The most successful African group in America, winning five Grammy awards to date is Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) from Ladysmith in KwaZulu Natal. LBM was founded by Joseph Shabalala on the basis of traditional Zulu songs and dances. LBM perform isicathamiya music, a form of a cappella singing, with the cothoza, a choreographed tiptoe dance style. Joseph grew up in a singing family. His father was a singer. He worked on the mines and had a singing group. In traditional Zulu culture, it is said that the music starts from home when the mother is cooking. The children sit and listen. The mother sings a melody and then one family member joins in and, that way, a song is created.
In 1964 Joseph 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 together and pave the way for a better future. He recruited his cousins and brothers and formed a singing 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 the rural areas. LBM were fashionable and well rehearsed. They went unchallenged in the annual KwaZulu-Natal isicathamiya competitions. Joseph used these winnings to purchase a home on 38th Avenue in the Fannin suburb of Clermont Township outside Durban and went full-time into music. In 1972, Joseph signed a record deal with Gallo. Many of his compositions came from his dreams. His first song Nomathemba, meaning ‘hope,’ expressed his lifetime mission to spread peace, love and harmony. During apartheid, LBM would go to perform in Johannesburg. On the way, they were stopped by police because LBM was written on their van. The police thought this was some organisation fighting the government of the time. They had to explain they were just singers. They would sing Nkosi Amakhosi (King of Kings) for the police. The lyrics go: “We are kneeling before you and asking God for peace.”
The police left them. In the 70s and 80s, LBM had white fans that wanted to go to their shows. This was not allowed as LBM were only performing in the townships. Once, they were invited to perform at a wedding of a white person. While they were performing, someone came and informed the wedding organiser that the police were coming to arrest them. They used a backdoor to leave this whites-only area. When Joseph Shabalala collaborated with Paul Simon on the composition Homeless, it changed everything. LBM took their first world tour with Simon in 1987 and have not stopped touring since, spending on average four to eight months a year abroad. Brothers Albert and Abednego Mazibuko are the oldest remaining members of the group, having joined in 1969. According to Albert Mazibuko, LBM is an institution that will last for hundreds of years to come.
“We are living the legacy. This is our heritage. We teach the young generation dedication and integrity and hope they will succeed." Albert Mazibuko
Joseph was also a Christian priest. He fathered nine children. With his late wife Nellie, they introduced their children from an early age into music. The children recorded three albums while still at school with Young Mambazo and they sang in the Shabalala Family Church Choir. Joseph’s son Thulani recalls, “My father was always hearing people sing for him.
When he woke up from his 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.'” “He taught us that it is not only about singing. We also have to talk. That spirit of the angel must be with us. 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.” In 1993, Shabalala introduced his sons Thulani, Sbongesini, Thamsanqa and Msizi into LBM. The sons have their own groups as well, including Izimpande, Shabalala Rhythm and Inkanyezi. These groups have become breeding grounds for future members of LBM. The next generation is now coming into the spotlight. The Mazibuko grandchildren formed the isicathamiya crossover group, Thee Legacy. Shabalala has seventy-five grandchildren. Babuyile is the leader of Young MBAZO, standing for Movement Built to Acknowledge Zulu Origins. He is the first in the family to learn to read and write music.
Joseph received an honorary doctorate from Durban University of Technology and an honorary music degree from UKZN. In 2017, a statue of him was erected in Ladysmith by the KZN Arts and Culture department. His long-term vision is a Ladysmith Music Academy to take music back to the community. This is not yet built. However, LBM contribute to the vision through a mobile academy delivering workshops to the schools and townships.
Today eThekwini Municipality have declared his Clermont home a museum. LBM use it as a rehearsal space, to draw in youngsters from the local community, to train together with them. As Thulani said, “Training is also about telling them how to behave. It is more about behaviour in this kind of music. Behaviour starts within.
You have to respect yourself that you are a creature of God. And so you distance yourself from the bad things, from talking bad to other people and from limiting yourself. The problem we have now in the arts and music is people vacating themselves into drugs. You must be careful. You must know that, with your gift you represent your country, your father and mother, your ancestors. Music is about talking. It is about helping, so that people will follow you. That is what our father told us.”