Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa's premier vocal group, made the world aware of the power of Zulu music in 1986, when they sang on Paul Simon's Graceland. Since then, they've won Grammys and toured the globe, captivating audiences with their uplifting harmonies and amazing dance routines — but they were singing their message of peace and cooperation 25 years before Paul Simon discovered them.
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"Ladysmith Black Mambazo started in 1960," says Albert Mazibuko, longtime Ladysmith member and cousin of Ladysmith founder Joseph Shabalala. "Our style of singing is a tradition that goes back to our forefathers. When they left home to work in the mines, they sang the same songs they sang at home. But because there were no family members — no boys or girls — men had to sing the high parts of the songs, and a new style developed. And a song was not complete without stomping on the floor and dancing. On the weekend, groups would gather for competitions, which kept the singing vigorous. When stomping was prohibited (in the days of apartheid) singers started dancing on their toes. When they returned home, people called them the tip-toe guys, and that kind of singing is our style — isicathamiya, which means 'tip-toes.'"
Traditional Zulu culture is celebrated on the group's latest album, Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu. Shaka Zulu was the chief who united Zulu Nation, Mazibuko says. "He trained his people to be great warriors. Shaka Zulu united the people of South Africa just before the British arrived. Shaka never fought with the British, but traded them land for guns, which he called hand thunder. He wanted to live in peace, but his brothers were jealous and assassinated him. It's our belief that if he had lived, there would have been no conflict between white and black. He knew how to deal with all people and treated everyone with equanimity."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is scheduled to perform on Sunday, February 24.
In their song to Shaka Zulu, the group talks about the censorship they endured during apartheid. Even though their message of peace and brotherhood was the same as it is today, authorities considered traditional music a threat. "During apartheid, music was our weapon," Mazibuko says. "We could not travel without permission from the government, but we'd get in our bus and go. When the police asked for our permission, we'd sing for them and they'd let us go. They saw us as peaceful missionaries. When Soweto (the large African ghetto of Johannesburg) rose up and things got violent, the government asked us to sing for the people, hoping it would make them come to their senses and calm down. Instead, our music inspired them to fight for freedom, but in a peaceful way."
Today in South Africa, Ladysmith teaches government-sponsored workshops in traditional singing at schools and universities. Young people are forming choirs and engaging in singing competitions just as their elders did. "We are happy so many young people are singing this music," Mazibuko says. "We know they'll keep it alive for a long time."