Ladysmith Black Mambazo Does ‘Old MacDonald Zulu Style’
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African group famous for all those iconic vocals on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland,’ will release a new record in February. The first track is a cover of ‘Old MacDonald.’ This is both funny and awesome, for a few reasons.
It’s hard to imagine Paul Simon being a racist. ‘Graceland’ is enjoying a hell of a renaissance these days, and especially since the first Vampire Weekend record came out it’s been heralded as a touchstone by every hipster and their mother—literally.
But there was a time after the album’s release in 1986 when Simon was lambasted as culturally insensitive for recording and performing in South Africa while Apartheid was in place. He was even called exploitative and borderline racist for co-opting traditional hili songs and making them into his own songs. In 1987 Howard University students even protested against him at a campus performance.
Simon’s argument, of course, is that he was celebrating the culture of South Africa by borrowing tunes from their folk history, shining a spotlight on the evil of Apartheid, and fostering the careers of South Africans he worked with to boot, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Ladysmith’s career did indeed flourish, thanks no doubt to the fame they generated on ‘Graceland.’
Now, a little over twenty years after university students protested against Simon for stealing from African traditions, Ladysmith Black Mambazo are releasing a new record. According to their press release, “it captures the nine-man group’s own childhood memories of growing up in the South African countryside, hearing the traditional folk tunes sung to them by their mothers and fathers.” The first single from the record? “Old MacDonald.” As in “Old MacDonald had a farm.” Turns out that’s an African tradition, too.
In addition to the cheap chuckle of hearing Old MacDonald intoned in a Zulu accent, the record, titled “Songs From A Zulu Farm,’ feels like an odd but welcome affirmation of Simon’s ‘Graceland’ idea—that in the modern world cultures are porous and made richer by their interaction. Of course, all that is truer now that it was in 1986 when ‘Graceland’ was released, but apparently ‘Old MacDonald’ was already a classic in South Africa when Ladysmith Black Mambazo were kids.
In 1986 Simon sang, “These are the days of miracle and wonder—this is the long distance call.” No doubt the idea of Tweeting from your iPhone would seem a lot more miraculous and wondrous, but the point stands—the miracle and wonder of the modern world is for humans to touch the lives and cultural traditions that a century earlier would have rendered them a world apart, literally. In that context, it’s nice to know we’re not the only ones borrowing.
Take a listen to ‘Old MacDonald Zulu Style’ below.