Written by Devorah E. Hill for THE ARTISTS FORUM, MAGAZINE
Edited by Amos White V for THE ARTISTS FORUM, Inc
Photos: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: THE VOICE OF A NATION
Interview with Ladysmith Black Mambazo member Albert Mazibuko
NEW YORK, NY (February 17, 2016) They are traveling the US, celebrating 56 years, 16 Grammy nominations and four Grammy Awards. There has never been a better time to be in the audience when Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performing. This coming Friday, Feb 19th, New York City’s The Town Hall will host these euphonious, South African musicians and you need to be there!
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk with tenor vocalist and long time Ladysmith member, Albert Mazibuko via phone prior to their upcoming show. Many of us are familiar with their music. But, there is a history behind the melodies. Mr. Mazibuko put a very personal face on contemporary historical events. The following are highlights of what he shared, transcribed from my audio taped interview:
“My name is Albert Mazibuko. I’m a tenor singing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I joined my cousin, Joseph Shabalala in 1969. My role in the group is to sing and make sure that everything is going accordingly. Because I learned a lot about this music and singing from Joseph Shabalala.”
“Joseph grew up hearing his father singing with friends. When he became a young man, he joined a group called HighLanders. He wanted to master how this music was sung. Later, he left the Highlanders to start his own group. His first group started around 1960. It lasted about nine years. In 1969, Joseph had a dream. In it, his grandmother was telling him to come to see me. I was with my brother and one of my cousins. Visiting with his brother, he told us about his dream. He said he had developed a new way to blend the voices. By writing new songs and singing them in a new way, Joseph said we would be improving isicathamiya music.”
“So, we listened to him. We said , ‘Wow this is some challenge right here.’ That day he taught us two new songs: King of Kings and Hello My Baby. From there we were learning new songs and this new way of singing, very challenging but very very beautiful. We were also going to competitions. Isicathamiya is sustained through competition. The people singing this music are doing that every Saturday night, that is how they are keeping the music alive. So, we were doing those contests until we were fired because we were winning all of the time. After that we were entertaining people doing our own shows. That’s how it began.”
“What people need to understand about isicathamiya music is, it was born early in the 1920s during the fierce years of early Apartheid. African people were driven from their homes. Families were separated. The men had to go to the mines, far away from their homes. They were working six days a week. But on the weekends they were entertaining themselves with the music they knew from their homelands. Miners came from all over southern Africa. The ones who were from KwaZulu brought their singing with them.”
“With this kind of music dance is also part of it. Our dancing is stomping. You stomp the floor very hard then you tap your leg and then you stomp it down again. So, when they would do that they were disturbing the other people. The security guards said, ‘This is not allowed.’ So, the miners said, ‘Okay we are not going to stomp. We are just going to tiptoe now, not stomp. We will sing very softly.’ So, that is what they did. Visiting at Christmas time, when they went home, they would do this dancing and singing. The people back home said, ‘Wow, they are not stomping anymore. They are tiptoeing.’ They call it cothoza mfana, which means Tiptoe guys. So, that’s where this kind of music, isicathamiya comes from.”
“Because people come from all over South Africa to compete in isicathamiya, there is a tradition, people name themselves using their hometown. Ladysmith is our home town. It is in between Durban and Johannesburg. That’s where we were born and raised. So, our name lets people know that we are from Ladysmith. We grew up farming on the land. The black oxen is a very powerful farm animal. Joseph (Shabalala) took the word “Black” from that black oxen. Mambazo means the chopping axe. This is a very important tool when you are in the thick forest. You use your axe to chop down what is in front of you to pave your way. So, Joseph said he wanted us to be powerful like those black oxen and then with our beautiful voices we would pave the way building our future. Also chopping down our opponents when we were in competition. But with our voices not with an axe. You put all of that together and we are the powerful voices from Ladysmith. That’s why we are called Ladysmith Black Mambazo.”
“Amabuto, our first album was released in 1973. We started recording this album in December of 1972. We were brought in by a young producer who just started with Gallo Records. When we came to the studio (in Johannesburg) the senior producer there said, ‘Oh this kind of music has no instrument. So, take only four songs. Because this music is not going to sell. This is just for entertainment in the mining hostels.’ He was wrong. People knew our music and they wanted to buy it. In January 1973, we came back in the studio and recorded twelve songs.” (*Amabutho sold over 25,000 copies in South Africa, and was the first record by black musicians in the country to receive gold disc certification.) “The word amabutho means warriors. The title song, Amabutho, was about the warriors who fought with King Shaka Zulu. He brought them all together making them one nation. Our purpose with the album, was to encourage people to be proud of themselves. People were losing hope in South Africa, you know from the system. It was hard and it depressed people.”
“After Amabutho was released. There was this guy he came up and said, “Oh I love your music so much. Can I travel with you guys?” So we said, ‘Okay, you can travel with us.’ This guy, he was with us everywhere. So to our surprise, sometime after he had been with us, we were visited by four guys, two white men and two black men. They came in while we were rehearsing. They said, ‘Congratulations.’ We asked, ‘For what?’ They said, ‘You are the cleanest group the government has ever seen.’ We said, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘You remember that guy, he was traveling with you?’ They mentioned him by name. ‘We sent him to you. We wanted to know what kind of people you were.’ So, they were spying on us to see what we talked about on and off stage.”
“Another challenge for us, during the Apartheid era, was traveling. Because in South Africa, during that time you had to have permission to be in a particular city or town. So, when we’re traveling we would get stopped by the police, They would ask us to show that we had permission to be in that place. I remember Joseph was trying to explain that we were singers. The police wanted to know what kind of music we sang? So that meant we were always singing for the police. Then they would let us go. One time there was a big road block around Ladysmith and they stopped us. We did our magic of singing for them. We were let go. But, the commissioner of the area was there. He came and said, ‘This is beautiful. But we should arrest you anyway because you don’t have permission to be here. We will let you go. But you must go to your magistrate and ask for him to give you permission to travel around.’ Then he took a notebook from his pocket and he wrote something. He said, Give this to your magistrate. So, that was Friday night. We were in Johannesburg and performed all weekend.”
“Monday night we went back to Durban and straight to the magistrate. He said, ‘Okay, what kind of singing are you doing? Why do you need travel permission? Everybody sings in South Africa.’ We said, ‘Well yes, but we have something that we feel is special. People want to hear it.’ So we stood up in the courtroom and sang. The magistrate took his glasses off and put them down. He said, ‘This is beautiful.’ He then issued us permission. We got the permission to travel around South Africa but we had to constantly renew that permission. We couldn’t travel outside of South Africa until 1981, when we went to Germany.”
“When Mandela was released we were not in South Africa. We were in America, on tour. I remember we were in Long Island, NY. When we got back home we got an invitation to his birthday party in Johannesburg. So we got into the venue. We hit the stage and performed. He stood up and he walked over to us, shook hands and danced with us. It was amazing! He told us, ‘Your music was a great inspiration for me while I was in prison.’ I said to myself, ‘Wow am I really hearing this?’ Then he said, ‘From now on where I go I want you to go with me.’ Then we went with him to Norway for the Noble Peace Prize. That was really something because it was very emotional. Understand what it meant. These two leaders from South Africa, if they can accept the Noble Peace Prize in front of the whole world it means our country will be a peaceful place.”
“Mandela wanted us to perform at the ceremony. So we performed King of Kings and another song. When we finished, Mandela stood up raised his fist and said, ‘Black Power, Black Mambazo!’ It was very emotional for us. We were at his inauguration. From there we went many places with him. We sang for the Queen of England. We met the Pope in Rome. It was wonderful to get to know him. He eventually gave us the title that we are, ‘Ambassadors of South African Culture and Music.‘ We make sure that we are living up to that, representing our country.”
“We started the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation to try to help needy people by collecting and recycling. We collected computers and books for young people. We also wanted the foundation to help us to teach our indigenous music (isicathamia) in South Africa. Now, we have what is called the Mobile Academy. When we are in South Africa we make sure that we do workshops everywhere we go. We do it to teach the young ones the music.”
“Our last album Always With Us is a tribute to Nellie Shabalala, Joseph’s wife. She was a singer in the church music and wedding songs. She was always supporting her husband and us. She opened her house. She was amazing so we can never forget her. Even though she has gone, she is always in our hearts so that is why we made this album Always With Us.”
“We are very excited about this current tour. We will also be joined by other musician from home for our New York performance. We are calling this an “African Night.” Bakiti Kumalo and Samite Mulondo will be there. Those are our friends. It is going to be a wonderful wonderful night. Joseph’s (Shabalala) sons are now leading the group. The music is even more beautiful than before. There is a lot of dancing. There are also new members in the group. I am there just to show them I am not going anywhere. I’ve still got what it takes. We are celebrating fifty-six years. It is going to be a joyous night. So, I hope everyone will come out. We are excited to be in New York and to have a huge celebration at Town Hall.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is: Albert Mazibuko, Abednego Mazibuko, Msizi Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala, Sibongiseni Shabalala, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Mfanafuthi Dlamini, Pius Shezi, and Sabelo Mthembu.
The group will be touring the United States through March 4, 2016. See links for the group and their tour below.
Special thanks to Albert Mazibuko for his time and to Mitch Goldstein and John Seroff for their help in arranging this interview.