A dream came to me,” says Joseph Shabalala, founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Not just a dream in the wishful way, but an actual dream while I was asleep.”
The inspired soundscape drenching that 1964 dream was exactly what he’d been searching fruitlessly for since the ’50s, while a member of other musical groups. Acting on this vision, Shabalala immediately reformed his group, then-named Ezimnyama (meaning “The Black Ones”). From the reverie of sleep an iconic sound was born. The global esteem Ladysmith Black Mambazo has garnered in the decades since, Shabalala says, “was never a dream a black South African could ever imagine.”
The groups’ 1973 debut, Amabutho, earned gold album certification—a first for any black artist from South Africa. Now with more than 50 albums to their credit, and with the bulk of their career spanning years of political and social strife in South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music is indelibly tied to their country’s “sometimes joyous, sometimes troubled, but always rich and exhilarating” history.
Each word in the group’s name has meaning. “Ladysmith” is the name of Shabalala’s hometown, and he says he visits the farmland of his youth monthly. “Black” references the farm’s strongest animal, the ox. “Mambazo” means “axe” in Zulu, and symbolizes the chopping-down of barriers.
Mbube and isicathamiya are indigenous South African genres at the heart of the group’s music. These Zulu-rooted a cappella stylings carry contrasting translations—roughly, the powerfully sung former means “lion” and the latter means “walking softly” (and also refers to intricate choreography that often accompanies the songs). Both styles are said to have evolved into their modern manifestations in apartheid-era mining camps, where men turned to traditional vocals to seek solace during a time of extreme segregation and dystopian 20th century urbanization.
In City Textualities: Isicathamiya, Reciprocities and Voices From the Streets, author Liz Gunne argues that “the making of song involves the shaping of new subjectivities… the making and re-making of a particular urban space.”
It was during the tumultuous mid-’80s—still nearly a decade before the end of apartheid—that Black Mambazo gained international notoriety. Credited to Paul Simon’s seminal 1986 album Graceland, the group’s “message of peace, love and harmony,” despite all obstacles, now had a global spotlight—and resonated more powerfully than ever. They went on to perform at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and shared the stage with the Prime Minister when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize ’93.
Their other accolades are befittingly voluminous. Black Mambazo has received 15 Grammy Award nominations to date—three of them wins, most recently in 2009. They’ve had onstage or studio collaborations with numerous legends including Stevie Wonder, Taj Majal, Joe Cocker and Paul McCartney. Their film credits run the gamut from Spike Lee’s Do It A Cappella to Marlon Brando’s A Dry White Season to Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. Even their ’88 appearance on Sesame Street (with Simon, who produced the group’s three albums following Graceland) remains one of the top-three requested episodes in history.
The group is also noted for incorporating Christian gospel hymns—a favorite with American audiences, especially. “Someone who follows the Zulu culture, it is the same as a Christian,” Shabalala told the Ithaca Times, though he’s always quick to add that the message of their music is not specific to any one religion. “It was just the way we grew up, so it goes together. We believe that you’re gonna reap what you sow.”
Their latest album, Songs From A Zulu Farm, released this month, harkens to “a quieter, more personal past—a time of youth and innocence.” Black Mambazo says that to call the album their most personal work yet is an understatement. In it, they endeavored to “recreate the idyllic world in which they once lived.”
The CD’s 16 tracks are mostly traditional tunes handed down through generations. They speak to simple, practical social wisdom, evoking emotions that are often lost in our busy modern age. “Imithi Gobakahle” asks children to pay heed and return home when storm clouds loom; “Ekhaya” encourages teens not to move away from home before they’re truly ready.
“It is such a joy for us to put these stories and songs together for our fans to enjoy, too,” Shabalala says. “These are songs from the earliest time in our lives [and] represent an important memory of our life. When we sing these songs, we’re singing songs from our history. Your roots are who you are.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Tuesday (January 25), 7:30pm, Castle Theater, MACC, $12 / $28 / $38