South African heritage and culture is significantly reflected in their music. Their work earned them 19 Grammy nominations and 5 Grammy wins. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, might have lost their founding father, Joseph Shabalala at the age of 78 but his legacy lives on.
From the time children are in their mother’s womb, their mothers are encouraged to play soothing music for their unborn children. It is said that music has healing capabilities, and a soothing effect on our emotions, as it helps us de-stress, relax and generally feel good. Joseph Shabalala’s greatest desire was to use his gift to make a highly uncomfortable situation, less taxing and he brought so much joy to many people. He created the all-male acapella music group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo with the hopes of using music as a vehicle to unite South Africa during its darkest time “Apartheid”.
The late former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela called the group “The ambassador of South African cultural music” when Shabalala created the group, his desire was to bring attention to the Durban indigenous sound, outside which he was born and grew up in the district of Ladysmith, Emhambithi. Founded in the early sixties, Ladysmith Black Mambazo specialised in the traditional South African Zulu style of isicathaniya music. Their multilayered sound could be heard and felt on and off stage. During their performances they sang and danced filling their audience with an energy that gave them goose bumps.
Historically the Isicathamiya sound was traditionally an all-male endeavor that emanated from dormitories in South Africa where man traveled often hundreds of miles from their homes, to find work in the country’s diamond and gold mines. They would sing together at night, and this led them to developing a rich harmonic vocal tradition, a tradition where their music would console them. As they would be yearning for those they would have left behind, they would also be venting out their frustrations on their struggles and the harsh conditions they had to work under, within the mines. During the institutionalised system of racism that was apartheid.
Born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala on August 28, 1941 in Ladysmith township, Shabalala first started singing alongside a popular group called the Highlanders in the late 1950s. He sought out to Durban in search of work, where he eventually migrated, about 200 miles from Emnambithi, his home town. When he returned back home in 1958, he started his own group, which he called the Durban Choir. It consisted of siblings and cousins from three families in and around Ladysmith.
The choir started off small, entertaining at family gatherings in Emnambithi, not long after that the group soon found itself in demand, being requested to perform using their their local area radio stations. Following that blow up, they adopted the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo, ultimately releasing their first debut album “Amabutho” in 1972.
The group had no idea that the best was yet to come, when they caught the attention of American singer, songwriter and producer Paul Simon. At that time in his life, he was at the heart of exploring his fascination with different strands of world music, he invited Shabalala to contribute to an album he was working on. Paul Simon was given the name Vulindlela which means “Make way” in Zulu by Shabalala. As Shabalala felt it was Simon who gave the group their biggest break, together the two wrote “Homeless” in 1985, a song of awareness, aimed at telling the world that they need each other.
The group’s music became cross-continental and songs such as “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of her shoes” on Simon’s album, led the group to being invited to perform in the United States. It was at this time that Shabalala and the rest of his committed group members, who were also family, became global superstars. They were signed to the same major United States label Simon was on at the time (Warner Bros).
The group went on to release a string of albums on their own. Those albums were a combination of Shabalala’s songs and an arrangement of the American gospel standard, such as “Amazing Grace” which Simon created for the group. Shabalala had many career highlights but one of his most prominent moments was when the music icon’s group released “Journey of Dreams”.
In 1988 when “Journey of Dreams” was released Shabalala wrote, “the Journey of Dreams began a long time ago on the farm and the children would come to my dreams and sing to me. Now that we have made this record working with the producer Russ Titelman and blessed by Paul Simon’s guidance, I feel the dreams are now living inside the music as never before. For the first time I have made music on record exactly as my dreams would tell me and for this sound, I am grateful. Because the world listens now and that means the Journey of Dreams goes on and on.”
The group’s fame kept on rising, it escalated to the point where they were invited to perform in Michael Jackson’s film “Moonwalker” in 1988. They appeared on “Sesame Street” and sang the South African pop song “Mbube” they were also invited for the opening of Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film “Coming to America”.
The group got recognition and validation when they were nominated for 17 Grammy Awards and they won 5 for their own recordings. The group’s success did not end there, they got residencies in the 1990s at the Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Co, where they helped create a production called “The Song of Jacob Zulu,” this resulted in them being nominated for a Tony Award and winning the Drama Desk Award. That same year the group sang at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.
A documentary released in 2000 about the group called “On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom,” was nominated for an Academy award and an Emmy award. Shabalala was certain he wanted his legacy to live on, not just through his music and multiple awards but through his philanthropy. He established an academy to teach traditional South African culture to young people, to help keep those traditions alive in the aftermath of the dismantling of apartheid.
A lot has changed over time, with different kinds of music genres dominating South African radio stations, but one thing is true, the South African sound is very much alive and the rest of the world recognises it. It is all attributed to music icons like the Ladysmith Black Mambazo who paved the way for African music. Teaching future generations that staying true to your roots helps introduce something unique to the world that brings the world closer each and every day.
We are thankful for the incredibly refreshing sound embedded in the group, and even though he is no longer with us, his voice will forever echo in our hearts. ▲