Whether it was right or not for Paul Simon to record his Grammy Award-winning album, "Graceland," in South Africa with native musicians, one thing seems clear. Had it not been for Simon's interest in the music, Americans would not be exposed to nearly as many recordings by South African artists.
The most conspicuous example of Simon's involvement is the new album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the 10-member a cappella group responsible for "Graceland's" gorgeous harmonies (Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and others will perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion Wednesday night).
Over the last 15 years, Ladysmith has released 25 albums in the Zulu language, each containing songs composed by the group's leader, Joseph Shabalala. Shabalala is a cultural historian and imbongi, whose songs chronicle various aspects of Zulu life.
Not surprisingly, the Simon-produced album, "Shaka Zulu" (Warner Bros. 25582-1), is Ladysmith's most accessible release: Four songs are rendered in English and translations are provided for the remaining six. Moreover, Simon's longtime engineer Roy Halee has given the ensemble sound the same sumptuous depth and resonance that distinguish the best tracks on "Graceland."
Even on paper Shabalala's songs reveal a poetic dimension, a soulfulness and passion. But the real magic lies in the arrangements. A mixture of secular and sacred themes, songs like "Home of the Heroes," "Beautiful Rain" and "How Long?" are typical of the ensemble's harmonic ingenuity and tonal autonomy. Shabalala's slightly reedy tenor is set against a constantly shifting backdrop of voices, some darting in for rhythmic accents, others soaring in choirlike splendor, some competitive, others complementary. The effect is often breathtaking. In fact, if the album has a drawback, it's merely that percussive tunes like the chanting "Who Were You Talking To?" can't do justice to the delightfully animated choreography the group employs in concert.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo also has released three albums here on the Shanachie label. The latest, "Inala" (Shanachie 43040), doesn't boast the luster of the Simon production, but it contains the same warmth, the same rich, sophisticated harmonies.
While eight of the album's 10 songs are sung in Zulu, the group's spirit and wit is easily appreciated in any language, as is its silken vocal blend, with its endless and fascinating variations. "Pauline," one of the English lyrics, is a stunning example of the group's intricately tailored Mbube-style harmonies. "Pauline" is a rather ordinary tale of unrequited love, but the ensemble imbues it with a touching poignancy and a sweeping hymnal grace.
Another welcome South African import is "Izibani Zomgqashiyo" (Shanachie 43036) by the Mahotella Queens, South Africa's most popular female vocal group. For more than 20 years now, this quartet has been popularizing "Zulu Jive," a rhythmically compelling weave of harmonies and basic rock accompaniment, complete with trademark scratchy guitar licks.
The exuberant female harmonies are often punctuated by a throaty male voice, aptly called a "groaner." Though the lyrics aren't in English, the quartet's "Mgquashiyo" music is unrelentingly bright and uplifting, and every bit as contagious as the best American soul music.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for Hugh Masekela's new album, "Tomorrow" (Warner Bros. 9 25566-1), which features the trumpeter and his seven-piece band Kalahari. Like Ladysmith, Masekela uses both English and South African languages to get his message across, but his fondness for tired, vaguely funky rhythm tracks often undermine his efforts.
The album opens on a promising note with "Bring Him Back Home," a passionate plea for the release of Nelson Mandela. The spirited vocal chorus on this song, coupled with Masekela's bluesy trumpet, are what make it memorable. But while the same combination comes into play on other tunes, Masekela's obvious commercial instincts, as evidenced by his dependence on nearly mechanical dance rhythms, keeps the music safe and predictable most of the time.
Far more adventuresome is "Forces Favorites" (Rounder 4023), an anthology containing performances by 11 South African bands.
As their songs suggest, either explicitly or not, all of the groups represented on this album support the "End Conscription Campaign in South Africa." Because the ECC, as the antidraft group is known, opposes the role the South African Defense Force has taken in implementing apartheid policies, it seeks an end to mandatory conscription and the creation of some alternative form of national service.
The artists represented here are described in the album's liner notes as mostly musicians "who grew up in and around the campus political structure and are typical of the young left wing in South Africa." As such, they stand little chance of being heard on state-controlled radio broadcasts.
Nevertheless, they receive an airing here, and the styles they favor are extremely diverse, ranging from the soulful reggae of "National Madness" by the Aeroplanes to the Dylanesque protest of "Potential Mutiny" by Stan James to the wry Ian Dury-like rap tune "Don't Dance" by the Kalahari Surfers. Yet in one way or another, all of the songs call for resistance and resilience, defiance and determination.
Unlike most underground collections, the material gathered on this album is surprisingly even and well produced, the only problem being a tendency by most of the bands to copy their British and American counterparts. All in all, this is a rare and illuminating snapshot of current day South African protest music.