Music of the Soul and Spirit @ The Harris Theater

4 Stars out of 4

Now celebrating its 15th season, the Harris Theater is owning its place on the world stage with some revelatory productions this season including the first ever Chicago appearance by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal and last week’s landmark pairing of Angelique Kidjo and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who had never shared a stage before. Harris has always been the much needed home of Hubbard Street Dance and Chicago Opera Theatre,  a venue wrested into existence by the visionary Irving Harris, who presciently saw in the 1980’s how hard it was for midsized  houses and groups to find footing as they moved from start up experimentalists to cultural institutions. Sustainability is often a matter of being sized just right and in the right location and the almost 1500 seats of the venue enable presenters to take risks and bring in International artists and create unique cultural experiences such as the amazing night of Kidjo and Mambazo in a stellar season of truly must see performances.   

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been bringing a message of Peace and Love around the world for nearly five decades.  Rooted in isicathamiya music, a kind of chant that miners sang in the deeply segregated townships of South Africa during Apartheid, the harmonies and rhythms have crossed over into partnering and influencing American pop music as the group appeared with Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton and others. The nine men, now  with several sons of founder Joseph Shabalala in the mix, breathe, click, sing, whistle like birds and move as one organism.  Each song has a tenor singing curlicue syllables over a kind of harmonic thrum with a beat created through consonants, clapping or the breath.  The sound is inherently soothing, like listening to cicadas on a summer day. Sometimes they seem to have harnessed the physics of sound as the tone seems to circle around the listener. Sometimes the ensemble is most akin to bagpipes with tones and overtones, with a melodic line weaving in and out like a tapestry of notes.  Sometimes the work is more akin to rap, with the ensemble doing a kind of beatbox while each singer does an exuberant solo dance. The set list included many songs from their Grammy nominated Songs of Peace and Love for Kids and Parents Around the World. The men possess a heightened physicality and they move in unison, with steps and kicks punctuating the music and giving an exciting visual treat to the audience.

After intermission, Angelique Kidjo takes the stage for her high energy set.  Her band, already onstage, begins and we can hear her voice before we see her. The petite Kidjo has a powerful voice that has grown stronger, deeper, more bell toned since her debut album Pretty in 1981. She has a growl these days that comes from a primal place within. Originally from Benin and raised in Paris, now based I believe in New York, Kidjo is that rare Citizen of the World who is able to gather and reimagine music for a hopeful citizenry anywhere on the planet. Her latest project is a reinterpretation of the Talking Heads classic 1980 album Remain in the Light. In a mindblowing moment we hear and feel how the song “Once in a Lifetime”  is a universal cry for connection as she reworks a tune that David Byrne admitted was heavily influenced by African music, and she reintegrates it with its roots and then explodes and universalizes the meaning of the lyrics. Kidjo is a tireless activist, an Oxfam and UNICEF goodwill ambassador and she has created the Batonga Foundation to support marginalized and excluded young girls in Africa. Her agenda fuels her music. Like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Kidjo has collaborated and cross pollinated with Western artists—she has created work with Philip Glass, the Bruckner Orchester and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. She noteably has said there is no such thing as cultural appropriation as long as you credit your sources. She believes music is music and she delivers a rousing show which invites the audience up on stage to dance with her. Never miss a chance to see her live. You will never forget the energy.

And then all the microphones come out and the men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo join her on stage for a heartfelt sing along of Mama Africa, Kidjo’s and Youssou N’Dour’s  lovely tribute anthem to the continent. The show was stirring, soulful, and connected with the heart. The audience walked out into the cold night air revived, refreshed, filled with hope and energy.    

Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Angelique Kidjo performed at the Harris Theatre, 205 East Randolph Drive in Millenium Park on February 21, 2019.  You can avail yourself of the rest of this landmark season and the artists that will grace that stage by going to www.harristheaterchicago.org or call 312-334-7777. Photo by by Kyle Flubacker.