He spent the last few years away from the limelight, battling health complications, and on Tuesday this week, legendary South African singer Joseph Shabalala, founder and former lead singer of the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, passed away.
The life and death of Shabalala is a tribute to an artiste who elevated traditional Zulu harmonies to an international platform and earned his group wide acclaim.
Shabalala, who died at the age of 78, has been unwell since undergoing spinal surgery in 2017. He had effectively handed control of the famous choral group to his sons, who have been carrying forward the legacy of the five-time Grammy Award winning group.
It was a rare privilege to interview Shabalala back stage during the performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Classical Fusion concert at the Impala Grounds in Nairobi in 2011. This was the first time they performed in East Africa and the concert tour in Nairobi and Mombasa coincided with the 35th anniversary of the recording of the groundbreaking album “Graceland” with American musician Paul Simon.
At the time of the Nairobi concert, Shabalala was 70 and though he appeared in great physical shape, leading the group on their neatly choreographed dance routines, there were already questions about how long he could continue with the punishing schedule of touring around the world.
“It is a good thing to teach these young ones,” he said, pointing at his son Sibongiseni, who eventually took over the leadership of the group. “I am here to teach them to respect one another and I will be doing so till I am tired and can’t walk anymore.”
Shabalala had an avuncular personality; from the warm embrace he gave the fans and journalists who crowded backstage to pose for pictures with him, to the playful banter with people he was meeting for the first time.
He reminisced about that historic meeting with Paul Simon that catapulted the group from KwaZulu-Natal to global fame.
“When I first heard that Paul Simon wanted to meet Ladysmith Black Mambazo, I thought to myself, ‘What does this American of Jewish heritage who is long past his prime want with a Zulu farm boy like myself.’”
Shabalala recalled that first meeting with an amusing anecdote on the impact of segregation laws that were in force in South Africa at the time. “This was the first time I hugged a white man and I had to look around to see if the police were going to arrest me. At this point, it occurred to me that here is a human being. Paul Simon told me that he wanted to do music with us, fusing traditional Zulu singing with Western pop.”
A radio DJ from Los Angeles had heard about Simon’s plans to revive his career using African music and recommended that he meet Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The expectations of the rest of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were quite high, but when Shabalala returned after that initial meeting with Simon, he made no promises. “I just told them that, ‘Hey guys, there could be something coming up’, but I didn’t get anyone’s hopes up too high,” said Shabalala.
As it happens, it was just a matter of days before Ladysmith Black Mambazo arrived at the EMI Records, Abbey Road Studios in London for the first recording session of what was to become “Graceland”.
“We had set aside five days for the recording of the song “Homeless” and the first day proved to be a difficult session, so I asked Paul Simon to allow me to talk to my group. By 12 o’clock the next day, we had wrapped up the song and we were out enjoying the streets of London,” said Shabalala with a broad smile on his face.
For Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Graceland” and the world tour offered them what Albert Mazibuko, who is Shabalala’s cousin, and the only other survivor from the original line-up, called the “rocket to the moon”.
In the build-up to the first show in Europe during the 1986/87 “Graceland” tour in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, all attention was on South African acts like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, who were already established international stars from the 1960s
As Mazibuko recalls, there was a surprise awaiting the 50,000-strong crowd that day: “When Paul Simon introduced us, we performed a song called ‘Nomatemba’. We got a standing ovation for a full minute and the next day the newspapers said ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo had stolen the show!’”
There is also a whole new generation of fans that have grown up in the years after “Graceland” and only relied on videos of the moment when Paul Simon introduced this ensemble of singers, clad in colourful shirts with an elaborate dance routine to packed arenas around the world.
Such was the symbolism of watching one of Africa’s most successful acts passing the torch on to a new generation when Ladysmith Black Mambazo was joined by Sauti Sol for an encore performance of the popular “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoe” during that concert almost a decade ago.
Shabalala explained how that distinctive opening a cappella in the song was a response to the English lyrics: “Paul Simon called me to hear a song he was rehearsing and I asked him if I could sing it in Zulu. My lyrics mean these days girls know how to take care of their looks.”
Two months before that interview in Nairobi, Ladysmith Black Mambazo got together with Paul Simon and his band in Johannesburg for a reunion of the famous 1986 “African Tour”, while filming a documentary, The Making of the Graceland Album.
Shabalala started singing as a teenager with the Durban Choir and the Highlanders before forming Ezimnyama in 1959, later renamed Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The group was formed by three families from Ladysmith, a town in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Black Mambazo literally translates as “black axe” — referring to the way the voices cut through the ears, like cutting through a forest to create a path.
The complex vocal harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are based on two concepts: The lead vocals cut through the choruses like a bomb (mbube), while the subtle dancing is known as isicathamiya (tiptoe men).
These dances originate from the times when the men left their villages to work in the gold mines and factories and a stomping dance would accompany their traditional songs.
However, because of the noise, the song and dance was banned and the men were left to surreptitiously tiptoe their movements.
During those early days, the group would criss-cross South Africa, singing all night Saturday and Sunday, then driving all night, in time for their day jobs back in their hometown.
When the group started, they were so good that organisers barred them from entering competitions so that other a cappella performers would have a fairer chance of winning. Ladysmith Black Mambazo released their first album “Amabutho” in 1973 and have recorded consistently through the years, collaborating along the way with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Josh Groban, David Guetta and others.
What was an extraordinary career for Shabalala was also punctuated with great personal tragedy. His wife of 30 years, Nellie, who had her own group, Women of Mambazo, was murdered by a gunman outside the couple’s home in 2002 (he remarried six months later). He lost his three brothers, who were members of the group, one killed by an off-duty security guard in 1991, another shot by an unknown gunman in 2004, while the third died of natural causes in 2006.
Joseph Shabalala officially announced his retirement in 2014, saying he would be available during “special appearances” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Announcing his death, the group eulogised Shabalala as our “founder, our Teacher, and most importantly, our Father”.
By a quirk of fate, Shabalala’s death coincided with the 30th anniversary of the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Three years later his group accompanied Mandela to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.