STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
That blended voice, a cappella singing style they do is known in Africa as isicathamiya.
But ever since Paul Simon introduced them to the rest of the world on his “Graceland” album in 1986, you may as well call it “the Ladysmith Black Mambazo sound.” Their singing can be heard in the movies “Coming to America” and “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.” It’s even been used effectively in TV commercials, like this one:
“It’s amazing. Every day I wake up, and it feels like a dream,” said long-time Ladysmith member Albert Mazibuko on the phone from a hotel room in Gaithersburg, Md., outside Washington DC.
Last year the South African singing group earned their fourth career Grammy Award for “Singing for Peace around the World.” Nelson Mandela officially declared Ladysmith Black Mambazo “South Africa’s Cultural Ambassadors to the world.” These are impressive feats considering they used to have to sing their way out of being arrested for the simple act of crossing township lines during the oppressive Apartheid era.
“Every time, they ask us: ‘Where are you going? Where do you come from? What do you do?’,” said Mazibuko. The police questions got to be so predictable, he said, that “the last one was the cue for (the group’s leader and founder) Joseph (Shabalala) to start the song. They call one another and say: ‘Listen to this.’ This is so silly, but it works all the time.” Ladysmith became the first black musical group to get government clearance to travel freely throughout the country.
By that time, they already had such a reputation as the top isicathamiya group in the land that they were only allowed to perform in exhibition at the weekly Saturday singing contests. “Mambazo” is Zulu for chopping ax, which is what they figuratively took to all their rivals. “We were practicing every day and Joseph was teaching us how to blend our voices,” Mazibuko recalled.
Taking a message of peace, love and harmony across the globe, the Ladysmith concert Feb. 2 at the Kimmel Center will feature songs from their newest album, “Always with Us,” a 10-song collection of augmented performances by Nellie Shabalala — Joseph’s wife — and her church choir.
Nellie was shot and killed in 2002 in her church’s carpark. Although the killer is serving a life sentence in prison, “we still don’t know the motive behind it,” said Mazibuko, who is Joseph Shabalala’s cousin, calling “Always with Us” “the only way to help you move on.”
“She loved the group so much and she respected and gave everything for the group,” he said, noting that Nellie would spend a lot of time cooking and preparing tea for Ladysmith’s nine members.
Joseph Shabalala, who started the group in the 1960s, has officially retired and passed on the torch of leadership to his four sons. His grandson sings with Ladysmith as well.
Mazibuko, who has a brother in the group, promised a show with “lots of energy and a lot of celebration,” South African dance and “the stories of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.”
“I thank everybody who’s supported us over the years,” he said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Ladysmith Black Mambazo in concert.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2.
WHERE: Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.
INFO: Call (215) 893-1999 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.