Zulu tradition tonight at the Wheeler | AspenTimes.com

Zulu tradition tonight at the Wheeler

Stewart Oksenhorn

The South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs tonight at the Wheeler Opera House. (Robert P. Hoffman)

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. It was 1964, and Shabalala, a South African singer and the leader then of the vocal group Ezimnyama Ngenkani, heard a sound in his sleep, a new sound. It was choir music, similar to the isicathamiya style that was part of Shabalala’s Zulu tradition, but with harmonies and structures he had never experienced in waking life. The music was compelling enough that Shabalala was determined to teach it to his group; the sound was strange enough – and sung in a language that Shabalala himself didn’t recognize – that the members of Ezimnyama Ngenkani refused to learn the new technique.”It was a new thing. No one had heard of it,” said Albert Mazibuko, a cousin of Shabalala’s. “When he tried to teach it to his old group, they said it was too much – new compositions, long songs, a different sound.”Mazibuko was up for a journey. He and two handfuls of singers, all blood relatives, joined Shabalala in his new project, called Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group, formed in 1969, took its name from the family’s hometown of Ladysmith and the Zulu word for “ax” – a reference to how the group would chop down the competition in the weekly singing contests.

“We accepted the challenge,” Mazibuko said by phone from a hotel in Boise. “He told us he wanted to do something new and challenging, to inspire the people, especially the people who needed to be uplifted. We embraced it gladly.”Much of South Africa was in need of uplift. The policy of apartheid had officially separated the country into white and black, making it an international pariah. One of the first songs Shabalala wrote in this new style was “Nomathemba,” from the Zulu word for “hope.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo rose to national prominence on the strength of songs that carried on in that vein – prayerlike pleas for justice; sorrowful but beautiful descriptions of life under apartheid.In 1986, Ladysmith Black Mambazo experienced a fantasylike explosion in popularity. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album not only included contributions from the vocal group, but included several songs Simon and Shabalala co-wrote: “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Beyond that, the album borrowed heavily from the isicathamiya style. Some accused Simon of cultural appropriation, but the massive popularity of the album drowned out those complaints.A bigger, and even more improbable, dream came true for South Africa in 1994. Apartheid ended; Nelson Mandela, once a political prisoner, was elected president. The end of state-sanctioned injustice was duly observed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo in such songs as “Nkosi Sikalel i’Africa” (“God Bless Africa”) and “Long Walk to Freedom (Halala South Africa).”Twelve years after the end of apartheid, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is still in a celebratory mood. The group’s new album, also titled “Long Walk to Freedom,” revisits the best-loved songs from nearly four decades. To expand the party, the album features guest singers ranging from Americans Emmylou Harris and Taj Mahal to South Africans Hugh Masekela and Lucky Dube.

“We’re observing our freedom,” Mazibuko said of the new album. “It’s 12 years now, and we’re seeing the country is really free. We had thought maybe it could go back, but no. It’s a thing to celebrate.”The album is also a nod to the enduring popularity of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The “Graceland” album was not so much a peak for the group as a starting point. Since that initial burst of attention, Ladysmith has become ambassadors for South African culture, spending most of the year touring the globe. The group has earned two Grammy Awards, including one for best contemporary world music album for 2005’s “Raise Your Spirit Higher.””We thought it might slow down by this point,” Mazibuko said. “But we’re still so busy, we’re getting invited everywhere, all the time.”The current tour, which lands at the Wheeler Opera House tonight, features mostly songs from “Long Walk to Freedom.” But with the end of apartheid, Ladysmith has changed the specifics of its message in its new songs. “We’re singing about something else, another sort of struggle,” Mazibuko said, “that people should take care of themselves. We’re reminding them they should be aware of AIDS, especially, and poverty.”

But the means of delivering the message has remained true to Shabalala’s dream.”The music is the same,” said Mazibuko. “We cannot change our style. If we convey our message with this music, people will accept it and trust it.”Like the message of hope Ladysmith spreads, Shabalala’s dreams continue on. Songs still come to him from that mystical realm of sleep.”This is a dream he has been having since 1964,” Mazibuko said. “It never stops.”Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $37.50, available at the Wheeler Box Office.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com