Dallas — Formed out of the tumult and hardship of apartheid-era South Africa, musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has used rich, a cappella harmonies to promote peace, love, and unity around the world for more than 50 years. Albert Mazibuko, cousin of founder Joseph Shabalala, joined the group in 1969, and has helped to carry on the central mission of honoring their traditions and spreading hope to all corners of the globe.
As the group prepares to bring their tour to Dallas, TheaterJones had the chance to catch up with Mazibuko. In our chat, he reflects on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s journey and his hopes for the future.
TheaterJones: I know this was all the way back in January, but congratulations on your Grammy award this year.
Albert Mazibuko: Wow, thank you.
Is that five now?
Yes, this is five now. We are very excited.
I did do a bit of research on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s background, and I came across this term “isicathamiya.” Can you tell what that means and how it informs your music?
Yes. Isicathamiya is the type of music that we are singing. It got its name because of the dance that we do. The dancing of isicathamiya is originated from Zulu dance, which is the stomping dance. When our forefathers were working in the mines, they were forbidden to do that Zulu dance because it was making a lot of banging. So, they started to tip-toe. When they took that dancing back home, people at home liked it, saying “Wow, now we are not stomping anymore.” They praised this kind of dancing by saying, “On toes, I’m fine.” So, the type of music became “isicathamiya.”
Are you influenced by any other factors, or do you introduce any other components?
We grew up seeing our fathers and their friends singing the same kind of music, but Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was always feeling that there was something missing listening to our fathers when they sing. He thought, ‘okay the singing is fine, but there is room that we can develop and make it better than that?’ So, in 1960, he formed his own group. He tried to teach the idea he had in his head, but he couldn’t succeed until 1964. He had a dream when he was asleep, dreaming of those people singing for him. He said the harmonies were so perfect and everything was so beautiful. The dream stayed with him for six months; just imagine every night you are dreaming the same dream until you learn everything from that dream. So, when he tried to teach that blend in voices in his group, they said his teaching was too much for them. That’s when he had another dream of his grandmother, my grandfather’s sister. She said to him, “Go to your brothers, and they will help you.” When he came to me in 1969, he told us this story, and I was very excited—a new idea of how to sing isicathamiya music. Since then, we never looked back.
Your cousin, Joseph Shabalala—he has since retired, yes?
How long has that been?
It has been over four years now. So, he took four of his sons, and blessed them, and said, “Please, take care of this group. Make sure that you do this music right and leave it for the next generation,” and they are doing a wonderful job.
I’m kind of curious as to the general background of the other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. By that, I mean are any or all of you formally trained in this music, or are you self-taught musicians through tradition?
So, we learned this from our fathers—the tradition way. None of us ever went to a school of music to learn to how to write the music and do the music in the Western way. We learned from home. We trained ourselves by making our singing better, but the key in this music is to practice all the time. In terms of composing the new songs, it’s a talent. Everyone in the group has the talent. You’d take an idea to the group, others listen to it, and they will help to develop the song and make it perfect.
How many members are there?
Right now, in the group we are nine.
In the 1980s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaborated with Paul Simon on the Graceland album. Would you say that collaboration brought your music into the mainstream and gave you a lot of exposure?
You know, that was the best thing that ever happened for the group. That was a blessing to us. Ladysmith Black Mambazo now is [because of] that collaboration with Paul Simon. I remember, when Joseph told us, we were concerned because we knew his music was so different than ours. But, then Joseph went to meet him and came back to us. Then, two weeks later, we received a package with a demo of Paul Simon singing by himself playing piano and a note saying, “Don’t change this because I took this from one of your recordings.” The message came at the right time in South Africa because there was a lot of violence and homelessness in the country. After a few weeks we were invited to England to record with Paul Simon. I’ll never forget that day. After that, Paul Simon invited us to New York to perform on Saturday Night Live.
That’s incredible. And then, you were heavily involved in Disney’s The Lion King. What did that do for you?
Every collaboration we do—it helps the group. We grow all the time with everything that we choose to do. You just reminded me, every time we get an invitation from someone who wants to do something with us, we always say, “This is the opportunity. This is what Joseph Shabalala was dreaming about.” If we could do our music right, we will be able to share it with the world, and tell the story, and then inspire people with the way our music inspires us.
The music industry is tough. Regardless of the genre or what part of the world you come from, being an artist and being a musician is difficult. So, how has Ladysmith Black Mambazo managed to stay so relevant for over 50 years of music-making?
We had a mission that we wanted to accomplish by staying true to our traditional music. As you say, the market is very tough, especially if you are singing the traditional music. But, the calling that we have, it makes us always want to do better and make sure that what we do is something that the world needs. So, I think that’s what makes Ladysmith Black Mambazo continue all these years. I hope they will continue for another 50 or 100 years to come, as long as the people who come after us dedicate themselves, and then make sure that they do it with passion, respect, and not forget that what they’ve got is a gift from God. Some people in the world today want something that is going to make them strong—hear the message, hear the sound that is going to inspire them and stimulate what is good in them.
That leads me to the next question I was going to ask you. What is the impact or the message that Ladysmith Black Mambazo wants to make in this world?
Our main message is a message of peace, love, and harmony. This is the main message of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, even if you are listening to our relics that we sing all the time. The first song that Joseph wrote in 1964 is called “Noma Themba.” Noma Themba is the name of a woman, but that name means “hope.” So, he composed that song to give South African people hope. Things were so tough at that time, in terms of the government system that was oppressing the other people. Life was unbearable, but the music was something that makes up keep going and makes us want to do better all the time. It’s about hope, but he wrote it as someone who was following his girlfriend until he found her. But when he tells the story, he’s talking about the hope that people should have—that someday the freedom will come, but we have to be patient and go after it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how difficult it is. Many of the songs that Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings tell the history, like the song we sing about Nelson Mandela that says “long walk to freedom.” It talks about what it was like in the apartheid era, and then now, what we should do to make our country a better place to live. We want to inspire people that there’s still room for being better in this lifetime.
Where does the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo come from?
The name Ladysmith is our hometown, as we were born there and grew up there. So, we wanted people to know where we are coming from all the time. Black refers to the span of oxen. We grew up on the farm, using these animals to cultivate the land. In that area, we have different colors of these oxen, but the black one was very powerful, and Joseph happens to be a driver of the black span of oxen. And, “mambazo” means “chopping axe,” which is a very important tool if you live on a farm. In our culture, it is very important because it is the only tool that will help you to chop the trees and build your house. Or if you are walking through the thick forest, to pave your way. So, Ladysmith Black Mambazo—it means we are from Ladysmith, and with our powerful voices we will pave the way to our future to make our lives better.
That’s beautiful. So, besides your own music, are there any other genres or artists that you personally like to listen to?
When I work, or when I’m driving, I like the country music. Don Williams was my favorite one. Also, a kind of music that is from South Africa which is called “maskanda,” where they play instruments and also sing. It is upbeat like country music. But, if I want to relax or go to sleep, I like to listen to jazz or classical music.
What might Dallas audience members expect from your performance? You have a particular style of singing, but what about visuals or the general production components?
When you look at the stage, you will see nine microphones and some monitors facing the stage. There will be no drums or instruments. When we get on stage, we will be dressed in our African costumes, and there will be only voices. After that, we will start dancing. When we dance, we use our hands and our feet. It is very happy music. We sing and we dance, and there will be no other accompanying instruments. It’s going to be wonderful! There will be some translations in between some songs to tell what the song is about. We also have some jokes that will be communicated. It’s a beautiful show.
Is there anything else that you’d like to mention that I didn’t touch on and that you want people to be aware of?
The important thing I could say is a big thank you. I want to thank the people of Dallas that have been supporting us all these years when we come there. So, we say thank you, and we love you, and all the best until we see each other.