Ladysmith Black Mambazo begins American tour
By Timothy Finn
Most music fans in the United States were introduced to Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1986. That’s the year Paul Simon released “Graceland,” which fused Western music with traditional South African music and showcased several black South African musicians and artists, including Ladysmith, a male choral group.
But Ladysmith had been around for decades before it went into the studio with Simon. Joseph Shabalala founded the group in Durban, South Africa, in the early 1960s. Its name has three origins: Ladysmith is the name of Shabalala’s rural hometown; black refers to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and “mambazo” is the Zulu word for “axe” and a metaphor for the group’s ability to “chop down” its singing rivals.
Shabalala, 70, is still the leader of the group, which now comprises eight men. One of them is Albert Mazibuko, a cousin of Shabalala. Via email from his home in South Africa, Mazibuko answered questions about the band’s latest Grammy-nominated album and its upcoming performance Tuesday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Q: Your album “Songs From a Zulu Farm” is one of the nominees in the world music categories at this year’s Grammy Awards. Tell us about how you came up with the concept of this album.
A: We’re very honored by this. It’s our 16th Grammy nomination and, if we get the Grammy, it would be our fourth.
We love this CD. It’s different than most of our CDs because it’s a collection of songs we used to sing as kids on our family farms. Our grandparents and parents used to sing these songs or tell us the stories in the songs, and then when we grew older and had our own kids we sung the songs to them.
It’s a very personal CD. It’s part of our family history. When we were deciding on a new CD someone asked us what type of songs we used to sing as kids and this prompted us to do this. We love these songs and wanted to share them with our fans around the world.
Q: It includes a version of “Old McDonald,” a children’s song nearly everyone in the United States knows. Did you already know the song, or did someone introduce it to you?
A: When we were in the studio, our producer (Mitch Goldstein), an American, asked us if we knew any American children’s songs. We didn’t and he sang “Old MacDonald.” We never knew this song, but it was so much fun.
Plus it’s about a farm, which fit perfectly with what we were doing. We actually had our grandkids join us on the recording. Some people have heard it and say, “It’s too much fun to be sung by Black Mambazo,” meaning they think we should be more serious. I disagree. Fun is good, too, and that is what the song is about: being with your family and having fun.
Q: Ladysmith Black Mambazo has made many records. Do you have a favorite or two (or three)? If so, what do you like most about them?
A: “Zulu Farm,” of course, is a big favorite because of our family history. So is “Shaka Zulu” from 1987, which was our first album after “Graceland” and all that excitement. Plus, Paul Simon produced it, and it won us our first Grammy. There are such beautiful memories from all of that. Those would be my favorite two.
Q: “Graceland” introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to millions of people in America. How did making that album ultimately affect your group?
A: It gave us an audience from around the whole world. It allowed us to experience more than just life in South Africa. It showed us that the problems we have in South Africa were something that people have everywhere. Perhaps not exact to us but problems still. Our struggle is the world’s struggle. It expanded our view on what we should sing about.
On a more artistic note, it changed us by showing us that the professionalism we worked hard to follow was followed by others who were very successful. It hardened our conviction and dedication to what we were doing.
Q: What does your group’s music mean to you as someone born in South Africa? What does it say about your homeland and its history?
A: South Africa was a terrible place for a black person to live. The apartheid system that denied us freedom, that denied us a chance at improving our lives, was so difficult. We, the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, felt it was our mission to sing songs, to our people, of hope for the future. We sang to them of a better life that (lay) ahead, a life with freedom from fear.
We still sing of this because the whole world is in trouble. We need positive voices. This is our mission. Our traditional singing comes from deep inside South Africa.
Source: Kansas City Star