Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded by Joseph Shabalala in 1974. They've cut well over 30 albums since, but the group did not become well known outside of South Africa until Paul Simon asked them to perform on Graceland. Shabalala was born into a poor family that lived on a white man's farm near the town of Ladysmith. There were eight children in the Shabalala family, and, as the oldest boy, it was Joseph's duty to take care of the family after his father died.
Shabalala's first musical experience, save for a bit of fooling around on the guitar, came with a choral group called the Blacks. Shabalala eventually took over leadership of the group and became its main composer. The Blacks won most of the local vocal competitions and became the most popular Zulu vocal group, but Shabalala felt that something was missing. "I had been hearing a voice inside me," Shabalala said. "I didn't know it, but it was the voice of God." When the voice told him to fast, Shabalala obeyed, and on his fast, he had a vision of a new kind of vocal music. Shortly thereafter he became a Christian. Taking the choral music he heard in the Christian church, he combined it with the Zulu tradition to create his own style.
When the Blacks refused to take part in Shabalala's experiments, he formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group consists of seven bass voices, an alto, a tenor, and Shabalala singing lead. The combo immediately began releasing albums at a staggering rate, offering a massive catalog of vocal music. Even if you don't speak Zulu, when they hit a low rumbling note, you can literally feel the power of their voices in your body.
"In Zulu singing there are three major sounds," Shabalala explains. "A high keening ululation; a grunting, puffing sound that we make when we stomp our feet; and a certain way of singing melody. Before Black Mambazo you didn't hear these three sounds in the same songs. So it is new to combine them, although it is still done in a traditional style. We are just asking God to allow us to polish it, to help keep our voices in order so we can praise Him and uplift the people."
The group has had an extremely prolific recording career, having released over 50 albums and collections, beginning with their debut, Amabutho, on Gallo Records in 1973. In 1988 Ladymith signed with Warner Bros. and issued a pair of albums, Journey of Dreams in 1988 and Two Worlds One Heart in 1990. A couple of best-of samplers appeared on Shanachie in 1992. The group switched back to Gallo for a series of 1990s releases, then moved to Wrasse for several albums, including 2000's In Harmony. No Boundaries, which featured the English Chamber Orchestra, appeared on Headsup Records in 2005, followed by a second album from the label, Long Walk to Freedom, in 2006. In 2007 Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu was issued in South Africa with an American edition following in 2008. ~ j. poet