You are probably a fan of Ladysmith Black Mambazo but don’t know it. You may have heard them on recordings with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton or Josh Groban or singing on soundtracks for movies like The Lion King 2 or performing on Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. You may have heard them when they sang on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. Or on one of their more than 50 recordings, four of which have won Grammys.
Founded in the 1960s, South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an a capella group performing isicathamiya, a harmony-focused style of traditional Zulu music that originated in the mines of South Africa. After having a series of dreams about the musical style, Joseph Shabalala formed a vocal group with several brothers and cousins. Their name combines the name of the city where Joseph grew up (Ladysmith) and the Zulu words for oxen (Black) and for ax (Mambazo), which is meant to represent the strength of the voices of the vocalists.
By the 1970s, they were considered South Africa’s most successful singing group.
Shabalala retired from performing in 2014, but four members of his immediate family are part of the group of nine male vocalists today. One of the longest-serving members, Albert Mazibuko, has performed with Ladysmith for nearly 50 years and plans to sing for 10 more.
Mazibuko says the highlight of his time with Ladysmith was accompanying Nelson Mandela to Oslo where Mandela received the Nobel Prize for his role in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa.
“We sang a song called 'King of Kings' and we knelt like people who were praying, asking for peace, encouraging political organizations to come together for peace," Mazibuko says.
One year later, Ladysmith sang at Mandela’s presidential inauguration.
“We received freedom and a promise of peace for our country," Mazibuko says.
Twenty-five years later, Ladysmith continues to sing about peace and harmony in the particular style of isicathamiya envisioned by Shabalala. Ladysmith sings only their own songs, some written by Shabalala’s sons. The goal of their songs is to inspire, and they have titles such as "Tough Times Never Last But Tough People Do" and "All Women Are Beautiful."
Mazibuko says adding new members often means finding friends or relatives of current group members who will “take care of the music.” Members also must be drug-free.
"What we preach has to be our lifestyle," Mazibuko says.
The members of Ladysmith travel to schools to encourage students and share their message of hope and peace. They recently recorded a children’s album called Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World, which is currently nominated for a Grammy Award.
Mazibuko sets the scene for a Ladysmith Black Mambazo show.
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“Nine microphones on stage, no drums," he says. "We dress in colorful African shirts, black pants, white shoes, red socks, and we sing in vibrant four-part harmony that becomes six- or seven-part harmony. We tell jokes.”
Mazibuko thanks Americans for supporting Ladysmith all of these years, and he invites Dallas to come and join them when they perform Aug. 16 at the Winspear Opera House.
“When it is hot, our music cools you down and when it is cold our music warms you up," Mazibuko says.