As a student in the 1980s, one of my strongest early memories of the fusion of African music and Western culture wasn't Paul Simon's Graceland album, but the way in which Andy Kershaw's Lancastrian vowels made something completely new from the words "Ladysmith Black Mambazo".
The a cappella vocal group had, of course, made a notable contribution to Simon's Grammy Award winner, but it was the pure, original sound of their collective voices, carried by the BBC airwaves from shows hosted by Kershaw and John Peel, that left a lasting impression.
That music, founded in the isicathamiya tradition, is the lifeblood of Inala, which opened the Edinburgh International Festival's dance programme (as part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme) before transferring to Sadler's Wells today at the start of a UK tour. Performed live by the nine-man group alongside dancers from Rambert, the Royal Ballet and the freelance ranks, this is billed as a "Zulu ballet" - but while formal classical movement is a vital ingredient, Mark Baldwin's choreography uses a more exuberant contemporary style to capture the rhythms of work and play, man and animal.
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Headgear and abstracted costumes worn by the dancers work with the choreography to suggest the angular jerks of bird life or the leaping grace of a gazelle. Immediately before and after the interval, skeletal bodypaint and skyscraper lines projected onto the wide open sky convey a darker, more agitated rhythm of life. Elsewhere, the brief, joyful solos executed stage-centre as the ensemble stand in a semi-circle could have been inspired by centuries-old tribal festivals or modern-day street performances. Throughout, the high kicks and shuffles performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo themselves add an everyday human dimension to the sharp-edged precision of their professional dance counterparts.
If the dance fusion is conceptually watertight, the musical elements, surprisingly, are not. Ella Spira's cello/violin/piano/percussion compositions seem too prettily New Age for the setting, as if "world music" vocal harmonies are being packaged for nice, liberal, Western ears. Only when the music amplifies to a rock drum beat or the instruments drop out entirely is the rich, deep, distinctive sound of Ladysmith Black Mambazo allowed its full potential.