The Cross-Cultural Journey ?of Ladysmith Black ?Mambazo Heats Up

Grand Forks, North Dakota saw a high of 9 degrees and a low of minus-18 on Februrary 26. That's way too cold for South African native Albert Mazibuko, who describes the scene outside his hotel room window.

"We are freezing. It is very cold," says the Ladysmith Black Mambazo singer. "Anyway, we are staying in. The bus is warm, so we have no problem. We just watch the snow through the window."

North Dakota is probably not the coldest place Mazibuko has performed, but almost certainly, he will feel much more at home, at least weather-wise, when the nine-member vocal group sets up at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo formed in 1960 after a series of reoccurring dreams led founder Joseph Shabalala (now retired) to revive an older singing style originating from the Zulu traditions of isicathamiya harmonies, popularized by mine workers of the early 19th century.

"Those men, on the weekends they were missing their homes and the music they enjoyed with their families, so they entertained themselves," Mazibuko says. "They sang the music they knew from their homes.

"But the style of singing, it changed. They sang the same songs as at home with their families, but they found some voices were missing. There were no high voices that were supposed to sound like the young man or the female voices. So the [new] music formed this way."

In Shabalala's dream, he learned how to blend these many voices but also followed his grandmother's advice when she told him to "seek out his brothers" (cousins, actually) to form his group. Mazibuko recalls when Shabalala asked his father for permission to bring his cousins (Albert and his brother Abednego) into the group.

"Growing up, Joseph was my hero because he was singing so beautiful and he was famous with girls," Mazibuko says with a light laugh. "I formed my group when I was 9 years old and I was the best singer in the area. But when I saw Joseph with his group singing in 1960, it was so beautiful that I stopped singing. I didn't want to listen to someone who was better than me, but I knew when I had a chance I would go join him. When he came to me, it was a dream come true."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo spent the bulk its first three decades touring South Africa where the group was immensely popular. In 1985, Paul Simon controversially traveled to South Africa despite boycotts against South Africa's apartheid government to work the a cappella group on the seminal, Grammy-winning Graceland. This showcased the group to a worldwide audience.

"It was a breakout period for us internationally," Mazibuko says. "Remember, that was 1985 and we formed in the 1960s. We already had [released] 25 albums. Just outside South Africa, we were not well known. Paul Simon was a breakout for the group. He took us up to the skies."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been on a cross-cultural journey ever since, performing with fellow Africans, blues, jazz, hip-hop, soul, rock and country artists, among others. Yet, the group's core songs remain based on South African folklore and traditions, mixed with occasional religious and political numbers. Mazibuko, however, admits these collaborations may be having some effect on the group's newer music.

"We do keep our sound traditional because Joseph believed we should always do it this way," he says, adding with a hushed laugh. "But, you know, some of that other sound is sneaking into our new compositions. Maybe those spices from that collaboration nourish our newer music."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is scheduled to perform Sunday, March 15, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

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