N.J. native Mitch Goldstein’s 20-year musical and spiritual journey with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
A year after Paul Simon released his boundary-shattering 1986 “Graceland” album, which he recorded with several black singers and groups when apartheid still reigned in South Africa, Brooklyn-born music lover Mitch Goldstein went to a Simon concert at Radio City Music Hall.
He didn’t know it would change his life.
After the concert, which featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a now-iconic South African men’s choral group that had performed on the album, Goldstein, then a few years out of college and working for a concert-booking agency in central New Jersey, noticed some people walking down a flight of stairs. They were headed to a private reception for the performers. They had tickets for the reception. Goldstein didn’t.
So he snuck in. Taken by “the sincerity … the authenticity” of the black singers, he wanted to offer them words of appreciation. A policeman caught him, and showed him the door. Goldstein snuck in again. “I was caught four times,” he says.
Finally, the officer, sensing Goldstein’s genuine interest in meeting Ladysmith Black Mambazo, pulled a ticket out of his pocket and gave it to Goldstein.
Persistence pays, says Goldstein, who found himself a few years later working for a small, soon-to-disband management team in Manhattan that handled the group’s affairs. When it was uncertain who would take over the group’s responsibilities, the members approached Goldstein and asked him to become their manager.
And for the last 20 years, Goldstein has served them fulltime, drinking in the group’s lilting and plaintive music and traveling the world with what have arguably become South Africa’s most prominent entertainers. Goldstein splits his time between his home in Montclair, N.J., where he and his wife live, his second home in Durban (at the house of Ladymith’s founder Joseph Shabalala), where he spends four months of the year, and hotel rooms the world over when Ladysmith is on tour.
His original exposure to the group, “knowing how powerful their singing was,” influenced his career, says Goldstein, who is 50. “It’s my journey,” one he describes as a spiritual one laden with meaning that goes beyond music.
Though he joined Ladysmith — nine men from the Durban area who began harmonizing together in the early 1960s, did their first radio broadcast in 1970, and eventually sang a message of reconciliation in the waning years of apartheid — after they came to world attention as part of the “Graceland” album, Goldstein has helped sustain their prominence since then.
Today, Ladysmith is making headlines as the focus of the recent documentary “Under African Skies,” which opened for a short run here earlier this month, will likely return next month and will be shown on the A&E cable channel on Friday, May 25. The film, commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Graceland,” tells the retrospective story of Simon’s controversial 1985 appearance in South Africa; the controversy stemmed from the fact that the concert defied the international United Nations boycott of performing in apartheid South Africa. Simon said his public recognition of talented black musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo was itself an act of defiance of apartheid.
For Goldstein, onetime prospective accountant and history professor, onetime “hippie,” onetime “Deadhead,” a “left-leaning, Upper West Side — not Upper East Side — New York Jew,” the work with Ladysmith has fulfilled his longtime desire to combine his interests in music and business, travel the world and have “an adventure.”
He’s lost count of how many miles he’s logged with the group in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia (with stops at Carnegie Hall, Buckingham Palace and the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo), as it spreads it soulful sound — part gospel, part traditional Zulu melodies — around the world.
And his initial wanderlust has grown into a spiritual journey, his contribution to the world, since he grew up too late to become a Civil Rights or anti-apartheid activist. Goldstein says he has embraced the group’s message of tolerance that has shown an interracial appeal. “I’m playing my part,” he says.
“It isn’t just an [musical] act,” says Goldstein, who now produces some of the group’s music. Its distinctive, swaying sound is a symbol of the “new” South Africa, a place working to overcome its racist past. “They are people who represent something,” he says.
At home and abroad — from Cape Town to the Vatican to “Sesame Street” — the group plays before racially mixed audiences; a Ladysmith concert serves as a tacit example of a divided society coming together. “They represent hope,” Goldstein says of the singers. They don’t have an agenda other than spreading a message of hope.”
If Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the public face of South Africa, Goldstein is a quiet presence. “I’m a very behind-the-scene guy.”
The anomaly of a white, American, secular Jew managing the career of a major black, African singing group (former president Nelson Mandela called them “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors”) is not lost on Goldstein.
“I’m aware of it,” he says over a plate of latkes at a kosher deli near his mother’s home in Fairlawn one recent afternoon; he is back home before he returns to South Africa in a few months. He says his acceptance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is another way the group is “breaking down boundaries.”
As he speaks, waitresses wander to his table. “How’s your mother?” they ask. “How long are you here this time?”
Everyone at the deli knows his name.
“I’m a Jew working with a group who are Christians,” Goldstein says — everyone knows his religious identity. “I’m not hiding it. I’m just not announcing it. I’m very conscious of representing my culture, my heritage, my people … of the responsibility,” he says.
As a part of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo family, he has unique entrée to South African society. “I get to go places that tourists don’t go,” he says. Black homes. Townships. Black weddings and funerals and churches.
He’s picked up a few words of Zulu, the singers’ native language. But they’re not tutoring him. “They don’t want me to learn too much Zulu,” he says. “They don’t want me to understand what they’re saying [among themselves]!”
Has anyone — especially in the country’s black community — questioned the presence of a white, non-African Jew managing a black African group?
No, he says. “Some people find it odd,” he adds. “I know it’s out there to some degree.” But no one has confronted him. And no one in the group has reported getting such criticism.
Raised in a kosher, Conservative home, Goldstein says his connection to Judaism now is “cultural. I don’t like tribalism,” any group’s feeling of superiority.
He says his time with Ladysmith Black Mambazo has made him identify more fully with his Jewish identity. “It’s made me a better person.” Before joining the group, Goldstein says, “I didn’t want anything to do with Judaism,” adding that he primarily expressed his spirituality through his work. But spending time with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, hearing their uplifting music, befriending sincere, but not preachy Christians, influenced him. “I came back to Judaism, culturally.”
He counts Joseph Shabalala among his friends. “What’s important to Joseph is that I’m going on a journey,” Goldstein says. “He sees me as a spiritual person who believes in [doing] good to others … as long as you’re bettering the world.”
During the group’s gigs in the States, he often meets Jewish fans. They’re surprised that Ladysmith is managed by a Member of the Tribe. “They take pride” in his work, he says.
Goldstein is less known in South Africa. He’s never given a speech to a South African Jewish organization about his boundary-breaking career. “Nobody ever asked me to speak. I’d love to.”
As a Jew, he says, he finds a strong point of connection with the group’s work in the lyrics of “Homeless,” one of the songs Simon and Ladysmith recorded on “Graceland.” The song, about the plight in Africa, is in English and Zulu. Among the lyrics:
We are homeless, we are homeless
The moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake
And we are homeless, homeless, homeless
Strong wind destroy our home
Many dead, tonight it could be you
Strong wind, strong wind
Many dead, tonight it could be you.
“Can a Jew find the emotion of ‘Homeless’ and relate it to the diaspora?” asks Goldstein, who lost “extended family” in the Holocaust. “Who’s to say they cannot? Music is universal,” he says.
Today, he says, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s reputation precedes it. “For years it was easy to sell them as ‘Paul Simon’s group,’” Goldstein says. But now the memory of “Graceland” has faded. “We don’t get bookings because of Paul Simon anymore.”
The group stirred a minor controversy last year when the Tel Aviv Opera House announced that the group would perform there; the announcement was premature, Goldstein says, and no contract had been signed. Advocates of the anti-Israel boycott movement called on the group to stay out of Israel.
In the end, Ladysmith Black Mambazo did not go to Israel, because of scheduling conflicts, Goldstein says; the group might consider an invitation to go there, but has no official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The members are “apolitical,” he says. “They’re singers.” Products of the apartheid educational system, they have little knowledge of Jewish history or Middle East politics. “They don’t take sides.”
Goldstein lives a 20-minute drive from his mother’s home, where he usually spends the High Holy Days and Passover. “She thinks I travel too much,” he says. She asks him, “Why don’t you go to synagogue more?”
He’s taken her on a few overseas trips with the group, accompanying her to kosher restaurants around the world. He passed up the chance a few years ago to move to California, in order to stay nearer to his mother. “Isn’t that what a Jewish son is supposed to do? My journey is to make my mother as happy as possible.”
After Goldstein became the group’s manager, he told the members his story of sneaking into the Radio Music Hall reception. “They laughed,” he says. “They found it funny.”
A few years ago he started arranging some meetings with fans in the lobby after Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s shows. “We get hundreds of people lining up,” he says.
They don’t have to sneak in like he did. “I understand what people are experiencing. It makes sense to me.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform July 29 and 30 at the City Winery, 155 Varick St., Manhattan, (212) 608-0555.
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