Ladysmith Black Mambazo Winners of this year’s Grammy for Best Traditional World Music album, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been thrilling audiences for more than 40 years. Now, with their newest release, No Boundaries, leader Joseph Shabalala and the renowned South African acappella group that has thrilled millions collaborate with the English Chamber Orchestra.
By Chris Nickson
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.