For more than three decades, the story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been just as much about physicality and choreography as it has been about brilliant vocal harmonies. For this GRAMMY-winning a cappella group that merges South African music and dance traditions with Christian messages of compassion, love and global harmony, the music alone is only half the story. Simply put, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has to be seen to be understood.
Joseph Shabalala, a South African farmboy turned factory worker, first began gathering talented vocalists and arranging multi-layered and tightly woven harmonies in the early 1960s. After a series of records throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the group rocketed to international fame in 1986 with their appearance on Paul Simon’s landmark recording, Graceland.
The thematic elements in Mambazo’s music that appeal to South Africans, says Shabalala, are the same elements that appeal to a universal audience in all parts of the globe. In that sense, the group has come to be recognized as South Africa’s musical ambassadors to the world.
“People love our music because we have a story in this music,” says Shabalala. “It’s a very deep story about tradition, about taking care of yourself, about reminding people to get together and work very hard for themselves. We are treated like kings because of this music. When the police and the politicians [in South Africa] listen to this sound, they love us. They say, ‘This is the African sound. Therefore, let these people go wherever they want to go and spread this music around the world.’”