A lot of people talk about the power of music. Not many can say that they helped uproot an entire system of government and an oppressive social paradigm with their vocal harmonies.
While Paul Simon’s unveiling of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as his backing ensemble on the groundbreaking Graceland plunged the South African a cappella group to the forefront of global pop culture in 1986, the family of singers had already long been at the forefront of an anti-Apartheid musical movement at home.
When founder Joseph Shabalala first intertwined a sparkling all-male web of bass, alto and tenor pipes in 1964, outside of Durban in his hometown of Ladysmith, the group won every local contest it entered, to the point where the ensemble was banned from competing. Three Grammy Awards (and 13 nominations) later, and having sold more records than any African band in history, Ladysmith today stands as the most beloved voice of South Africa; one that created a musical bridge between white and black countryman, as well as between the country and the rest of the world.
At the time of Apartheid’s official divisions, Ladysmith fused Zulu isicathamiya and mbube harmonizing and dance with Christian traditions (as in their sobering version of “Amazing Grace”), and stepped forward to literally sing and dance past racial and political barriers. Nelson Mandela himself invited the group to accompany him during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and a year later Ladysmith’s ghostly harmonies—haunting and spiritually rousing—escorted in Mandela’s presidency at his official inauguration ceremony.
Now an eight-member choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo fills the Rio Theatre this week with unmatched, otherworldly harmonies on Monday, July 13, performing songs off this year’s Grammy-winner for Best Traditional World Music, Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu. Albert Mazibuko, a member since 1969, tells GT about how the humble yet internationally renowned group has kept the faith—and helps others to do the same.
Good Times: You began your career winning goats in local village competitions and have gone on to win Grammy awards. Winning which has meant the most to you?
Albert Mazibuko: Early on, winning the local competitions was very important and life affecting because it showed us that we were good at what we were doing. It encouraged us to focus on [music] and keep going. It also showed the rest of the people we were very good and it got the attention of radio stations, event promoters and record labels, so it really was important at the beginning. Honestly, [that was] probably more important than the Grammys. Winning three Grammy Awards has been wonderful and important, too. It also tells the world that people think a lot of our music so they pay attention. It helps us continue on our world travels every year. But, I think, if we didn’t win Grammys or won less, we would still be touring as we do.
The history of Apartheid is relatively recent. Since its end, you’ve witnessed Mandela become president of South Africa and now you’ve witnessed the first African American president in the U.S. What are your thoughts about these dramatic changes?
It shows that good change is possible. In South Africa it shows us that as long as we don’t fight, that we work together as one nation and people, we can make things better. This is what we are doing in South Africa; making things better by working together. Overcoming hate and years of anger. For what has happened in the USA with the election of President Obama, it’s a good thing to see America change so much in what is possible for the individual and the nation since its racial problems of the past.
People use weapons to rebel. You used, and still use, music. What made you think it could work in such dire times?
We have always felt that music is universal. We have a song called “Music Knows No Boundaries.” No matter where you are in the world people can unite over music, and if the message is positive then you can really make something good happen. If someone doesn’t speak your language they still can be affected by your music.
In 2006 you paid tribute to Mandela and democracy in South Africa with ‘Long Walk to Freedom.’ Last year you paid tribute to Shaka Zulu on ‘Ilembe’. What should your audience take from these albums?
Shaka was, and is, a very important person, hero and role model for South Africans. He united the country. He made people come together and work as one, and he was very proud to be African and Zulu. He spoke of living a life in a positive nature. All people can learn from him because he spoke of being the best you can be and not less. Regarding Nelson Mandela, well, we are just so blessed that we could join him for part of his journey these past years.
After four decades of performing, what reactions to your music have still surprised you ?
It’s the small moments between us/me and certain fans. We get lots of e-mails and we meet so many people at our concerts who tell us how important our songs have been to them or a loved one. People tell us how they raised their children with our music, how it taught the children that love and peace are important and the world is a big and beautiful place. We’ve been told how certain loved ones wanted to have our music playing to them as they left this world. These have been the most important messages to us about how people have reacted to us.
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