In the years before the Melbourne Recital Centre was built, music lovers pined for a venue that would do justice to large and small chamber music ensembles in our city. Now we have our superb venue with its larger Hall and Salon, and chamber music is flourishing in the space.
But, in the time of soon-to-depart CEO Mary Vallentine, there have been initiatives that have encouraged a broader spectrum of music-making – and last week provided welcome examples. On Wednesday in the Salon we had music of the Balkans performed by vocalists Anya and Zlatna with a fine and sympathetic band. The next night in the larger Hall it was music that truly belonged to the world although it emanated from Africa, as Melbourne welcomed Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
First to our “local heroes”. Dressed in red (Anja) and black (Zlatna), vocalists Anja Acker & Kirsty Morphett (whose golden hair provided the inspiration for the “zlatna” in the group’s name), were joined by percussion Matthew Horsley, double bass Andrew Tanner, flute Michael O’Connor and harpsichord Donald Nicolson (his baroque credentials never far from his vigorous style).
Anja’s Serbian heritage brought many of their songs to the program but also Greek, Turkish, Macedonian, Bulgarian and even Estonian. The tiny but surprisingly loud Jew’s harp was an unexpected addition to the range of instruments. And the Irish (Uillean or Elbow) pipes, a type of bagpipes, had a solo in the very first item, a traditional Serbian song. The next song was from the same part of the world but unmistakably from gypsy culture, with its driving rhythm and use of instruments.
Both vocalists are mezzos, which lends itself very well to the lilting songs they favour. A highlight was the Macedonian traditional Jano mori, featuring a piano accordion and flute rather like a drone under the complex and beautiful vocal line. The next items from this part of the world saw all instruments combining to deliver a dancelike rhythm for the assertion that “most beautiful girls are from Macedonia”.
And so the music moved across the Balkans to Estonia and the final piece, Kuryu. It was fast-moving with loud vocals and clapping, many of the audience joining in. The theme of this song, amongst the night’s many stories of love and loss was of an intense desire… for a cigarette!
Some audience members knew the songs, especially those from Serbia, and joined in. Make no mistake, though, this is a very professional group that understands the origin of its music and knows how to perform it with polish and, more importantly, great audience appeal.
The next night I had returned to the Melbourne Recital Centre for a very different kind of concert … or was it? One difference was that such is the world-wide fame of Ladysmith Black Mambazo that the group performed in the large Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, to a near-capacity audience. The group celebrates the power of the voice and harmony as it tells stories of South Africa, the people’s often cruel history and their powerful faith in spite of it.
The nine men who came on stage were dressed simply. They did not play instruments and had the simplest of moves as they sang. As is their pattern, there was a cantor who sang the melody and then all delivered a rich and powerful harmony that is the essence of this group. The first song Awu Wemadoda had the sound that will have reminded many in the audience of Graceland, the album that was the world’s introduction to Ladysmith. By the early 1980s Ladysmith Black Mambazo was the most successful singing group in South Africa but its worldwide fame came when the group featured on Paul Simon’s album.
In terms of its background, the singers tell of South African culture and its aspirations for peace and justice. Musically, a rich and strong harmony is at the core of every song. Timing is extraordinarily in sync, and the rhythm and gestures suggest that dance is never very far away.
As with Anja and Zlatna, the subject matter was occasionally spiced with humour – as in the request to give the cow back after a relationship fell through! But more typical of the music was “No walk to freedom” dedicated to Nelson Mandela, with its mix of singing and chant and a sliding sound in the responses to the lead singer. The repetition of “long way … long walk to freedom” powerfully illustrated the inspiration for a group that is itself inspirational.
Classical music fans might note that, among its many famous recent collaborators the group recorded an album with the English Chamber Orchestra in 2004 – but really it had no need to do so. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has a musical integrity all its own, and it is not possible to imagine how it could present its music more appealingly. A packed Hall at the MRC evidently agreed.
Editor’s note: At the Recital Centre …
The Blind Boys of Alabama will be performing on April 1 with music that is gospel inspired.
Anya and Zlatna return on March 30
Harpsichordist Donald Nicolson can be heard playing baroque music with Latitude 37 in a series of concerts in 2016.