Lay Ladysmith: Mandela, Simon and anti-apartheid
The Aspen Times
While serving 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela found strength in the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a choral group accused of violating South Africa’s cultural boycott in the late 1980s, when it collaborated with Paul Simon on the album “Graceland.”
Albert Mazibuko, one of the last original members of Black Mambazo, which performs at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, remembers being struck by Mandela’s height when they first met.
It was 1990, the year apartheid ended and four years before Mandela was voted South Africa’s first black president. Black Mambazo performed three songs to celebrate Mandela’s 72nd birthday, and at the end of the set, a dancing Mandela walked over to shake hands.
“He said, ‘From now on, wherever I go, I want you to accompany me,’” Mazibuko recalled from a hotel room in Southern California.
The most notable stop with Mandela was in Oslo, Norway, where in 1993, the South African president accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. With four minutes to perform, Black Mambazo sang abbreviated versions of two songs that appear on “Live: Singing For Peace Around the World,” a 2014 album dedicated to Mandela that earned the group its fourth Grammy Award.
At the end of the Oslo performance, Mandela stood up and said, “Black power, Black Mambazo.”
Ten years prior, the world began taking notice of the choral troupe from Ladysmith, South Africa. While touring in the surrounding areas of Johannesburg, Black Mambazo was contacted by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who wanted to see if a collaboration was possible.
“We said, ‘Wow, Paul Simon, he’s the guy who sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water”’,” Mazibuko said. “‘But he sings a different music than our music. What does he want to do with us?’”
Joseph Shabalala, Mazibuko’s cousin who founded Black Mambazo and who is absent from this tour due to back surgery, met Simon in Johannesburg. Returning to the group, Shabalala said, “This man is full of music.”
A package from Simon containing a tape and a note followed, instructing Shabalala not to alter the demo but to add vocals on top of it. On the tape, Simon played piano and sang, “Homeless,” a Black Mambazo tune that made it onto the album.
The group also appears on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al,” but it was “Homeless,” Mazibuko said, that had the greatest impact.
“People were sleeping on the mountains because of the violence around the area,” he said of the struggle to end South African apartheid.
In October 1985, the group flew to England to record with Simon. Mazibuko recalls shaking hands and receiving a hug from the folk singer — “the first time to be hugged by a white person. We said, ‘Wow, this is cool.’”
The first day in the studio, they sang for four hours, but Mazibuko said there were too many engineers and techs meddling. Failing to come up with anything worth saving, Simon suggested they return to their hotel rooms and try again the next day. Devastated, the members of Black Mambazo left the studio for dinner and prayer at the hotel.
“We had an idea of what Paul Simon was looking for, so we put the song together. We rehearsed until midnight,” Mazibuko said. “The following day, Joseph, in the morning when we get into the studio, he said, ‘Paul we have been rehearsing. Please listen to this one.’”
Simon listened and said, “This is good” and then “chased everybody out of the studio.” Two hours later, the track was ready.
Mazibuko regards “Graceland” as a breakthrough, a global introduction to isicathamiya, the group’s choral style, which has roots in South African Zulu. He said the songs crossed racial divides and united South Africa as one, though some of Simon’s detractors continue to regard him as a cultural hijacker.
When asked about the opposition to “Graceland,” Mazibuko said, “When people are fighting, sometimes they cannot see something that is good. When you fight, you can be fighting something that is coming to help you. … (Simon) went to help people who had been oppressed.”
As proof, Mazibuko referred to “Under African Skies,” a documentary in which Simon meets Dali Tambo, the head of Artists Against Apartheid, a group that vehemently opposed Simon’s presence in South Africa. Though the two men don’t agree entirely while discussing that time period, the conversation ends with a hug, and according to Mazibuko, a consensus that the album had a positive impact.
Dating back more than 50 years, the music of Black Mambazo came to Shabalala in a dream of isicathamiya choruses. When Shabalala told Mazibuko about the dream in 1969, Mazibuko, who had idolized his older cousin, eagerly joined the group. Performing in churches and schools throughout Ladysmith, the group performed in multiple competitions and eventually appeared on South Africa’s most popular radio station.
This pre-“Graceland” success can be attributed largely to Shabalala’s late wife, Nellie, who in the early days, supported the group by feeding them and allowing them to rehearse in her home. For its latest album “Always With Us,” a tribute to Nellie, the group took recordings of her from 2002 and mixed the vocals with their own, making it the group’s first album with traditional female Zulu vocals.
Today, Shabalala’s grandson Babuyile represents the third generation of singers from his family. Mazibuko — who wants to continue touring until his “body won’t let him” — said it’s important that the younger generations preserve the Zulu tradition.
“I tell all the other Shabalalas, ‘Please, keep it as pure as it is all the time. You can collaborate with other people, you can do whatever you want, but keep it as it is,” he said.
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