It was a sombre weekend for South African musicians following the murder of reggae star Lucky Dube. Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Vusi Mahlasela, both apartheid-era contemporaries of his, are on a 32-date tour of the UK and Ireland, and Sunday night found them at the Anvil in Basingstoke.
Mahlasela, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, was the more overtly political of the acts, recalling having written one song on toilet paper in solitary confinement with a pen slipped to him by a sympathetic warder. Another song celebrated his grandmother holding off the security police with a pan of boiling water. Mahlasela sang his uncompromising songs mostly in Zulu, sometimes gliding into ululating falsetto scat, but his guitar playing owed more to 1970s singer-songwriters than to maskanda. His signature song, “When You Come Back”, barnstorming at the Johannesburg leg of Live Earth, was here stripped down and deconstructed, refusing the anthemic.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been plying their trade now for 46 years, and their showmanship is well worn. Their founder and leader, Joseph Shabalala, stood out front, and the other eight members (four of them his sons) formed a chorus line behind, their dance steps synchronised, their gestures intricate as sign language. Trooping on stage for “Long Walk to Freedom”, they gave clenched-fist salutes. They trod like the cats that give their name to iscathimiya, Black Mambazo’s distinctive a capella style, with calls and responses now whispered, now booming, now clicking and popping like scratched vinyl.
On “Wentomb’Unegala”, a celebration of warrior manhood rituals, the group took turns demonstrating their Zulu dancing, with varying degrees of athleticism. Mahlasela came back on stage and squared off with Shabalala senior, disconcertingly, as Mahlasela’s build is not athletic.
The group encored with “Shosholoza”, a migrant worker’s lament now doing duty as a rugby singalong, and the most familiar number of the evening (along with “Homeless”, their contribution to Paul Simon’s Graceland). As with the rest of their performance, it fell just the right side of Rainbow Nation kitsch.