Music interview: Ladysmith Black Mambazo are still living the dream

Ladysmith Black Mambazo are playing two shows in Leeds in August.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo are playing two shows in Leeds in August.
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Albert Mazibuko has seen a lot in his 48 years with the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

From the apartheid era, when the choir from KwaZulu-Natal were one of the few groups who were allowed to tour outside their homeland, to an enormously successful partnership with the American singer songwriter Paul Simon on his multi-million selling album Graceland, then on to the being declared ‘South Africa’s cultural ambassadors’ by Nelson Mandela after he was freed from prison then elected the country’s first black 

The group, who sing a cappella in the isicathamiya and mbube Zulu tradition, continue to tour today and, following the retirement from touring of their founder Joseph Shabalala, Mazibuko is their longest serving member. Such is their enduring popularity they have added a second concert in Leeds, after their first date sold out.

“English audiences have been embracing us from the beginning so coming to England is like going to a place where the people have lifted you up and then they let the world see you,” says the 69-year-old.

“We are very excited and we are going to do our best. Right now Ladysmith Black Mambazo are celebrating 57 years so we are choosing all the favourite songs that we know people will love. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to leave out some songs because they are all wonderful but we will make sure we give them their favourites.”

Joseph Shabalala’s inspiration to form the group, back in 1960, came from a dream he had about a choir that could sing in perfect harmony. Mazibuko remembers his cousin relating the idea to him before he joined in 1969. “He also had a dream that brought him to us. He dreamt of his grandmother, which is my grandfather’s sister, who told him ‘Go to your brothers’ – according to our cousin, because we are second cousins, we call each other brothers – ‘they will help you to achieve your dream’.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo were founded by Joseph Shabalala 57 years ago.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo were founded by Joseph Shabalala 57 years ago.

“When he came to us we were very excited. We said ‘Wow, eventually we are going to join you and sing with you’. He said ‘Don’t be too excited because I’ve been disappointed by the people that I trust, they say my teaching is very difficult’. We grew up together and we didn’t go to any music school so we asked where did he get this music that he was going to teach us, then he told us about the dream. It was amazing – the dream stayed with him for six months, he was dreaming the same dream every night. It taught him how to blend the voices and to put the dancing to the voices.

“I remember the day he taught us two songs, one was called in English King of Kings and the other was Hello My Baby, and I was amazed that he learned so much from the dream. It was a strange language for him but he learned a way of putting the voices together and the harmony and the melodies – so now we are living that dream.”

As the group’s fame spread, they were allowed to tour internationally. Mazibuko says the experience was not without its risks. “We were frightened because we didn’t know if things we said would make our government be upset with us. We heard that [fellow South African musicians] Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela were in trouble; they didn’t know they were just telling the story from home.

“But we were so excited by being around other people, we were also encouraged and influenced by the cultures that we embraced. Travelling abroad was a great encouragement. Even though people didn’t understand our language the music was enjoyable – that was amazing.”

Paul Simon came to South Africa for a good reason – he came to take those people who were oppressed and give them the opportunity to spread their message around the world.

Albert Mazibuko

Paul Simon broke the cultural boycott of South Africa in 1985 to seek out the choir to sing on Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and Homeless on his album Graceland. The move was controversial but Mazibuko says Ladysmith Black Mambazo were grateful to him. “I think people [who criticised Simon] were mistaken,” he says. “Paul Simon came to South Africa for a good reason – he came to take those people who were oppressed and give them the opportunity to spread their message around the world. In terms of musicians I think Paul Simon did a wonderful job because it was the only way that the world would find out what was happening in South Africa. It was good for us.”

On his release from prison, Nelson Mandela said Ladysmith Black Mambazo had been his strength and inspiration during his long incarceration. “I remember the day that we met Nelson Mandela because it was on his birthday,” Mazibuko says. “When we got to the concert and we sang four songs we saw this guy was leaving the audience and walking towards the stage. We said, ‘Who’s this?’ Then he climbed the stage and joined us. He did his own dancing that we called ‘Mandela dance’ and we changed what we were doing and joined him. When the song had finished he shook hands with us and after that he stood in front of us and said, ‘Keep up the good job, guys. I was listening to your music when I was in jail and it encouraged me that South Africa will be a free country’. Then he said ‘From now on wherever I go I want you to go with me because I want people to hear South African music and the message that you are spreading before I deliver a speech’ and that happened.”

Mandela took the group to Oslo, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and on state visits to England and the Vatican. “After that he gave us the title that we are ‘South Africa’s music ambassadors’, so everywhere we go we have the title that we have been given by the great man, then we made sure that we represented our country the way that he would want us to do.”

The invitation to sing at Mandela’s presidential inauguration in 1994 was, says Mazibuko, a “special day” for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “We were told at the ceremony that they would only give us so many minutes, we said ‘OK, that’s enough’. Nelson Mandela requested we sang two songs so we said, ‘OK, we will combine these two songs and make them one’. The the third request was that they didn’t allow big sound systems in that area so we said ‘No, OK, our voices are enough for us to sing. Loudspeakers or no loudspeakers it’s still OK with us’.

Albert Mazibuko of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the early 1970s.

Albert Mazibuko of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the early 1970s.

“Then I remember when we got there it was a dinner reception and people were wearing black suits and they were all sitting down. We sang these two songs and after we finished Nelson Mandela stood up just by himself then he realised his fist and said ‘Black Mambazo, black power’ then he sat down. It was very emotional and also history-making because if our leader came all the way from South Africa to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize it means our country will be a peaceful country. That always stands out with us that it was an important event to be at.”

The group have gone on to win four Grammy Awards – fulfilling Shabalala’s original dream. “He even described how the trophy looks. He said ‘It looks like the gramophone that we used to play records on?’ We said ‘Yes, it looks just like that but it’s gold’. When we got our first Grammy in 1988 I said, ‘Wow, it’s exactly as he described it’.

“But the main thing,” he adds, “is those awards make us very humble. It means that God has been great with us, because winning the Grammy is something amazing.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo play at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on August 1 and 3.