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

“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

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

“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


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