Joseph Shabalala lived his dream with such clarity that it became our dream too. Themba J Nkosi pays tribute to a visionary who was constant but never stagnant
‘At certain points in human history, individuals emerge who teach us the power of dreams. They believe so profoundly in a dream, and they pursue it with such tenacity and success that we begin to believe with them. They inspire hope and rekindle light, even in the midst of great darkness. But great dreamers are not confined to politics.”
Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s words are as true and genuine a statement about the power of dreaming as they were when he described the life and times of Richard Maponya.
The passing of Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is a reminder that all visionaries, dreamers, inventors and discoverers have an uncanny skill and ability to not only see the invisible, but to touch and feel it as if were already real.
These individuals, through their minds’ power, build bridges of understanding and monuments of acceptance, plant trees of love and water them with unparalleled respect and humility.
Their secret is their continuous ability to keep learning to believe in themselves come hell or high water.
They persist with single-minded determination in ensuring that their dream gets off the ground and becomes a reality, and ultimately a monumental achievement.
Mshengu came with a new style of music, isicathamiya, a tip-toeing style of singing with soft harmonies that do not disturb those who are fast asleep.
His melodies and songs, like all musicians, poems and writers, reflected his boyhood influences while herding cattle in the deep rural areas of Emnambithi (Ladysmith).
Songs such as Nomathemba, one of the group’s earlier compositions, spoke of love. The song laments about her being in the city, leaving him behind and not writing even the shortest love letter.
His songs were also about the social ills of our country, even migrant labour. For instance, where there was difficulty and pain he would give hope.
His song Phansi Emgodini encourages mine workers in their job of digging deep in the bowels of the Earth.
It serves as a tribute to team leaders for being cautious that there are a few deaths as a result of mine rockfalls.
The song goes:
“Zinsizwa zakithi siyanihalalisela/ Ngamandla nangesibindi/ ... Sisho ngoba nina nizinsizwa zoqobo/ Nisebenzel’ isizwe ngokusilandel’ umcebo nezinto zonk’ ezkhona phans’ emgodini/ Izinto zonk’ ezkhona zenziwa ngayo lemali eniyilanda phans’ emgodini [Gentlemen, we congratulate you for your strength and bravery/ … You are real men/ You work for the nation by securing wealth and everything else that can be found deep in the mines/ Everything that we have is done through the money that you secure deep in the mines].”
People gradually learnt to remain proud of their culture and heritage through these and other lyrics by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
They reminded them about their ancestral land, where they danced and drank umqombothi, and tested their attacking skills and dexterity through stick fighting.
These songs ignited a culture of respect among themselves, which was gradually eroding, restoring life to a dry, waning tree.
Iyahlonipha Lengane appreciates children who respect their parents and elders, and is a clarion call that the old African days should be reclaimed, revived and kept intact.
The issue of respect is a serious matter in the African and Zulu nation set-up.
Through it you achieve and secure even those things that you may not deserve. Respect is a master key that opens a plethora of doors.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo encouraged and preached unity and co-existence.
Their music stood the test of time because they knew the power of meaningful songs. They did not take sides publicly or gamble by taking their supporters for granted.
It is imperative that musicians guard against becoming a political football of ambitious hypocrites and opportunistic political goons.
Mshengu did not only sing about migrant labour, weddings and folklore, but also that his immovable rock was always God.
Some of his faith-based/Christian albums include Ezulwini Siyakhona (We are going to heaven), with songs such as Amagugu Alelizwe, meaning all precious things of this world will be left in the graveyard.
Most of his later albums would have one or two songs on religion or Christianity, whereas during the earlier years the group would develop an entire album on this genre.
His earlier Christian songs included Vuka Jona and Umhlobo OnjengoJesu, similar to the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus.
Great leaders and dreamers, although driven by vision and passion, sometimes become stagnant and retrograde for failure to adapt to changing times without losing their distinct signature tunes.
Collaborating with American musician Paul Simon during the Graceland Tour in 1986 and later with Dolly Parton on Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door exposed Mshengu to a different musical dimension.
Listening to him as a guest in Turn On The Sun, Stimela’s album A Lifetime made him remain relevant and in touch with the dynamic music industry.
Mshengu knew when he had reached the pinnacle of his success, the apogee of his musical career, and bowed out gracefully.
He retired almost a decade before his passing this week. This paved the way for a smooth transition.
He was fortunate to witness a new generation of musicians become part of his group, which was always consolidating his experience and knowledge with its efforts and initiatives.
In his absence, his presence in the group when he was still alive blessed a contingent of young musicians to utilise him to the maximum.
Great dreamers outlive their initiatives and take a back seat long before the final hour.
Mshengu was a visionary musician.
He utilised his talent like an ambidexter painting a canvas with bright colours that complement each other.
Through his music he carved the behavioural patterns of his audience and planted a seed of self-love.
His music tore down walls of hatred and destroyed foundations of self-doubt.
Rest in eternal peace our timeless hero! Mshengu! Sidwaba siluthuli!
Nkosi is a freelance journalist and writer based in Durban
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