Staging His Dream

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

In 1986, Paul Simon released his album “Graceland,” and introduced the mainstream pop music world to the rich musical heritage of South Africa.  Perhaps the most stunning contribution to the album was the Zulu vocal harmonies by a capella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Since the release of “Graceland” and its accompanying world tour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has become world famous as a band in its own right.  This Friday, we have a rare chance to see the group at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings a form of traditional South African music called Isicathamiya, which was started by black mine-workers.  Poorly paid and living in run-down camps far from their families, the workers would entertain themselves on Saturday nights by singing songs into the late hours.  Their quiet harmonies and light dance steps evolved so as not to wake up the camp security guards, and earned them the name “Cothoza Mfana,” or “tip-toe guys.”  When the miners returned to their home towns, they took their music with them and it spread, becoming so popular that singing competitions were started and quickly became the highlight of many towns’ social calendars. 

The genesis of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as a band came in the mid 1950s, when Joseph Shabalala, a farmer from the town of Ladysmith, decided to seek his fortune in the nearby city of Durban.  While working in a factory, he discovered that he had a talent for singing and ended up joining several groups.  However, he was not satisfied with the results and when he returned to Ladysmith he decided to form a group of his own.  Several line-ups later, he was still not happy with the sound until one night he heard the harmonies he was searching for in a dream.  “I felt there was something missing,” he said, “until 1964 when a dream came to me.  I said ‘This is the harmony that I want and I can teach it to my guys.’”

Shabalala formed a new band of his brothers, cousins and close friends and taught them the harmonies he had heard in his dream.  In 1970, the band performed live on a local radio station, and this performance led to a recording contract.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo became a hugely successful band in South Africa, but was largely unknown in the US until Paul Simon was given a cassette by a DJ friend in Los Angeles.  So taken was Simon by the band’s singing that he invited Shabalala and his bandmates to perform on “Graceland.”

Following the band’s appearance on “Graceland” Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first US release “Shaka Zulu” won a Grammy in 1987 for Best Traditional Folk Album, and the band has received six Grammy nominations since.  Ladysmith Black mambazo has worked with artists too numerous to mention, performed for several heads of state including Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela, and sung at Olympic opening ceremonies and Nobel Prize Awards.  Joseph Shabalala has worked as a teacher of ethnomusicology at the University of Natal and also at UCLA.  Looking back over his group’s career, he recently said, “To think of all the people we have met over the years. People from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia. Presidents, dignitaries, movie stars, and the Queen of England. It is quite a dream for a Zulu South African to dream.”

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, October 2, 2003

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