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African Legends

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

By Chris Nickson
Published November 9, 2006

By the time this Zulu a cappella group first went international, appearing on Paul Simon’s Graceland album and tour in 1986, they were already veteran hitmakers at home.

Think of world music, and a handful of names spring automatically to mind. Among them 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.

In 2005, 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.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo 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), trying to persuade them to adopt this new style. It wasn’t until Shabalala returned home and recruited family members that the harmonies and choreography of his dreams became reality.

Almost immediately, the new Ladysmith Black Mambazo—the black refers to strong oxen, and mambazo means axe, chopping down all the competition—began winning every singing contest around. Their style was revolutionary, renewing and revitalizing the Zulu tradition. But in a time when South Africa was governed by apartheid, keeping blacks in the lowest places of society, it wasn’t easy

Their real breakthrough came with a radio appearance in 1970, and their first album, Amabutho, in 1973, was the first African record to achieve gold record status in the country. It also led to work with Simon, who was in South Africa to make Graceland. The group contributed to the track “Homeless,” giving them a global reputation (Simon also produced Shaka Zulu).

Ladysmith’s rise to global fame hasn’t been without tragedy. In 2002, Shabalala’s wife, Nellie, was murdered, a crime that still remains unsolved. But Joseph Shabalala continues making the dream he had more than 40 years ago a continuing reality. A new release, Long Walk To Freedom (Heads Up), features guest appearances from Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Zap Mama, Lucky Dube, Hugh Masekela, and others.