Beanz Meanz Mambazo

 

People are mad: in order to make them appreciate good music you have to chop it up, put in on a fork and feed it to them in bite-size chunks. Such is the way that some of the best opera ever composed (e.g. Puccini's Turandot) becomes widely known only when it is used as the theme music for a World Cup football programme, and artists such as Marvin Gaye and The Clash can have distinguished careers but only have No 1 hits (I Heard it Through the Grapevine and Should I Stay Or Should I Go respectively) when their songs are used to sell jeans.

The latest bunch of musicians to get a television-enhanced boost to their career are South Africa's premier band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who have been going since 1962 and sold millions of records around the world but had never quite impinged on the musical mainstream. As a result of one of their songs being used in a series of advertisements run on television by the Heinz group, their record sales have multiplied over the last few months and for the first time they have enjoyed both a top 10 single and a top 10 album, along with a growing acclaim for their music from an audience they didn't know existed before.

The advertisements, which have been running extensively on ITV and Channel 4 for the best part of a year, are a far cry from the days when a snotty little brat used to stare into the camera and shout "Beanz Meanz Heinz". This current batch is "arty" enough (as ads go) and features a variety of people - ranging from a single mother to a long-distance lorry driver - whose lives are enhanced by fabulous Heinz products. There's no dialogue in the ads, just a series of images being played out over the soothing sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's beautiful vocal harmonies.

Such was the appeal of the music, that the advertising company behind the campaign, Bates Dorland in London, reported that it received upwards of 3,000 letters inquiring who the music was by and where it could be bought. Eliza Kendall, the account manager of the campaign, says that the creative team behind the ads had the idea of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's music first and then fashioned the story-board around it. "We found their music to be quite celebratory and very wholesome and earthy," says Kendall, "because it was just natural human voices singing, it suited the theme of the ads which was to take a series of fairly ordinary people - a single mother, a night shift worker and a long-distance lorry driver - and show them in series of different situations. At the end of each ad, a simple proverb was put up on the screen, over the music, and we used this to punctuate and pull out the theme of domesticity."

Between £10 million and £12 million was spent on the ad campaign, and while the advertising company is reluctant to talk about how the Heinz products portrayed (beans, soup and spaghetti) have been selling since the campaign, it can testify that it has been inundated with calls and letters from the public asking about the music. "In a sense, these ads have made the band," says Kendall, "apart from the top 10 single, Inkanyezi Nezazi, which is the vocal song used in the ad, the album from which it's taken, The Star and the Wiseman has been in the top 10 for a number of weeks now, selling very well and the band have toured on the success of the ad campaign. I just think their music has struck a chord with consumers, initially some people thought it was an unusual choice but what we've found is that the music works not a rational level but on an emotional level." Ladysmith Black Mambazo are a 10-member a cappella choir (fronted by songwriter Joseph Shabalala) specialising in Zulu harmonies. They are recognised within the music industry as one of the forces behind the World Music explosion of the last decade or two.

The closeknit group are from the rural farming community of Ladysmith, near Soweto. They are big stars in their own country, where for many years they were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid. They first stepped into the international spotlight in 1986 when they featured on Paul Simon's controversial Graceland album (controversial because Simon defied a U.N. cultural boycott to record in then apartheid South Africa). The following year they won a Grammy for their own album, Shaka Zulu and over the years they have recorded with artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Lou Rawls. When Nelson Mandela won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize (with then president, F.W. de Klerk), they were asked to sing at the ceremony in Oslo and when Mandela became president, they more or less became his in-house band.

An amazingly strong harmonic group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's rise up the charts and into the musical mainstream may have been aided and abetted by a tin of beans, but who's complaining when they make such captivating music?

The Star and the Wiseman album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (featuring the music from the Heinz ads, as the sticker on the cover kindly informs us) is on the Polygram TV label.