BRIAN WILSON is not the only veteran of thrilling 1960s harmony-based singing coming to the Absolut Big Top in this year’s GIAF. Ladysmith Black Mambazo are flying in from Durban with their world-renowned celebratory sounds of South Africa.
Formed in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala, the group took the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo from his hometown Ladysmith, ‘Black’ referring to the ox, the strongest farm animal, and ‘Mambazo’ the Zulu word for an axe, a symbol of the group’s ability to chop down any musical rival.
Initially starting out in choir contests, their harmonies were so polished that within a few years they were banned from competitions. The group draws on a traditional music called isicathamiya, which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black miners were taken to work far away from their homes and families. Poorly housed and paid, they would entertain themselves by singing.
In 1986, Ladysmith Black Mambazo found worldwide fame after Paul Simon used their rich harmonies on his Graceland album. A year later, Simon produced their first international release, Shaka Zulu, which won a Grammy Award. Since then, the group has been awarded two more Grammys and been nominated 15 times. In addition to their work with Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have recorded with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Their film work includes Coming To America, A Dry White Season, Cry The Beloved Country, and Invictus. They have appeared on Broadway and have been nominated for Tony Awards and have won a Drama Desk Award.
Ahead of their Galway visit, group stalwart Albert Mazibuko spoke with me about their music and I began by asking how their many collaborations have influenced their sound; “Joseph used to say that every time you are collaborating with someone it was like shaking hands,” he says. “So we would come up with something that benefited both us and the other artist.
"We have a lot of influences that we got from the people we collaborated with. In terms of writing songs we started writing songs in English; previously we had only written songs in our own Zulu language, so that is something we developed from collaborating with other acts.”
While their music abounds with joy, the group have experienced dark times, with the murders of both Joseph Shabalala’s brother and wife. “We never lost focus,” Albert tells me.
“When Joseph’s brother was shot dead we thought at first that means we have to stop singing. I remember that night Joseph called me and I went and found him at home. He was stronger than I was then; he said ‘they have killed my brother Patch. We are going to continue singing because we always said we would sing until we join the heavenly choir. We are the Black Mambazo choir here on earth; we have the other choir up there. Just make sure we keep practicing here until we get there. Also, we are in this group until the end of time but who knows when that might be.’
"So we have never been discouraged even when Joseph’s wife was also killed. When we attended her memorial service we didn’t sing the songs that people usually sing when someone dies but a favourite song which she loved. We don’t stop singing but try to write music that makes people feel stronger and also to send a message to those who kill that it is not good what they do because our lives are a gift from God and everyone has to enjoy it.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s current album, Walking In The Footsteps Of Our Fathers, sees the group’s creative torch being handed on to the sons of Joseph Shabalala; “The idea came about because Joseph has taken a back seat now,” Albert explains. “It’s his sons that are leading the group and they have been doing it mostly in live performance, and we said let’s see their talent when they come to the studio and they have done a wonderful job. We also gave them a chance to write new material and their songs really chime with the songs written by their father. The album got a Grammy nomination which is like a sign saying ‘guys, you are in a good trend, keep going’”
The group have performed at many august occasions and before many heads of state. I ask Albert is there one special VIP gig they treasure? “The one that stands out for me was when we accompanied Nelson Mandela to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo,” he replies. “Mandela requested us to perform. We were told that they don’t allow loudspeakers only the natural voices and we said that is fine with us.
"Then they were also only going to give us four minutes but Nelson Mandela was requesting two songs so we said we could combine them together into four minutes which we did. When we finished the song Nelson Mandela stood up by himself and raised his fist and said ‘Black power, black Mambazo’ and then he sat down. That was very emotional and very encouraging that our country was receiving the peace prize and we continue to hope it will stay at peace.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo play the Absolut Big Top on Wednesday July 26 at 8pm. This is a seated concert. See www.giaf.ie #GIAF17