/ 19 December 2023

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Under international skies

Ladysmith Black Mambazo Celebrates Africa Month In South Africa
National treasure: Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at the Joburg Theatre on 25 May as part of their South African Legacy Tour. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images

The acapella masters Ladysmith Black Mambazo could easily have just basked in the ample and deserved glory of their monumental South African Legacy Tour. This musical journey began in May at the Joburg Theatre and ended at the State Theatre in Pretoria on 15 December. 

This ahead of yet another tour to the US next year.

The isicathamiya nine-piece has a long and glorious career that started in December 1960, when it was founded by the late Joseph Shabalala, that first incarnation as “Ezimnyama” (“The Black Ones”). 

In 1964, they became Ladysmith Black Mambazo, named after Shabalala’s KwaZulu-Natal hometown. Black is a reference to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, and Mambazo is the Zulu word for “axe”, a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” any singing rival who might challenge them. 

Their collective voices were so tight, and their harmonies so polished, that by the end of the 1960s they were banned from competitions — although they were welcome to participate as entertainers.

A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract. It was the beginning of an ambitious discography that includes more than 50 recordings. Their debut album in 1973, Amabutho, brought the hugely popular group their first of countless gold records.

But, as the Rough Guide to World Music wrote, by the mid-1980s the boom was over, with many urban black South Africans dismissing their sound as “hick”.

Just in time, in the mid-1980s, Paul Simon heard their music and was blown away. 

He visited South Africa and incorporated the group’s rich harmonies into his famous Graceland album. He recorded two tracks he composed with Shabalala, Homeless and Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, which became two of the greatest hits off the album. 

This 1986 release was Simon’s most successful album and his highest-charting album in over a decade. It is estimated to have sold more than 16 million copies worldwide. It exposed the world to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. 

Their talent has been rewarded with multiple awards, including five Grammys, and attracted millions of fans around the world.

In addition to their work with Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have recorded with numerous artists, including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge and even Burna Boy. 

Their music has also featured in several films.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at Joburg Theatre on May 25, 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Grammy award-winning isicathamiya group Ladysmith Black Mambazo will embark on their national SA Legacy Tour from 24-28 May to celebrate Africa Month. (Photo by Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela designated the group “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world”.

The nonet, including four of Shabalala’s sons, are not resting on their laurels and are ploughing back into the industry through the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Mobile Academy. It was launched four years ago to develop young aspiring groups who sing isicathamiya and indigenous music, says group member Thulani Shabalala, one of Joseph’s sons. 

“There are nine music groups that we have identified from our provinces and, of the nine, two groups had the privilege of joining us in the US,” says Thulani. 

“We also managed to get the groups in the studio and facilitated workshops with them.” 

He says that the Legacy Tour is a platform to get them exposure, so that more people can engage with them and their music. 

“We want to fully expose them to people, which is why we have chosen a different strategy of having them part of the tour, not as opening and closing acts, but we have them right in the middle of our set. Our hope is to expose them to South Africa and our audiences abroad.” 

Shabalala says the academy was the brainchild of his dad, Joseph, who had the wish of mentoring young groups. 

The academy was taking way too long to come to fruition, so Shabalala says instead of waiting, they would go to people instead, hence the mobile academy.  

There have been challenges, says Shabalala, that they came across along the way as they were touring the country, affording mentorship to a capella groups.  

“You find that some are unable to use microphones and, of course, there are those group dynamics, such as time management and maybe the attitude of others. 

“But we took on those challenges by teaching the groups some of the values that bab’Shabalala taught us. 

“Also teaching them discipline and understanding that their voices are a gift from God, and they have to respect that,” he says. 

Shabalala says what has kept Ladysmith Black Mambazo together for so long is its founding members’ vision of taking this indigenous music to the world. 

“They left Ladysmith and went to Durban, where they rented a room which they shared among the 10 of them. Imagine that. 

“And when a song would come to one member in the middle of the night, they would all wake up and participate. That is the kind of dedication and camaraderie we are trying to build in these groups.”

This programme, supported by the national department of sports, arts and culture, has unearthed and developed young groups, breathing new life into isicathamiya and indigenous music.

“The outcome of the Legacy Tour is to etch the memory of Joseph Shabalala into the hearts of South Africans, so they can remember him always. We hope that the music academy can be built as part of his wishes,” Shabalala says.

As the curtains close on the Legacy Tour in Pretoria, Ladysmith Black Mambazo invite their fans to join them for a musical journey through time, culture and the indomitable spirit of South Africa. 

Joseph Shabalala would have approved.