Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Always With Us

Paul Simon‘s one-and-only Graceland is the defining album of my childhood. More than any other music, those 11 tracks transport me back to our rickety Volkswagen bus: the brothers “grab-assing” as we slowly traversed the arid Central Valley – Yosemite so close, yet so far for an incorrigible seven-year-old. From 1986 on, there was one cassette perpetually in our tape deck, various Beach Boys mixes came and went, but for me, Graceland is, and will always be, the best album of all time. 

While Simon was inspired by the township jiving Boyoyo Boys & the fabled Accordion Jive Hits Volume II, the most recognizable influence on Graceland is Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Joseph Shabalala, LBM’s founder and manager, met with Simon a year earlier and ultimately flew the whole group to London for a studio session where they cowrote & sang on the first of the recorded tracks, Homeless, as well as Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, & (sang on) You Can Call Me Al.

His group was already famous in half the world and Graceland propelled them into the other half. To date they have over 50 albums, the most recent of which, Always With Us, was released in January of this year. Their sound is beautiful and timeless, Amen could have just as easily been an outtake off, Amabutho, their 1973 debut.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo stirs up the nostalgic longing to relive those perfect family vacations, a longing inextricably tied to the sounds of accordion, African wedding songs, and lasers in the jungle somewhere. Controversy aside, Simon inserted the sounds of a-capella isicathamiya, mbube, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo into the aural context of 1980s America, and for me, that changed everything.

We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split.

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.

-Bob Dylan’s Dream (1963)

 

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