/ 12 February 2020

How Joseph Shabalala’s Mambazo chopped the competition down

123rd Ioc Session Durban 2011
Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs during the opening ceremony of the 123rd IOC session on July 5, 2011 in Durban. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

The idea of being divinely gifted, to such an extent as to dream lucidly of your artistic purpose and material, is a trope that often artists revert to. Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala, whose death at the age of 78 was announced on Tuesday morning, deployed this routine expertly as the foundational myth of the group. This was purposeful, as it enhanced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s mystique and helped them to maintain a gulf between their group and the thousands of other scathamiya formations in operation in the 1960s, when the collective evolved stylistically.

“He was prolific, always singing and writing,” says cousin and longtime group member Albert Mazibuko, on the phone from Los Angeles, where Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on yet another United States tour. “But he’d say he had these dreams in 1964 over an extended period of about six months. He dreamt of an ensemble, he said, dressed in robes, performing a particular repertoire rich in harmony and melody. He said he couldn’t hear the language but he could hear the sound. Some of the group members at the time couldn’t catch it when he relayed it, but he persevered.”

Shabalala’s dreams set him off on a quest to improve on the sound of isicathamiya, or cothoza mfana (an acapella sound that had metamorphosed from Zulu wedding songs), eventually reaching the conclusion that he had to recruit new members into the group. “He tried to get myself and my brother, Milton, into the group in 1967 but the others protested … he eventually did so in 1969,” says Mazibuko. The group consisted of six members at that point. 

“On the day of our first rehearsal,” says remembers Mazibuko, “he taught us two songs, Nkosi Yamakhosi, then Buya Dudu Wami, which had a choreographed step to it. From there we never looked back.” 

Elaborating on Shabalala’s innovations within the form, Durban Black Drifters founder and scathamiya promoter Chris Ntuli says Shabalala brought a kind of rhythm and blues flavour to the style, one that moved away from the high-pitched stylings of the day. “Cothoza comes in different forms, usually identifiable by region. The Midlands (where members of Black Mambazo were from) were the foundation of the isithululu style, which was sort of low pitched, in the key of ‘E’, if you want to talk staff notation. It’s a kind of lullaby music,” Ntuli says. “Whereas in KwaZulu areas like Empangeni, you encounter a high-pitched sound called bombing, to use a term Thulasizwe Nkabinde coined. In the South Coast the styles are somewhere between isithululu and bombing.” 

“The scene they found was dominated by what people called ‘isikhwela joe’, concurs Derrick Mlambo of the Kholwa Brothers, “which meant to project through the hall, because there were no microphones. They brought the tone down and made it dynamic. The harmonies were low and had a calming effect. They made the music listenable, if you can imagine sitting down under a tree. It became intricate, like jazz. If you listen to jazz it is meditative, the confluence of all these different sounds — the voices, the messages — into this symphonic whole.”  

Mazibuko says Shabalala’s drive — from their base of rented accommodation at KwaNgubane in Clermont — was not only to complicate the harmonies and the melodies but to flesh out the storytelling potential of the music. “I guess for him the stories and the metaphors came as some kind of a flow. I remember the one song, which has never been recorded, called Nankugesi. The words went, ‘Nankugesi, ubhampa emafini. [There is electricity bouncing off the clouds].’ It was at night and he was sitting ePholweni (the farm where we grew up in Ladysmith) watching as the moon flitted between the clouds.”

Mazibuko recalls their early days working at Grinaker (from the late 1960s to the early 1970s), as filled with music during break times and during the mechanical work. “When we got home, we practised for hours from 6pm. On Saturdays, there’d be competitions in Clermont but also in different parts of the city like KwaMashu, the YMCA in Beatrice Street, in Congella, near King Edward Hospital and other places.” 

The group’s first album, Amabutho, released in 1973 by Gallo, sold over 25 000 copies at the time, establishing them as a commercial force. 

“By that time we had been kicked out of Grinaker for always being late to work on Mondays,” recalls Mazibuko. “In 1973, there were petrol shortages, so sometimes we couldn’t make it back to Durban on time if we’d been travelling to, say Johannesburg or Pretoria, because garages would close on Friday [at] around 6pm and only reopen on Monday at 6am.”  

Despite the album’s relative success, Mazibuko remembers the early years as characterised by thriftiness and the pooling of resources. “We built rooms, but many of us were still in Clermont in Nduduma.” Although they played across southern Africa regularly, Mazibuko says it was an invitation to a festival in Cologne, Germany in 1981 that precipitated a change in fortune. The footage from that performance somehow landed up in the hands of Paul Simon’s circle, planting a seed for their eventual Graceland collaboration, which was released in 1986. 

Mlambo, says that if one picked apart the style Mshengu Shabalala developed, one would see that it was self-contained with even its own choreographic language. “I remember he once came to listen to us and, seeing the resemblance to his style, he said, ‘I like what you are doing, yakhela ngamaquba enye… I can see you influenced by me but make sure there is some originality to what you do.’ Those lessons are not easy to impart but it shows his empathy and his selflessness.”
Musicologist Sazi Dlamini believes Shabalala’s primary legacy is in how he expanded the music’s visibility through his openness to collaboration, taking it out the country as they did through Graceland, on which they worked with Paul Simon. “They were persistent and prolific in the 1970s when Radio Zulu was prominent and isicathamiya grew as a genre at the time. This is partly because it was nonthreatening, benign music,” Dlamini says. “Censorship was at its prime at that time and isicathamiya was docile and was associated with religion through the mission infrastructure. The migrant labour system also gave it impetus as a method of reinforcing homeboy networks.”

In its essence, Dlamini believes the style’s iteration not to be limited to acapella. “Solomon Linda’s Mbube, for example, has a guitar and a banjo in it; traces of isicathamiya were in popular music in all its forms. The acapella aspect has something to do with the growth of radio and the [apartheid-engineered] ethnic separatism that came with that — the splitting up of communities. Radio [programming] was also used as a tool to erase the memory of places like Mkhumbane and Sophiatown [and the cultural dynamicism that they embodied]. Isicathamiya came to emphasise linguistic differences, just like maskanda has been used  in that way.”

Mlambo believes that in its own way, the music, as an idiom, sang to the times and the changes the passage of time brought. “Joseph has been ill for these past seven years and in his illness, I felt like there were so many things he could have said, through his compositions, about what has been happening in this country, in his own charismatic way of phrasing. But I guess we’ll never know, now.” 

Today Ladysmith Black Mambazo, headed by several of Shabalala’s sons, continue to tour and record but, Ntuli believes, something of the group’s essence has been lost. “Those rich bass harmonies are no longer there, people like Rusel Mthembu and many others are no longer there. But I mean, that’s like crying about the Kaizer Chiefs of yesteryear. What Shabalala established cannot be undone as people continue to mimic and build from it.”

Shabalala, who passed away on Tuesday at a Pretoria hospital, led Mambazo through countless Grammy nominations (the grouped bagged five), a discography of over 50 recordings and millions of record sales. In a past interview with the Mail & Guardian, Shabalala, in acknowledgement of the music’s position as a complicated repository of various strands of the colonial and precolonial encounters, seemed to put all the achievements into clear, simple perspective. “We are not singing this this kind of music to make ourselves famous — we are singing to remin people of who they are.”