In the late '60s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo created a sensation in South Africa with their innovative take on isicathamiya, a traditional form of Zulu a cappella music. But it was the their contribution to Paul Simon's 1986 LP Graceland that sent the group towards international stardom.
I recently spoke with Albert Mazibuko, one of Ladysmith's original members and cousin of the group's founder and musical director Joseph Shabalala.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be performing with fellow South African music legend Johnny Clegg on Friday, March 14 at Clowes.
NUVO: Was making music always part of your life?
Albert Mazibuko: Yes, always. On the farm where I grew up, there was music everywhere. When they drove the oxen they would sing for them. When they milked the cows they sang for them. We had songs for all these things.
When I was nine years old I formed my own group. We won all the singing competitions, up until 1960 when Joseph started his group. He sang so beautifully and I said, "this is a person who can sing better than me." I told my group that when I grow up I'm going to join him.
NUVO: How did you feel when Joseph asked you to join Ladysmith?
Mazibuko: I remember the morning he came to ask me. I said yes immediately. He explained to me that he had been dreaming about a new way of singing isicathamiya music. This was 1969 and he started writing songs with this new way of singing.
NUVO: How did the audiences react when they heard your new style?
Mazibuko: I remember the first time we performed after recording our first album. People were coming to us and saying "Where are you from? I've never seen people singing like this. Have you just arisen from the grave?" People were amazed. When we would start singing some people would scream, and some people fainted.
NUVO: You toured often during the apartheid era when the government was watching artists closely. I'm curious if you were ever harassed or monitored?
Mazibuko: We did have those challenges. I remember there was a man who attended all our shows. He would say "I love you guys I want to travel with you." We didn't know him, but because we loved people we let him travel with us in our van. He would eat and sleep with us. He was with us everywhere. After three months he came back accompanied by the top police intelligence. He said "You passed the test. I was sent by the government to see what you do, what you talk about or if you are terrorists. But you're okay, you just sing your songs." It was a challenging time, but the music carried us through those years.
NUVO: Did the group intentionally avoid political commentary?
Mazibuko: Joseph had a dream that we should avoid anything that is illegal because we were always being watched. On the surface we were always talking about good things. But we did have some political songs, but we put things cleverly so other people who did not speak our language would not understand. But our people know what we were singing.
NUVO: What about the song "Abizizwe" where you mention several political groups like the IFP and ANC?
Albert Mazibuko: That song is talking about bringing together those political organizations because they were fighting amongst each other. That statement is clear, we didn't hide the message on that one. We were talking directly to the groups telling them to come together and solve their problems. The main theme of the song says that other nations cannot solve our problems. This is a song everybody likes when we are invited to sing at rallies for political groups.
NUVO: Can you tell me about Ladysmith's relationship with Mandela?
Albert Mazibuko: It was an honor and a blessing that he loved Ladysmith Black Mamabazo so much and that we were able to spend time with him. I remember the first time we met him in 1990, he told us our music had been an inspiration to him. After that he never let us go. He took us everywhere.
NUVO: What did Nelson Mandela mean to you personally as a South African?
Albert Mazibuko: He is a man that inspires you. For me he represents the idea that anything you want to achieve is possible, but it won't be easy.
NUVO: Do you follow contemporary South African music? Do you listen to kwaito or new artists like Zahara?
Albert Mazibuko: I listen to it a lot. We even recorded with Zahara on her new album. I play all the music of South Africa. I'm so proud that South African people are still showing their talent. I think South Africa is going the right direction with music - but we emphasize and encourage that they shouldn't leave their roots. They should take along all their traditions and know who they are and where they are coming from.
NUVO: What's the future of isicathamiya music? Will choirs be singing Ladysmith songs 100 years from now?
Mazibuko: You would be amazed. In Durban they have two big competitions for isicathamiya. There are so many people singing and trying to be the best. Absolutely there will always be a Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
This week's Cultural Manifesto podcast features audio clips of my interview with Albert Mazibuko mixed with a selection of tunes from Ladysmith Black Mambazo's discography and a few examples of the early Zulu choral music the preceded Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
1. Albert Mazibuko interview "growing up in Ladysmith, South Africa"
2. Fear No Harm Choir - Ina Ma Wala
3. Albert Mazibuko interview "music as a child"
4. Soloman Linda's Evening Birds - Ngazula Emagumeni
5. Albert Mazibuko interview "hearing Joseph sing"
6. Durban Crocodiles - Akasangibhaleli
7. Albert Mazibuko interview "joining Ladysmith Black Mambazo"
8. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Nomathemba
9. Albert Mazibuko interview "audience reaction to the new sound"
10. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Sibezwile
11. Albert Mazibuko interview "government surveillance during apartheid"
12. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Unomathemba
13. Albert Mazibuko interview "political music"
14. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo w/ SABC Choir - Ofana Naye
15. Albert Mazibuko interview "the message in Abezizwe"
16. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Abezizwe Ngeke
17. Albert Mazibuko interview "connection to Mandela"
18. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Ushaka
19. Albert Mazibuko interview "reflecting on Mandela"
20. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Inkanyezi Nezazi
21. Albert Mazibuko interview "contemporary South African music"
22. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Yibolabafana
23. Albert Mazibuko interview "future of isicathamiya music"
24. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Liph' Iqinis
25. Albert Mazibuko interview "farewell"
26. Ladysmith Black Mamabzo - Qed' Usizi