Remembering Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

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Joseph Shabalala, founder and longtime leader of the South African Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, passed away last week at the age of 78. Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala was born in Ladysmith district, a town north-west of Durban, on August 28, 1941. He grew up there and never forgot his roots even after finding fame.

Most people first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo through Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. Truth is, they were famous in South Africa long before that. Shababala formed the group in 1960, recruiting his brothers and other male relatives to join. At first called The Black Ones, Shabalala later changed the group’s name to Ladysmith Black Mambazo — which stood for their hometown, the strong black ox, and an axe (to chop down the competition). In the 60’s, the group won nearly every isicathamiya (traditional Zulu a cappella style) singing competition in Durban and Johannesburg until they were forbidden to compete because of their dominance.

The group didn’t release its first album called Amabutho until 1973, and it went gold in South Africa, selling over 25,000 copies. It was the first record by black musicians to reach gold certification in South Africa, and many more followed. KCRW knew about those early albums, as we would ask anybody headed to South Africa to stop by the Kohinoor Store in Johannesburg to buy whatever was hot there. We still have all those albums as well as other Zulu harmony bands like Abafana Baseqhudeni, The Cockerel Boys, and others.

Shabalala and members of the whole group visited KCRW on September 28, 1988, to perform in the old basement studio. Above, we share audio excerpts from that interview and performance for this remembrance.

By the time they stopped by Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1988, Ladysmith had become famous around the world, mostly because of the Paul Simon connection. The group was touring the United States on their own this time and loving it—so were the audiences here, delighted by the spirited harmonies and dancing. Shabalala loved being able to share Zulu culture with audiences outside of South Africa.

We spoke about how the group and its harmonies were inspired by God, something that came to Shabalala in a dream. He told me that he loved the way the tour was organized, calling it “first class.” I asked him to pick some favorite music besides his own, and he named The Golden Gate Quartet, a famous American a cappella gospel group from the 1940’s and 1950’s. I found him sweet and humble.

Shabalala retired from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014, and the group’s current incarnation includes three of his sons. Despite reports to the contrary, Ladysmith has not canceled any of their tour dates, stating, “This is the last thing Joseph would want his group to do. It is with our friends and fans that we gain our strength and fill our hearts with love. It is being with our friend and fans that we can live with this terrible pain in our lives. We are not canceling our concert tours. We will continue to celebrate the life of our father, Joseph Shabalala, as we have done since he retired in 2014.” Their upcoming Los Angeles show takes place on Thursday, March 19 at Royce Hall.

I could say more about Shabalala, but the group said it best in a statement released on social media: