Paul Simon visited South Africa in the mid-1980s. Inspired by Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s rich harmonies, Simon featured the group on his Graceland album, which won the Grammy® Award for Best Album and is considered seminal in introducing world music to mainstream audiences. The landmark 1986 recording also introduced Ladysmith Black Mamabazo to an audience outside of their home country.
Traditional South African Zulu Music
Ladysmith Black Mambazo borrows from traditional a cappella called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya) and mbube (which means “lion” in Zulu). Mbube-style songs are powerful and loud. The singers are typically male, though some groups have a female singer. The style is named after the song “Mbube,” written by South African Zulu singer and composer Solomon Linda and recorded by his group The Evening Birds in 1939. The Weavers recorded the song as “Wimoweh” then “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and made the song internationally famous.
The word isicathamiya does not have a literal translation from Zulu. The name is derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means walking softly, or tread carefully. Isicathamiya contrasts with an earlier name for Zulu a cappella singing, mbube; the name change marks a transition in the style of the music: traditionally, music described as isicathamiya focuses more on achieving a harmonious blend between the voices rather than the volume of mbube.
Both kinds of music were born in the mines of South Africa. Black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, they would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The singers called themselves Cothoza Mfana, or “tip toe guys,” a reference to the dance steps that were choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards. When miners returned to the homelands, the tradition returned with them. Eventually the tradition grew into fierce but social competition. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts as well as the admiration of their fans. These competitions are held even today in assembly halls and church basements. Today, isicathamiya competitions in Johannesburg and Durban take place on Saturday nights, with up to 30 choirs performing from 8 pm to 8 am the following morning.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo formed in the early 1960s. The idea began in the mid-1950s when Joseph Shabalala moved from his family’s farm to the city of Durban to look for factory work. Leaving family was not easy but Shabalala’s move to the city let him practice his singing in performing groups. He returned to his hometown of Ladysmith and began to assemble groups of his own, though he was rarely satisfied with the results. “I felt there was something missing... I tried to teach the music that I felt, but I failed until 1964 when a dream came to me,” Shabalala recalls. “I always hear the harmony from that dream and I said ‘This is the harmony that I want and I can teach it to my guys.’” Shabalala recruited members of his immediate family—brothers Headman and Jockey, cousins Albert and Abednego Mazibuko—and other close friends to join. Joseph taught the group the harmonies from his dream, and the group gelled.
The performers took the name Ladysmith Black Mamabazo, a combination of the Shabalala family hometown of Ladysmith; black, a reference to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and mambazo, the Zulu word for axe, a symbol of the group’s vocal ability to “chop down” the competition. Their collective voices were so tight and their harmonies so polished that they were eventually banned from competitions – although they were welcome to participate strictly as entertainers.
Shabalala says his conversion to Christianity, in the ‘60s, helped define the group’s musical identity. The path that the axe was chopping had found a direction: “To bring this gospel of loving one another all over the world,” he says. However, he’s quick to point out that the message is not specific to any one religious orientation. “This music gets into the blood because it comes from the blood,” Shabalala explains. “It evokes enthusiasm and excitement, regardless of what you follow spiritually.”
A radio broadcast in 1970 led to Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first recording contract. It was the beginning of an ambitious discography that now includes over 50 albums and that has garnered three Grammy Awards® and 15 nominations. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first US album Shaka Zulu (1987) won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album and their recent Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu (2008) won Best Traditional World Music Album.
In addition to their work with Paul Simon, the group has recorded with many artists, including Stevie Wonder, Josh Groban, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLaughlin, Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant, Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder and Ben Harper.
Today, Ladysmith Black Mambazo continues to be just as much about preservation of South African musical heritage—like isicathamiya and mbube—as it is about entertaining. In 1999, Shabalala started The Mambazo Foundation for South African Music and Culture. During their U.S. tours, the group raises the consciousness of South African culture as well as funds what would be the first academy for the teaching and preservation of indigenous South African music and culture in their home country.
Film and TV
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s film work includes appearances in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker video and Spike Lee’s Do It A Cappella. The group provided soundtrack material for Disney’s The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, as well as Coming To America, A Dry White Season, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Cry The Beloved Country. The story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was the subject of the 2000 documentary On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom; the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Their performance with Paul Simon on Sesame Street is one of the top-three requested Sesame Street segments in history.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo worked with the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago to The Song of Jacob Zulu, a play written about the apartheid era in South Africa. The play premiered in Chicago in the spring of 1992 before opening on Broadway the following year. The Song of Jacob Zulu earned 6 Tony Award® nominations, including Best Music for a Play. Shabalala and the group also were honored with the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Best Original Score.
In 1995, Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaborated in the staging of Nomathemba, a musical based on the first song ever written by Shabalala. Nomathemba—which means “hope” in Zulu—is the tale of two young lovers in post-apartheid South Africa. The show premiered in Chicago where the group received Chicago Theater's highest honor for Original Musical Score. Nomathemba went on to play at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center and Boston's Shubert Theatre.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been invited to perform at many special events, including two Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies; South African Presidential inaugurations; the 1996 summer Olympics; a concert in Rome for Pope John Paul II; at the Royal Albert Hall for the Queen of England and the Royal Family.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is:
- Joseph Shabalala
- Msizi Shabalala
- Russel Mthembu
- Albert Mazibuko
- Thulani Shabalala
- Thamsanqa Shabalala
- Sibongiseni Shabalala
- Abednego Mazibuko
- Ngane Dlamini