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Grammy Award winners perform to sold-out Chemeketa audience

Ladysmith Black Mambazo spreads their message of peace, love and harmony to Chemeketa.
Photo by Kevin Smith

Five-time Grammy Award winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo performed at Chemeketa on Thursday, Feb. 27, marking the first sold-out performance for the Acclaimed Artist Series

This performance was the first of the series to completely sell out, with the theatre seating around 400 guests. Online presale tickets were $25, compared to ticket prices for their Santa Barbara show, where attendees paid over $130. 

The South African group is currently on a world tour and performed in Salem after their Portland show. The group, currently comprised of nine members, was founded by the late Joseph Shabalala, who died two weeks before the Salem show on Feb. 11, 2020. After the funeral service in Kwazulu-Natal, Ladysmith Black Mambazo flew to Portland to carry on with the tour, honoring their leader and his message. 

The start of the show paid tribute to the late founder with their rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” Through most of the show, Joseph Shabalala’s youngest son, Thamsanqa Shabalala, performed lead vocals. 

While much of the performance was in honor of Joseph Shabalala, it did not feel mournful. Rather, it felt as if they were celebrating his life and achievements with joy and love. They reminded the audience throughout the night that their purpose was to spread their culture of peace, love and harmony. 

The a capella group has their own distinct vocal style with rich harmonies from their native South African musical traditions. While most of their songs are sung in their native language of Zulu, they would often preface it with the meaning.

One of their songs, Thamsanqa Shabalala said, was about a traveling man who longed for home, missing the mountains, the rivers and the birds he knew. When they sang this song, the language barrier all but dissolved. 

Many of the songs were celebratory and had a central focus on gratitude. They celebrated everything from Nelson Mandela and democracy, to the women in their lives. While the energy of some songs were lower, none of them felt particularly sad. Even their emotional performances spread warmth over the auditorium. 

Their voices moved in a unique fashion that felt almost like a wave that traveled through the auditorium. Their music carries a message that ventures beyond the realm of language. It is a universal strength that humans share, to be able to listen and feel the meaning of these songs together. 

The final song of the show was extended in order to do physical comedy and dances. This is where the audience got to see them truly interact. Although it was likely choreographed, it did not feel that way at all. It felt as if we were watching a projection of their genuine selves, rather than performative figures. This was especially obvious when they would direct themselves to the audience. 

When they would speak to the audience, it felt almost personal. The Chemeketa auditorium, smaller compared to other theatres they’ve performed in, became incredibly intimate. Consistently, it was as if the sound was traveling through my body, and with it came an indisputable understanding. This was another message they urged the audience to take home with them: music is powerful.

The next Acclaimed Artist Series guest will be Mariachi Ciudad de Guadalajara and Ballet Folklorico México en la Piel on May 7. Tickets are for sale online now at

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