Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the veteran South African singing group, have collaborated with half the known music world – everyone from Stevie Wonder to Dolly Parton to, most famously, Paul Simon on his classic 1988 album Graceland. But this year, the choir may be performing the most extraordinary project of their 50-year career: a contemporary dance production called Inala in which they not only sing the 15 or so new songs woven into its score, but also dance alongside its cast of classical and contemporary dancers.
The seed was sown five years ago, when two young British women went to watch LBM, as they’re widely known, during a UK tour. Ella Spira, a composer, had loved them since childhood. The history of oppression and suffering embodied in their lyrics, as well as the haunting harmonic textures of their music (derived from migrant Zulu workers), had always moved her. “It’s that wall of sound they make,” she says. “It just hits you here, in your chest.”
Her friend Pietra Mello-Pittman, a dancer with the Royal Ballet, was equally overwhelmed by LBM’s music, but found the production values of their performance surprisingly old-fashioned. “I suppose I’ve got used to the fabulous spectacle we put on at the [Royal] Opera House. But the show’s visuals looked to me as though they hadn’t changed in 50 years. That made me think how fantastic it would be to create some kind of ballet around the Ladysmiths and have Ella compose the score.”
Spira and Mello-Pittman had recently formed a small production company, Sisters Grimm. It was a fledgling enterprise and, not surprisingly, when they first approached LBM’s manager he was ready to dismiss the idea of a dance-music collaboration as “just another pipe dream”. But the women had caught the interest of the opera house, whose then-director Tony Hall invited them to take the nine Ladysmiths to a performance by the Royal Ballet to give the singers some idea of the project’s theatrical potential. Mello-Pittman was worried that the ballet itself, The Sleeping Beauty, would be offputtingly classical, but it worked like a charm. “It was all so exciting,” says Albert Mazibuko, aged 66 and one of the founding members of LBM. “We thought, ‘Oh goodness, are we going to have to learn to walk on our toes?’ But Joseph [Shabalala, the choir’s founder] was very keen on us working with some new dancers.”
On the strength of that excitement, Spira was invited to Durban to discover what kind of music she and LBM might compose. From the outset, she’d been interested in creating a dialogue between their sound and hers. “It would have been horrendously arrogant for me to have gone out with a score already written. That wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted a real collaboration.” To maximise the chances of them meshing musically, she armed herself with extensive research, studying all the choir’s songs as well as an eclectic range of other sounds, from Ravel to Nina Simone.
When they met for their first session, she couldn’t decide if the collaboration was “brilliant or insane”. She recalls sitting at the piano, playing through ideas she’d developed. “We were all nervous. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. But then Joseph started to sing and some of the others joined in, harmonising and improvising lyrics. By the end of that first session, we’d created 15 minutes of music. It was huge for me. I was a nobody and these guys were international legends. But there we were, working together in the same room.”
According to Mazibuko, the choir were equally impressed. “In your life, you can sometimes think, ‘I have done enough now.’ But then suddenly a new opportunity comes. We’d collaborated with other musicians before but never like this. With Paul Simon, he just wanted to follow us and learn from us. Here with Ella, we were making something completely new. “
As Spira and LBM got to know each other better, the music became more experimental, with one of the younger singers volunteering a rap, something LBM had never done before. There are now over 15 new songs, which Spira has woven into the final score, linked with sections of orchestrated music and an atmospheric soundscape. But, even as the Inala score got under way, Spira and Mello-Pittman still had their work cut out to make the project happen. They needed to find investors and sponsors to the tune of half a million pounds, not to mention a choreographer capable of handling so unique a concept.
By this point, they’d moved away from the idea of a ballet to a more contemporary work, and Mark Baldwin was their obvious choice. As a freelance choreographer and director of Rambert, he was used to handling diverse commissions and large groups of dancers. But even he had reservations about the project. He knew LBM’s music would be challenging to choreograph, with its free rhythms and un-notatable harmonies. Trickier still would be the challenge of finding a dance language that was responsive to the choir’s Zulu culture without looking tackily “tribal”.
Like Spira, Baldwin has aimed for a creative hybrid. He’s drawn on the dance traditions he learned from his Fijian mother; he’s also cast dancers (many freelance) from a deliberately eclectic range of backgrounds, including South African-born Mbulelo Ndabeni, who helped Baldwin research African movement. From the rehearsal I saw in London, the result looks unlike anything Baldwin has previously choreographed – a wide spectrum of twisting, voodoo expressionism, communal circle dances, animal and bird-like shapes, with a twist of ballet. And that mix had yet to feel the impact of LBM, whose nine members were due the following day.
Movement has always been integral to LBM’s performances, with softly rhythmic footwork, high kicks and fluidly expressive gestures. But the choir aren’t accustomed to deviating from these moves, performed in a line. Baldwin spent time with them in South Africa, developing their vocabulary, teaching them to move around the stage. “Our bodies were aching afterwards,” laughs Mazibuko. When I spoke to Baldwin, he was apprehensive about how the choir would adapt to being integrated into the movements of the other 11 dancers, and to being part of a larger work. “I’m used to shaping every detail down to the last second – and I really don’t know what’s going to happen when these guys are on stage. This is going to be an adventure for all of us.”
It may also be controversial. Back in 1988, the Graceland collaboration drew some venomous opposition from critics who accused Paul Simon of breaking anti-apartheid sanctions and LBM of selling out to the white music industry. Already Spira and Mello-Pittman have suffered a harsh grilling from one journalist who accused them of appropriating South African culture for their own ends. But that view is dismissed by everyone involved in Inala, a Zulu title that translates, tellingly, as “abundance of goodwill”. Ndabeni says: “I’ve been in England for 10 years but I’ve still got part of home with me. That’s how this project speaks to me. The new music LBM have created sounds like them, but it’s also refreshing and strange. I feel very privileged to be part of this.”
What about the choir themselves? “People misinterpret things,” says Mazibuko. “We don’t hold a grudge, but all those who criticised us for working with Paul Simon mistook what it was about. Our mission is to bring people together. We know that when we collaborate we are showing our culture to others and we are learning from theirs. People can think what they like. But we know that what is right is right.”
• Inala is at the Edinburgh Playhouse 10-12 August as part of the Edinburgh International festival.
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