Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings joyous sounds to Aspen | AspenTimes.com
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Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings joyous sounds to Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn

Some 35 years ago, Joseph Shabalala began hearing a sound in his dreams. But Shabalala, born into a traditional South African farming family, could not make enough sense of the sound, or sufficiently translate it into a waking sound, so that others could grasp it as beautiful music.

“I was hearing this sound in my dreams,” said Shabalala, who had begun singing when he left the family farm in the mid-’50s. “But from 1964 to 1968, nobody understood what I was singing about. They said it was a beautiful sound, but they didn’t know what the music was about – these invisible things, the joy.”

After years of effort, and recruiting various brothers and cousins to try to flesh out the sound of his dreams, Shabalala finally succeeded. The music that resulted came from Isicathamiya, the traditional music of the black South African mine workers. But the sound had never been quite so polished, so spiritual, or so captivating as it was from the mouths of Shabalala and his relatives.

“They understood how to put this rhythm, this sound, together with the joy, the harmony that I felt,” said Shabalala.

Shabalala and his fellow singers began to enter the vocal competitions frequently staged amongst black South Africans. Almost immediately, however, Shabalala’s group proved to be too much for the other singers; no one would compete against them. Shabalala’s group took the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Ladysmith for the town of Shabalala’s ancestors; black for the

black oxen, considered the strongest animal on the farm; and the Zulu word for ax, `mambazo,’ as a symbol for the group’s ability to chop down the competition.

“A lot of the other groups wouldn’t compete against us anymore,” said Shabalala, whose speaking voice is as musical as his name, and as poetic as the music made by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “They said, `That is the music of the people.’ So we were invited to sing many other places.”

The next stop on the long line of places Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs is Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. The 10-piece, all-vocal sound of Mambazo makes its Aspen debut at the Wheeler tonight at 8 p.m. The show is sold out.

Although almost all of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s lyrics are sung in an African language, it is not difficult to understand the spiritual, peaceful place the music comes from. Even if such universal words as “hallelujah” and “amen” didn’t stand out in the songs, the music would make sense.

“The uniqueness of the sound, the sentiment of the people in the crowd, transcends all divides, of color and race,” said Shabalala, who is now joined in Mambazo by three sons, one brother and two brothers-in-law. “You feel like you’re at home. To the people who love tradition, it touches the roots. It’s encouraging the people and stimulating the mind. It makes even your neighbors, your parents, feel, `Oh yes, this is beautiful.'”

Though Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been making a mighty sound for more than three decades, having traveled the world many times over, the music has its origins in a quiet place. Isicathamiya stems from the word for “tiptoe”; the music began when black South African miners were returning from the mines, and seeking to entertain themselves.

“It comes from the people when they were tiptoeing, instead of stomping,” said Shabalala. “Because when they were in the cities, in the townships, there were complaints about the stomping, about the big noise.”

No longer does the world want singers of the Isicathamiya style to keep quiet. The group has raised its voices at President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, and at the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mandela and former South African President F.W. de Klerk. They have collaborated with such singers as George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Youssou N’Dour and Dolly Parton; the group’s sound has been heard on American movies and commercials. The current tour, which ends this Sunday with a concert at New York’s Town Hall, has brought Mambazo across Europe and the States.

Most famously, Ladysmith Black Mambazo inspired singer-songwriter Paul Simon to record his “Graceland” album in 1986, one of the most acclaimed recordings of the last half-century. After Simon traveled to South Africa and met Shabalala, Simon incorporated the sounds and themes of South African music into the “Graceland” CD; he also invited Ladysmith Black Mambazo to sing on the album.

For Shabalala, the exposure simply meant more people to hear the music, a bigger audience with which to share his sound and joy.

“It was something like unbelievable,” said Shabalala, of the experience and the added exposure. “It was something like, `Thank god I get to sing this music.’ At last god was wonderful that we have something to share with his people.

“The changing was that we get more audience. It was like having wings to fly.”


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