Ladysmith Black Mambazo Biography

The success of Paul Simon’s album Graceland did much to give the music of black South Africa international recognition in the mid-80s, and in particular gave a high profile to the choral group Mambazo and their captivating a cappella Zulu music (iscathamiya). Founded as Ezimnyama Ngenkani by Joseph Shabalala (Bhekizizwe Jospeh Siphatimandla, 28 August 1941, Ladysmith, South Africa) in 1960, the group changed its name to Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1964. The new name referred to Shabalala’s home town of Ladysmith, while also paying tribute to the seminal 50s choral group Black Mambazo (black axe) led by Aaron Lerole (composer of the 1958 UK hit ‘Tom Hark’ by his brother Elias [Lerole] And His Zig Zag Flutes). The original line-up featured Shabalala, his brothers Headman and Enoch, cousins Abednego, Albert, Funokwakhe, Joseph and Milton Mazibuko, and friends Matovoti Msimanga and Walter Malinga.

The group began working professionally in 1971, with a version of ingoma ebusukuk (‘night music’), which Shabalala dubbed ‘cothoza mfana’ (‘walking on tiptoe’, an accurate description of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s ability to follow choruses of thundering intensity with split-second changes into passages of delicate, whisper-like intimacy). Until 1975, most of the group’s album output concentrated on traditional folk songs, some of them with new lyrics that offered necessarily coded, metaphorical criticisms of the apartheid regime. After 1975, and Shabalala’s conversion to Christianity, religious songs were added to the repertoire - although, to non-Zulu speakers, the dividing line will not be apparent. In 1987, following the success of Graceland, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Warner Brothers Records debut album Shaka Zulu, produced by Paul Simon, reached the UK Top 40 and won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording. In 1990, Two Worlds One Heart marked a radical stylistic departure for the group through its inclusion of tracks recorded in collaboration with George Clinton and the Winans.

On 10 December 1991, as the result of what was described as a ‘roadside incident’ in Durban, South Africa, Joseph’s brother and fellow founder member Headman Msongelwa Shabalala (b. 19 October 1945, Ladysmith, South Africa, d. 10 December 1991, Durban, South Africa) was shot dead. Joseph stopped singing for a period before overcoming his grief and relaunching the group, with four of his sons now featuring in the line-up. Ladysmith Black Mambazo returned to a major label for 1997’s Heavenly, which featured Dolly Parton singing lead vocals on a cover version of ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. Bolstered by the appearance of ‘Inkanyezi Nezazi’ on a Heinz television commercial, the following year’s best of compilation was a surprise bestseller in the UK, climbing to number 2 in October 1998.

In a tragic echo of his brother’s death, Shabalala’s wife Nellie was shot dead on 15 May 2002 near Durban. She had been the leader of her own church choir, the Women Of Mambazo. The ensuing Wenyukela was an international bestseller and earned the group a second Grammy Award under its American title, Raise Your Spirit Higher. In 2005, Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaborated with the English Chamber Orchestra on a collection of classical standards and traditional African songs. The following year’s Long Walk To Freedom celebrated the group’s 45th anniversary and featured a stellar list of guest muisicans, including Lucky Dube, Hugh Masekela, Melissa Etheridge, Emmlyou Harris and Taj Mahal. In contrast, 2007’s glorious Ilembe featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo alone in the studio.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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