Over 60 albums, five sought-after Grammy Awards, and one farm boy-turned-musical maestro who set it all in motion – Joseph Shabalala had every reason to be proud of his achievements.
Although the group’s founder died on Tuesday, aged 78, his life impacted the lives of all the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in significant ways.
In a 2018, while Joseph was battling health problems, some of the members of the legendary group shared how he had changed their lives with Move!.
Joseph’s cousin Albert Mazibuko (70), the oldest Ladysmith Black Mambazo member, says he will never forget the day Mshengu (Joseph’s clan name) changed his life.
“Mshengu told me about his dream of improving isicathamiya music. I had no idea what isicathamiya was but he was willing to teach me. I could tell he had a plan already because he wanted us to start writing music immediately.”
Albert says music has always been more than a job for Joseph.
“He told me we need to compose unique, empowering songs. I can still remember that day we composed, wrote and performed Inkosi Yamakhosi and Buya Dudu Wam. We were not even aware that we were making history.
“We also had no idea we’d end up travelling all over the world, healing people through this kind of music. To him, music was a calling not just a job.”
Mpindela Mazibuko (64) joined the group in 1974. “I used to stand at the corner and watch him and the group practicing. One day he asked me to join them. I was still at school but I joined and never looked back.”
Under Joseph’s guidance, Albert, Mpindela and the rest of the group became the most successful South African music group in the ’80s.
They found international fame when US singer/songwriter Paul Simon collaborated with them on his Graceland album. In 1998 Paul produced their album, Shaka Zulu, which won a Grammy. 30 years later, Ladysmith Black Mambazo won another Grammy for best world music album for its reworked hit album Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration.
When he retired Joseph left his legacy in the hands of his sons Thulani (50), Sibongiseni (46) and Thamsanqa (41) Shabalala. Thulani fondly recalls joining the group in 1984.
“We didn’t have much choice but to be part of the group because singing was one of the main chores in the house. I formally joined the group when one of the members didn’t arrive and I had to stand in for him. From that day I became a full member,” he says. Before joining Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sibongiseni sang in Mshengu White Mambazo, a junior version of the group.
“The main group was always abroad and unavailable hence there was a need for an alternative to perform at home,” he explains. “My brothers and I formed White Mambazo but at functions we performed Black Mambazo songs. They groomed and mentored us until we were ready to join the main group.”
The mentoring hasn’t stopped now that Sibongiseni has progressed to the main group. “We’ve mentored and groomed the likes of [isicathamiya group and The Sing-Off South Africa winners] Thee Legacy. That experience taught us to be independent and as a result we all have our own projects.”
They’re stepping out of their father’s shadow but Joseph cast a long one.
“At first it was really difficult because people know his voice and they recognised his face but gradually people started to warm up to us,” Thami says. “It’s a fact that the group isn’t the same without him but the melody has not changed. He has left some big shoes to fill but we are determined to fill them.” The family is also in the process of turning Joseph’s home into a museum where all his awards, albums and accolades will be displayed to ensure his legacy is kept alive but, for millions of fans around the world, Joseph’s spirit will always live on in the sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. For that we say thank you for the music!