The Book of Psalms speaks of a land so abundant that the rocks flowed with honey. This is the richness of the voices in the women’s acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Formed in the 1970s, this ever-changing group of African-American singers not only lifts the spirits with gospel music, they sing for the unity of the human race. Their songs may address issues of parenthood, freedom, civil rights, or spirituality, but their music always affirms the soul. Originally from Washington, D.C., Sweet Honey in the Rock received a Grammy Award in 1989 for their version of a Lead Belly song. Last month, they released their 24th album, #LoveInEvolution.
When on tour, the group of six African-American women includes an interpreter, Shirley Childress Saxton, of American Sign Language. Original members Louise Robinson and Carol Lynn Maillard will be joined by Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, and Navasha Daya on stage at the Tobin.
Also appearing that night is the South African male choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The vocal styles of Isicathamiya and Mbube might not mean much to the average American listener, but many people remember their harmonies on the 1986 album, “Graceland.”
Formed by Joseph Shabalala in 1960, Ladysmith was one of South Africa’s most prolific recording artists when their sound caught Paul Simon’s ear.
Rivard Report contributor and man-moved-by-music Adam Tutor spent a transformational chapter of his life in South Africa, and offered the following recollection from his journey:
We were rolling through the hillsides of Western Cape South Africa, returning form a journey to the magical beaches of Cape Town, mountains and majesty swooning with strength, sturdy and laced with light. My boys looked the same, relishing in the gift of a seaside sojourn. In the course of their 14-20 years, many of the ballers of my native African basketball team from Kayamandi had never touched foot in the waters of the Atlantic, but 70 kilometers from their home.
Ebullient and free the voices rang out in surrender to the harmony…Emaweni webaba?Silale ‘maweni?Webaba silale ‘maweni…the tenor of Mande calls out in the powerful leap of a note to start a song, a lightning bolt through the night. Wonga and Prince and Ayanda answer back in a blend of elemental power that grounds the body and spirit with ease. My heart skips a beat and my eyes begin to water as the hills of the African winelands bow before me.
While I grew up with “You Can Call Me Al,” watching Chevy Chase and Paul Simon groove out on VHI in 1993, the more potent and culturally poignant “Homeless” always spoke to me on a foundational level, rooting me in the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo before I had even heard of South Africa. And now, in the land that moved Simon, I was feeling the same heart pulsation. The grand moment of realization of where a song comes from, this moment was just an outburst of soul and spirit from the people who created soul and spirit along with rhythm and music and so many other movements of this body.
…Homeless, homeless, moonlight sitting upon a midnight lake…and the tears flowed down my cheek just gently as the young men whom I had coached and grew with for the past five months shined in perfect harmony and happiness. Lost in the moment, fully surrendered to the beauty, I felt the roots of my musical heart and gave thanks.
The group’s name can be understood by breaking it down into three parts. Ladysmith was the hometown of Shabalala. KwaZulu-Natal is the province; it means “the black ox,” the strongest of all farm animals. Mambazo means “axe,” another symbol of power.
As South Africa’s cultural ambassadors, Ladysmith has brought the region’s music around the globe. They were a hit in Germany in the 1970s and have performed with everybody from Michael Jackson to Dolly Parton. They have carried their songs to places as diverse as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway for Nelson Mandela to several cartoons on Sesame Street. In 1988, Ladysmith received their first of four Grammy Awards.
Both Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Sweet Honey in the Rock have long and storied careers, but they continue to bring joy to audiences everywhere while sharing their culture and history.
San Antonio will have the opportunity to catch both of these acapella groups in one night. Visit the Tobin Center’s website for ticket information.
*Top Image: Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform at the Tobin Center March 2. Image courtesy Tobin Center.