Tuesday April 24, 2012
All-American opera singer finds South African soul
By George Webster
Noted for his versatility and breadth of achievement, American opera singer Thomas Hampson is one of the most respected baritones performing in the world today.
The 56-year-old, who hails from Spokane, in Washington, boasts a discography of more than 150 albums, winning him multiple Grammy Awards, two Edison Prizes and the coveted Grand Prix de Disque — the highest award for musical recordings in France.
The grandeur of opera houses, tail coats and melodramatic librettos is a far cry from the thatched huts and sweltering sun of Durban’s traditional Zulu townships. But this is where Hampson chose to land for his Fusion Journey.
He was there to seek out famed South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose mix of low rumbling harmonies and ululating riffs gained worldwide appreciation when the group appeared on Paul Simon’s seminal Graceland album in 1986.
During a 10-day visit, the all-American opera singer was challenged to produce a fusion of sound that blended the diametrically contrasting traditions of Western classical music with Mambazo’s distinctive take on ancient Zulu melodies.
In his own words, this is the story of Hampson’s journey.
Thomas Hampson: I come from a very different musical tradition to the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but I believe that anyone who stands next to another person and sings is somehow a brother, somehow a sister — and rarely have I felt this more acutely than on my journey to Durban.
It was my first time there and what I saw of the city was beautiful. After landing I was struck by the deeply brushed low-lying hills and surrounding tundra, and the bustling atmosphere of the huge port.
We traveled to the Clermont township, to the former home of Joseph Shabalala (leader of the group). His old township is on the outskirts of Durban and while, of course, there are many signs of modernization — like new homes and roads — the area still carries a distinctive sense of its Zulu roots.