine did often that night. Quaking low drones blended seamlessly with pitch-perfect falsettos, at times accented by intricate bird calls and the tell-tale clicks of the Zulu language. Like Sweet Honey, their songs switched from serious issues such as apartheid to more joyous stories of young love and discovery. In addition to the incredible music, I was equally impressed by their synchronized and athletic dance routines. All the members, including one who joined back in 1969, were doing repeated head-high leg kicks that would make the Rockettes proud, singing all the while. This was all rounded out by their charming stories and cheeky banter in between songs. It was obvious that these men were truly enjoying themselves onstage and their enthusiasm was infectious. As I circled the grounds numerous times trying to stroll my three-year-old to sleep, I saw nothing but smiles all around. For those, like me, who were not familiar with their music outside of Graceland, this had no bearing once each song began. Despite the language barrier, a short synopsis in English before each song from alternating members was enough to let your imagination fill in the blanks. The biggest treat of the night was probably when we got to hear “Homeless” from Graceland, penned by Paul Simon and LBM’s founder, Joseph Shabalala. They ended their set with a counting of their blessings as a group and a heartfelt thank you to the audience and their supporters. It was a fitting end to a wonderful concert. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a class act and international treasure that is a must for any musical bucket list.