Ladysmith Black Mambazo, pictured performing at the Durban Jazz Festival in 2014, won their fifth Grammy on Sunday night. Picture: THULI DLAMINI
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, pictured performing at the Durban Jazz Festival in 2014, won their fifth Grammy on Sunday night. Picture: THULI DLAMINI

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the African sound that has enjoyed the most success in the US, is performing a series of concerts in SA. The group has released 60 albums and has won five Grammy awards.

It was founded by Joseph Shabalala, who says his love for Zulu music started at home when his mother was cooking. She would sing and the family would join in. His father worked on the mines and formed a singing group.

In 1964 Shabalala was guided by a dream that persisted every night for six months. Children appeared to him singing and dancing sweetly. They coached him on how to blend voices and dance moves.

He recruited his cousins and brothers and formed a vocal group. It was named "Ladysmith" as a proclamation of his home; "black" in reference to the most powerful breed of oxen on the farm; and "Mambazo", meaning chopping axe, a crucial tool in rural areas.

The music was a unique presentation of Zulu isicathamiya music, a form of a cappella singing with the cothoza choreographed tiptoe dance style.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo were fashionable and went unchallenged in annual KwaZulu-Natal isicathamiya competitions. Shabalala used the winnings to buy a home in Clermont township outside Durban and went full-time into music, signing with Gallo Record Company in 1972. He became a Christian priest in 1974 and has fathered nine children.

Many of Shabalala’s compositions come from his dreams. His first, Nomathemba, introduced his life mission to spread peace, love and harmony.

His son Thulani recalls: "My father was always hearing people singing for him. When he woke up from a dream at 2am he would wake us up and say, ‘this is the song I have dreamt, please keep it and remind me in the morning’."

Shabalala and his late wife Nellie groomed their children in singing and dancing from an early age. Their children recorded three albums while they were still at school with their group Young Mambazo and also sang in the Shabalala family church choir.

"When we were rehearsing, our father taught us that it is not only about singing, we also have to talk. That spirit of the angel must be with us," says Thulani.

Brothers Albert and Abednego Mazibuko joined the group in 1969 and are its oldest remaining members. Albert Mazibuko sees the group as an institution that he says will last for hundreds of years

"It starts within. You have to respect yourself as a creature of God. And, with your gift you represent your country, your father, mother and ancestors. Music is about helping one another. Only then will people follow you."

When Shabalala collaborated with American singer-songwriter Paul Simon on the composition Homeless, it changed everything. Ladysmith Black Mambazo went on their first world tour with Simon in 1987 and have not stopped touring since, spendinge four to eight months a year abroad.

The nine-piece vocal harmony group consists of four bass voices, three tenors and two altos. To date, 30 singers have performed in the group. Original members Jabulani Dubazana, Russel Mthembu and Shabalala himself have retired; and Ben Shabalala, Hedman Shabalala and Jeffery Mdletshe have died.

Brothers Albert and Abednego Mazibuko joined the group in 1969 and are its oldest remaining members. Albert Mazibuko sees the group as an institution that he says will last for hundreds of years.

"We are living the legacy. We teach the young generation dedication and integrity. Shosholoza, keep going, never stop until you reach your destination!" says Mazibuko.

In 1993, Shabalala introduced his sons Thulani, Sbongesini, Thamsanqa and Msizi into the group. The three have their own groups, including Izimpande, Shabalala Rhythm and Inkanyezi, which have become a launch pad for future members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo — such as Pius Shezi, who was selected from Shabalala Rhythm in 2016. The third generation is now coming into the spotlight and the Mazibuko grandchildren have formed an isicathamiya crossover group, Thee Legacy.

Of Shabalala’s 75 grandchildren, Babuyile, leader of the Young MBAZO group — an acronym for Movement Built to Acknowledge Zulu Origins — is the first in the family to learn to read and write music.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo are cultural ambassadors for Durban Tourism.

The eThekwini Municipality has declared the Shabalalas’ Clermont home a museum.

The group still uses the venue for rehearsals. Youngsters from the community have flocked to train there. Clermont resident Mfanafuthi Dlamini became a full-time member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo from such beginnings.

Joseph Shabalala has an honorary doctorate from the Durban University of Technology and an honorary music degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2017 a statue of him was erected in Ladysmith by the KwaZulu-Natal department of arts and culture.

Shabalala’s long-term vision of building a Ladysmith Music Academy has not yet been realised, though Ladysmith Black Mambazo are working towards it through a mobile academy that delivers workshops in schools and townships.

"Internationals are amazed by South African humanity," says Mazibuko. "When we speak our languages they say it sounds like music. We are a unique and blessed country."

• Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform at the State Theatre from June 1 to 3.

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