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Imperfect harmony

The Gourds vs. Ladysmith Black Mambazo


Grammy-winning global icons Ladysmith Black Mambazo are best known for a particular style of a cappella harmonizing known as isicathamiya. Austin-based roots revelers The Gourds are known for a more honky-tonk form of harmonizing—one that often inspires drunken throngs of Missoula supporters to join in as if it were one big back-porch hoedown. That right there—a loose affiliation of harmonic styles—is about as close as these two groups come to intersecting. But with both hitting Missoula the same week, and both garnering their own substantial buzz from distinctly different fan bases, we thought we’d line them up for a brief side-by-side comparison.

Humble beginnings

First rehearsals were in a shack called The Steamy Bowl. Started by frontman Kevin Russell after about four-dozen other loosely connected projects, including a Shreveport-based outfit called The Picket Line Coyotes. Originated in sweltering hometown of Ladysmith in the early 1960s. Founder Joseph Shabalala chose the group’s name because it refers to chopping down the competition in vocal contests and a black ox.

Big break

Esteemed label Sugar Hill released Bolsa de Agua in 2000, as well as reissued the band’s entire back catalog. Collaborated with Paul Simon in 1986 on a little album called Graceland.

What happened next

Despite loyal fan base, continued to evade commercial recognition; dropped by Sugar Hill.
Sold more than 16 million copies of Graceland; apartheid ended.

Best cover

Likely to cover anything from Dylan (“Oh, Sister”) to ZZ Top (“Balinese”), but, by far, most famous for countrified version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice.”
“Mbube,” recorded for Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, is a traditional Zulu song best known in America as The Tokens’ gentrified hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh).”

Most famous collaboration

Recorded “Get a Life” and “Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Amsterdam” with Texas music legend Doug Sahm on his now out-of-print album S.D.Q. ’98.
Have played with the likes of Dolly Parton, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan and “Oprah” legend Josh Groban. There’s also the whole Simon thing.

Missoula connections

Russell sings unrecorded “Missoula” during solo sets.
“Mambazo” has the same number of syllables as “Montana.”

Show info

Headlining the River City Roots Festival Saturday, Sept. 15, with a set beginning at approximately 8 p.m. Free.
Performing at the University Theatre Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. $33/$31 at the door.

Beyond the show

Russell, under the name ShinyRibs, is playing a post-Roots solo show (with special guests, wink-wink) at The Loft, beginning at approximately 11:30 p.m. $7; tickets limited.
Grammy-nominated 2006 CD The Long Walk to Freedom includes enhanced features like two music videos, info on other South African artists and a free screensaver.

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