In an African print top, black trousers and white shoes, the male acappella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo took over the African music scene and were the first South African musical group to win a Grammy in 1987.
30 years later, the group has had 17 Grammy nominations and has performed before the Queen of England at the Royal Albert Hall in London, for Pope John Paul II in Rome, for the 1996 Summer Olympics, and also at the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 50th anniversary as a monarch.
Formed by Joseph Shabalala in 1960, the group took its name from three different origins. Ladysmith: Shabalala’s hometown in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Black: from the black ox which is considered the strongest farm animal, and Mambazo: which means axe in Zulu.
The group was composed of some of Shabalala’s cousins and brothers. In over four decades of its existence, over 30 different men have been part of the group. The core group was composed of Albert Mazibuko, Joseph Shabalala, Thamsanqa Shabalala, Sibongiseni Shabalala, Thulani Shabalala, Abednego Mazibuko, Russel Mthembu and Ngane Dlamini.
Joseph Shabalala retired in 2014 after having led the group for 54 years. The group was Nelson Mandela’s favourite band and the group met Madiba in 1990 when they performed on his birthday in Johannesburg. With four Grammys under their belt, the group is still going strong, a musical force to reckon with.
The group sang a type of music called Isicathamiya, a Zulu word which means walk lightly or walk on your toes. They formally came into existence in 1964 after Joseph Shabalala had a dream of a type of singing group he wanted to have. This dream came with various harmonies that Shabalala taught to his group.
Prior to being renamed Ladysmith Black Ma mbazo, the group was called Ezimnyama, meaning the Black Ones. They participated in Isicathamiya competitions, held on Saturday nights in the halls of hostels in Durban and Johannesburg. They were later stopped from participating in the competitions because of how refined they were and their domination in the competition.
In 1967, the group now renamed Ladysmith Black Mambazo started recording their music. They signed up with the then largest music label in South Africa, Gallo Record Company in 1972 and were still signed to the company as recently as 2015.
In 1975 when Shabalala converted to Christianity, the group started producing more songs with Christian influences, and Methodist hymns.
By 1981 they had released their 18th album amidst growing popularity around South Africa. Around this time, they were allowed to travel to Cologne, Germany, by the Apartheid government as part of a South African folkore music festival.
It was in 1986 that a bigger break came through for the group. Paul Simon came to South Africa in 1985 in search of musicians to collaborate with on his new album Graceland. He met Shabalala and the group flew to the U.K. to record. The group sang three songs; Homeless, Diamonds On The Soles of her Shoes and You Can Call me Al. The album was released in 1986 and sold 16 million copies.
Simon later invited the group to perform in New York. The relationship between the group and Simon led to the release of Shaka Zulu (1987) recorded by Warner Brother Records, with Simon serving as their producer. The group received a Grammy Award in 1988 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Journey of Dreams (1988) and Two Worlds, One Heart (1990) were also recorded by Warner Brothers Records.
From 1988 on-wards it was a series of one success after another for the group. They appeared in Michael Jackson’s movie Moonwalker where they performed The Moon is Walking. More engagements came, including singing Mbube, during the opening sequence of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, and providing the soundtrack for Lion King II,
During Mandela’s inauguration as president in May 1994, they performed, and they also sang during the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo won the Grammy Awards in 1988, 2004, 2009 and 2013. With the old generation having left the group, the sons of Shabalala are the new members of the group and they continue with their father’s dreams, keeping the legacy alive.