Ladysmith Black Mambazo is largely responsible for putting South African music on the map. The group's upliftingly intricate vocal arrangements were crucial to the success of Paul Simon's Graceland album, spawning subsequent collaborations with everyone from Dolly Parton to Lighthouse Family. After enduring decades of apartheid, an era made particularly painful by the deaths of family and band members, the group has gone on to forge a lasting friendship with South Africa's other best-known survivor, Nelson Mandela, who told them their music helped keep him going during his long incarceration.
So it's fitting that, after bringing inspiration to audiences around the world, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is bringing it all back home with this month's release of Songs From a Zulu Farm, an album devoted to the children's songs they heard growing up in rural South Africa. In the following interview, veteran Ladysmith tenor Mdletshe Albert Mazibuko speaks with humor and candor about the amazing legacy of a group whose heart and soul have made it an international treasure.
Indy: I'd like to start by asking about Songs From a Zulu Farm. How different is it to sing the music you grew up with as kids?
Mdletshe Albert Mazibuko: You know, it's really enjoyable to sing the music of our childhood. It connects us to that time of happiness, when you were a child so you didn't have any worries. You just enjoy everything around you. So it's wonderful for us to go back to that kind of feeling.
Indy: You've got a foundation to teach a new generation about South African culture and music. Can you tell me a little bit about the difference between, say, isicathamiya harmonies and their Western counterparts?
MAM: I think isicathamiya is a kind of music that doesn't sound like any other music, not even other South African music. It's not only the voices and the singing, but even the beat, because the music is derived from Zulu dance. So it always has that kind of vibe that you only get in South Africa. But the harmonies, sometimes when I listen to church music in America, it has some similarities.
Indy: Over the course of your career, you've sung a whole lot of a cappella. So was it challenging to do something like the Graceland album? Or did you just concentrate on your vocal parts and let Paul Simon worry about putting them in context afterward?
MAM: I remember when we first tried to record the song "Homeless" in London, we didn't know how to do it with him. We tried for a whole afternoon, and there were so many people who were stepping in trying to help, saying, "You should sing it like this."
And so Paul Simon said, "OK, let's go back to our hotel." So we rehearsed at the hotel, and then we had dinner, and after that we got together and we prayed. The next day, when we got there, we told Paul Simon that we'd been rehearsing and we sang him the song. In two hours, the song was there. So after that, we never had any problem singing with him, because we have that connection to the kind of singer he is and how we can meet him halfway.
Indy: In addition to the children's songs from your homeland, the new album has a version of "Old MacDonald" that you kind of play with, modulating between keys ...
MAM: Yeah, we did a Zuluization. [Laughs.]
Indy: I also like the animal sounds. Which of you does the best animal impersonations?
MAM: That's the youngest guy in the group. He joined us three years ago, and he does that rooster so perfectly it's amazing.
Indy: And you grew up on a farm, so you'd know, right?
MAM: I can do it, but I think you have to be really talented to do this thing. I can do bird songs, because I just whistle. But this guy, when he does the rooster and the goat and the other things, he's so good.
Indy: When you started out with the group, it had been together for just a short while, right?
MAM: Yes. Joseph had formed the group in 1960. But the group he had up until 1969 didn't want to learn the new style that he wanted them to sing. So he left the group and he and his brother — and me and my brother, and one of my cousins — we started the group again. And so from there, we only sang Joseph's style, which he learned from a dream while he was asleep. So he was teaching us all these songs that he used to hear in his dreams. It was so challenging, and we'd so look forward to it.
I remember, we were all working full time. We'd get out of work at 5 o'clock, and by 6 o'clock, we were in the same one room, rehearsing until 12 midnight every day. Every day. Until we got it right.
Indy: Your group has earned more than a dozen Grammy nominations, but you've also suffered some great tragedies, including the deaths of band members. How difficult was it to get through all those emotional ups and downs?
MAM: It was very difficult. I remember the first one, when Joseph Shabalala's brother was killed, which hit us so big, because we didn't even see it coming.
Indy: He was shot, right?
MAM: Yeah, he was shot.
Indy: Was it random? Did they figure out what happened?
MAM: They said it was a security guard, you know, a white guy. And he was even off duty. And the way he explained it, he said [Shabalala's brother] was driving recklessly, so he was trying to make a citizen's arrest, and that he refused and tried to grab his gun. And then they shot him. We never believed that. This guy was a very humble guy, and when we traveled, we were never violent to anyone.
It was so painful. But the power of music, I think it helped us there. I remember at his memorial service, we sang this song that we had just finished recording. And on that album, the way he sang it, I think maybe his spirit knew that this was his last recording. Because he was so good, he was so wonderful, and — we were talking about this — that this time, he was the best. The best. So we sang this song, which says that we have conquered the devil. It was a very reviving and comforting song, and so we sang it and everyone was in very powerful spirits.
Indy: What album was that on?
MAM: That's the album — what is that album? [Laughs.] I can't remember the name of it.
Indy: You've only done 40 of them.
MAM: In fact, we have done more than 60 albums! I think maybe in our biography, they still have over 40, but it's over 60 now.
Indy: You've suggested the shooting was racially motivated. I know that Hugh Masekela actually exiled himself from South Africa during apartheid. Were you ever tempted to do the same?
MAM: No, we were never tempted to do that. Because we believe that, whatever the situation, it may be very difficult but we never believed in running away. And so instead, we stayed and did our best. And we never hold any grudge for anyone. Instead we are striving to bring people together. We said, let's forgive one another and try to work together and be one rainbow nation.