The wonderful thing about having a well-run auditorium in town is opportunities it provides. If you follow Paul Simon or were listening to pop music in the mid-1980s you know of his album Graceland, which introduced to the West the South African men’s chorus that was in Fayetteville last weekend. Its name can seem a mouthful: Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
- Ladysmith — hometown of the Shabalala family, who comprise most of its nine members.
- Black — the area’s favored farm oxen.
- Mambazo — Zulu for ax, perhaps more in the metaphorical Christian sword sense. (Thanks, program notes.)
- Dinkelspiel — a smaller auditorium at Stanford University — or one of the bigger lecture halls, depending on whether it’s night or day.
So help me, I kept thinking Dinkelspiel during Saturday’s performance of the extraordinary men’s ensemble. In the late 1970s jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins played at Dink. In a still-memorable moment of my college years, the microphone clipped to his sax went out. Mr. Rollins hesitated for the briefest moment then resumed the piece. He sounded great before but now, astounding. To be heard in the last row of the 700-seat hall, not to mention over his combo, he changed his breath support and his embouchure (how the lips and teeth hold the mouthpiece). It made me realize how artificial amplification is, even when allegedly live and otherwise acoustic. In a couple of minutes though Mr. Rollins’ mike got repatched, and the wall of sound was re-erected.
The Mambazo band is known for dancing during its songs. They had no accompaniment. It was a cappella all the way, not even a hand drum. So when they kick or squat, they move from the microphones on stands.
The group, with few staff changes, has been together for over 40 years. Their words fading in and out must be deliberate. Maybe the fellows were playing their microphones like instruments; pros do that.
We had balcony seats, and I do have hearing problems. I’d have them hooked into wireless lavalier or headset microphones. Recalling Mr. Rollins, though, you know Mambazo would be more incredible sans amplification. Continue reading