Mambazo win their third Grammy

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, led by their
charismatic founder Joseph Shabalala
(third from right)
(Image: Wells Fargo Center for the Arts)

The group receives the acclaim of the
crowd at a concert in Canada.
(Image: LBM)

On Tip Toe is the Oscar-nominated
documentary tribute to LBM.
(Image: Docurama Films)

Joseph Shabalala has led the group
through triumph and personal tragedy for
over 40 years. (Image: Robert Hoffman,
Heads Up International)

Janine Erasmus

South Africa’s beloved Ladysmith Black Mambazo has just scooped a third Grammy. The popular vocal group walked off with the award for Best Traditional World Music Album for their latest release Ilembe: Honouring Shaka Zulu.

The 51st Grammy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles, a familiar destination for Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM) as they have twice before accepted the little gilded gramophone statue, given to those who show outstanding achievements in the music industry.

In 2004 they won for Best Traditional World Music Album for the acclaimed Raise Your Spirit Higher, and in 1987 they were tops in the category of Best Traditional Folk Recording for the album Shaka Zulu. With 13 Grammy nominations, they hold this record amongst South African groups.

Former president Thabo Mbeki congratulated the group on their second win, saying, “The Grammy award that has been so spectacularly won by the isicathamiya group Ladysmith Black Mambazo makes us all immensely proud to be South African. This is the ultimate reward for a group that has entertained our country and millions abroad for more than four decades.”

The Ministry of Arts and Culture added its voice to Mbeki’s sentiments in a statement that said, “The award will inspire upcoming vocal artists to also reach for the stars.”

Sadly the group’s most recent success was not matched this time by fellow South African nominee, the Soweto Gospel Choir. The choir was up for a Best Contemporary World Music Album award, and had they won it would have been their third successive Grammy.

Tribute to the Zulu king

Hailing from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has often referred in their songs to Shaka, the fearsome king of the Zulus who is regarded as the most influential leader of the Zulu empire. And that dedication to a revered warrior ancestor has paid handsome dividends.

The new Grammy-winning album, says the group, celebrates not only Shaka Zulu but also the sense of perseverance, creativity and pride that he has inspired in generations of his descendants.

“He was a warrior, an athlete, a singer, a dancer, a visionary, he was so many things,” said founder and lead singer Joseph Shabalala, “and he was a diplomat too. He could talk about differences in a civilised way, but he was also very proud.”

Chopping down the competition

LBM was formed in 1964 by Shabalala. He had been trying to put together a group for some time, but could not hit on the right formula. Then he had a dream that thrilled him with the most beautiful choral harmonies, and he knew this was the sound he had been seeking.

Shabalala recruited family and friends to join him, teaching them the harmonies from his dreams. In the decades since the group has continued to enthral audiences around the world with their jaunty synchronised dance steps and isicathamiya singing style. This is an a cappella tradition that features call-and-response, where the lead vocalist sings to the group and they answer him in song.

The isiZulu word isicathamiya means “to walk on tip-toe” and refers to the singing style developed by migrant workers on the mines. Far away from their families, they would entertain themselves with song and dance, performing very quietly so as not to disturb the security guards. When they returned home they took the tradition with them, and today there are fiercely contested isicathamiya competitions held regularly all over the province.

The group’s name was inspired by their unsurprising knack of winning every singing competition they entered. The town of Ladysmith is the home of the Shabalala family; black oxen were regarded as the strongest farm animals; and “mambazo” is an axe – a fitting reference to the group’s ability to chop down all competition.

So successful was the Black Axe of Ladysmith that from 1973 the group was kindly asked not to enter any more competitions, although they were welcome to perform without competing.

Since Shabalala’s conversion to Christianity in 1975 the group have married their joyous and intricate traditional vocal harmonies with the popular sounds of gospel music.

International fame

LBM rose to international prominence after US folk singer Paul Simon’s visit to South Africa in 1985. The singer was looking for African musicians to work with him on his forthcoming Graceland album and had heard a tape of LBM which piqued his interest. At the time the cultural boycott imposed on South Africa’s apartheid regime by the rest of the world was still in place, although it was in its final years.

Simon was accused of breaking the ban, but since the album showcased the talents of local musicians without involving the government in any way, the protests soon died down.

Graceland went on to become a major worldwide success, with more than 10-million units sold, and the first single off the album, the delicate and melancholy “Homeless”, has become synonymous with LBM and can be heard on a number of their releases. The album itself and the effervescent title track went on to win a Grammy each.

In 2006 Graceland made Time‘s list of the 100 best albums ever and is considered to have been instrumental in sparking the ever-growing interest in world music. In the same year it was inscribed in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, which lists and preserves sound recordings that are of cultural and historical importance in the US.

LBM has released almost 40 albums in their own right. In 1998 they released a Best of, featuring 20 of their best loved songs recorded on their own or with duet partners. To date the group has recorded with stars such as singers Josh Groban, Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton, acclaimed harpist Andreas Vollenweider, and Irish band The Corrs.

In 1995 they recorded “World in Union 95”, the theme song for the Rugby World Cup, with another South African music icon, PJ Powers. Their version of the song, which over the years has been recorded by major stars such as the soprano Dame Kiri te Kanawa, and Welsh singers Shirley Bassey and baritone Bryn Terfel, was an international hit, particularly in the UK where it stayed on the charts for five weeks.

LBM also recorded the anthemic “Shosholoza” for the 1995 rugby album, which celebrated South Africa’s hosting of rugby’s greatest event in that year. The well-loved folk song was originally sung by men as they laboured to lay down railway tracks, and the title is a Zulu word meaning “to push forward”. “Shosholoza” has since become popular as a rallying cry at sporting events as it instils a spirit of great pride.

Proud ambassadors

Over the years LBM have been superb ambassadors for their country and have performed all over the world at the most prestigious events, sharing the stage with the best the music world has to offer.

They have performed before HM Elizabeth II, Queen of England, by special invitation on her 50th anniversary as monarch. They have also entertained at two Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, one of which was in 1993 when former presidents Mandela and De Klerk accepted the coveted award. Mandela reportedly sent a personal invitation to the group to celebrate this triumph with them.

Meeting the Queen was a highlight for LBM, and Shabalala commented, “It is quite a dream for a Zulu South African to dream.”

LBM has also taken to the stage at South African presidential inaugurations, in Rome in front of Pope John Paul II, at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and at the 46664 Aids concert in Cape Town in 2003, among many others. The group is a global 46664 ambassador.

The consummate entertainers have performed no less than three times at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, to the delight of audiences in 1987, 1989 and 2000.

In May 2007 Paul Simon was named the inaugural recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. He insisted that the group join him during a three-hour concert to celebrate the occasion.

In 2008 LBM performed the official Goal4Africa anthem with Ali Campbell from British group UB40 at the kick-off game of the Goal4Africa campaign. The aim, or goal, of the initiative is to raise funds for sports development and education in Africa, while the inaugural event celebrated the 90th birthday of Nelson Mandela.

The group has been profiled in many a magazine, newspaper and film. One of the highlights in their long experience of media coverage was the stirring documentary On Tip Toe; Gentle Steps to Freedom which received an Academy Award nomination in 2001 for Best Documentary Feature. It didn’t win but did prevail at the International Documentary Association’s ceremony of that same year, scooping the award for Short Documentaries.

Passing on the traditions

Joseph Shabalala established The Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation in January 1999, with the vision of teaching young South Africans about their indigenous cultural and musical heritage. It is Shabalala’s dream to see the Mambazo Academy open its doors – building of the institution is in progress.

His current position as Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal certainly affords him the opportunity to teach indigenous singing and dancing, and pass on his art.

LBM is currently on tour in the US and will be there until the end of March. In June they head down under for concerts in Australia and New Zealand, and towards the end of 2009 they journey to the northern hemisphere for a series of shows in the UK.

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