Fifty years on, Ladysmith Black Mambazo return to the ’hood

2010-10-01 14:56

As a young black man in apartheid South Africa, Joseph Shabalala dreamed of forming a Zulu a capella choir whose music could change the world.

Fifty years later, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have won three Grammys, recorded with giants such as Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, and performed at the closing of the World Cup in July.

But as the group turns 50, they are celebrating with a “Back to eKasi” tour, translated roughly as “Back to the ’Hood”, and will perform through the townships whose support launched them to international fame.


Shabalala first brought the choir together on a farm near the town of Ladysmith.

They started out singing at weddings, then took to the airwaves in radio singing contests, where they were eventually banned – because they won every time.

“It is a good way to go back with people. They show up, that means they love you,” Shabalala said before a concert in Atteridgeville outside Pretoria.

At 70, Shabalala smiles with the satisfaction of a man who’s lived his dreams, singing the rhythms known in Zulu as isicathamiya with the same passion he gave a Carnegie Hall concert in New York, only this time to fans who gathered in an acoustically dubious gymnasium in Atteridgeville.

Despite their success, Ladysmith Black Mambazo – literally “the axe” in Zulu – is better known overseas than at home.

Fame arrives
International fame arrived with a seemingly innocuous phone call one day in 1985.

Paul Simon was on the line, asking Shabalala if they could meet.

Under the apartheid-era segregation laws, that wasn’t easy.

“I told him I need a special agreement from the government,” Shabalala remembers.

“He replied: ‘But what are we talking about? We are talking about music’.”

Shabalala added: “When I saw him, there were a lot of people there, waiting to work with him. And he called me while I was on a tour.”

Their collaboration gave birth to Graceland, an album partly recorded in Johannesburg despite the international sanctions on the whites-only government.

It sold millions of copies and led to future collaborations with everyone from Michael Jackson to Dolly Parton, 50-odd albums and the chance to sing for Nelson Mandela when he won the Nobel peace prize in 1993.

Only a few grey hairs betray Shabalala’s age as he sings, dances and jokes with his eight fellow singers, three of his sons among them.

Free at last
Sixteen years after the fall of apartheid, he still relishes his freedom in modern South Africa.

“If you wanted to go in a place where white people lived, you needed a pass. In the new South Africa, you can go everywhere,” he said.

But South African tastes have also changed. At the World Cup final, young South Africans appeared more interested in Shakira’s hips than in Ladysmith’s traditional and religious songs.

“Some young people don’t understand our music. They love house music,” said Mfanafuthi Dladla, the group’s newest recruit, just 25 years old.

He was discovered in a church and brought in to replace a member who left.

Over the years, the group has had some 30 members pass in and out, which Shabalala says will keep their music alive for new generations.

“I feel like if my time to rest comes, I would be happy. Everything is OK,” he said.

“They can perform without me now.”

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