Joseph Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala, born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, is the founder and musical director of the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Shabalala’s musical career began with his move from Ladysmith to Durban. After a short stint with the Durban Choir, he joined an isicathamiya group, ‘The Highlanders’, led by his hero Galiyane Hlatshwayo. Hlatshwayo served as a mentor, encouraging Shabalala to use his voice powerfully. This encouragement led him to form his own group ‘Ezimnyama’ (The Black Ones). After much success at the once-weekly isicathamiya competitions, Shabalala decided to rename the group ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo’, mambazo meaning axe, referring to how the group chopped down the other choirs.

In 1972, after much radio airplay, the group was offered a recording contract by Gallo Music. They sold over 40,000 copies of their first album but this was only a small taste of things to come. In 1986, Paul Simon collaborated with Shabalala and the group, and co-composed the now-famous song, ‘Homeless’. The group’s popularity has spread all over the world and they have sold albums popular enough to earn platinum disc certification. In 1987, the group won their first solo Grammy Award for ‘Shaka Zulu’. Since then, they have won one more and have been nominated over ten times.

Shabalala’s smooth guitar playing and soprano voice has won him fans the world over, though his heart still remains true to his South African roots. In 1999, Shabalala inaugurated the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation, a music academy which promotes and teaches isicathamiya music to young South African children.

In 2015, Shabalala received an Honorary Doctorate from the Durban University of Technology (DUT). Reading the citation DUT’s Alan Khan said that the doctorate was a tribute Shabalala’s contribution to local and international music, and to the recognition that he has brought to the Zulu language and culture. Shabalala, who was recovering from back surgery, remained seated as he expressed his thanks, but stood up to perform a rendition of Homeless that he sang with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other family members. See below watch an excerpt from the graduation ceremony, and to see Shabalala do what he does best!

In March 2017 Joseph was honoured in a colourful event where a plaque was unveiled renaming Klipriver High School to Joseph Shabalala High School. He died at the age of 78 in February 2020.