Song of South Africa

Song of South Africa

Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Miami University’s Middletown Campus

By Leo DeLuca
Photo:  Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala [front] brings the group he founded over 45 years ago to Miami-Middletown campus on Feb. 13

Ladysmith Black Mambazo – the South African male choral group first widely recognized for their appearance on Paul Simon’s classic 1986 Graceland album – will perform at Miami University’s Middletown Campus on Wednesday, Feb. 13. Since Graceland, the choir has won a multitude of honors, including three Grammy Awards.

Singing in the traditional Zulu style of isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-ya), Ladysmith Black Mambazo was born out of a dream that came to founder Joseph Shabalala in the early 1960s. During this period of sleeping inspiration, he envisioned a choir singing in perfect harmony. Shabalala spoke of the experience in a recent interview:

“In the early 1960s, I had a dream of a type of singing group that I wanted to create. Not just a dream, in the wishful way, but an actual dream while I was asleep. This beautiful dream led to the creation of my group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Now, some 45-plus years later, this original dream has led to so many more dreams. We have been awarded Grammy Awards, represented our homeland of South Africa at many prestigious events, including accompanying Nelson Mandela to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, traveled the world so many times and most importantly, spread a message of peace, love and harmony to millions of people. This was never a dream a black South African could ever imagine. As the years have passed, and the 20th century became the 21st, I started to get asked what will happen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo once I retired, if I ever retired. Well, I have spent much time thinking about this. Ladysmith Black Mambazo was never about one person. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a mission: A mission to spread our message and to keep our culture alive and known. South Africa is a most wonderful place, filled with beautiful people. By touring, as we have, almost seven months every year for over 20 years, we have wanted to keep South Africa alive in people’s hearts.”

To date, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has done a tremendous job of living out their goals. According to the group, the tradition of isicathamiya originated 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.” LBM continues the custom to this day.

Originally titled Ezimnyama (“The Black Ones”), the group later changed their name to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Ladysmith” was the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown – the site where he grew up as a farm-boy and later became a factory worker, “Black” references oxen – the most virile of all farm animals and “Mambazo” is the Zulu word for “axe.” Legend has it that LBM were so tight they could “chop down” any fellow contestant in the many competitions they entered. Eventually, the choir’s pristine harmonies became so powerful that they were banned from competitions and encouraged to participate strictly as entertainers.

After impressing on a 1970 radio broadcast, Ladysmith Black Mambazo signed their first record contract and released Amabutho shortly after. Since then, the group has generated an expansive discography of over 50 recordings. According to LBM, “their philosophy in the studio was – and continues to be – just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment.”

In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon caught wind of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and invited them to perform with him on record and in concert. This led to Simon producing 1988’s Shaka Zulu – the group’s first stateside release and first Grammy Award-winning album. Afterward, LBM began collaborating with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and many more.

After rising to fame, Ladysmith Black Mambazo put their credentials to good use and are as culturally minded as they are musically talented. In 1999, Shabalala decided to launch the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation – their mission being to teach Zulu children about isicathamiya, their traditions and their culture. In turn, Zulu customs will flourish for many generations to come.

When asked about the future of the group in 2008, Shabalala responded, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a family. Within the group I have had brothers and cousins singing together. Over the past 15 years, because of retirements and death, I have been joined by four of my sons. They are the future of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, our next generation. The mission and message will continue. Thus, the dream I had over 45 years ago will continue well into the 21st century. We never will be silenced and we hope our fans and friends around the world will keep wanting to hear this message.”

Ladysmith Black Mombazo will perform on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the David Finkelman Auditorium on Miami University’s Middletown campus. Tickets are $26 general admission, $24 for seniors/staff and $15 for students and children under 12. For more information, visit mambazo.com or regionals.muohio.edu/artistseries/middletown.htm.

Reach DCP freelance writer Leo DeLuca at LeoDeLuca@daytoncitypaper.com

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