Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Festival: Ladysmith sing on

They shot to fame over 25 years ago thanks to Paul Simon’s Graceland album,|but South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been plying their trade for much longer, as member Albert Mazibuko tells Andrew Johnston

Joseph Shabalala, founder of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo being embraced by Paul Simon
Joseph Shabalala, founder of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo being embraced by Paul Simon

After nearly half a century as a member of South Africa’s prime musical export, you might think it would be hard for Ladysmith Black Mambazo co-founder Albert Mazibuko to pick a favourite moment.

The iconic vocal group have topped charts, won Grammy Awards, performed for royalty and collaborated with everyone from Paul Simon to, er, B*Witched. But one meeting looms large.

“A particular performance that stays with me all the time is when we were in Oslo in Norway accompanying Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk to receive their Nobel Peace Prize,” beams the still spry 64-year-old. “That morning we were witnessing the two leaders of our country receiving the peace for our country. It was a pride like I have never felt in my life. I will never forget that.”

Incredibly, the current incarnation of the band will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014. “It’s going to be a big year for us,” marvels Albert. “We will be celebrating that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been around all these years, and encouraging the young people that are singing the same kind of music.”

But for now, it’s business as usual, and that means a heavy touring schedule all around the world — including a festival date at the Waterfront Hall. The nine-man outfit last played Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, though the actual date seems lost in the mists of time.

“I can’t remember what year we were there,” laughs Albert, “but it has been a long time. We are very much looking forward to coming back.”

The vocalist sees many parallels with South Africa’s post-conflict experience and that of Northern Ireland. “I think the Irish people are already achieving the impossible,” he remarks. “They should carry on negotiating and compromising and discussing things. This is the only way to change the world — to sit down and talk. After that, you will find a solution, and it will be a beautiful, peaceful country.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo more recently visited the South, however, when they went to the O2 in Dublin during the summer, as guests of Paul Simon on his Graceland 25th anniversary tour. The group worked with Simon on the original album, lending their vocal talents to the classic tracks Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and Homeless. Albert was thrilled to be on the road again with the New Jersey folk-rock legend.

“It was so wonderful,” he says. “This was a dream come true for the group, and it will stay with us all the time. We always remember our first trip to Abbey Road Studios, where we met with him and began recording. It was a very special time. It began a 25-year run of touring, recording, Grammy Awards and so many wonderful moments.”

In the 1980s, when apartheid was still in place in South Africa, Simon received significant criticism for breaking the global cultural boycott of the country. But how was it perceived by black South Africans? “I think people sometimes get confused,” comments Albert. “Those people (anti-apartheid campaigners) said he came at the wrong time. But for me, he came at the

right time, because it was a time when the country needed the exposure. People around the world would see and talk about South Africa.”

The roots of Ladysmith Black Mambazo date to the period between 1960 and 1964, when former farmhand Joseph Shabalala started a group called Ezimnyama (meaning ‘the Black Ones’) in Durban, with the intention of performing traditional South African Zulu music, known as ‘isicathamiya’. Later, he renamed the band in honour of his hometown of Ladysmith in the KwaZulu-Natal region. ‘Mambazo’, meanwhile, means ‘axe’, a cheeky reference to how the group would ‘chop down’ rival acts.

Albert — Joseph’s cousin — came on board in 1969 after Joseph had a series of dreams about a choir singing in perfect harmony. “He tried to teach that to his group, but he didn’t succeed until I joined him with my brother and all my cousins,” explains Albert. “We understood what he wanted.”

In the early 1960s, South Africa was a very different place culturally as well as politically. Over the years, the country’s music scene has seen an encroachment of outside influences, but this wasn’t the case for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

“When we started we didn’t know anything about Western music,” shrugs Albert. “We didn’t even have radios at that time. Our music was just based on traditional music that we had seen our fathers sing.” Due to their enormous international success, Ladysmith Black Mambazo subsequently spawned numerous ‘copycat’ acts in their home country. “Now in South Africa, everyone tries to sing like Ladysmith Black Mambazo,” Albert smiles. “So many groups try to sing like us we have something called the ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo style’. It’s the music that is performed everywhere.”

But Shabalala’s men remain the original and the best, and their resilience is more remarkable considering the personal traumas they have had to endure. Three members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been shot and killed — Albert’s brother Milton in 1980, followed by Joseph’s brothers Headman in 1991 and Ben in 2004 — while, in 2002, Joseph’s wife Nellie was also murdered, and her husband injured trying to protect her. Another of Joseph’s brothers in the group, Jockey, died of heart disease in 2006.

The tragedies seem unimaginable, but Albert insists singing — and their strong Christian beliefs — got them through.

“The music gives us the strength to carry on, because we believe that whatever bad things happen to us, we still have a power which is pushing us.”

As for the future, can Albert envisage Ladysmith Black Mambazo continuing after he and Joseph have retired? “Because the music gives you energy we are not intending to retire,” he replies without hesitation. “The other members may not be around, but we have the energy and we take the group far away. Joseph now is 72, but he still goes strong and he still enjoys performing. I give myself until 90 years old. I still feel that I have a mission.”

And that mission? “We always used a message of peace, love and harmony. Hatred brings nothing good. Love is what joins people together.”

  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo,Waterfront Hall, October 21

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