« Just what the soul ordered | Main | Rescuing Harmonies Lost to Time »

April 12, 2005

Zulu Songs, Modern Message

New York Newsday (NY):

After more than 40 years of performing and worldwide acclaim, the secret to Ladysmith Black Mambazo's harmonious sound remains unchanged: practice, practice, practice. "When you're doing music, you never get tired _ you get energized," said Albert Mazibuko, 57, a senior member of the all-male South African a capella troupe introduced to western audiences by Paul Simon's 1986 "Graceland" album.

That energy _ which rouses audiences in New York and around the world _ springs from the stirring mix of bass, alto and tenor vocals that propelled Mambazo from small competitions in poor South African townships to major showcases: the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Nelson Mandela's 1994 inauguration, the 1996 Summer Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II's 50th anniversary celebration. Mambazo's act is also remarkable for its simplicity. The members are dressed in shirts with traditional southern African patterns, black pants and white shoes. They are arranged in a single row, side by side, with leader and founder Joseph Shabalala in front of them. Instead of cellos, pianos or drums, the group's collective voice creates an almost hypnotic rhythm, leaving audiences enchanted.

With more than 40 albums to its credit, Mambazo has sold more than 6 million records worldwide, earned a 2004 Grammy Award and appeared with the Muppets on "Sesame Street." The success never distracts the 10 singers from their social mission. On their North American tour, which runs through April 23, they spread the word that apartheid's abolition didn't cure South Africa's economic woes or its struggle against AIDS. "The toughest thing to deal with is AIDS," said Mazibuko. "When we're home, we don't even take a vacation because we are working in schools and homes and we talk to people. Even if we have a second we spread the message because it's a killer disease."

Mixing message and music is nothing new. In 1992, Mambazo lent its voice to "The Song of Jacob Zulu," a play about apartheid that eventually earned six Tony nominations. Mambazo's current tour features old favorites like the signature "Homeless" and a couple from its latest release, "No Boundaries," a crossover collaboration with London's English Chamber Orchestra. "For us, it was a first time experience, and I think it was for them, too, because they don't read music or scores," said Ralf Gothoni, the orchestra's principal conductor. "Everything is by heart. But I think we found each other very easily."

Mambazo's musical style, called Isicathamiya, was developed by mineworkers who sang into the wee hours following a hard, six-day week and long periods away from their families. They called themselves "Cothoza Mfana" or "tiptoe guys" because of the choreographed steps they used to avoid disturbing security guards. Part of Mambazo's act includes the tiptoe-dancing _ ranging from a subtle, quiet tapping to a high-kicking and jumping march. On Sunday night, a Manhattan audience clapped in time to the music, chanted in Zulu with instruction from Shabalala, and gave a cheering, albeit polite, standing ovation. "Often in South Africa people are standing up and screaming," said Thomas Channell, 25, a Columbia University student and former Capetown, South Africa resident who attended the Town Hall concert.

Mazibuko credits Shabalala for its continuing success. "I can say it's a gift and a strength for us," Mazibuko said by phone recently from Florida. "He doesn't write the music; he's got the music in his head." Shabalala and his family assembled Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the early 1960s in rural Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. "Black" in its name refers to the strong black oxen. "Mambazo" is Zulu for "ax." "An ax is a very valued tool for people who grew up on a farm," said Mazibuko. "Your life is impossible if you don't have one, whether you want to chop trees or make tools. An ax is a symbol of success in our culture."

Mambazo soon came to symbolize the culture of South Africa, with songs of hope for people suffering under the iron fist of apartheid. "We were lucky we sang in our own language," said Mazibuko. "The oppressors did not know what we were saying, but the people did." The group's fame spread in 1985 when Simon came to Johannesburg and recorded with South African musicians, including Mambazo, for his "Graceland" album. Two years later, Mambazo released its album "Shaka Zulu" before going on to work with Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Dolly Parton and many others.

Healing is a key goal for Mambazo, which is still working through the unsolved killings of Shabalala's wife, Nellie, in 2001, and his brother, Ben, last year. "Many people were coming to see the situation and people got involved in our struggle," said Mazibuko. "I believe people understand our music as we understand it _ as a healing music. It heals us and does the same for our people." Mambazo has four new members: Shabalala's sons, who replaced retired members. Mazibuko said the young singers are giving the group a new vibrancy and bringing Zulu singing to a new generation. "The young guys have ideas and energy," he said. "But we older people have the wisdom."

Posted by acapnews at April 12, 2005 12:19 AM