In 2014, LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO celebrates over fifty years of joyous and uplifting music. Within their singing are the intricate rhythms and harmonies of their native South African musical traditions. In those fifty plus years, the a cappella vocal group has created a musical and spiritual message that has touched a worldwide audience. Their singing efforts have garnered praise and accolades from a wide body of people, organizations and countries.
As we all know the father of their nation, Nelson Mandela, passed away on December 5, 2013. His passing, while terribly sad, brings a celebration for a life and message that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been connected with for many years. Nelson Mandela, who bestowed on the group the title of “South African Cultural Ambassadors to the World” asked the group to join him on his trip to Oslo, Norway, in 1993, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As well, when Mr Mandela was inaugurated as the countries first black President, he asked the group to perform at the celebration.
Upon his passing the group said, “Nelson Mandela has finished his journey. Although he has physically left us now, his message of peace continues within us all. He was able to change our nation because of his incredible will, dignity and humanity. Now, it is left for all of us to carry on his mission. We must continue the journey of making not just South Africa, but the whole world, a peaceful, forgiving place. As we continue to spread the message of Peace, Love and Harmony, we re-dedicate ourselves to Mandela and his dream of a Rainbow Nation and a Rainbow World. May his journey continue in the soul and spirits of all who were touched by him.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa’s Cultural Ambassadors to the World, were assembled in the early 1960s in South Africa by Joseph Shabalala, then a young farmboy turned factory worker. Ladysmith is the name of Joseph’s hometown, a small farming area between Durban and Johannesburg; Black being a reference to the oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and Mambazo, the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” any singing rival who might challenge them. Their collective voices were so tight and their harmonies so polished that by the end of the 1960’s they were banned from competitions, although they were welcome to participate as entertainers.
A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract – the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than fifty recordings. Their philosophy in the studio was – and continues to be – just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment. The group sings from a traditional music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours on Sunday morning. When the miners returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.
During the 1970’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo established themselves as the most successful singing group in South Africa. In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon visited South Africa and incorporated the group’s rich tenor/alto/bass harmonies into his famous Graceland album – a landmark recording that was considered seminal in introducing world music to mainstream audiences. A year later, Paul Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first worldwide release, Shaka Zulu, which won a Grammy Award in 1988. Since then, the group has been awarded three more Grammy Awards (Raise Your Spirit Higher (2004), and Ilembe (2009), and Singing For Peace Around The World (2013)) and has been nominated a total of fifteen times.
In addition to their work with Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has recorded with numerous artists, including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge, and many others. They have provided film soundtrack material for Disney’s The Lion King, Part II as well as Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America, Marlon Brando’s A Dry White Season, James Earl Jones’ Cry The Beloved Country and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. A film documentary titled On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, the Story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award. They have even appeared on Broadway and have been nominated for Tony Awards.
In 2014 the group releases their newest cd, Always With Us. This new cd is a tribute to the group and Shabalala family matriarch, Nellie Shabalala, Joseph Shabalala’s wife who passed away in 2002. This collection of songs are recordings Nellie made with her church choir in 2001. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has since added their voices to Nellie’s recordings to create a collection of hauntingly beautiful songs that are a tribute to Nellie Shabalala’s life and memory. The group looks forward to sharing these songs with the world.