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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 21, 2001

The healing power of music The healing power of music (September 21, 2001)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo kicks off Stanford Lively Arts' new season

by Robyn Israel

Joseph Shabalala is no stranger to sorrow.

Interviewed on the same day of the horrific terrorist attacks on the East Coast, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo displayed the same quiet strength and spirituality as when his brother was shot and killed 10 years ago. Asked at the time of the slaying what the a cappella group would do without Headman, Shabalala's answer was simple.

"We will sing. This is what we do," he replied.

The South African group's compelling harmonies will be on display next Friday when Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium.

"Our message is one of hope," Shabalala said. "You must think about God and have that power of forgiveness."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is regarded by many as seminal to the current explosive interest in world music, which traces back to their collaboration with Paul Simon on his 1986 "Graceland" album. Today, the 10-man ensemble -- made up of Shabalala, his four sons and other relatives -- serves up fresh South African sounds, from mellow bass lines, haunting melodies and question-and-answer chants to strains of doo-wop, gospel and reggae.

The group's genesis can be traced back to the mid 1950s, when Shabalala left his family farm in Ladysmith to work in a factory in Durban. He began singing and discovered his talent for music. But it wasn't until 1964, when he heard new harmonies in a dream, that Shabalala discovered his music and was convinced he could teach it to others.

The group sings a traditional style of music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-me-ya), which was born in the mines of South Africa. Poor black workers, taken by rail to mines far from their families and homes, entertained themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Cothoza Mfana -- "tiptoe guys" -- they called themselves, referring to the dance steps they choreographed so as not to disturb the camp security guards.

As miners returned to their homelands, the tradition returned with them and turned into regular competitions -- the highlight of everyone's social calendar. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts and, naturally, the adoration of their fans. The competitions have endured, and today they are held in YMCA assembly halls and church basements.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo derived its name from winning every singing competition it entered. Ladysmith is the home of the Shabalala family; black refers to black oxen, considered to be the strongest on the farm; and the Zulu word mambazo refers to an ax -- symbolic of the group's ability to "chop down" the competition. In fact, Mambazo was eventually barred from competing because of their overwhelming talent, and instead were invited to entertain anytime they wanted.

A radio broadcast in 1970 brought about their first record contract. Since then the group has recorded over 40 albums, selling over 6 million records at home and abroad, establishing them as the number-one record-selling group from Africa.

When Simon first heard their music he became enchanted. Despite the band's popularity, it was still a huge surprise to Shabalala when he learned that his music was being appreciated in America.

"I didn't expect that we had a fan in New York," Shabalala recalled.

A collaboration ensued, in which the band played with Simon on "Graceland." At first it was a challenge to blend together their musical styles.

"When we started to sing, it was difficult to put together our harmony. But by the second day it was OK, because we learned from the first day. We respected one another," Shabalala said of the "Homeless" recording, a tune on "Graceland"sung in both Zulu and English.

"Shaka Zulu," the group's first release in the United States, was produced by Simon and won the 1997 Grammy Award for best traditional folk album. Since then Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been nominated for six other Grammy awards, and has recorded with numerous artists, including Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton. They provided soundtrack material for Disney's "The Lion King Part II," as well as for "Coming to America," "A Dry White Season" and "Cry the Beloved Country."

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has also worked with the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago, lending their singing and acting abilities to "The Song of Jacob Zulu," which premiered in 1992 and opened on Broadway the following year. It was nominated for six Tony Awards, including one for best music for a play, and earned the group the prestigious Drama Desk Award for best original score. "On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom," a documentary film about Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, received an Academy Award nomination earlier this year.

Their performance with Simon on Sesame Street is legendary and is one of the three most requested segments of the show. Shabalala still keeps in touch with Simon, and is preparing to send him tapes of two South African groups: Women of Mambazo, a 10-person church group led by his wife, Nellie; and the Green Berets, comprised of eight disabled individuals. Shabalala would love to see them get more exposure, and is hoping they could tour with Simon in the future.

"I have a dream, but I must put that dream together before I talk to him," Shabalala said.

Time does not seem to be slowing down the group as they continue to travel the world, reaching new audiences. A 1994 greatest hits album, "The Star and the Wiseman," reached sales of over 1 million units sold -- unheard of for a world-music group.

This added exposure has allowed the group a wider audience to hear their message -- a plea Shabalala delivers from the stage at the conclusion of every show: "Go with peace, love and harmony...Love one another!"

Who: Ladysmith Black Mambazo

When: Sept. 28 at 8 p.m.

Where: Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium

Cost: Tickets are $22/$28/$34. Half-price tickets are available for people aged 15 and under; discounts are available for students. Tickets can be purchased through the Stanford Ticket Office at Tressider Memorial Union, charged by phone at (650) 725-ARTS (2787) or ordered online at

Info: Call (650) 725-ARTS or visit


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