The rich harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African all-male vocal group whose roots go back to the early 1960s, gained international acclaim after being showcased by Paul Simon on his 1987 Grammy-Award-winning, Album of the Year, “Graceland” — an eclectic combination of genres which Simon composed with the help of musicians from the former bastion of apartheid after his hearing a bootleg cassette of South African township music.
But their fame and musically-provocative message of peace, hope and joy had already been well-established in their own country and across the continent even before teaming up with Simon. In fact, the group, founded by Joseph Shabalala, then a teenage Zulu farm boy living on the outskirts of the village of Ladysmith, has since been designated by Nelson Mandela as “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.”
And now, with a recording career that includes over 70 albums, 19 Grammy nominations and five Grammy Awards under their belt, Ladysmith Black Mambazo will take centerstage at the Strathmore on Friday, Feb. 8 for a performance that one longtime member promises will inspire listeners no matter what the color of their skin or their native land.
“Whenever we perform, it’s an amazing experience both for us and for our audience — we all share in a special feeling of happiness and joy. During the end of the show, we get people totally involved — like the traditional ‘call and response.’ We don’t use any instruments. Our voices are the instruments. And since our founding, and even with our founder’s sons [Shabalala retired in 2014] now leading the group, we continue to grow stronger, to encourage those who listen to our music to come together so we can solve the problems of the world in peace,” said Albert Mazibuko, 70, a native of Ladysmith who joined the group 50 years ago.
Mazibuko formed his own singing group when just a teenager in South Africa with members whose ages ranged from seven to 14. But recalls that upon hearing Shabalala’s ensemble, became determined to one day join them, “as soon as I grew up.”
“South Africa has gone through many changes — positive ones — since I was born in 1948,” he said. “We’ve become a friendly country to everyone. But at one point, Blacks lived in fear and in pain. We weren’t allowed to own land or anything else of value. I’d wake up in the morning and wonder why God allowed such things. Today we can celebrate the beauty of our country.”
“Music was life itself to many of us, especially in the past but even today. It was only music that sustained us and gave us any hope. It gave us a foretaste of the better things in life, even if they were still beyond our grasp,” said Mazibuko who explained the naming of the group: ‘Ladysmith’ to honor the hometown and historical roots of the founder’s family; ‘Black’ to reference the black oxen, the strongest of the region’s farm animals and an announcement of the strength of the group’s vocal skills; and ‘Mambazo,” the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of their vocal ability.
Mazibuko, who worked as a mechanic prior to becoming a full-time member of the group, still tinkers with an old truck in his yard when time permits, saying “fixing things is fun to me.” Otherwise, he’s playing with his grandchildren.
He recalls the greatest moment of his five decades with the phenomenal vocalists — accompanying former South African President Mandela at his invitation to Oslo, Norway in 1993 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
“After our performance, President Mandela stood up and raised his fist, the sign for Black Power, and then sat down,” he said. “It was so emotional and amazing just to be there and to hear people acknowledge that South Africa was becoming a different place — a country that finally represented peace after so many years of anguish.”
And he spoke of a “migration” of sorts — one that would see more African Americans cross the ocean to their true homeland: Africa.
“Today, as I travel the world, I hope that my brothers and sisters in America will come to my homeland — their homeland — and show my people what African Americans are really like — more than the images we see on television or hear about in the news. Africa needs them and their skills. We need each other, and we need to be willing to work hard together, combining all of our abilities and knowledge in order to bring about a more just world.”