Ladysmith Black Mambazo


1 Background
2 Genre Formation
3 Naming
4 Music career Retrospect

Ladysmith Black Mambazo presents the traditional music of South Africa and is regarded as the country’s cultural emissary at home and around the world. In 1993, at Nelson Mandela’s request, Ladysmith Black Mambazo accompanied the future President to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang again at President Mandela’s inauguration in May 1994. 

It has been over twenty years since Paul Simon made his initial trip to South Africa and met Joseph Shabalala, and the other members of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo, in a recording studio in Johannesburg. Simon was captivated by the stirring sound of bass, alto and tenor harmonies and incorporated these traditional sounds into the “Graceland” album, a project regarded by many as seminal to today’s explosive interest in World Music.

Genre Formation
The traditional music sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is called Isicathamiya (Is-Cot-A-Me-Ya). It started in the mines of South Africa. Black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, they would entertain themselves, after a six-day week, by singing songs into the wee hours every Sunday morning.

Cothoza Mfana they called themselves, “walk slowly”, referring to the dance steps choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards. When miners returned to the homelands, the tradition returned with them. They began a fierce, but social, competition held regularly and a highlight of everyone’s social calendar. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts and, of course, the adoration of their fans. These competitions are held even today in YMCA Assembly Halls and church basements throughout Zululand, South Africa.

In the late 1950’s Joseph Shabalala took advantage of his proximity to the urban sprawl of the city of Durban, allowing him the opportunity to seek work in a factory. Leaving the family farm was not easy, but it was during this time that Joseph first showed a talent for singing. After singing with several groups in Durban he returned to his hometown of Ladysmith and began to put together groups of his own.

He was rarely satisfied with the results. “I felt there was something missing. I tried to teach the music that I felt but I failed, until 1964, when a harmonious dream came to me. I always heard the harmony from that dream and I said ‘This is the sound that I want and I can teach it to my guys’.”

In the early years, Joseph recruited family and friends – brothers Headman, Ben and Jockey, cousins Albert and Abednigo Mazibuko, and others. Joseph taught the group the harmonies from his dreams. With time and patience Joseph’s work began to get into a special sound.
The name Ladysmith Black Mambazo came about as a result of winning every singing competition in which the group entered. “Ladysmith” is the hometown of the Shabalala family; “Black” references the black oxen, considered to be the strongest on the farm. The Zulu word “Mambazo” refers to an axe – symbolic of the group’s ability to “chop down” fellow competitors. So good were they that after a time they were forbidden to enter the competitions but welcomed, of course, to entertain at them.

Music career Retrospect
A radio broadcast in 1970 brought about their first record contract. Since then the group has recorded over forty albums, selling over seven million records at home and abroad, establishing themselves as the number one selling group from Africa. Their work with Paul Simon on the “Graceland” album attracted a world of fans that never knew that the sounds of Zulu harmony could be so captivating.

Their first album release for the United States, “Shaka Zulu”, was produced by Simon and won the Grammy Award in 1987 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Since then they have been nominated for a Grammy Award eleven additional times. In 2005 they were awarded their second Grammy Award, for Best Traditional World Music Recording, for the release “Raise Your Spirit Higher.” Their most recent release, “Long Walk To Freedom”, was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2007.

This latest CD was quite special for the group. It’s a celebration of the group’s history and they are joined by such wonderful performers as Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Zap Mama, as well as friends from home including Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela.

By: Bongisipho Phewa

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