Amazing grace

Music - Ashley Kahn on the road with South Africa's most successful group

In 1986, I unplugged the typewriter. After almost ten years following the path of music journalism, it was all sounding a bit hollow and insignificant to me: the music and my words. How many times can a synthesizer solo be described as "brilliant", "brittle" or "bristling"? How often could one praise the "heartfelt", "poignant" or "fervent" lyrics of . . . Phil Collins?

A loss of confidence in the power of my pen matched the lack of inspiration I felt during those years. In a recent article for Vanity Fair, Elvis Costello called the Eighties "the decade that music forgot". How sad. How true.

I chose instead to throw my lot into concert production. To do, rather than just report. To be as close as one could be to - and to feel first-hand the excitement of - the interaction of performer and audience.

I worked with a number of music festivals, from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to Manhattan's premier outdoor concert series, Central Park Summer Stage. By the end of 1988, I had been hired to lead a South African choir embarking on its first headlining tour of North America.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the all-male, all-Zulu vocal group that had added their bass-heavy harmonies to Paul Simon's Grammy-winning album Graceland, needed a road manager. At that point - and as of this writing - they were the most successful musical group out of Africa. Paradoxically, their sweet, pristine a cappella singing remained steadfastly traditional and, by music industry standards of the day, non-commercial. Yet promoters around the world called for them and they performed to sell-out crowds. My intermittent association with Ladysmith lasted for more than four years, as one tour followed another, taking us from concert hall to nightclub, from Texas to Tokyo, from Manchester to pre-glasnost Moscow.

My job was to pilot the Ladysmith tour smoothly from airport to bus to hotel to stage and back again; to keep the group happy, healthy and solvent; to collect their performance fees and dispense their salaries. The group proved a tour manager's dream: friendly, respectful, enthusiastic and always on time - jet lag be damned. Their desire to perform and satisfy their audiences was unflagging. And their show? Jaw-dropping were their synchronised, high-stepping dances; heart-lifting were their finely tuned vocal harmonies. They exuded energy - boundless and optimistic.

It was a tricky time while the apparatus of apartheid was still in place back home. Ladysmith may have been high- flying, but each tour ultimately returned them to their homes near Durban, to bitter racism and personal danger. (Just how present and lethal that danger could be, I discovered soon enough.) These were also the days of the cultural boycott of South Africa - in particular, of the Sun City resort - calling all musicians to avoid performing there. And with no single, distinct explanation of the rules of protest, it was unclear what the policy was for a South African group travelling abroad.

Ladysmith's success placed the band directly between South Africa's entrenched segregation and anti-apartheid forces, and tested both extremes. I learnt they called their music "isicathamiya" - to "step quietly" - after their razor-sharp, light-stepping choreography. The description fit only too well. On stage and off, Ladysmith had to tread carefully.

As the weeks passed on that first tour, I played both teacher and student, becoming accustomed to their Zulu songs and conversation. Soon, I could recite their lyrics and roughly understand their meaning. I learnt enough to call them nightly to the stage with a hearty "Isikhathi sojuluka!" ("Time to sweat!"), and I was given a Zulu name - Mbhegeni, "Behold him" - derived from Joseph Shabalala's command to the group to pay attention when I talked.

Shabalala was and still is the guiding light and leader of the ten-member group, an untutored musical genius and born-again preacher. Blessed with an easy smile, he balanced, uncannily, an innocent delight in all things new and old with a deep and constant spiritual strength. He established the group in the mid-1960s, moulding their harmonies after a fashion that had come to him in a dream. Shabalala's vision and drive is singularly responsible for carrying the group from the sugar-cane fields of Ladysmith (a town located one hour's drive due east of Durban in South Africa) to venues as large as Wembley Stadium and New York's Madison Square Garden.

Shabalala led the group through repeated rehearsals and prayer meetings, and he was the public mouthpiece of the group, always positive and always careful. He deftly avoided answering direct questions concerning apartheid in various interviews, but his head was not buried in the sand. Stuck in traffic outside Philadelphia one day, we watched a backhoe cross the highway. He said he used to operate one, and I responded that it must have been a relatively good job, compared to his starting out behind a plough in Ladysmith. "For us," he replied bluntly, "there are no good jobs."

Ladysmith's official policy towards South African politics was neutral, especially during those dangerous days when many political factions were violently vying with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to speak for the local tribes in their homeland. I learnt that, in such a climate, declaring political allegiance could be fatal.

One morning in Ohio, Shabalala quietly told me that the father of the group member Geophrey Mdletshe had been murdered by a political group which was upset with his youngest son's involvement with a rival faction. We agreed that Geophrey, for his own safety, should be urged to remain on the tour, rather than return home to bury his father. I asked who should break the devastating news. "I am a minister. I have done this before," was Shabalala's matter-of-fact reply.

Shabalala's faith and resolve were tested even more severely in 1991, when Headman Shabalala - his younger, soft-spoken brother, whose guttural punctuation spiced many Ladysmith numbers - was found shot dead in his truck outside of Durban. An investigation found a white, off-duty security guard guilty of the shooting. He claimed that Headman had struggled with him as he attempted a citizen's arrest of the teetotal singer for drink-driving. The more likely explanation seemed that he had reacted murderously when confronted with a successful black man driving his own vehicle who refused to play the humble servant. The guard's trial lasted a week; a fine equal to $300 was his final punishment.

Resolutely, Ladysmith's voices continued to soar with hope and love, with lyrics of religious conviction and romantic celebration. As we toured into the early Nineties, a new day dawned on South Africa, bringing a promise of political change. And then the impossible became headlines. Mandela was released after decades of imprisonment. Plans were made for full and free elections. Ladysmith began ending their concerts with fists raised. I could not be there, but when I heard that Mandela had personally requested that they perform at his 1994 inauguration in Cape Town, I rejoiced in the group's - and South Africa's - triumph.

Ladysmith's harmonies and exultant songs - on a series of albums for the Warner Brothers label - became the soundtrack to the tragedies and glories of that brief window of time. The Warner Brothers Collection is the recently released best-of album, offering 17 Ladysmith tunes from those heady days. Featured are the group's wistful Zulu classic "Unomathemba" and their signature tune "Cothoza Mfana" ("Tip-Toes Guy"). Their most successful forays into composing in English, defining their own brand of township doowop, are represented by "Hello My Baby", the prayerful "King of Kings" and "Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain", made famous by its use in a TV ad for 7-Up. Two tracks are boosted by instrumental backing: "Township Jive" (with a hot South African band) and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm" (a cross-cultural gospel collaboration with The Winans). Paul Simon, the man whom Shabalala named "Vulindlela" ("He who opens the gate"), harmonises on the album's opening cut, "Homeless", and its closing track, too: an ethereal rendering of "Amazing Grace".

Last year, a Heinz TV commercial propelled a different Ladysmith collection into the British Top Ten, and rekindled their popularity in the UK. Whether you own that album or not - and biased as I may be - I still suggest without hesitation that you put the newly released collection at the top of your next music shopping list. The boundless joy on this CD transcends even their, well, heartfelt, poignant and fervent up-from-apartheid saga.

Ashley Kahn's Kind of Blue: the making of the Miles Davis masterpiece is published by Granta Books next spring