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Memphis Flyer Somebody Say...

By Mark Jordan

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  More than anything, Joseph Shabalala remembers the voices. They are the voices from his old dreams, the voices of children singing a new style of music, one that blends the traditional South African music of his youth with the sweet melodies of American gospel, the music of his adopted religion, Christianity.

They are the voices that have manifested in Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group Shabalala formed 34 years ago to give his dream shape. They are the voices that, though he hasn’t heard them in more than three decades, still touch almost every aspect of his life.

Though its roots reach deep into African cultural history, the specific style of a cappella music Shabalala and Ladysmith perform, called isicathamiya or “township jive,” dates back to the 19th century, when South African blacks, even then subjugated to the white minority, were forced to work in the country’s diamond mines. Living far from home in work camps, the miners had only one day off a week, Sunday. So, Saturday nights became the night to socialize and let loose. The spirited vocal music that grew out of the Saturday-night parties was accompanied by choreographed dancing that was sometimes so aggressive the wooden floors of the workers’ huts would crack under the pounding.

“When the people sang and danced to the music, the neighbors complained to the guards at the camp,” Shabalala says. “So the dancers developed this style of dancing lightly on their toes called cothoza mfana. It means ‘tiptoeing.’”

The new, powerful mix of singing and dancing soon spread back to the townships, and groups specializing in isicathamiya sprung up everywhere. These groups also developed a tradition of “facing off” in competitions which inspired community pride in one’s local isicathamiya group.

As a teenager in the ’50s, Shabalala became entranced by isicathamiya and joined one such group called the Blacks. Shabalala quickly realized he had a gift for music – “Initially I thought that I was brilliant,” he told Ebony in 1996, “but now I know it was God.” – and soon became the Blacks’ leader and chief composer. The group was very popular and won many competitions, but, Shabalala says now, he was never content with the music they were making.

Then in 1964, Shabalala began experiencing the series of dreams that would inspire his new sound. Shabalala tried to teach the sound in his dreams to the Blacks, but “it was very hard for them to learn, so I formed a new group.”

Drawing on friends and family members, Shabalala formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo in ’64. (Today, the group includes Russel Mthembu, Inos Phungula, Jabulani Dubazana, Shabalala’s cousins Abednego and Albert Mazibuko, and his brothers Jockey, Sibongiseni, Thamsanqa, and Thulani Shabalala.)

The group quickly became one of the most renowned isicathamiya groups around, winning contests all across the country. (The word mambazo means “ax,” a reference to the group’s ability to cut down the competition; Ladysmith refers to the town most of the members hail from.)

Despite their popularity with South African blacks, Ladysmith remained a local folk group; it never occurred to anyone in South Africa at that time that you could make money by recording black music.

That all changed, however, in 1970. A radio engineer made a recording of Ladysmith performing Nomathemba, Shabalala’s first composition, on a live radio broadcast. Almost immediately the song became a sensation.

“The radio stations were getting calls to play that song over and over until they said, ‘No, we need a record from these guys.’ We didn’t know anything about records,” Shabalala says.

Over the next 15 years, Ladysmith become one of the most successful groups in South Africa (perhaps the first black success), recording 25 albums during that span. But outside of South Africa, a country that because of its racist government policies was a political and cultural pariah in the international community, Ladysmith was scarcely known at all.

Then in 1985, the Vulindella (“he who opened the gate”) came. American singer/songwriter Paul Simon, coming off his career nadir with the disappointingly received One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones, came to South Africa inspired by a bootleg tape of South African music. One of the first groups he contacted there was Ladysmith.

The sessions that came out of Simon’s trip to South Africa became the ground-breaking album Graceland. Featuring, Ladysmith on two tracks – “Homeless” and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” – the album turned the group into into an international smash, allowing them to tour all across the world.

Though an unqualified artistic and commercial success, the Graceland project also brought a firestorm of controversy and criticism upon both Simon and Shabalala.

At the time of the recording sessions, almost every country on Earth was observing a strict cultural and commercial boycott of South Africa as a protest against apartheid, a boycott that Simon had to break in order to work with Shabalala and Ladysmith.

Meanwhile, activists in the anti-apartheid movement attacked Shaba-lala for not using his greater international exposure as a political platform.

“I am a musician,” Shabalala says. “Paul Simon is a musician; he’s not a politician. He was just trying to take something beautiful and take it somewhere else. Politicians have nothing to do with beauty.”

Well, maybe not, but they know it when they hear it. One of Ladysmith’s biggest fans is South African president Nelson Mandela. The group accompanied Mandela, at his request, to Sweden in December 1993 when the then-African National Congress leader went to accept the Nobel Peace Prize he shared with then-South African president F.W. de Klerk. And they were at his side again, scarcely six months later, when Mandela was inaugurated president of South Africa.

“[Mandela] loves Black Mambazo,” Shabalala says. “According to him we’re supposed to be everywhere. Whenever he shows up at a public occasion he asks ‘Where is Ladysmith Black Mambazo?’ And when they tell them ‘No, they’re not here; they’re on tour.’ He goes, ‘Oh, no. We have to have Ladysmith Black Mambazo.’”

Today, Ladysmith is as popular as ever and, in many ways, more important than ever. During the days of apartheid, isicathamiya was an important source of hope for the oppressed blacks of South Africa and a way for them to retain their cultural identity. Now, with a newfound sense of self-determination, the spirit of tradition represented by isicathamiya has become essential so that the country’s young people don’t lose their way in a society that puts no limits upon them.

This is why Shabalala has become a teacher, working to pass on the largely unwritten art that he has worked on his whole life. He is an associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Natal and dreams of opening an academy of African music and culture. He also regularly goes out into the schools to teach younger children.

“Now everything is beautiful, Shabalala says. “Since we have this freedom, people realize they have the time and freedom to teach their children African traditions. … But this [music] is not just for Africans or Zulu people. It’s not just for Ladysmith people. This is something for everyone.”

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