.Ladysmith Black Mambazo Returns to the Freight

South Africa’s cultural ambassadors continue their mission to promote peace and harmony through music

The pure joy radiating from the members of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo was shown to the world when the documentary Paul Simon, Graceland: The African Concert debuted in 1987.

Their vocal harmonies had already received global acclaim with the enormous success of Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland. Tracks such as “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” became some of the album’s most popular. But seeing the group sing—and move—was a revelation to viewers.

Graceland, and the concert doc itself, filmed live in Harare, Zimbabwe, proved controversial, as Simon was heavily criticized at the time for recording some album tracks in Johannesburg during apartheid.

But Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a cultural treasure in South Africa for decades, supported Simon and his stance that music could work to bring down apartheid. Performing alongside Simon in the Indigenous styles of isicathamiya and mbube, they became the most memorable part of The African Concert.

Dr. Joseph Shabalala had formed a singing group in 1960, but in 1964 he had a series of dreams in which a choir sang in perfect harmony. He reformed the group to achieve that goal, eventually renaming it “Ladysmith,” for his family’s hometown; “Black,” from the black ox, revered as the strongest farm animal; and “Mambazo,” meaning “axe” in Zulu, referring to the choir’s ability to best competing choirs.

That group has now won five Grammys, dedicating the fifth to the late Nelson Mandela, who called them “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors.” They continue to tour globally for up to six months a year, and will play three shows March 15-16 at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage.

Albert Mazibuko has sung with Ladysmith Black Mambazo for 55 years. In a telephone interview, he recalled accompanying Mandela in 1993 when the South African freedom fighter received the Nobel Peace Prize. “It was very moving, and it stays with me,” Mazibuko said. “If I had to choose one memory, that would be the one.”

Mandela was elected the country’s first Black president the next year.

Mazibuko, who is distantly related to Joseph Shabalala, admired his singing ability. “I had my own group [as a very young man],” he said. “But when I saw them, it was beautiful. I said, ‘When I grow up, I will join them.’” In 1969, this came true when Shabalala invited him to become part of LBM.

Like the other members of the group at that time, Mazibuko never envisioned the international acclaim LBM would achieve. “I didn’t think, as a choral group, we could compete [with other popular music forms],” he said. But Shabalala thought differently. “He always said, if we do this right, we will be known all over the world,” Mazibuko said.

Although certain songs—audience favorites—are performed at every concert, LBM does create and add new songs, written by Shabalala’s sons, who have been members for years. Shabalala retired from LBM in 2014 and passed away in 2020. Currently, the group performs songs from its 2023 album, Soothe My Soul: Songs from Our South African Church. Mazibuko’s favorite is “Unkulunkulu Wethu,” which translates as “Different Colors Mean Nothing to Me.”

The group creates its choreography together. Mazibuko said that, when not on tour, “[w]e study every day from 10am to 2:30 or 3pm. Joseph told us, ‘If you stay with the music, the music will stay with you.’” 

The infectious dance steps are often not limited to LBM, as audiences find it impossible not to move along. This will be especially welcomed at their Saturday “Family” matinee on March 16, where small fans can express their inner LBM. That show will also include more explanations of the songs, which will be more family-oriented, and of LBM’s continuing mission to promote peace and harmony, according to the group’s manager, Mitch Goldstein.

Watch Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon sing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from Graceland: The African Concert, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmf9ZJ_Yn0A. This also includes the late, great South African trumpeter and anti-apartheid activist, Hugh Masekela.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 8pm, March 15; 2pm and 7pm, March 16. Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. 510.644.2020. thefreight.org.

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