If you had been in Kingsbury Hall Saturday night, you might have thought you were at an Olympic event when the ten members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo jogged onto the stage wearing the same outfits and waving their arms in the air.
All the tickets had been sold. The capacity crowd of more than 2,000, made up of all age groups, was pulsing with excitement. The lights when down, the cheers went up and it didn't take long to figure out that this team of South Africans was here not to compete, but to play rich, soothing music from a magical land.Ladysmith's a cappella melodies, sometimes haunting and other times full of fun, captivated the Salt Lake audience with their intense energy.
But the visit to this city by South African singing troupe that has been in the world spotlight since their work with Paul Simon on the Grammy-winning album "Graceland" may not have been entirely about music. The group's founder Joseph Shabalala met with Governor Norm Bangerter on Friday, attended a presentation at the Trinity AME Church later that day, and the singers were honored at a reception hosted by the governor's Black Advisory Council after their concert Saturday.
The singing ambassadors from South Africa also triggered talk of apartheid, and pamphlets and books on apartheid and black awareness were sold and distributed to the hundreds jammed outside Kingsbury Hall doors before the concert.
But Shabalala and his group, to the frustration of many, remain silent on issues in their homeland. Shabalala explained quietly at the post-concert reception that he feels confident about expressing his personal views but worries about what the press would make of his comments and how that press would be received by those in power in South Africa. He did say that one problem in his country is that "the people fight each other but neither side knows what it wants."
The opening act Saturday was Eliza Gilkyson, an earthy coffee house singer from the '60s who has recently decided to return to the music business.
"You're probably wondering what this china-white, middle-class woman is doing here," she said through a grin after her opening number. "Tapping into that universal bond that is needed now more than ever."
The idealism was natural for the former '60s protester, but it truly did seem to define the evening.
The voice was appealing, the songs rhymed and her presence was warm and friendly, but Gilkyson knew she wasn't there to steal the show. She introduced the headline group as singing "the best music going around today."
After an exciting entrance, Mambazo got right to the business of doing what they so obviously love to do. The group's charisma and enthusiasm for their music seemed to draw the audience in despite the fact that most of the lyrics were sung in the Zulu language.
The singers pranced and hoofed almost Motown style through many numbers about love, history and "the brave men who work in the mines" of South Africa.
A concert highlight was definitely the live rendering of "Homeless," from the "Graceland" album for which the audience gave lengthy applause.
After their entire set, the group received a standing ovation and they returned to sing two more songs, one of which was the national anthem and prayer, "God Bless Africa." A few tears were wiped away as the group left the stage and the house lights came up.