South Africa's National Treasure Enriches Hearers

Ladysmith Black Mambazo winds down tour

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY clap, stomp, shimmy, dance, wave their arms, and often act out songs with gestures and facial expressions. They are 10 men whose voices blend into rich harmonies that are joyful and sorrow-filled, spiritual and penetrating.

They are Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an a cappella group from South Africa, perhaps best known in the United States for accompanying singer-songwriter Paul Simon on his 1986 album, ``Graceland.'' Midway through their first tour in the United States, they performed for more than 1,000 students Feb. 9 in a chapel on the Phillips Academy campus in Andover, Mass.

The Grammy Award-winning group combines Zulu dance with traditional South African choral song, called Isicathamiya. It's soulful, expression-filled music that originated in the mines of South Africa where blacks were sent to work far from their homes.

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After a six-day week, the poorly fed and housed laborers entertained themselves by singing songs and dancing into the late Sunday-morning hours. When the miners returned to their families, they brought the tradition with them. Competitions sprang up and became an important part of social life.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo was formed in 1964. Prior to that year, the group's leader, Joseph Shabalala, had tried unsuccessfully to organize singing groups. Then one night, Shabalala says, he began to have dreams in which he heard beautiful melodies. ``It was a glorious choral group from heaven,'' he says in an interview. ``Their harmony was wonderful. I just copied the harmony, and I composed my own songs.''

Shabalala taught the songs and melodies to members of his immediate family, including his brothers and cousins. The group began winning competitions and were soon barred from entering contests because they always took first place. They called themselves Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Ladysmith is the hometown of the Shabalala family; black refers to black oxen, considered the strongest on the farm; Mambazo is the Zulu word for ax - which signifies their ability to chop down all their competition.

IN 1970, Ladysmith Black Mambazo received its first recording contract and has been growing in popularity ever since. They are South Africa's top-selling musical artists and have released more than 30 albums. Their ``Shaka Zulu'' album, produced in the US by Paul Simon, won the Grammy Award in 1987 for Best Traditional Recording.

Several of the original members have left or been killed. Shabalala's brother, Headman, was murdered in 1991 by an off-duty security guard. Today, three of Shabalala son's have joined the group.

Most songs are in Zulu, though some are in English. Shabalala says the group will probably translate everything into English so people will understand the group's message. ``This is the peace music from South Africa,'' he says. ``In our music all the time we talk about forgiving each other....''

Not all songs are serious. A number are engaging melodies, which have the audience swaying, clapping, and toe-tapping.

The group also wrote and performed music for Tug Yourgrau's ``The Song of Jacob Zulu,'' a play about a man tried and convicted of murder in a South African terrorist-bombing case. It went on to Broadway and was nominated for six Tony Awards. In Andover, Ladysmith Black Mambazo spent a day working with students who will perform the play Feb. 24.

Before 1986, the group was popular in South Africa mainly among black audiences. ``Even white people who love us, they hide themselves because of the law ... they were afraid to show [off the group's albums] until Paul Simon came.

``When I got a call, I heard that Paul Simon wanted to talk to me ... I was thinking maybe he was kidding us. Paul Simon from America. I know him. He's very popular,'' Shabalala says. ``And he said, `Joseph, do you mind if I like to work together with Black Mambazo?' My question was, `About what?' He said `music,' and I said, `Oh yes, you talk about music to me, it's OK. Let's do it.' ''

Now that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has achieved international recognition, Shabalala is concentrating on preserving the tradition of South African dance and a cappella singing.

``It's going to vanish very soon if we don't take care of it,'' he says. His ambition is to open the Mambazo Academy of South African Music and Culture, an organization that would educate the children of South Africa in academics as well as traditional indigenous music, dance, and ritual.

One purpose of the current tour, called the Footsteps Tour, is to generate funding for the academy. ``I would be very happy before I die to see my people learning to follow [these traditions],'' he says. ``We must follow the footsteps of our ancestors and ... develop [the academy] and make it wonderful.''

* ``Footsteps Tour'' continues with these performances: West Hartford, Conn., Feb. 23; New Brunswick, N.J., Feb. 24; Englewood, N.J., Feb. 25; Parsippany, N.J., Feb. 26; Wilmington, Del. Feb. 27, 28.

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