In 2013, Ladysmith Black Mambazo – led by founder and leader Joseph Shabalala – celebrates over fifty years of joyous and uplifting music that marries the intricate rhythms and harmonies of their native South African musical traditions to the sounds and sentiments of Christian gospel music. In those years, the a cappella vocal group has created a musical and spiritual alchemy that has touched a worldwide audience representing every corner of the religious, cultural and ethnic landscape. Their musical efforts over the past five decades have garnered praise and accolades within the recording industry, but also solidified their identity as a cultural force to be reckoned with.
Assembled in the early 1960s in South Africa by Shabalala – then a young farmboy turned factory worker – the group took the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Ladysmith being the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown; Black being a reference to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and Mambazo being the Zulu word for axe, a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” any singing rival who might challenge them. Their collective voices were so tight and their harmonies so polished that they were eventually banned from competitions – although they were welcome to participate strictly as entertainers.
A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract – the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than fifty recordings. Their philosophy in the studio was – and continues to be – just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment. The group borrows heavily from a traditional music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours on Sunday morning. When the miners returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.
In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon visited South Africa and incorporated Black Mambazo’s rich tenor/alto/bass harmonies into his Graceland album – a landmark 1986 recording that was considered seminal in introducing world music to mainstream audiences. A year later, Simon produced Black Mambazo’s first U.S. release, Shaka Zulu, which won a Grammy Award in 1988. Since then, the group has been awarded two more Grammy Awards and has been nominated a total of fifteen times including a nomination for their most recent CD release, Songs From A Zulu Farm.
In addition to their work with Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has recorded with numerous artists from around the world, including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge, and many others. Their film work includes a featured appearance in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker video and Spike Lee’s Do It A Cappella. They’ve provided soundtrack material for Disney’s The Lion King, Part II as well as Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, Marlon Brando’s A Dry White Season, Sean Connery’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, James Earl Jones’ Cry The Beloved Country and Clint Eaastwood’s Invictus. A film documentary titled On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, the story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award.
The group’s most recent CD, Songs From A Zulu Farm, is a collection of traditional tunes from their youth in South Africa. The CD recreates the idyllic world in which the members once lived. Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be releasing a children’s CD, in late 2013, called Stories and Songs From A Zulu Farm in which they’ve created a narrative story to join with their recent songs for children to better understand life on a Zulu farm. This will be their first children’s CD since the 1990’s. As well they will release a live CD called Singing For Peace Around The World in early 2013. Later they will release a new traditional Zulu CD in 2014 and an all English American Gospel recording with a famous American singer.