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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the February 12, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Ladysmith’s South African Odyssey
South Africa is a different place today, in 2003, than
it was more than 15 years ago when Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the iconic
a cappella choir from Zululand, first became popularly known in the
In 1986, when the choir first appeared on Paul Simon’s "Graceland"
album, South Africa was a pariah state, a repressive, racist nation
whose apartheid policies appalled millions in America and around the
world. Yet in 1987 Ladysmith began to build the receptive and devoted
audience that has welcomed its tours or 15 years. Ladysmith Black
Mambazo is back on tour, appearing at the State Theater in New Brunswick,
Thursday, February 13, at 8 p.m.
Yet back in 1986 there was a sense, vague at that time, but growing,
that sometime soon, South Africa’s black majority was going to find
justice, and their multifront struggle against apartheid — armed,
unarmed, economic, and cultural — was going to eventually result
in a new, multiracially governed nation.
It all came together, most vividly on May 10, 1994, when Nelson Mandela,
head of the African National Congress, spiritual leader of the anti-apartheid
forces, and 27-year political prisoner, was sworn in as South Africa’s
first black president.
Now, South Africa is a different place for Joseph Shabalala and for
the friends and relatives with whom he performs. "All the gates
are now open at home," Shabalala said during a tour stop last
month. "We are allowed to go wherever we want."
But before that momentous occasion, much of hope for the future came
from the musicians, actors, and other artists from black South Africa.
Their art, forged out of traditional culture as well as the adversities
of the apartheid system, was powerful, complex, and triumphant. These
qualities, among others, were what attracted Paul Simon to Joseph
Shabalala and Ladysmith, a 10-member chorus formed in 1964 by Shabalala
and several brothers and cousins.
Shabalala is a devout Christian, a minister who sees the world in
terms of his relationship with God and the spiritual realm. Since
the 1950s, he had participated in the Zulu a cappella style known
as isicatimiya. This combination of boot dancing and celebratory
singing in which you can hear both the influence and the building
blocks of African American gospel music.
Shabalala says the idea for the group came to him in a vision. "I
heard the harmony," he says. "So I began to organize the voices,
from lowest to highest. From then on, I knew what the mission of Ladysmith
was — to spread the tradition and culture, and to encourage musicians
and composers. We must remain as close as we can to our African roots."
This style had grown from the weekend musical competitions devised
by the mine workers of southern Africa who lived in brutish style
in all-male dormitories far from their homes and families. Ladysmith
Black Mambazo — the first word is the name of the group’s hometown
near Durban, the second an allusion to the power of black oxen (the
strongest animal on the farm), the third word meaning "ax"
— has a distinctive deep, cavernous sound that came from its unique
vocal array of one leader, eight basses, one tenor, and one falsetto
The group, even before their "discovery" by Simon, had been
one of the top-selling groups in South Africa. It had released 28
albums, many religious in nature.
But when Simon signed Ladysmith, as well as bassist
Baghiti Khumalo, guitarist Ray Phiri, reedman Morris Goldberg, drummer
Isaac Mtshali, and the mbaqanga group Boyoyo Boys, to appear on his
1986 "Graceland," he took much critical heat for his so-called
"colonialist" position. He was assailed by many anti-apartheid
activists for hiring South Africans to work on his record, as well
as for appropriating traditional culture. Simon’s explanation that
he had paid the Africans triple scale was not enough to assuage these
Shabalala, leader of Ladysmith, was not spared from scrutiny himself.
When he first came to the United States in February 1987, he said,
many African Americans and others with interest in things African
had questions for him.
"We always come here during Black History Month," Shabalala
said. "[African Americans], most of them, were happy, but they
had many questions. When I came here with Paul Simon, the first time,
in 1987, they talked about the cultural boycott. They told me they
were fighting for our freedom. I told them that our coming here was
a way for us to do that."
"So I answered those questions by telling them that this was our
way of crying out, of getting other people to witness that we were
oppressed. This a cappella music is our prayer. And we prayed for
our chance to be here, to demonstrate what we have, to show that we
were not just crying out in vain."
Ladysmith, buoyed by the exposure it received from Simon’s award-winning
album, later appeared on Saturday Night Live and other television
shows, sang on soundtracks for movies such as "Coming To America,"
and recorded several albums for American companies. And as Shabalala
says, the group finds itself on tour in America, Europe, and around
the world several months a year.
Now, more than 15 years after that first connection with Paul Simon,
Joseph Shabalala finds himself in a new South Africa, a South Africa
that is at the same time more hopeful and more filled with despair
His life, of course, had changed greatly before Mandela’s election
when his brother Headman was shot by a white security guard on a road
outside Durban. It seems that the armed man didn’t take kindly to
seeing a black man driving a BMW. The guard was later convicted of
Rampant crime is just one of South Africa’s many problems. Now under
the guidance of President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor, South
Africa is faced with massive unemployment, economic breakdown, and
"What we need is unity among all South Africans," Shabalala
says. "But what we also need is for our neighbors around the world
to come and invest in us. We need them to build factories so that
people will be able to make a living. Our economy is very bad."
South Africa is also cursed with one of the highest rates of HIV infection
in the world. "It is rampant there," says Shabalala. "We
always make it a point to try to educate people about this disease."
Educating South Africans — and others — about the culture
and history of black South Africans has always been one of Shabalala’s
major goals. He pledged, after his group began enjoying financial
and critical success, that he would build a school for young people.
Economic realities have quashed his dream for now. But he says it
is very much needed. "If you have a talent, you must be forced
to develop that talent. Tradition is very, very powerful, but it needs
someone to have a dream to develop it."
— Kevin L. Carter
Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $20 to $38. Thursday, February
13, 8 p.m.
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