Traveling with Paul Simon certainly gave Ladysmith Black Mambazo some of the exposure it deserves, but the South African vocal group's current tour as headliners is by far the better forum. At the Warner Theatre Saturday night, crisp acoustics not only outclassed last summer's arena-hopping Simon tour, it also allowed Black Mambazo to dig much deeper into its own music and traditions.
Wearing their customary smocks and, later, tribal dress, the 10-member ensemble wove incredibly rich and varied harmonies, placing a strong emphasis on the bass register but all the while punctuating the melodies with unexpected rhythmic accents and vocal exclamations. Standing in front of the ensemble, quick to correct an errant voice, leader Joseph Shabalala appeared to be playing a most remarkable human pipe organ. On other numbers, he joined the members in a chorus line of sorts, dancing in the exaggerated but soft-shoe manner of Zulu isicathamiya. But best of all he sang -- in a piercing, emotionally stirring voice that cut right through the harmonies to the soul of the song and the listener.
An engaging spokesman for the group provided English translations of the Zulu lyrics, and while the results were sometimes less than poetic (one title was translated as "Here Are the Guys"), they were always revealing and, quite often, amusing. Moreover, a terrifically colorful and animated opening set by the West African dance ensemble Kankouran was an unexpected treat for both eyes and ears.