'Spirit Of Family' Unites Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Ladysmith Black Mambazo Performs At NPR Headquarters

  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in the South African town of Ladysmith in 1964. While on their latest U.S. tour, the group's members stopped by NPR studios for a performance chat.
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    Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in the South African town of Ladysmith in 1964. While on their latest U.S. tour, the group's members stopped by NPR studios for a performance chat.
    Darren Phillip Jones
  • Host Michel Martin walks into Studio 1.
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    Host Michel Martin walks into Studio 1.
    Darren Phillip Jones
  • The group performs "Homeless," the song that Paul Simon recorded for his album Graceland.
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    The group performs "Homeless," the song that Paul Simon recorded for his album Graceland.
    Darren Phillip Jones
  • The band's tight vocal harmonies and messages of peace have earned it audiences from around the world.
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    The band's tight vocal harmonies and messages of peace have earned it audiences from around the world.
    Darren Phillip Jones
  • Many of the group members are related. Albert Mazibuko (second from left) proudly watches his nephew Babuyile Shabalala introduce the song "Vimba." Babuyile is also the grandson of the group's founder, Joseph Shabalala.
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    Many of the group members are related. Albert Mazibuko (second from left) proudly watches his nephew Babuyile Shabalala introduce the song "Vimba." Babuyile is also the grandson of the group's founder, Joseph Shabalala.
    Darren Phillip Jones
  • The group had a special friendship with the late Nelson Mandela, who saw it as a musical ambassador for South Africa.
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    The group had a special friendship with the late Nelson Mandela, who saw it as a musical ambassador for South Africa.
    Darren Phillip Jones

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For fans of world music, South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo needs no introduction.

The group has been singing a capella together for 50 years, brought together by Joseph Shabalala, a young farmhand turned factory worker from the town of Ladysmith. He had a dream of tight vocal harmonies and messages of peace.

That dream developed, and the band came to the attention of Paul Simon, who had it record "Homeless" on his album Graceland. It introduced the group to the world.

Albert Mazibuko, Shabalala's cousin and one of the last original members of the group, tells NPR's Tell Me More that he remembers knowing instantly that there was something special about the song. "After we recorded the song, I listened to it, and I said to myself, 'This is the song that is going to give us the wings,' " he says.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo just learned it won its fourth Grammy — this one, best world music album for Live: Singing for Peace around the World — while on a U.S. tour. "I felt like I was flying," Mazibuko says. "We have won Grammys, but this one is very important because it's dedicated to the man who dedicated his life to peace."

That man is Nelson Mandela, and the group had a special relationship with him from the moment they met in 1990. "He shook hands with us and said, keep [up] the good job guys. Your music has been a great inspiration to me while I was in jail," Mazibuko remembers. "From there, he never let us go. Everywhere he goes, he wants Ladysmith Black Mambazo to be there."

Mazibuko believes that the group's close relationship is key to its success. "I think the spirit of family, that's what keeps the group together," he says. But over the years they have also experienced the loss of band members Ben and Headman Shabalala, and of Joseph's wife, Nellie, whom they honor on their new album Always With Us: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Our Family Matriarch, Nellie Shabalala. Mazibuko says that singing has helped the group members through their grief. "Even when we lose people, the music has been there to comfort us," he says. "When we hear the bad news, we always come together and sing and pray."

Joseph Shabalala is not on their current tour as he recovers from surgery. But grandson Babuyile is performing in America for the first time. As the third generation of the family to sing in the group, he believes it's very important to keep its musical tradition going. "It's been very humbling to see the people's responses and how much people appreciate this music and how much people really love it."

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