Cultural Indifferences

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. I should’ve snuck into Walton Saturday afternoon, sat up close, to catch their sound check.

They sang little in English, notably Simon’s “Homeless.” For me as a sometime horn player, this cultural gap provided a deeper appreciation, hear the voices as instruments like flute or bass, without lyrics to distract.

The dancing pointed out another aspect. Mambazo gave a show, not a recital. By the dancing as well as song introductions and clowning, we got to know and understand them more deeply by their interplay.

In addition to a jokey speech about soccer’s World Cup to be this June in South Africa, delivered at the top of the second set by a Mambazo member, most remarks during the program were made by founder Joseph Shabalala. Otherwise the humor was silent, the international language of slapstick. Dance steps morphed mischievously into play-clumsiness or play-squabbles. Once, the fellows could remark and pantomime about the wife of one being pregnant, and he pulled up his dashiki to show his round belly. Repeatedly a singer would face upstage and jiggle his butt at the audience.

It got laughs, but it was worrisome, too. Slapstick crosses language boundaries, but in these parts, some moves were reminiscent of minstrelsy. Or not. Shabalala and his family aren’t American. If the genre has indigenous roots then I’m incorrect.

Make no mistake, this was a tremendous performance by outstanding musicians, comfortable with one another. Seeing them in an enthusiastic, nearly sold-out Walton Arts Center with its great sight lines and acoustics added to the thrill.

If it stays. The center’s board and staff are itching to expand. Its new CEO Peter Lane specified interest in keeping this building but somewhere in the region constructing an auditorium nearly double the size of this one (2,100 seats to 1,200). His example was to attract acts like comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

Mr. Lane was baiting the hoi polloi of the Ozarks. He should be ashamed of himself. He was selling a Toyota based on its acceleration. It’s not just that an additional building has its own costs of land and construction then staffing and maintenance, but sound theater management demands balancing costs with occupancy, to minimize the nights the “house is dark,” as my late father would call it.

Fayetteville’s Walton Arts Center — with the proscenium main hall, a black-box theater and art gallery, and Nadine Baum Studios a half-block away — has perhaps two-three shows a week. Could a big auditorium book like that here, citing realistic population projections? What is Mr. Lane’s estimate, 10 big-tent shows a year?

Stages worldwide began having money troubles before the Good Depression began. Blame the Internet, blame the necessary high tickets (my balcony seat for Mambazo was $38.50.) Sales are only part of what keeps such performance facilities going. There are donations or underwriting, then tax support and tax breaks. It doesn’t work this simply, but why not sign Jer’ to do his standup for two-or three-night run on Dickson Street. Can’t you hear the yada yada in a glittering Bentonville palace with a huge mortgage, then six weeks later stage The Lion King for the kids, with $150 tickets?

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