Sunday, October 22, 2006

Field Notes: Ladysmith Black Mambazo and friends at Carnegie Hall

I did my first little bit of fieldwork in New York on Tuesday (though to be able to call a fun evening out “fieldwork” feels like a bit of a cheat). I attended a Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert at Carnegie Hall. I took notes of everything, from buying the tickets in the morning, through the concert, and I have typed them all up below. Just to make things a little clearer, my objective is to see how South Africa is sold through music to a New York audience, and so I was looking at the marketing strategies for the concert, as well as what music was performed, and how it is packaged, through the inclusion of other performers and the various extra-musical features included.

17 October 2006

I am sitting on a step inside the box-office foyer at Carnegie Hall, waiting to buy rush tickets for tonight’s performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I arrived at 10:30, and the room was empty. Officially tickets are only sold from 11:00, and rush tickets become available at 12:00. I wanted to be here early, but I overestimated the time it would take me to get here, and so I have a bit of a wait. At about 11:55, people began gathering, but not in large numbers. At present they are selling tickets for various performances, and I think I overheard one sale for tonight. I wonder how popular it will be?
This room is small, but plush: marble tiles on the floor, brass hand-rails on the stairs and brass light fittings. There is some elaborate decorative molding at the top of the pillars and over the stairs that lead into the theatre.
More people are wondering in, milling around, looking at posters and pamphlets, and waiting for the box-office window to free up so that they can buy their tickets. I have a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism open in my lap. Ironic to be reading this here as I wait for this concert. I expect this to be a key text in my research.
I got all dressed up to come here, as I won’t be going home before the concert. I am wearing black pants and a polar neck, and a red blazer, and unfortunately, it is not far off what the ushers at the doors are wearing. I am feeling a little self-conscious about it.
Someone has just asked about tickets for tonight. She wanted to know whether Paul Simon is appearing. His in not. Sarah McLachlan? She is. This lady is buying tickets for her daughter.
Someone just asked whether I am here for the tour. Apparently a tour of the theatre is about to depart. There are more people around now. A yellow school-bus outside the door is filled up, and more children are walking past the door. There is a Carnegie Kids concert today, and that and the tour explain the increased number of people. Someone is vaccuming the stairs behind me, and the effect is an overall increase in the noise level, making the whole space feel much more busy than when I first arrived.
I hear a South African accent…. Turns out they are here for the tour. The lady is South African, and her husband is British. There are a group of people in the center of the room who look like they may also be students. Are they also waiting for the rush tickets?


I just got uprooted. The tour begins on the steps I was sitting on.
There isn’t a lot of advertising for tonight. But then again, there isn’t much advertising about at all. There is a big poster on the wall at 57th street at the underground station, and a smaller poster next to the center box-office window. The concert is also advertised on the website, and on a poster listing all concerts for this season that is available in a little box beside the box-office window. LBM have a lovely picture on this one. The concert is called Long Walk to Freedom, named, of course, for Nelson Mandela’s autobiography (though this isn’t credited on any of the advertising literature that I have encountered yet). This is also the title of LBM’s newest CD. On the Carnegie Hall season pamphlet, the group are billed as “the South African a cappella group featured on Paul Simon’s album Graceland”. They never will escape that album, will they? I wonder whether they even want to? The guest artists joining them for the concert are Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Vusi Mahlasela (all of whom appear on the album), the Mohotella Queens, and Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez Seeger (who are not on the album).


The lobby has emptied out. I am returning to my reading.


At 11:55, I finally got in line for the tickets, and was instructed to stand to the side. I got into conversation with a young high-school history teacher. This was also his first experience buying rush tickets here. I mentioned that they are partial view, and that may be a problem with LBM, as seeing them is part of the experience. While I was buying my tickets, I overheard the woman at the next window mention that there are only $21 tickets and rush tickets left. She was speaking to a lady who was buying 2 tickets, and had been hoping for better seats. I collected my ticket, greeted the teacher, and left. I am now on the subway on my way to class.


Note to self: you can only go to your seat half an hour before the start. Either come early enough to spend time in the museum, or late enough not to have to. I did neither, and landed up wondering in shocked silence through the over-priced café. Note to self #2: eat before leaving for the concert. That I got right. Some things are the same all over the world.
I am finally seated, and very very hot. It was pretty cold, and very wet outside, and so I had dressed pretty snugly. Inside, however, the temperature is more suited to glamorous evening dresses than polar necks and blazers. This place is massive! No photograph, film or written description can really prepare one for the scale of it. I am in the 4th balcony, and it feels really high! There are microphones on the stage (7 in a curve, with 1 front and center, and two somewhat different ones to the left), and a piano behind them, slightly to the left. There are three bongo drums, a suspended cymbal, and a bar stool behing that.
Have I mentioned how huge this place is?!? Worse leg-room than an aeroplane, though. My nice new shoes don’t fit. From my partial view seat, the piano is barely visible, but if I sit well forward, I’ll see just fine. I am sitting to the left of the stage, one row in from the edge of the balcony, and one seat from the isle. Time, I think, to switch to pure observation. I’ll not take any more notes untill afterwards, unless I really think it’s necessary. Will keep the note-pad close, though.

18 October 2006

1:58 am

I am home. Finally. I really needed the headspace walking home from the concert gave me, though when I finally got in about a half an hour ago, wet and tired, I was beginning to regret the decision. Not to attend the concert, though. It was super. LBM began with “Hello My Baby”, which is also on the Carnegie Hall website where their concert is advertised. It was a fairly demure opening, though the dancing was, as always, energetic and exciting. I was somewhat taken aback by the amplification applied to their voices. The volume was really cranked up high, and there was a very heavy base mix, leaving Joseph’s voice sounding rather thin. They really could have been left un-amplified. They fill a space really easily, and the acoustics here are well-reputed. Instead, because of how high the volume was, whenever the dancing moved them away from the mics the silence was startling. The levels were also dropped when they danced, probably to prevent stage noise from being amplified, and it left dead spots in the sound that I found rather distracting. Aside from that, though, it was a really wonderful performance. The sound of their voices is so much a part of my familiar sound scape from home that I found myself tearing up early on, and feeling rather sentimental and home-sick during the concert. There was something really inspiring about the image that a concert like this creates of South Africa, though, and I could see it being emotional whether South Africa is home to an audience member, or not. Vusi spoke about Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the wisdom of forgiveness, in introduction to his part of the performance, and his comments drew extended applause from the audience.
I was really interested in Pete Seeger and his grandson’s participation in the program. The performed two North American folk numbers during the first half of the program. The second of these had the audience in stitches, because it involved the two men beating wooden blocks with huge long-handled hammers in time to the singing. Very typical work-song structure. They also encouraged the audience to sing along with them, though the response was tentative, to say the least. In the second half of the program, though, they joined LBM, and lead a performance of “Mbube”. After the controversey that has evoked in recent years, I am always a little surprised when it is actually performed. Nonetheless, it is enough a part of popular culture that I felt like the audience had been waiting for it, and this time, they sang along more enthusiastically. I was somewhat surprised, however, that Pete stopped when the audience began clapping along, and asked us not to, as we were “spoiling the rhythm”!
Sarah McLachlan received a particularly enthusiastic response from the audience, particularly because she peformed “Angel” during the first half, and once again, I could sense the audience waiting for that. Interestingly, she also performed “Homeless” with LBM in the second half, and that was the other piece that was tangibly anticipated. I must admit that I would have been very disappointed had it not been performed. Isn’t it funny how some pieces become so quintessentially associated with particular performers? It was a lovely performance of it.
Natalie Merchant performed a piece of her own that LBM had arranged to sing with her, and the effect, right near the end of the concert, was lovely. I am unfamiliar with her music, but I really enjoyed what I heard tonight.
The Mohotella Queens were, as always, electric, and I found it very difficult to sit still in my seat while they were dancing. I made an effort to learn to ululate several years ago, after all, and it was rather strange to not hear those types of interjections during the performance. I am usually a fairly quiet and reserved listener, but tonight I was itching to be noisy in my appreciation. I finally did whoop and ululate a bit during the ovation at the end of the show, and I got some very funny looks. It wasn’t that the audience was unappreciative. There was some whistling, and a 3 minute standing ovation and call for an encore at the end, but the audience sounded different from what they do at home. Even a concervative white audience in South Africa is familiar enough with that type of sound that it doesn’t feel out of place. I don’t want to suggest that there was anything wrong with this, but it was different, and that gave me a rather different take on the music. Perhaps it is because I always listen with the intention of vocalizing my responses, and with the very physical type of listening that comes from wanting to sing and dance along, that I usually experience this type of music as more participatory. Tonight, however, particularly during the danced sections of LBM’s music, I experienced the cyclic repetitions of much of the music, as almost meditative. I felt, at one point, like I was floating above the stage. I really had time to listen to the layers of sound, not in the sense of picking out individual lines (which is how I tend to listen ordinarily), but as a kind of complex, like a shifting block of sound in which different areas move in and out of focus. It was a really lovely personal experience that I hope I will be able to duplicate. There are more repetitions of the cyclical sections of LBM’s music in live performances than in recordings, because they dance during these sections, and that obviously doesn’t translate particularly well onto CD. It was interesting to hear the music like that.
The dancing, as always, was great. The group members come across as very energetic, playful, and a bit cheeky, wiggling bottoms at the audience, overacting challenging actions, and deliberately provoking one another and Joseph, and the audience loved it, laughing out loud regularly. There were some explanations given of the type of dancing, the origins of Isikathamiya, and little fragments of Zulu culture. The costumes, as always, were beautifully colourful, and both LBM and the Mahotella Queens changed costumes during intermission.
Everyone but Sarah McLachlan returned to the stage for a Encore, performing “Amazing Grace”, and all dancing together. The effect was lovely. All in all, a great concert.

I had some excitement as I was leaving, because someone incorrectly directed a group of us down a flight of stairs that led backstage, rather than out the main entrance, and we got rather lost. When we finally found our way out, two rather surly body guards who thought we had gone snooping around looking for autographs firmly directed us to the street outside. I walked home in a gentle, soaking rain, via a surprisingly quiet Times Square and Broadway. It gave me the space I needed to think this all over. I feel like a bit of a fraud claining this as my music, because I am not Zulu. I don’t even speak the language. I have, however, been singing and listening to this type of music for years. It is familiar enough to make me feel homesick. At what point does it become mine? I am going to write a long letter to my mentor and tell her about it, and perhaps by the end of this degree I will be able to answer that question. Or perhaps not. Either way, if I get to spend the next five years doing things like tonight, I have a lot to look forward to.


Sameer said...

Quite a nice post ... good article



choirgirl said...

Thanks for wading through it all, Sameer.

sb said...

Great post.

I especially like your question about when the music becomes yours. I've wondered about how that works with Shona music and white Zimbabweans... Anyway, thanks. :)

choirgirl said...

Thanks for the comment, sb. I often wonder how many people feel the same way I do about this. I guess the questions must be similar for some South Africans and Zimbabweans, but for others that is a non-question. It's all about perspective, I guess.

Ziomal said...

Very nice! I like it. hybrid capture

Mitch Goldstein said...

Hi Nicol,

On behalf of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, I would like to thank you for sharing your experience before, during and after our concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a special night for us, something that took many months to put together. It was our desire to present a concert that would offer traditional SA singing/dancing, contemporary/folk music and a combination of both, over the course of 2.5 hours of performance.

With all the performers, who graciously offered their services for free, we wanted to make certain they had a fun evening as well. It all did seem to go well, the audience sounded as if they had a wonderful time and, hopefully, like you they left having had an experience that they would remember for sometime.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be returning to the USA in early 2007 so we hope others will have a chance to see them live. However, sadly, we won't be bringing our Carnegie Hall guests with us. Our website,, has alot of info on the group. Plus we welcome feedback from people.

Thanks again!
Mitch Goldstein
Ladysmith Black Mambazo

choirgirl said...

Dear Mitch,
Thank you so much for visiting my humble little blog. Your comment really made my day. I am delighted that LBM will be back next year. I'll keep an eye open for your advertisements, and link to them when the time comes. Thank you for the wonderful music. I look forward to hearing the group again.