Screwing Up

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 05:  Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs during the opening ceremony of the 123rd IOC session on Jul
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 05: Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs during the opening ceremony of the 123rd IOC session on July 5, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. The annual general meeting of the members of the International Olympic Committee held in Durban will decide on Wednesday, July 6, 2011, which of the three candidate cities, Munich, Annecy and PyeongChang, will host the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Warning: This post is about something that doesn't happen. But it does have underwear in it.

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Elizabeth, and I went over to the Highline Ballroom, in deepest Chelsea, to see and listen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African a-capella singing ensemble. They rose to fame on the occasion of Paul Simon's visit to South Africa in 1985 and their collaboration with him then. They have since become a global cultural institution, bringing the rich major-chord choral pleasures of isicathimiya and mbube -- the folk music of the Zulu tribe -- to the whole wide world. We had a comp +1 for the performance, which means that since you're going to write something about the event, you +1 get in free. I had a +1 -- my daughter, 26, a social worker.

But wait! My name wasn't on the comp list. How could that be? I had been so careful, I thought -- so eager. So eager to see the performance and talk to Joseph Shabalala -- Dr. Joseph Shabalala, founder and leader of the group, recipient of honorary degrees from the Rhodes University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I wanted to know how he and his group felt about their appearance in Mr. Simon's 2012 Emmy-winning documentary "Under African Skies," about the singer-songwriter's controversial visit . (It went against the United Nations' cultural boycott of that nation on account of its continuing enforcement of Apartheid.) And if he had ever met Rodriguez, the American singer, famous in South Africa but for decades obscure here, who is the subject of this year's Oscar-nominated (and I-think-sure-to-win) Best Documentary "Searching for Sugarman." Suddenly, South African music was everywhere, including here and now, at the Highline.

But no listing of the comp to say nothing of +1. The manager kindly sat us down in the high-ceilinged, softly lit room anyway. He went away to find out what had happened. After a few minutes, he returned and said, "Are you here to see the Skivvies?"


"The Skivvies -- they're performing tonight."

"They're opening for Ladysmith Black Mambazo?"

"No -- LBM is tomorrow night. Uh, you didn't mention the performers when you walked in. You're on the comp list for tomorrow night. So, um, do you want to stay?"

"Well, we're here. If we do stay, we should pay, right? Who are the Skivvies?"

"Well, they're, ah, interesting. A different kind of act. They cover rap songs, pop hits, show tunes, and they do original stuff. It's up to you about paying, You made an honest mistake."

We paid, ordered drinks.

The Skivvies appeared. (Laura Molina and Nick Cearley, we found out later.) They took off all their clothes, except their underwear, which was not minimalistic but pretty revealing. There was a drummer who also took off his clothes. All three were ... well-made. Mr. Cearley played the ukulele, and along with Ms. Molina duetted a rap-song cover with speed and knowing insouciance. They are in their underwear!, I kept thinking. The Skivvies in the flesh! We stayed for a while.

The Skivvies were funny, a little frantic, and ... unignorable. But not in the least South African. So I went back the next night, to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I was a comp -1, because my daughter couldn't make it. But I screwed up again, having failed to adequately arrange a conversation with the group. The kind manager handed us a note just before the performance started. It said, "We apologize but we cannot be available for an interview tonight. Thank you. Ladysmith Black Mambazo."