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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

United States.

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

voice.

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

critics.

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

than ever.

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

manslaughter.

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

uncertainty.

"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

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, State Theater, 15 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $20 to $38. Thursday, February

13, 8 p.m.


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