rip ladysmith black mambazo founder, joseph shabalala

February 11, 2020
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Joseph Shabalala, the founder, lead singer and leader of the Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, one of South Africa’s musical institutions over the past 50 years, passed away this morning at the age 78 in a Pretoria hospital, according to AP. Shabalala had retired from performing in 2014, and the group, which has always re-energized itself with younger generations of voices, has continued touring without him. Yet the current members saluted their fallen “Founder…Teacher…Father” from the road. 

Born in a farming community around the town of Ladysmith, in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, Shabalala sang with an acapella group called the Blacks in his youth. “The young boys when they’d get together, they started to sing the songs, until the mamas and the neighbors said, ‘Hey, do it again,'” he told the BBC in 2016. “It was just like that. They were calling, ‘Do it again, do it again’.”

Shabalala eventually became the leader and main composer for the group, renamed in the mid-1960s Ladysmith Black Mambazo — the latter word being Zulu for “axe,” bringing required layers of symbolism to the music and the performances in Apartheid-era South Africa. Mambazo specialized in a Zulu song-and-dance tradition called isicathamiya, derived from the Zulu verb “-cathama,” meaning to “walk softly’ (or “tread carefully”), which is what the group did in both its vocal and choreographic approaches. It is also a tradition steeped in the Zulu beliefs around communalism, which Ladysmith Black Mambazo practiced as a unit.   

Regular radio performances in the late 1960s and early 1970s earned the group a recording contract, and their first album, 1973’s Amabutho, was an instant best-seller. Ladysmith Blck Mambazo’s history saw them increasingly turn to spiritual (Christian) material, and they gained a Western audience by touring despite Apartheid’s restrictions on their travel. But it wasn’t until an album-length collaboration with American singer-songwriter Paul Simon on his 1986 LP Graceland — which included the hit Simon/Mambazo isicathamiya duet, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” — that the group became global superstars. Through the period that included a long tour with Simon, Shabalala joined Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba as one of the musical figures leading Black South Africa’s cultural conversation with the world during Apartheid — and often did so from inside South Africa. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s renown at the end of Apartheid was such that when Nelson Mandela received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, the group performed at the ceremony.

After retirement from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Shabalala continued to teach traditional choral music, while four of his sons (and one grandson) have continued his legacy within Ladysmith Black Mambazo.