Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Long Walk to Freedom (2006)
purchase this album
Believe it or not, people of my generation, but this marks the 20th anniversary of Paul Simon’s Graceland album — and thus also the two-decade marker for America’s introduction to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In the years since, Ladysmith has become internationally accepted as the world’s premier Zulu vocal group, toured the globe, won Grammys, and generally just kicked much ass.
And yet their records continue to sell rather pitifully here in the States. I consider this a national embarrassment. America, consider Long Walk to Freedom your invitation to get reacquainted with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, or, if you weren’t around for the whole Graceland thing, to get hip with some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear.
For non-Zulu speakers, a lot of Ladysmith’s records can seem awfully interchangeable, but for the last several years, the group has been adding new wrinkles to its sound. First came 2002’s Chillout Sessions, remixed versions of LBM vocal tracks; last year, they released No Boundaries, an album recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra. Now, with Long Walk to Freedom, they take a look back at some of their best-loved classics with the help of special guests including Zap Mama, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Taj Mahal, and Emmylou Harris.
The results aren’t always transcendent. McLachlan adds far less to “Homeless” than you might expect; likewise for Merchant and “Rain Rain Beautiful Rain.” At times, though, the album’s conceit seems like more than crafty commercialism — Etheridge and Joe McBride, for instance, almost make you forget that this is the umpteenth re-recording of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (download), and Emmylou Harris’ blend with the group on “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God to Thee” is both inspirational and inspired.
For the most part, however, the tracks that work best are the ones that find Ladysmith working alone, doing what they do best — communicating peace, hope, and love across national and linguistic boundaries. You don’t need to know what the words to “Nomathemba” (download) mean in order to feel its power. If you’re a fan, this is a worthy addition to your collection; if you aren’t (yet), this isn’t a bad place to start. And if you get a chance to see them live, do not miss it — they’re in the States right now, promoting the album (read about it in their blog), and will probably be someplace not far from you soon.