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Dr. Joseph Shabalala: A look at the journey of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

By Mxolisi Mhlongo

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is undoubtedly South Africa’s shining stars with 6 Grammy awards under their belt. Little is known about how they came together and in this article, we will explore the group’s history and founder Joseph Shabalala.

Background: Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Amambazo Amnyama) was assembled in the early 1960s by Dr. Joseph Shabalala, then a young farm boy turned factory worker. Dr. Joseph Shabalala’s story is one that sounds to some as something that came out of ntate Credo Mutwa’s book. Shabalala was repeatedly bothered by a dream of harming sounds and voices. It was then that he finally realised this meant something and began putting this dream to reality. He went to close friends and some family members to help him put together the music he had been dreaming of but didn’t succeed until he went to his cousin, Mr. Albert Mazibuko, who was also a co-farm worker. The dream materialized and finally started taking shape.

Co-Founder, Albert Mazibuko, Mambas, history
Co-Founder and Joseph Shabalala’s cousin Albert Mazibuko

Isicathamiya: Isicathamiya actually refers to the dancing in this genre of music. The dance came about during the times of apartheid. Zulu men who used to work at the mines stayed at hostels and not allowed to make noise. As we all know Zulu music is not complete without dance. The traditional dance, ‘Ukusina’, involves a lot of stomping the ground and clapping. So instead of quitting the dance as they were told to by officials, they resorted to tip-toeing which resulted in the Isicathamiya dance (cothoza mfana as they would refer to it). The word isicathamiya derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means walking softly, or tread carefully. Isicathamiya contrasts with an earlier name for Zulu acapella singing, mbube, meaning lion.

The Influence of music during apartheid:  Africans found closure in music during Apartheid and it was a popular tool most musicians used to spread the message of hope. Ladysmith Black Mambazo played a major role in the campaign to spread peace and hope amongst Africans, composing songs like Long walk to freedom, Nomathemba and Homeless.

Grammy awards: American singer and songwriter Paul Simon visited South Africa and incorporated the group’s rich tenor, alto and bass harmonies into his famous “Graceland” album. This was a landmark recording that was considered seminal in introducing world music to mainstream audiences. A year later, Paul Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first worldwide release, Shaka Zulu, which garnered the group their first GRAMMY Award, in 1988, for Best Folk Recording. 50 years later the group has won 6 Grammy awards including their recent one Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration.

Facts:

– It’s a family group- Joseph Shabalala was bothered by a dream repeatedly before starting the group. Everything you hear from the group, the sound and pacing is something Joseph heard from the dream.

-The genre came about during the times of apartheid

-The group has 3 references to the name:

Ladysmith: The group is from eMnambithi (Ladysmith), a town in KwaZulu Natal and that is where the group comes from.

Black: The black refers to the span and power of the oxen animal, Joseph was inspired by the resilience of the animal and its strength to withstand any form of pain.

Mambazo: An axe tool (verb-Imbazo), this was very important as each homestead had one and it was used to chop trees, wood, and a sledge. It played a significant role in every homestead and it was very important for every family to own one.

-The group consists of 9 members. 4 of the members are Joseph Shabalala’s sons who started traveling with the group at a very young age. The 1st son joined the group in 1993. His sons have since started their own Maskandi group called the Shabalala Rhythms.

Founder of the group Joseph Shabalala retired in 2014 after over fifty years of leading the group. Joseph passed the leadership torch to his sons Thulani, Sibongiseni and Thamsanqa Shabalala. Joseph’s sons will carry the group into the future for decades to come. The group sings of peace, love and harmony; a thread within their music for the people. They have done so on every album and from every concert stage that they have appeared on and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

 

 

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