For over half a century, South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo has warmed the hearts of audiences worldwide with their uplifting vocal harmonies, signature dance moves and charming onstage banter. 2016 marks the band's sixteenth Grammy Award nomination (Music From Inala, nominated for Best World Music Album) and the thirtieth anniversary of the album that introduced them to the world, Paul Simon's Graceland. With a deep respect for both their cultural and personal history, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is ever-evolving with an eye toward their long musical legacy. Over the years, the original members have welcomed a younger generation in their mission, passing along the tradition of storytelling and spreading their message of peace, love, and harmony to millions of people. The newer members, in turn, have infused the group with their youthful energy and the promise of a bright future. Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala looks to these young men to carry on his dream to "keep South Africa alive in people's hearts" for years to come. Their performance features a selection of songs from Ladysmith Black Mambazo's storied fifty-six year career. Don't miss this opportunity to hear the ensemble that Nelson Mandela called South Africa's "national treasure".
Bakithi Kumalo's musical career has been characterized by a series of serendipitous events, ranging from his debut gig as a precocious seven-year-old filling in for the bassist in his uncle's band to his enlistment into Paul Simon's group during the recording sessions of the pop star's landmark Graceland album in 1985.
Kumalo creates a singular electric fretless bass sound teeming with double stops that sound like human voices and the African grooves of his homeland, and has garnered him a stellar reputation as a sideman. In addition to touring with Simon, he's also recorded and/or toured with the likes of Gloria Estefan, Derrick Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Chico Ceasar, Harry Belafonte, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Gerald Albright, Miriam Makeba, Randy Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Bob James, Angelique Kidjo, Jon Secada, Josh Groban and Chris Botti.
Kumalo has also been active as a solo artist, with four fine albums to his credit — 1998's San' Bonan, 2000's In Front of My Eyes, 2008’s Transmigration, and 2011’s Change — as well as three award winning children's albums recorded with his wife, vocalist Robbi K.
Kumalo's bass-playing history began in Soweto where he grew up surrounded by music. His mother sang in a church choir and his uncle, a saxophone player, was always at his house rehearsing his band. "Every weekend, everyone would be at my house singing and playing all day," Kumalo says. "Plus there were bands on every block of my neighborhood. So, music surrounded me. There was traditional African rhythmic music as well as a cappella vocal groups. I picked up the bass early and realized I could follow the groove of a tune with it. I could play the bass lines from a cappella music, and I learned how to develop lines based on the left-hand work of accordion players in the township bands."
However, it was an 18-month road trip with his uncle's band to Zululand when he was 14 that helped to solidify his bass voice. The band gigged as well as played at schools and hospitals, but got stranded there. During that downtime, Kumalo had a dream where he saw someone playing, using his thumb in a particular way. That set him on the path of bass discovery.
Kumalo says it wasn't until later that he heard the fretless sound by people like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Bailey. "And, of course, there was Jaco Pastorius," he says. "I heard him, and I thought, 'hey, that's like me.'"
While Kumalo became a professional at an early age in his uncle's band, life in apartheid South Africa posed many challenges; so many, in fact, that Kumalo began to look for work outside the music field. However, a producer friend introduced him to Simon, whose music he was largely unfamiliar with. Despite his nervousness in meeting the American pop star in a studio setting, Kumalo says Simon immediately gravitated to his bass style.
Kumalo's work on Graceland opened the doors for him to pursue other avenues, including recent recordings with Herbie Hancock, Randy Brecker and Cyndi Lauper. Plus, he hooked up with former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who took the bassist on tour with him. "Mickey was great," Kumalo says. "There was no audition. He told me to pack up my bass and not to worry about learning the music because that would happen on the road. It was a great time."
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