It has been 15 years since the intricate rhythms and harmonies of South Africa filled Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur with hope, joy and harmony.
Award-winning Zulu a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo returns for its sophomore outing at the same venue this month, bringing with it a touch of African splendour as it takes audiences on a spiritual journey.
With more than 35 albums under its belt, the group continues to garner plenty of international accolades. Its latest album, Walking In The Footsteps Of Our Fathers, was nominated for a Grammy in the 2016 Best World Music Album category, marking its 17th Grammy award nomination. It has walked away as previous winner four times.
“It is a blessing that we are seen as very special to the people of South Africa. They recognise all we have achieved as we travel the world, spreading the message of peace and love. It was Nelson Mandela who called us South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world but this also applies when we are home. If the Grammy award people feel our music is worthy of their consideration, then we must be doing something well!” says Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s tour manager Mitchell Jay Goldstein in an e-mail interview.
The traditional music endorsed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is called isicathamiya and it hails from the mining communities of South Africa. As the story goes, black labourers were taken by rail to work and paid pittance. By the end of the six-day week, the only entertainment available to them was a cappella singing sessions. The miners sang their hearts out in the wee hours of Sunday and when they returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.
A young farm boy turned factory worker by the name of Joseph Shabalala assembled some family members and put a group together in the early 1960s. He called it Ladysmith Black Mambazo, after the names of his village (Ladysmith), the oxen (Black), and the Zulu word for chopping axe (Mambazo), a symbol of the group’s ability to fend off its singing rivals.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo established itself as the top singing group in South Africa but it wasn’t until their collaboration with Paul Simon that the group shot to international fame.
Simon was looking for a way to boost his flagging career when a friend gave him a tape of South African “township jive”. A smitten Simon ventured to South Africa to catch up with the musicians, spending weeks recording with them as a global movement gelled against the racial segregation system known as apartheid.
He released Graceland in 1986, blending soulful American R&B, Louisiana zydeco and Chicano rock layered with African rhythms and harmonies that catapulted him back into the limelight. It won him Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year at the Grammys.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, largely unnoticed outside its country then, became an overnight sensation. Since that initial introduction, there’s been no stopping this group of delightful Zulu-meets-gospel vocalists from being hailed as cultural ambassadors. It was a dawn of a new era for the African men.
From its humble beginnings, the group has evolved over the last 50 years and has collaborated with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Josh Groban and Sarah McLachlan, among others.
“If anything has changed, it is our youthful energy brought on by the younger generation. Joseph’s sons were in their early 20s when they joined and they still carry a young energy when they perform. This spills into all of us and we all feel younger on stage,” says Goldstein.
With competition from other genres of music, it is getting increasingly harder to keep the younger generation interested in their musical roots.
He says, “Honestly, some of them don’t like the older styles of music, not just our style but other important cultural styles. Music from the West, like rap and such, are very popular and many of the younger people want to be more American or European than African. All we can do is keep showing them who they truly are and where their roots are from. However, there are many younger people who want to stay true to their roots, their culture and they love our style of music. Our youngest member is 34.”
Shabalala, 75, retired from performing four years ago but still exerts influence over the group. “Joseph will forever be the leader of our group. His influence is profound and deep. Everything that we are and continue to achieve is because of Joseph and what he taught us. Though he is retired, he joins us in the recording studio from time to time, as well as in rehearsals. He wants to be certain we continue to keep strong.”
Shabalala did all the song writing and musical arrangement but the work has since been taken over by his sons. “It is wonderful to see how well their father taught them as the new songs are simply beautiful,” shares Goldstein.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo may seem like an exclusive group belonging to the Shabalala clan but Goldstein says anyone can join though it is many years before a new member is needed.
“When that time comes, we look towards people who understand how important the music is as well as someone who is respectful to the group’s mission and history. Since the children of older members have a good understanding, it usually falls to them to be in the group. Also, any possible new members must be committed to attending our rehearsals every week, month after month, year after year, before we would consider them.”
And no, Ladysmith Black Mambazo does not have plans to work with Simon again. “We did have a short Graceland Reunion concert tour in Europe in 2012 but that was only about three weeks. He is doing other things. We are always working on new projects, mostly our own doing but some with special guests. We can’t talk about these special guest projects as they are still being sorted but if you watch for us over the next couple of years, you should see some interesting things coming out,” says Goldstein, adding that Ladysmith Black Mambazo goes on tour six months of the year.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas on April 10. Tickets start from RM210. For details, call 03-2331 7007 or check out www.mpo.com.my