South African a cappella group sing lessons of history

February 29, 2008 6:21:29 PM PST
Joseph Shabalala's strong deep voice rings out clear and haunting. A choir of voices join him, rising into a harmony of sound. "This is the way we do," sings legendary South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. "This is the way we do." For the Grammy award-winning group, their way has been the way to stardom.

The uplifting tune is from the group's latest album, "Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu," which is dedicated to one of their deepest sources of inspiration. Shaka Zulu was the great African king and warrior chief who used his military and diplomatic cunning to unite the Zulu people into a mighty nation.

Nearly two centuries later, his vision of unity and national pride resonates through this latest offering by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, currently touring the United States to support the CD.

The rich melodies of "Kuyafundw' Osizini (Ilembe)," which translates as "Learning from the Obstacles (The Greatest Warrior)" are about perseverance and overcoming opposition; while the uplifting "Iphel' Emansini," ("A Cockroach in the Milk)," recounts an old Zulu proverb about the dangers of concentrating on the negative and losing sight of the beauty of life.

For Albert Mazibuko, one of the oldest members of the group, the album is an attempt to encourage a greater understanding of Shaka Zulu and his legacy.

"Some people say the poor can't do great things. Shaka learnt from suffering," he says in a telephone interview ahead of their departure for America.

It is a lesson the group, who shot to fame in 1986 with their collaboration on Paul Simon's Grammy-winning "Graceland" album, knows well.

Started in the early 1960s by Shabalala - then a young farm boy turned factory worker - the group has taken the traditional music of black mine workers from the rural hills of South Africa to the international stage.

With more than 40 recordings, they have worked with artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson and have performed for presidents, royalty and even the pope.

"From the beginning we were struggling to develop our music," says Mazibuko. "Now we are just cruising the freeways."

A relative of Shabalala's, Mazibuko, a tenor, joined the largely family group in 1969. He remembers their struggle to perform under apartheid laws which restricted the movement of black people as well as the venues they could play in.

"We faced so many difficulties," Mazibuko says. "At road blocks, we would sing for police so we could pass."

These are the stories that Thami Shabalala, 33, Joseph's youngest son and one of the youngest members of the group, has grown up on. He began singing with the group in 1993.

"The way they tell the stories, I know them like I was there ... everything they went through," he says. "It is good to stay with the older generation, so you know where Ladysmith Black Mambazo comes from. Nothing is easy, you have to work for everything."

South Africa is a better place now, he says, thanks to former president Nelson Mandela's vision - like Shaka's - of unity.

"Mandela said there must be peace, that people must love each other and throw away their guns," he says.

But he feels there is still more to be done.

"We still have to know that there is no white or black, we are all the same," he says. "Now people must think differently."


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