Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Peace Movement
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
For Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Peace, Love, and Harmony” is more than a motto, it’s a commitment to a way of life. Founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1964, the eight-member, all-male South African a cappella group overcame apartheid to hit the international stage in 1986 with their collaboration on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Many albums and two Grammys later, their current tour is a celebration of songs that have changed the world with their beauty. The retrospective album Long Walk to Freedom revisits old favorites like “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and features guest artists from the world of pop, from Sarah McLachlan to Zap Mama.
“It seems when so many people ask for these songs, they have something to do with peoples’ lives,” reflected Albert Mazibuko, speaking from a Los Angeles hotel room. Mazibuko, whose brother also sings with Ladysmith, grew up with Shabalala, joining the group in ’69. Four of the group’s other members are Shabalala’s sons.
Ladysmith traces its roots to Zulu Isicathamiya (pronounced is·cot·a·me·ya) — a traditional style of music and movement that translates as “on tiptoes.” In the diamond mines of 19th-century South Africa, black laborers separated from their families developed the songs as a form of comfort and entertainment, accompanying them with delicate dance steps so as not to disturb camp security guards. Isicathamiya has become a popular competitive art form throughout Zululand.
Shabalala first heard these songs as a teenager growing up in the township of Ladysmith in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Inspired, he determined to develop and improve the form but struggled to realize his goal until 1964, when he began to have recurring dreams of children dancing and singing rich and complex harmonies. Out of these visions, he created the music that has carried Ladysmith Black Mambazo to worldwide fame, establishing the group not only as the primary cultural ambassadors of their country, but as international messengers for racial harmony.
Mazibuko remembers a time when sharing their music was not so easy. Under apartheid, blacks in South Africa needed written permission to travel. As Ladysmith’s reputation grew, they were invited to compete and perform in different regions. The group would pile into one vehicle and set off, but were inevitably stopped by policemen who would begin interrogations.
“We did a silly thing, but it worked every time,” Mazibuko remembered. “We would sing for them instead of answering their questions. The music was so perfect, the police would come to listen, and say it was so beautiful, and we could go.” One day at a roadblock, the head of police was called over to hear their song. He was so moved that he cried, then wrote them a note and told them to take it to the region’s magistrate. Ladysmith Black Mambazo became the first group of blacks to receive permission to travel freely within South Africa under apartheid.
It’s this kind of power that has allowed Ladysmith to transcend political boundaries, cutting through a legacy of oppression and violence by insistently embracing all people. Though they have always considered themselves apolitical, their absolute dedication to transmitting joy and unity through their music has changed the political landscape of their country, with implications radiating worldwide.
“We talk about people coming together to solve problems peacefully,” Mazibuko explained. “We have seen so much violence, and it doesn’t solve anything. When Joseph’s brother was killed, some people wanted to kill the person who killed him, but we decided no, we will practice peace.”
The idea that music can be a force for true social change may seem optimistic, but Mazibuko has seen it work in the most basic of ways. He told of weekly Isicathamiya competitions where thousands gather to compete, yet no policemen come because the crowds are peaceful. “The tradition teaches respect — you listen to your leader, you have respect, and it works,” he explained. Shabalala is currently working on founding an academy of African Music and Culture where children can learn such respect for themselves and for their heritage. The company recently secured a dedicated space in Ladysmith where they plan to launch an educational program by the end of this year. “The inhumanity of apartheid … has demoralized entire generations,” Shabalala has written. “The children of South Africa [must] realize that they are important, that they have a history to be proud of.”
For Mazibuko, singing with Ladysmith has been the reward of a lifetime. “This music I sing is healing music,” he said. “It nourishes my spirit. It makes me feel happy all the time. It clears my mind so I can understand things. It shows me how beautiful the universe is.”
4•1•1 Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at UCSB’s Campbell Hall Thursday, April 6, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535. To learn more, visit mambazo.com.