Their humming vibrates the pits of your stomach, their harmonies leave you wanting more and their combination of dancing and singing is extraordinary. Over the years, their uniqueness has garnered South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo numerous awards from around the world – including the coveted Grammys. They are regarded as the highest award bestowed on musicians in the world. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has bagged four of the gold-plated trophies, depicting a glided gramophone.
The group may not have been nominated for this year’s awards; but they will forever be etched in Grammy history.
Although Ladysmith Black Mambazo is internationally renowned and loved, back at home in South Africa it’s a different story and it shows in their album sales. The older generation connects better with the group, the younger generation tends to follow western music religiously. The group spends the majority of the year traveling across the United States (US) and Europe, returning home for short stints to see family and do a few performances.
I saw them perform for the first time just under a year ago.
It was June, if my memory serves me well. The warm sun was setting on a crowd dressed up to fight the winter at a concert outside South Africa’s capital, Pretoria. On stage, arrived one of the country’s youngest and hottest house acts Mi Casa, then Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The two groups from the same backyard, half a century apart, sang a new love song called My Sugar like they were born into it.
Mi Casa’s J-Something introduces the song, singing, “When you love somebody, right to the point where it hurts, and she got you feeling naughty,” a flurry of images flicker in your memory about those moments I had with my significant other.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo throws you right back to the good old days of Zulu traditional music and the isicathamiya sound they’re famous for. The isiZulu word, isicathamiya, is a sound best described as walking softly, a soft shuffling style of dancing, says Xolani Majozi, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s executive producer. It is enriched by ragtime-influenced choral part-singing.
The group joins in after the chorus: “Njalo waz wamuhle Ntombi, awujwayelki ma ngikubona…” in isiZulu declaring their love for this beautiful girl as if they are seeing her for the first time. “Sengizothumela abakhulu,” – we are sending my uncles, they declare. This is a sign that the young man is ready to get married.
My Sugar mixes groovy house beats with smooth isiZulu vocals. The collaboration fuses two eras of Africa. The South African music legends match the youngsters note for note with swagger. They sign off with a flourish of two golden hits, Homeless, and Hello My Baby.
The crowd cheers the group off the stage, leaving Mi Casa to complete the set. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is rushed to the airport, for another gig in Durban at the MTV Africa Music Awards where they show they can hang in the contemporary music scene.
This is what Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been doing for over 50 years, while also surviving scores of line-up changes.
The current crop includes founding member Joseph Shabalala’s four sons Msizi, Thulani, Sibongiseni and Thamsanqa, grandson Babuyile as well as relatives Albert and Abednego Mazibuko, Russel Mthembu, Dlamini Mfanafuthi, and Pius Shezi.
It all started with a dream. Not a wishful one, but a recurring one. In 1964, Joseph dreamed of featuring in a choir singing in perfect harmony. He then formed what was to be the group of his dreams.
Formerly known as Ezimnyama (the Black Ones), Joseph renamed the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. ‘Ladysmith’ was the name of the farming village in which he lived, ‘Black’ represented the black oxen that were the strongest on the farm and ‘Mambazo’ is an isiZulu word for axe – an allusion to them chopping down the other choirs by winning almost every singing competition.
A few years later, a radio broadcast in 1970 paved the way to their first recording contract – the foundation that led to more than 74 albums.
In 1973, they released their debut album Amabutho – the first album to reach gold status in Africa.
In 1986, American singer Paul Simon collaborated with the group on his Grammy Award-winning Graceland album. It was considered a seminal album that popularized world music. It was here they also composed the now famous song, Homeless. The group also sang on Simon’s single Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.
A year later, Simon produced the group’s first worldwide release of the album Shaka Zulu, which won them their first Grammy Award in 1988 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Since then, they’ve been nominated 15 times and added three more Grammys for the albums Raise Your Spirit Higher in 2004, Ilembe in 2009 and Live: Singing For Peace Around The World in 2014.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo spend most of their time performing in the West and Europe, from Germany to Norway. Nearly 30 years after Graceland, the tours keep coming. During March, the group will tour the west coast of the US.
FORBES AFRICA met with the group in Johannesburg, a few months after they scooped their fourth Grammy. The men are laughing and chatting in isiZulu dialect, heavy and untainted by years working away
Because the group comprises of Joseph Shabalala’s sons and some of his relatives of the Mshengu clan, I introduce myself with a different version of their surname, Tshabalala. They exclaim “nawe ungi Mshengu, ubuti wethu,” (you’re also an Mshengu, our brother). I am. We exchange hugs and they feel more at home. They’re celebrities but they could be your next door neighbor.
On this particular day, the group have taken a day off from their musical Amambazo at Pretoria’s State Theatre. Created by Joseph, the 25-cast and six-piece live band musical, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is in its second year on stage. It follows Joseph’s story of founding the group.
More than 50 years of music has had its struggle and casualties. The group released their latest album called Always With Us, a tribute to the matriarch Nelli Shabalala, Joseph’s wife who was shot and killed outside their home in the KwaZulu Natal province. The album is a collection of songs she recorded with her church choir a year before she died.
In December 1991, Joseph’s brother and fellow member, Headman, was killed by an off-duty white security guard near Ladysmith. A few years later, Joseph’s other brother, Ben, was also shot and killed while driving his children to school.
But through it all the Shabalala’s persevered.
About three days before the group won their fourth Grammy, Majola announced that Joseph, aged 73, was scaling down his activities with the group.
“It’s a temporary retirement. He had back surgery and is recovering from that. As soon as he gets better, he won’t be as involved in the group like before, but he is still part of the group,” says Sibongiseni Shabalala.
“When we rehearse at home, we rehearse with him. He is still teaching us new songs.”
While the ensemble continue to travel across the globe, one of the senior members, Albert Mazibuko, is entrusted with keeping Joseph’s ways. Mazibuko is Joseph’s cousin and is the only original member left in the group.
“I’m so supportive to him. I make sure the group keeps together when we are going to places and that we keep our promises. I make sure the uniform is perfect,” says the 66-year-old Mazibuko, who designs the group’s shirts.
The men of Ladysmith Black Mambazo say it is not a group you can just join; it is one you grow up in. Music becomes part and parcel for all family members. Msizi, who is also part of the management team, says his father allows the families to bring their children to rehearsals so the different generations are able to work together and generate fresh ideas.
When the time came for the third generation to join Ladysmith Black Mambazo, even Msizi’s eldest son, Babuyile, had to serve an apprenticeship.
Before joining the senior team, Babuyile, along with two other relatives, founded Young Mbazo in 2009. It is a group where the younger members of the family sing isicathamiya and want to not only keep it alive, but make it more appealing to the younger generation.
“This type of music, it looks like a rhino, it’s about to be extinct. It’s not cool to be isicathamiya. It looks like you’re backward. But we are moving forward, using contemporary genres like RnB, kwaito, soul and hip-hop and we fuse that with isicathamiya,” says Babuyile.
As the day is about to end, I steal a moment with one of the most reserved members of the group, Msizi. He helped register Ladysmith Black Mambazo as a company. Msizi says they are trying to sell merchandise and also buy back albums from record companies so that they can all be distributed and sold under one umbrella.
For now, the group will continue performing in internationally to sold-out auditoriums. The group can spend up to four consecutive months touring.
Back in 2008, Joseph announced that his youngest son, Thamsanqa would take over as the leader of the group when he retires from international touring.
“The mission and message will continue. When the time comes for me to finish touring and to stay home, they will carry on my dream,” says Joseph.
With that said, Ladysmith Black Mambazo will continue to produce more albums, maybe even adding more Grammy Awards. And to think a dream started it all.