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28 Feb 2014 00:00
In full cry: Ladysmith Black Mambazo say their success lies in striving for excellence. (Stephen Neilson)
In a career that spans more than 50 years, decorated a cappella choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo's 2014 Grammy Award – for best world music album for Singing for Peace Around the World – means just as much to them as their previous three.
"We actually didn't know that we had won because we were backstage when the announcement was made," says Albert Mazibuko. "Somebody came running to us and brought the news backstage.
We all celebrated when we heard.
"Some of us were running around, we were crying and we hugged each other.
Currently on tour in the United States, the group will unveil their new musical production Amambazo upon their return to Mzansi. Created by Shabalala and directed by Edmund Mhlongo, the musical pays tribute to the group's journey and its success. Its national tour kicks off at the State Theatre in May.
Through carefully selected music Amambazo tells the story of a young man longing for the love of a beautiful young maiden. After a series of struggles and challenges the young man finally received his victory with the help of an imbazo – an axe-like musical charm. Amambazo can be interpreted as the subtext of South Africa's journey from suffering through apartheid to its historic democracy in 1994 – it is a story of peace, unity and reconciliation.
Black Mambazo's global breakthrough came when they collaborated with American musician Paul Simon. Until that point, the group had only performed to largely black audiences in townships. Things began to change for the group when Simon asked Black Mambazo to perform on his landmark album Graceland in 1986, a move that thrust them before a global audience.
A year later, Simon produced Black Mambazo's first US release, Shaka Zulu, which won them their first Grammy Award in 1988. Since then, the group has won three Grammys and been nominated 16 times.
Ladysmith is the name of the rural town in KwaZulu-Natal where Shabalala grew up, Black symbolises a black ox believed to be the strongest animal on a farm and Mambazo is a Zulu word that means axe.
The axe is a symbol of the group's ability to "chop down" any rival who challenged them. Drenched in symbolism, it was almost as if Shabalala, in choosing the group's name, prophesied the success in which they revel today.
"The vision of Shabalala has kept the group strong," says Mazibuko. "We work very hard. We give ourselves time to produce the best. We are never satisfied with what we've produced because we want every song to be excellent. We sing about things that are close to people's hearts and the varied use of our harmonies and compositions keep our songs fresh and interesting."
Their albums are a testament to the philanthropic work they have achieved through song. Their mission is to spread the message of peace, love and harmony while also teaching people about South Africa and its culture.
"It's amazing that young people, who were not even born when we started this group, love us and ?listen to our music," says Mazibuko. "People around the world love the message of our songs."
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