Think of world music, and a handful of names spring automatically to mind. Among them, without a doubt, is South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with their immediately recognizable Zulu harmonies. But by the time they first went international, appearing on Paul Simon’s Graceland album and tour in 1986, they were already veteran hitmakers at home, with more than 40 albums under their belts. Since that time, their star has continued to rise and rise, with many more discs and concerts to their credit.
This February, Ladysmith won the Traditional World Music Grammy for their album Raise Your Spirit Higher. They’ve received nine Grammy nominations in all, and won previously for the Simon-produced Shaka Zulu in 1987.
However, for No Boundaries (Heads Up Records), their most recent disc, they’ve taken a different direction, turning away from their usual acappella style to collaborate with the English Chamber Orchestra.
“It wasn’t our idea, we can’t take credit for it,” says Albert Mazibuko, a longtime member of the band, laughing. “There’s a guy [Robert Brooks, chairman of the International Classical Music Festival], who’s liked Mambazo for a long time. He raised the money for us to work with an orchestra, and we did a couple of concerts with them in 2000. They went very well, and then he said, ‘Now we should do a recording.’ We said okay, if we have time. We had time, and they chose the songs and wrote them in staff notation. Most of the recording was at a live concert, but we took the applause out, and went to a studio. It was very exciting, and I learned that the music has no boundaries. When we sing, we become one, but it was very challenging, I can tell you. When I’m doing something new, it refreshes my mind. It makes me stay young.”
And that’s good; every band needs new challenges, especially after more than 40 years together. Ladysmith Black Mambazo as we know them formed in 1964, their unique mix of harmony singing and dancing coming to leader Joseph Shabalala in a dream. Originally from the small town of Ladysmith, he’d been working in a factory in nearby Durban, and singing for four years with one of the local isicathamiya groups (the style born in the mining camps of South Africa, along with the “tip-toe” style of choreography, so called for its quietness, created so as not to rouse the camp security guards), trying to persuade them to adopt this new style.
Joseph Shabalala on Ladysmith’s Grammy Win
“We are so grateful, and proud, to have been awarded the Grammy Award this year for Best Traditional World Music Album for our CD Raise Your Spirit Higher (Wenyukela). It is a humbling moment to have our recent collection of songs so honored.
“When we made this recording we wanted to fill the CD with songs of hope and faith. The world has been going through very difficult times and we wanted to send a message to people, a message filled with hope and spirituality. We called this CD Raise Your Spirit Higher to ask people to be the best person they could be during these difficult times. It is easy to be a good person when things are happy. However, what type of person are you when things are not so good? These are the true moments that tell us who we are. These are the times when we need to be better. We need to raise our spirits to a higher place, a better place.
“This has been, in part, the mission of Ladysmith Black Mambazo for over 40 years. No matter how bad the times are, we feel it important to help people raise themselves to a better place.
“Myself, and the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, accept this award, not just as recognition for our songs, but for our culture, our people and our country. South Africa, our home, continues its evolution as a wondrous place filled with a rich heritage.
“Our country and its culture are the most important things to us. Each time we make a new CD we do so knowing we are keeping our culture alive. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has spent these past 40 years as cultural teachers, from South Africa to the rest of the world.
“By presenting us with this Grammy Award the people of the American music industry are shining a bright spotlight on ourselves and our country. With this honor we renew our faith in our journey and dedication. For all of the people of South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo says ‘Siyabonga!! Thank you.’”