Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings African history to town


The South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which performs Saturday at the Phillips Center, gained international fame after appearing on Paul Simon's "Graceland" album.

Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 7:25 p.m.

Each time Albert Mazibuko reached a new town, the police met him with questions. The most important one was always, "Where is your permission to travel?"

Facts

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

What: South African vocal group

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Phillips Center, 315 Hull Road

Tickets: $20-35 (392-2787)

Being black under apartheid in South Africa, he could not travel without official permission. As a singer in his region's most popular group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he traveled often - always without permission.

Each time the police stopped the group, lead singer Joseph Shabalala would simply strike up a song, and each time, without fail, the police relented.

"We laughed at ourselves, 'Why do we do this all the time?' " recalls Mazibuko, who is Shabalala's cousin. "But it was the only way we could answer these questions they were asking us."

Now, as Ladysmith Black Mambazo prepares to play the Phillips Center on Saturday, Mazibuko looks back on a career defined by using music as an escape: first, from apartheid-era police, and more recently from tragedy (in 2002, Shabalala's wife of 30 years was shot and killed, and in 2004, his brother and former band member, Ben Shabalala, was also shot and killed).

"I remember when his brother was murdered, we were so shaken," Mazibuko says, his soft South African accent subdued with sorrow. "But, we talked among ourselves. We said, 'This guy, he liked the music, so he would like to see us carry on singing.' We are preaching peace, so let's live peace."

The group has carried on, as always, with an eye on preserving South African history, releasing "Illembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu" on Jan. 15. "Illembe" is the band's second album inspired by the 18th century Zulu leader, and the latest in a prolific career that has produced more than 50 albums and two Grammy Awards.

"We are trying to encourage people, especially the young people who always have some excuses when they don't achieve something," Mazibuko says. "But Shaka, he achieved so much. We say there is no excuse. Just believe in yourself."

Perhaps there is no greater testament to that message than the band's own rise from poor rural farmers to globetrotting, award-winning musicians.

Formed in the early 1960s by Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo borrows heavily from a style of a capella music that developed in the mines of South Africa called Isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya).

The group first sang in Isicathamiya competitions held in their hometown of Ladysmith. They won these competitions with such ease that they were eventually banned from participating. Indeed, they chose the word "mambazo," which means axe in Zulu, because of their ability to "chop down" the competition.

Still, it wasn't until 1986 that the group hit the mainstream on Paul Simon's groundbreaking album, "Graceland."

"I'll never forget that, because that was a great achievement for the group," Mazibuko says.

The next year, Simon produced Ladysmith's first album for Warner Bros. Records, entitled "Shaka Zulu," which won the group its first Grammy Award. And in 1994, the group became a part of history. Three years after the end of apartheid, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was invited to sing at Nelson Mandela's inauguration.

"I remember joking, I said, 'If someone could wake up from the dead now, they'd say what are all these people doing here?' " Mazibuko says of the event. "It was a great experience."

According to Shabalala, Mandela also charged them with being South Africa's symbolic cultural ambassadors.

That is a role the group has taken seriously, crafting songs of hope, encouragement and peace for a worldwide audience. And, Mazibuko says, that is the reason the songs keep coming after 40-some odd years.

"We can see that people need encouragement and inspiration, something that's going to keep them going," he says.

"So that brings the music all the time."

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