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:: Spotlight :: Interview with South African gospel group Ladysmith Black Mambazo

By: Saeed Saeed

It has been 20 years since Paul Simon made his journey to South Africa. His mission was to meet the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo who he heard on a tape given to him by a LA based DJ. Simon was captivated by Mambazo’s traditional brand of South African music called ‘Isicathamiya’ (Is-Cot-A-Me-Ya) and enlisted the group to work on his masterpiece ‘Graceland’. An album that became so successful that it made the genre ‘World Music’ a permanent staple in every major music store.

Albert Mazibuko, who along with his cousin Joseph Shabalala, is one of the original members of the group which has been going strong now for over 40 years. He recalls the experience recording with Simon as being a mixture of puzzlement and plain curiosity for the group. “For the first time when we heard that Paul Simon wanted to work with us we were very confused. His music is of a very different kind to our music. But we said: ‘Okay, let us see what he wants’.”

With its eclectic marriage of Simon’s pop sensibilities and traditional Zulu harmonies, ‘Graceland’ introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the world and that love affair continues to this day with the group selling over 6 million records and winning 2 Grammy awards. Along the way the group discovered that they also won fans in high places for they gave special performances in front of Pope John Paul II and the Queen of England.

With a tour schedule that would make the most hardened roadie blush, the group is always out on the road not only performing but also acting as their country’s cultural ambassadors. Mazibuko concedes that these dual tasks can be burdensome but it is all part of Mambazo’s missionary-like ethos. “Even from the beginning our aim was to bring all the glory of South African music to the world. Now we have an opportunity to do that. It makes us dedicate ourselves more and humbles ourselves. It makes us very proud of our country”.

Indeed, today’s new South Africa and the success of Mambazo are inextricably linked together. Their music not only gave its fellow people hope during the dark times of Apartheid but it also soundtracked the nation’s joy with Mambazo performing in President Mandela’s historic inauguration in 1994.

But with South Africa’s new found freedom comes a different yet equally powerful threat. Mambazo are concerned that with the advancement of technology such as the internet, cable TV and most recently MTV launching in Africa, young South Africans are being taking away from their culture and are instead embracing the more dangerous foreign ideals that they see on the TV screen. “Being a South African and being a black people we have our own culture which is very beautiful. It makes us a unique and beautiful people. So when young people see those things on TV because they like to watch this sometimes violent music and violent acts…They practice those things”.

Mambazo’s concern crystallised into reality when in 2002, Shabalala’s wife of 30 years, Nellie, was murdered by a masked gunman outside their church. No motive has been found for the killing and the hit man, a black South African, is now in jail. It was through their music that Mambazo were able to recover from the tragedy as it acted as an avenue to channel their grief. “The only way to escape that state is to sing, express it through music. Compose a song about it. The song, if it’s comforting for ourselves then we know that the song is going to comfort our people”.

Australia also provides Mambazo with a great deal of comfort and they are looking forward to returning to our shores. “That place I enjoy it very much!” Mazibuko beams.” We went cruising on a boat and we visited some nice places. Every time I come to Australia I have a wonderful time. I miss Australia all the time. I miss its sunshine and its climate”.

You can see Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the following dates:

Brisbane - City Hall, July 28
Perth – Concert Hall, July 30
Adelaide - Her Majesty’s Theatre, August 1
Canberra - Canberra Theatre, August 3
Melbourne - Concert Hall, August 5
Sydney - State Theatre, August 7

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