Ladysmith Black Mambazo
An Interview with Richard Cather
Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1974. They've cut over thirty albums since then, but the group did not become well known outside of South Africa until Paul Simon asked them to perform on Graceland.
Shabalala was born into a poor family that lived on a White man's farm near the town of Ladysmith. There were eight children in the Shabalala family, and, as the oldest boy, it was Joseph's duty to take care of the family after his father died.
Shabalala's first musical experience, save for a bit of fooling around on the guitar, came with a choral group called The Blacks. Shabalala eventually took over leadership of the group and became its main composer. The Blacks won most of the local vocal competitions and became the most popular Zulu vocal group, but Shabalala felt that something was missing. "I had been hearing a voice inside me," Shabalala said. "I didn't know it, but it was the voice of God." When the voice told him to fast, Shabalala obeyed, and on his fast, he had a vision of a new kind of vocal music. Shortly thereafter he became a Christian. Taking the choral music he heard in the Christian church, he combined it with the Zulu tradition to create his own style.
When the Blacks refused to take part in Shabalala's experiments, he formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group consists of seven bass voices, an alto, a tenor, and Shabalala singing lead. Even if you don't speak Zulu, when they hit a low rumbling note, you can literally feel the power of their voices in your body. he Zulu word "Mambazo" refers to an ax - symbolic of the group's ability to "chop down" the competition. So good were they that after a time they were forbidden to enter the competitions but welcomed, of course, to entertain.
A radio broadcast in 1970 brought about their first record contract. Since then, the group has recorded close to forty albums, selling over three million records at home and abroad, establishing them as the number one record selling group in Africa. Their work with Paul Simon on the "Graceland" album attracted a world of fans who never knew that the subtleties of Zulu harmony could be so captivating. With "Graceland" sales of more than 10 million copies to date, the association with Simon assures they will be heard for years to come.
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 five additional times. The group has also recorded with numerous artists from around the world including Stevie Wonder, Julia Fordham, The Wynans, George Clinton and Dolly Parton.
Film work includes a featured appearance in Michael Jackson's video "Moonwalker" and Spike Lee's "Do It A Cappella". Mambazo provided soundtrack material for the recent video release of Disney's "The Lion King Part II" as well as Eddie Murphy's "Coming To America", Marlon Brando's "A Dry White Season", and James Earl Jones' "Cry The Beloved Country". Their performance with Paul Simon on Sesame Street is legendary - their appearance is one of the top three requested Sesame Street segments in history. Their list of commercial projects include CLIO Award winning commercials for 7 Up and Lifesavers Candy, as well as an "on camera" appearance for an IBM television campaign, "Solutions For a Small Planet", featuring people from around the world speaking of IBM computers in their native language, showing Mambazo singing at home in South Africa.
The following interview with Joseph Shabalala and Albert Mazibuko, the oldest members of the group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, took place in Atlanta during their last American tour.
Richard Cather: How much of what you do is filtered through your consciousness or your sensibility as Zulus, not just as South Africans? What perspective does that give you?
Albert Mazibuko: To me, it's like living in a dream; it feels like, all the time, I'm going to wake up from this dream, but I'm not. At the same time, it's a fulfillment of Mr. Shabalala's prophecy. When we started to sing -- I think it was about a year -- he said if we could do this and carry on doing this many things will happen. Then he started to tell us about dreams that he had, the flying, we're singing for many people, doing all these things. So, actually, it's happening right now. It's something, that all the dreams are coming true.
Joseph Shabalala: It's very, very deep. Even the name Zulu, it means 'heaven.' It means, 'We are from heaven. We are children of heaven.' When you go back to the history, there was a king called Shaka. That king was just like a man who's born with improvement, to improve dancing, improve the sound. His father was an expert, and his aunt was the same thing, very expert. But that man -- he took from his father, his aunt -- and with his energy, it was just like he united a nation. He united a cause of people, the Venda people, the Shaman people. What are we talking about? Democracy today. That man was doing the same thing.
Therefore, to be a Zulu, you feel like, I suppose, to be in heaven. And when Mazibuko Albert is talking about my dreAlbert Mazibuko: I dreamt many things, like, 'Guys we are going to the populous. Don't smoke, because people are going to give you more smokes. Stop drinking, because friends are going to give you more.' And we stopped. Now, to the Zulu -- we Zulus, we are proud to have a king, a person who was going to take on our minds and put that in front of him. And it makes us very happy to be accepted all over the world. We are very proud to send this message of peace and hope to the people, which, I think, they all need at this time of reconciliation.
Richard Cather: We can't talk about Ladysmith Black Mambazo and South Africa without talking about apartheid. When you started performing, the climate was very different from what it is now. Nelson Mandela was in jail for a long time during that period, and the black majority was disenfranchised. What kind of impact did that have on what you were doing and on your music, working in that environment?
Joseph Shabalala: I was surprised when he was released, first of all.
Richard Cather: Really?
Joseph Shabalala: When people talked to him when he was released, he was asking, 'Where's Joseph Shabalala? I like his music.' I was surprised. I didn't have an idea that Mandela was just there, into the culture. I thought he was a man of, [with fists clenched tough-guy-ish] 'Hey! What are you doing here in my country?' or something like that. But, when he was released, first of all he said, 'Where is Joseph Shabalala? That man, he must carry on. He is just like our pillar, he's our ambassador.'
And, at that time, it was very tough. You were not allowed, in South Africa, to sing in the city halls, in the other areas for white people. We were just singing for our people. Only a few whites used to come because they owned the company. They used to come and enjoy it. They loved the music. They said, 'Woah, this is beautiful.' But many of them -- all of them -- they were not allowed to come and watch, because of that discrimination or something like, 'It's no good to listen to these people.'
As the time passed, people used to ask me many questions about, 'What do you think about the ANC? (African National Congress) What you think about the IFP? (Inkatha Freedom Party) What do you think about the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress)? What you think about &endash;-?' And I said, 'I am their child. All of them, they are my fathers, brothers and sisters.' They wanted to know whether I support one of them. I said, 'No, all of them are the same.'
As the time went, they understood that I love all of them. To me, there is nothing like, 'This is wrong, this is right.' I felt like I could stand in between and call them, by this harmony, to love one another, to share this idea, and I was very happy all the time when I talked to them. I said, 'One day, Mandela will be out. One day, Buthelezi (leader of the IFP), they will be together.' And people said, 'Pssht. Pastor, Pastor Shabalala, it's okay. It's just dreaming.' But, today, they understand what we were talking about.
The song says: 'King of Kings/ We kneel before thee/ Asking for peace.' It was my second composition in the sixties or seventies. That was a song which was trying to disclose this prayer, straight to God: 'We know that we are sinners in this world, but we ask peace.' And at last, today you can see Mandela, you can see the PAC, you can see -- what is this, another organization, those white people NNP (New National Party) -- you see them together, sharing ideas. But we need more than that. They're still afraid of one another. They are still learning, just like the person who is beginning to write his name, and then to write another name for somebody else. We need more friends outside to come and embrace, to encourage us to do this.
Richard Cather: Do you think Ladysmith Black Mambazo has had an influence on the changes in South Africa? If you could claim part of the new South Africa, what part would you like to claim?
Albert Mazibuko: The people used to tell us that we are an example of oneness, because we were able to work together in all circumstances. And we've remained as a group for more than 30 years. So, they said, if all the people of South Africa could take an example from us, they would begin to work together and achieve great things.
Richard Cather: What would you like your legacy to be? I know that you have started the -- is it the National Academy of Music and Dance?
Joseph Shabalala: Yes. The Cultural Music Academy. There we want to fulfill the things which were unrated, unappreciated, not valued for many years. Teach our people to love themselves -- especially that. The teaching was like, 'Your voice is not beautiful, try to imitate somebody.' Now, the teaching would stimulate the mind of the people in music and dancing because, to us, dancing is the way to live. That gives you the spirit and the power. Love yourself, love your ideas, love your voice -- especially your voice. I used to see people imitating. It means that, to him, his voice is not right, he doesn't like it, it's better to imitate somebody. It means that we need that teaching: to love yourself, to love your family. That was my teaching, for a long time, with Mambazo: Love yourself. I can't work with you if you don't like yourself. If you don't love your father and mother, I can't work with you. Try to spread this love.
Richard Cather: What's it like, coming from a small rural community, to find yourselves international media stars? I know you have that commercial in England for Heinz soup that has become its own cultural statement, like the Gap khakis ads here in the United States. Is it strange for you to see yourselves in that role? How do you react?
Albert Mazibuko: I think it was the day before yesterday -- it wasn't the first time -- when I woke up in the morning I asked myself, 'Where am I?' Then, when I looked around, I found out that I was in the hotel room. So I asked myself, 'Why I am here?' and then it came to my mind that this is a gift of God. So, it makes me see that: how wonderful God is to us. And it's very difficult to explain it, as you said, to be in this international community and--
Joseph Shabalala: [Laughing and groaning] Whew.
Albert Mazibuko: -- it makes you always ask yourself the question, but there's no answer. The answer is only that God is wonderful.
Joseph Shabalala: I think so, too.
Albert Mazibuko: And that He has other aims. And I'm very grateful that I was able to fulfill that role.
Joseph Shabalala: To be born and raised not in a township, not in a city -- outside, in rural areas, running up and down there, shepherding oxen. While you're a child, you can see yourself just wearing a shirt without trousers, and running up and down, throwing the stick to the birds and rabbits, and all those things. And, at last, you find yourself in the airplane with Paul Simon, and you ask yourself, 'Who am I? What am I doing here?' When you go back home, you feel like, 'Let me go back to my real place, and pray there, and look at the place and try to meditate and see myself running in the tall grass and these trees, and, at last, you say, 'God is wonderful.' [Laughs] There is nothing else. Heh, heh, heh. [Laughs] Yeah.
Richard Cather: Since you began, the group has become very successful. I can imagine the attractions of fame and travel and fortune, but was it hard to leave things behind? What was difficult to leave behind?
Joseph Shabalala: It's very difficult to leave the family at home. It's a joy to see new faces, smiling faces, but we also miss our family. But what is very important to us is to spread this culture because, all along, it was hiding somewhere. The culture was not allowed in school because at school it was only Euro-centric music, Euro-centric teaching, there was no real culture. We carried this culture in our mind. I was just like a teacher, composer, and planning everything to carry this -- to sing and dance. Because I believe that indigenous music is just like our memory: it's there when we see ourselves and know who we are.
I was glad that one day, Paul Simon came. Gates were closed. They tried to stop the music. It was very difficult. But, because music is universal, there's no boundary. And we had a chance to spread this word to the world, to the people and whoever.
Singing and talking, they are two different things. Talking is good, but singing is better than everything.
Richard Cather: Christian spirituality runs through a lot of your songs. Can you talk about that a little bit? How important is that in what you do and who you are?
Joseph Shabalala: We encouraged many people, in South Africa especially, to sing religious songs. They were afraid to sing and record, they thought it was no good to 'sell God.' But, we followed our dreams, we repented, and we went to radio with the pastor. Then we started to compose the songs and we were an example to the people, especially the young ones. There are many people at home who are religious. And we are the ones who started to inspire people to talk to God. That is our message: to unite, black and white. Different colors mean nothing to us.
Richard Cather: What do you think new communications, like the Internet and computers, mean for Africa? [JS points to AM] Are you the expert on that?
Joseph Shabalala: He used to explain it on stage, [AM laughs] and I used to clash with him, 'No, no, not like that.'
Richard Cather: What do you think it's going to mean for Africa in the 21st century, this completely new infrastructure and information economy?
Albert Mazibuko: I hope it's great. The communication is very great, but I wish they could do more than just communicate -- to, more, educate people. When the TV was introduced, we were hoping that it would bring the teaching that we don't get anymore, the kind of teaching that we used to get from our grandmothers, the elder people. I wish, given the Internet, they could do more education, but I think the Internet is great. My son uses it. I don't have time to sit with the computer every day but we do have it.
Joseph Shabalala: I think all my sons who are here with us, they know how to get onto the Internet now because they have computers. I have a computer, but I don't know how to get to the Internet. That's why I used to argue with him [pointing to Albert ] when he used to talk to the people on the stage and said, 'Now you can visit Mambazo from the Internet.' And I said, 'No, no, no, no. "Net" is danger. "Inter" is okay, but inter-door.' Just open the door and see Mambazo, because the 'net,' it's just like the fish, it's danger. It'll catch you, watch out. Inter-door. But he said, 'No, no, no, no, no. Inter-net.'
Richard Cather: Who have been some of the influences on the music that you make and the lives that you lead? Who are your own heroes?
Joseph Shabalala: There was a guy who passed away now, by the name Galiyani Hlathwayo. He's from Ladysmith. He is the one who influenced me that there was a way to improve the music. To me, he was a teacher. Also, he was the one who had a beautiful voice and I took it from him. But composition? He didn't have that. Yes. He was my hero. Even in my first LP, you'll find his name.
Richard Cather: Did you have a hero, Albert?
Albert Mazibuko: [points to Joseph] Him.
Richard Cather: Joseph?
Albert Mazibuko: Yes.