Ladysmith Black Mambazo still moving forward

Lulis Leal

They are probably the world’s most famous a cappella singing group. They are almost certainly South Africa’s most successful musical export. And more than 50 years after their founding and almost 30 years since they found global acclaim on Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo carry on — releasing new records, touring the world, and collecting awards, including, last Sunday, their fourth Grammy.

This latest honor, for best world music album (in a tie with the Gipsy Kings), came for the live recording, “Singing for Peace Around the World,” that the stalwart all-male Zulu singing group released last year. But their next project is already out: “Always With Us,” an homage to Nellie Shabalala, the late wife of founder Joseph Shabalala and a singer in her own right, who was killed in 2002.


That record, which was released earlier this month, weaves recordings of Nellie into the songs, making it the first co-ed Mambazo album, albeit posthumously. But the idea goes back a long time, says Albert Mazibuko, a Mambazo member since the 1960s who is leading the current tour — which visits Sanders Theatre on Feb. 2 — in the absence of Shabalala, who is recovering in South Africa from back surgery.

“We started to think of it when Joseph married Nellie in 1976,” says Mazibuko, who is Shabalala’s cousin. “Two of Joseph’s sisters and one of my sisters were singing. I remember thinking how beautiful it was. But it took us so long to do it because it had to be perfect.”

In fact, as Mazibuko explains, the Zulu songs, in a style called isicathamiya, have roots in rural music that both men and women sung. But in the apartheid economy, large numbers of men migrated to the mining regions, separating them from their families for months at a time. All-male choirs formed as a result, with men singing in all the ranges, including soprano and alto parts. Lady-
smith Black Mambazo, named for Lady-
smith, the founders’ hometown, became the most prominent.


The songs on “Always With Us” represent the rural sound at isicathamiya’s root, Mazibuko says. “Most of them are wedding songs.” One celebrates a happy relationship between a wife and mother-in-law. Another enacts a singing competition between the bride’s and the groom’s families. In concert, Mazibuko says, this song gets a theatrical presentation, the two sides starting far apart and coming closer as the contest escalates.

The project was bittersweet for the group, raising memories of Nellie Shabalala’s gunshot death and the trial of her killer, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004. “It was emotional especially for Joseph, and for all of us,” Mazibuko says. “But we decided, let’s face it and deal with it.”

Last month, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was called to mark another death: that of Nelson Mandela, who was a friend and a longtime fan. Mambazo accompanied Mandela when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1993, and the group performed at his presidential inauguration the following year.

“He accepted us as his very close children,” Mazibuko says. “He was a magical personality. We are trying to be what he wanted us to be.”

At the memorial concert for Mandela in Cape Town on Dec. 11, Mambazo had the honor of performing last — as if to accompany his spirit on its onward journey.


Yet despite the relationship with Mandela and their vast international fame, particularly after Simon featured them on “Graceland,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo have occupied an odd position in South Africa, says Sean Jacobs, a Cape Town-raised scholar of South African politics and culture and professor at the New School.

“They’re a national treasure, no doubt,” Jacobs says. “They made you proud. But they were not explicitly political in the time when you were supposed to be explicitly political. They had a very specific audience — rural migrants — and they played Zulu music that few people knew about, outside of people who cared about Zulu music.”

As a result, Jacobs says, Mambazo have had a stronger impact globally, with their host of high-profile collaborations, than in South Africa itself, where younger artists rarely sampled or remix them, for instance, in the way that they engage with Hugh Masekela or Miriam Makeba’s catalog.

“But Mandela understood they were geniuses,” Jacobs says.

Isicathamiya remains a niche genre: A number of new choirs carry the torch, but the a cappella format and Zulu language may limit crossover possibilities. Mambazo, however, is renewing itself from within: the group includes children and nephews of the original members, and Shabalala’s grandson Babuliye is part of the current tour.

The group also spends a bit less time on the road than in the past, Mazibuko says, allowing them to engage more with the South African audience. They recently premiered a theater production, “Amambazo: The Musical,” which tells the group’s story in the context of the freedom struggle and life under apartheid.


“It gives us a way to relate and be with young people,” Mazibuko says. Part of Mambazo’s vocation, he adds, is to be educators, both about isicathamiya and about the country’s history — whether at home or on the road.

“We’re a moving academy,” he says. “We’re trying to teach everywhere we go.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.