When Paul Simon released Graceland in 1986, the thick, richly textured harmonies and Zulu language lyrics sprinkled into two of the album’s cuts—“Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”—captured the imaginations of millions of listeners. Those harmonies, those straight-from-the-heart-of-South-Africa sounds, belonged to Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“That was a dream come true,” Albert Mazibuko told me recently. “In fact we say our prayers were answered.”
He had called from a hotel in Athens, Ohio, where the a cappella singing group was in the middle of a ten week tour that brings them to the Attucks Theatre next Tuesday. His cousin, Joseph Shabalala is the leader and public face of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Mazibuko was also a founding member.
“Joseph had formed a group in 1960,” he said, “but in 1969 he dissolved the group that he had because they failed to learn the new style that he was trying to teach them. He came to me, he came with his brother and I was with my brother, and we formed the group then.”
By that time, Albert Mazibuko was already a veteran performer.
“I grew up in the farms,” he said, “so the music that I had around me was the music that people were singing when they were working. Also, I was fortunate that I grew up with my grandmother. She was a diviner, ‘isangoma’—those are people who sing every night before they go to sleep because they have the power of connection with their ancestors. So we sang every night, we beat a drum and then we’d dance.
“When I was nine years old I formed my own group singing the ‘isicathamiya’ music that we sing. We were doing some competitions in the area. My group was successful—the youngest in my group was seven years old and the oldest was fourteen years old. We considered ourselves as the best because we used to win the competitions. You can laugh because the prize was a muffin, and we had to divide the muffin among ourselves when we’d win.”
When he and his brother joined with their cousins, they chose their name purposefully. “Ladysmith” is the Shabalala family’s hometown; “Black” refers to black oxen, the strongest on the farm; “Mambazo” is a Zulu word referring to an ax, symbolizing the group’s ability to “chop down” the competition. After its formation, the group rapidly established its reputation.
“This type of music was everywhere. They’d schedule the competitions for every Saturday so that they’d have some halls that they could sing in to keep the music alive. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was only different because Joseph had the vision and the dream of developing it.
“In 1971, we did our first record. After that, the people hearing us everywhere started inviting us to come sing. We were living in Durban, on the east coast of the country by the ocean, and we were called to perform in all those other places.”
It was a dangerous time for black performers to be popular in South Africa, and they were often harassed by white police when they traveled. But Simon’s courageous and controversial partnership with them on Graceland brought their incredible music to the world.
“Paul Simon called Joseph’s house when we were not at home,” Mazibuko remembered. “We got a message that somebody had called from America and wanted to meet Joseph in Johannesburg, in the studios. And Joseph went to see him because we were not far from Johannesburg when we got that message. When he came back to us, he said, ‘He was a very nice man, but he was very busy. But he said he wants to work with us.’
“We were a little confused—how was he going to work with us? We knew his music, it was a different music. But in two weeks time he sent us a demo; he was singing by himself, ‘Homeless.’ It was only two lines, and then he wrote a letter. He said, ‘You can expand this song, but don’t change it, because I took the melody from one of your recordings.’
“And we worked around the two lines he sang for a month or so. Then we got an invitation to go to London to record with him. There we met him as a group for the first time. We tried to record, but for the first day it didn’t work. It was so difficult because his style was so different, and there were so many people who were trying to help. But in the evening, Paul Simon said, ‘No, let’s go back to our hotel. We’ll see tomorrow.’
“So we went back to our hotel and we were very, very, very worried. We got together and we prayed, and after we prayed, we said we’ve got this song because we’ve got an idea what he was looking for. So we worked on the song until it was together, then we break up and go to sleep. The next day when we got into the studio, we told Paul Simon that we wanted to sing something for him that we had been rehearsing. Then we sang the song, the whole song. He said, ‘This is perfect!’ And in two hours time the song was done. It was very beautiful. And we said, ‘Wow, we made it!’”
Since that time, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has made it in many ways, winning two Grammy awards and garnering numerous other nominations and honors. But the last two decades have not been without sadness, especially for leader Joseph Shabalala. His brother was shot in 1991; his wife was murdered in 2002.
“The first time when it happened to his brother, we said, ‘Why does this thing happen?’ But we kept singing because we believed that his spirit was still around us.
“When Joseph’s wife was killed, I was amazed at the way he responded. At the memorial service I wasn’t expecting to sing, but he said, ‘My brother, I am going to sing for my wife.’ We sang a song, and he was very strong. After this he composed a beautiful song that he named the album, Raise Your Spirit Higher, because we should leave our problems. And the album won the Grammy.
“In our culture, we believe that music itself has a power behind our abilities, a power so that you can do something that you would not believe you have the ability to do. Our message is love, peace and harmony, because we’d like people to live in peace and together, and share their gifts. It’s something that we talk about and then we sing about it, and we wish people can implement it.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.