For fans of world music, South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo need no introduction.
The group have been singing a capella together for fifty 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 them record “Homeless” on his album Graceland. It introduced them to the world.
Albert Mazibuko, Joseph 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 they won their fourth Grammy – this one for 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 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, the group’s leader, is not on the group’s current U.S. tour tour as he recovers from surgery. But his grandson, Babuyile, is performing in the country for the first time. As the third generation in the family to sing in the group, he believes it’s very important to keep their 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.”