Ladysmith Black Mambazo: South Africa's musical ambassadors rooted in the Christian faith

Tuesday 1st January 2008

Tony Cummings traces the history of the act who have taken Zulu gospel music to an international audience, LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO

Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Ladysmith Black Mambazo

There can be few better examples of how culturally uninformed are the perspectives of American Christian music writers than to consider the coverage given to one of the most popular purveyors of gospel music, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in the tomes Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music and Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia. In the CCM encyclopedia there's the astonishing statement, "Ladysmith Black Mambazo is not often connected with Christian music and the exact tenor of the individual members' faiths may not be known." In Uncloudy Days (an encyclopedia which includes such marginal black gospel figures as Tina Turner, Carla Thomas and the Happy Goodmans), there is no entry for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In truth of course Ladysmith are one of the biggest selling acts in gospel music history and though they sing mainly in the Zulu language and their vast repertoire takes in folk songs, pop songs and much more, it is their songs of faith in Jesus which have long been the bedrock of their music and their rise to become South Africa's premier cultural ambassadors.

Cross Rhythms spoke to the choir's Albert Mazibuko two thirds of the way through their exhausting 33 date tour of the UK. Speaking about their mix of secular and sacred songs he said, "I think maybe it's the sound, the harmony we have got, but people tell us that when we are singing the traditional songs it sounds like a gospel song to them. It should be like that because what we sing, our music is blessed from God. Whatever message we've got we are conveying God's love to people. It doesn't matter in what form we are presenting it to the people, it's from our heart, from our soul, from our spirit. So we present God's love to the people."

I asked Albert what he thought of the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music's suggestion that some members of Ladysmith may not be Christians. "I understand that those people who wrote that may not be close to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Because whoever stays close with us soon discovers that we are. Christianity flows in whatever we do. There is nothing we do without it. It is our lifestyle. It is not something that we might do just when we are in rehearsal or only back stage. In our hotel rooms, our homes - every time when we go to our rooms each and everyone says a prayer and then every time we get a chance when we are together we pray and read the Bible, we talk about our faith. Then if we are going on a tour, before we take any tour from home we take a day where we fast, we go to the mountain, we spend a whole day praying and reading the Scripture, encouraging one another and reminding ourselves that we have come so far. God has brought us up to here, and then we ask for his guidance. So this is a lifestyle to us."

The first incarnation of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was Ezimnyama Ngenkani (The Black Ones), formed by Joseph Shabalala in December, 1960. The members of the group were relatives (mostly brothers and cousins) of Shabalala, with many having sung with him while he was growing up on the farm where he was born. Although the group did sing well together and captured the sound of cothoza mfana (tip toe boys, a 1960s slang term for isicathamiya), they were unknown outside of the Ladysmith district.

In late 1964, Shabalala had a series of dreams over a period of six months, featuring a choir, singing in perfect harmony. Whilst his current group had not achieved this sound, Joseph reformed the group as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and taught them the harmonies from his dream. Shabalala invented the name from the hometown of his family, Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, the black ox, considered to be the strongest farm animal, and Mambazo, which means axe in the Zulu language, and is symbolic of the choir's ability to "chop down" the competition. Shabalala entered the group into isicathamiya competitions, held on Saturday nights in areas of Durban and Johannesburg. The group won nearly every competition that was held.

In 1967, the group began to make recordings for Radio Zulu, and then signed with West Nkosi in 1972; Nkosi was a member of the Makgona Tsohle Band and a music producer at South Africa's major label Gallo Record Company. Ladysmith Black Mambazo released their first album the following year, 'Amabutho', which received Gold status, and was the first album by a black act to do so in South Africa. Their subsequent albums also received Gold or Platinum certification. With the release of their second album, they had become professional singers.

In 1975, Shabalala converted to Christianity and the group released their first gospel album, 'Ukukhanya Kwelanga'. It earned a double platinum disc award, and the group's repertoire came to be dominated by hymns, mostly Methodist. Their 1976 'Ukusindiswa' became one of their most popular gospel albums. By 1981, the group's fame throughout South Africa had begun to spread overseas. They were allowed to travel to Cologne, Germany, appeared on German television even learning some of the German language. The 1981 album 'Phansi Emgodini' included the group singing in German on the track "Wir GrĂ¼ssen Euch Alle". The following year, the group traveled back to Germany to appear on television during a quiz event, bringing about requests for live appearances.

In 1985, Paul Simon travelled to South Africa in the hope of collaborating with black musicians for his 'Graceland' album. Simon asked Ladysmith Black Mambazo to work with him, and they travelled to London to record. The first recording was "Homeless", composed by Shabalala with English lyrics by Simon. 'Graceland' was released in May of that year, and although both Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon were accused of breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa, the album became one of the biggest selling albums in recording history, selling 16 million copies.

Cross Rhythms asked Albert Mazibuko what he thought of the suggestion that the international audience would never have heard of Ladysmith Black Mambazo if it hadn't been for Paul Simon. He responded, "In the sense that we are human beings, we always look at the outcome; we never look at the source. What we tell ourselves is, 'God has been so great he sent Paul Simon from America to come and take us and introduce us.' God gave Paul Simon that fame because God wanted Ladysmith Black Mambazo to be known all over the world. He used someone to do that. So that's the way we see it for ourselves."

After 'Graceland', Simon acted as producer on three records for the group aimed at the American market, 'Shaka Zulu' (1987), 'Journey Of Dreams' (1988) and 'Two Worlds, One Heart' (1990). On the latter album, the group recorded with such diverse musical figures as The Winans, Julia Fordham and George Clinton, among others. In 1988, Ladysmith Black Mambazo appeared in Michael Jackson's movie Moonwalker, where they performed "The Moon Is Walking" over the end credits.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: South Africa's musical ambassadors rooted in the Christian faith

On 10th December 1991, Headman Shabalala, Joseph Shabalala's brother and one of the bass members in the group, was shot and killed by Sean Nicholas, a white off-duty security guard. His death was considered a racial killing by Paul Simon, who led the court proceedings against Nicholas. For a period Shabalala stopped singing, though empowered by his unflinching Christian faith Joseph returned to singing. Following the retirement of three more members of the group in 1993, Shabalala recruited four of his sons into the group. The Apartheid system was abolished in 1991. Many changes occurred within Ladysmith Black Mambazo following this; most notably the reformation of its members. The release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years imprisonment brought about the group's first release in the post-Apartheid era, 1993's 'Liph' Iqiniso'. The album's last track, "Isikifil' Inkululeko" ("Freedom Has Arrived") was a celebration of the end of Apartheid.

Nelson Mandela (shortly after his release from prison) publicly stated that "the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are South Africa's cultural ambassadors". In 1993, at the request of Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo accompanied the future President of South Africa to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Mambazo sang again at President Mandela's inauguration in May 1994. In 1998, the group recorded a special version of "Inkanyezi Nezazi" ("The Star And The Wiseman") for a series of advertisements in Britain for Heinz. The adverts proved so popular that the group released the original 1992 version as a single which became a UK hit, making number two in the charts. This was followed up by 'The Best Of Ladysmith Black Mambazo: The Star And The Wiseman', a compilation release which was certified triple Platinum, selling one million copies in Britain alone. Fully reflecting their status as South African ambassadors Ladysmith Black Mambazo have travelled the world and recorded with or performed with such diverse figures as Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, B*Witched, The Corrs, Ben Harper, Josh Groban and (on his 2006 album 'Everlasting God') South African worship leader Brenton Brown. On stage Ladysmith have performed for, among others, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and the British royal family.

As a follow-up to the release 'Lihl' Ixhiba Likagogo' in 2000, the group began the recording of 'Wenyukela', another album of new material. However, the making of the record underwent severe strain when, in May 2002, Shabalala's wife of 30 years Nellie (and lead singer in the allied group Women Of Mambazo), was murdered in a church car park by a masked gunman. Shabalala's hand was injured trying to protect his wife. Said Joseph, "At the time that this happened, I tried to take my mind deep into the Spirit, because I know the truth is there. In my flesh, I might be angry, I might cry, I might suspect somebody. But when I took my mind into the Spirit, the spirit told me to be calm and not to worry. Bad things happen, and the only thing to do is raise your spirit higher."

'Wenyukela' went ahead as Shabalala recovered. Songs such as "Wenza Ngani?" ("How Did You Do That?") had a moral theme. Others included "Fak' Ibhande" ("Don't Drink And Drive"), which warned of the dangers of alcohol and driving; "Wenyukela", which spoke of the resurrection of Jesus and how South Africans were nearly misled into killing each other during the 1994 elections, and "Selingelethu Sonke", a song asking for fair trade in Africa. The group had originally spoken of the issue of fair trade in the Oxfam campaign Make Trade Fair. They appeared as guests in The Big Noise, a worldwide petition for fair trade.

'Wenyukela' reportedly sold six million copies and garnered the group their second Grammy Award. Their 2005 album, 'No Boundaries', was an unlikely musical collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra and featured many classical standards ("Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring", "Ave Verum Corpus") and Mambazo tunes ("Homeless", "Awu", "Wemadoda", "Ngingenwe Emoyeni"). That too was nominated for a Grammy Award.

The 'Long Walk To Freedom' album was a celebration of 45 years together, and was released in January 2006. On the album (which also celebrated 20 years since 'Graceland'), the group recorded with a multitude of artists including Zap Mama, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Joe McBride, Natalie Merchant, Emmylou Harris and Taj Mahal as well as South African musicians Lucky Dube, Phuzekhemisi, Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Nokukhanya, Thandiswa, Vusi Mahlasela and Hugh Masekela.

In April 2006, Mambazo collaborated with recording star Josh Groban for his third studio album, 'Awake'. Following that, in August 2006, Mambazo began working with Mavis Staples in a collaboration for Staples's new album. The group's latest album, 'Ilembe', was released in February 2007. It was released in South Africa initially and issued in the United Kingdom on the Warner Jazz label in April 2007 (under the title 'Ilembe: Our Tribute To King Shaka'). The album featured new recordings such as "Ommu Beno Mmu" ("Somebody And Somebody"), "Sizobalanda" ("We Are Here") and "Iphel' Emasini" ("A Cockroach In The Milk" - Zulu proverb).

Joseph Shabalala no longer tours with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Cross Rhythms asked Albert about the state of Joseph's health. "He's very good. You know God is great, he's so great. When we were in America there was a time when Joseph was not feeling well. Every Sunday when we have time we get together and have a service as we do at home. But it's short because we are working. One Sunday we were in Milwaukie, I remember one of Joseph's youngest sons read a verse that is in the Bible that recorded how Jesus was talking to his disciples about the tree that was withered. The Lord said, 'If you have faith you can move this mountain.' And when he read that we believed in that statement and then we prayed for Joseph, who was very sick. We were really scared about him. God did a miracle then and Joseph was healed instantly. Right now he's so much alive. When he performed on stage with us we were so often scared. But now we are not. God is so good."

I asked Albert about their continuing musical involvement with music stars whose lifestyle and sometimes recorded output is far from Christian. He responded, "What we do when someone comes to us and asks us to record a song with them, we want to see the lyrics to see if they are good ones. If the lyrics have bad words then we say 'No, we cannot sing that.' And when they ask us to promote something which is ungodly - we don't do that. But any other music, any good message that is good for us, it doesn't matter what style it is we present it, it's a way to an adequate message. That's good."

Finally, I asked Albert how after an astonishing 43 years of making music does he ever feel the days of Ladysmith Black Mambazo may be drawing to a close. He responded, "I feel that God still has a lot for us to do. We are satisfied with what we have been doing. The message is still there. You look around and you see people, they still have the need to know God in every area. So we feel that the message still has to be conveyed to the people directly or indirectly. That's why every time we tour, we look around and see the message still has to be conveyed to the people." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Michael @ 20:44 on Sep 22 2009

Great article! I was always able to tell that Joseph and his exceptional singing group were faith-walking people.
Glad to learn that they are this close to the Lord.

Homeless - we are since our home is in heaven
Timeless - their singing is we'll hear there there
i believe
we might have a chance to sing with them... a spiritual message song for the World Cup in South Africa...

in heaven for sure.

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