Ladysmith Black Mambazo has released a joyous and habit-forming album of South African scapula singing called the LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, which is part of the "Heads Up Africa Series" on the Heads Up International Label. Heads Up International is a division of Telarc International Corp.
When LONG WALK TO FREEDOM arrived I first read through the beautiful sixteen-page booklet of notes that accompanies it. There are many pictures of the group and even in a still shot Ladysmith Black Mambazo radiates an energy, which is almost palpable. Each of the current group members is identified in the first inside picture. Standing at the left end of this photo is Albert Mazibuko, a founding group member whom I had the privilege of speaking with by phone in New York City. In the center of the photo is group founder Joseph Shabalala.
Joseph Shabalala, the founder of the group and the father of four of the current members is a man of genius and great resilience. He has formed and reformed the group, lived through the retirement and deaths of members. And not many years ago he lived through the murder of his wife. Despite all of this Joseph, has stayed with the music, has continued to create and has continued to take his music to every corner of the world.
The group’s name Ladysmith Black Mambazo means Black Axe of Ladysmith. Ladysmith is Joseph Shabalala’s rural hometown in the Coastal Natal region of South Africa. Black is a reference to the ox, which is considered to be the strongest of all farm animals, and Mambazo is Zulu for axe. The name is a challenge to other singing groups, warning them that they will be cut down if they sing against this group.
LONG WALK TO FREEDOM continues the group’s four-decade long career singing in the Zulu tradition known as "Isicathamiya." Isicathamiya is a form of music that was created by the forefathers of the group members who would sing and dance to this music while they were working on the farms and in the factories and mines of South Africa far from their homes. Albert told me, "When our fathers were working in the mines or on farms or in factories they would live on compounds where no women were allowed. To remind them of home they would sing the music that they sang at home, and some of the men could sing in the high range of a woman. This music when sung at our home was accompanied by a dance with heavy stomping, but in the city this would keep everybody from sleeping, so to make peace with the other people on the compound the singers began to tip toe while they sang. So when they went back home and did this soft dancing people would say they sing very well but they tip toe. Hence ‘Tip Toe Guys’ or Isicathamiya."
The group currently uses a line up consisting of five bass singers, a baritone, tenor and alto. Albert Mazibuko, a founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo told me. "The membership of the group has been the same since 1998. There were other members before that, my brother Milton who passed away, and some members who felt that the touring was too much so they retired."
The group does a lot of traveling, Albert told me, "Some years it is about eight months or more with some breaks, and we have played in most corners of the world. There are very few places that we have never been to."
Amos Tutuola is a Yoruba writer who writes in a genre known as "magical realism." This genre which is native to both Africa and South America is not fantasy writing, rather it is story telling where the magical touches on reality in ordinary life. The story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a story of magical realism sung not written; lived not imagined.
While reading up on the group in preparation for my conversation with Albert I found various articles giving a multitude of different dates for the formation of the band. I saw 1964, 1965 and 1970. Albert told me "Joseph formed his group in 1960, but something happened in 1964 to Joseph Shabalala. His group could sing very well but Joseph felt something was missing from the music. Joseph began to have an ongoing dream that was teaching him the kind of style and the kind of music that he wanted to develop. He was hearing a big beautiful and very nicely blended voice. He dreamed of the people who were singing so beautiful but whom he could not see; he could not tell if they were black or white. It finally turned out that the singers were children."
"When Joseph tried to teach the group the music he was learning they said it was too difficult and that it was too much to learn. So in 1969 the group he had was dissolved. Joseph approached Albert and his brother Milton and a cousin and he asked them if they would like to try this music. We said yes and we tried this music which was very hard, but fortunately we made it."
When the group reformed in 1969 it was with five members, Joseph and his brother and Albert and his brother and a cousin. This reformation occurred at the compound of the place where Joseph and Albert were working. However, when they went back home to Ladysmith for the holidays the group was joined by others and went to seven members and then ten. Albert said, "In 1973 -74 the band went back down to only five members because at that time we had to leave our jobs, we were fired because we had to be absent every weekend to sing. Some of the members said we couldn’t leave our jobs, so we have to leave the group. But the five of us said let’s dedicate ourselves to this music and if we have to we can always come back to get jobs. But we have never had the time to go back."
Isicathamiya is a form of competitive singing. The competition is a requirement for keeping the singing groups interested in the performing this music all the time. Albert Mazibuko then told me how the competitions worked. He said, "The competitions were judged by the audience. You would come in and sing your song. You had to sing three songs. One song you came in with a song people were sitting around because there were no stages at that time. It was only a small room so the people they can sit around and you would stand in between these people and you came in with a song and you would sing.
Albert told me "When we were competing we would compete for what was in fact like a muffin, something made from flour. It was like a little bread so when we would win we would get that and we would divide it and share it among us."
Naturally I had to ask for the Recipe which Albert told me, "It is very simple; you take flour, add water and sugar to form it. You heat oil and cook it in oil, until it is toasted. It is very tasty and very nice, even today people still make it. We call it "vetkoek" [Dutch for fat cake, which refers to the manner of cooking not the cake] but in my language we call it "Iqwinya."
LONG WALK TO FREEDOM has an international all-star roster with some of the very best African and Western singers joining the group. Zap Mama a five-woman acappella group led by Marie Daule joins in on Joseph’s "Hello My Baby." Melissa Etheridge and self described "Third Coast" keyboardist/vocalist/composer Joe McBride join in on "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," a composition written by Joseph Shabalala and Paul Simon for the album Graceland. The 1986 album made by Paul Simon in collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is a musical masterpiece with Paul Simon’s voice being carried on some of the most inspired acappella singing that has ever been recorded. It was also this Album that helped to bring Ladysmith to the attention of American and Western audiences.
Since Graceland, there has been a great desire amongst Western musicians to collaborate with Ladysmith, and for people to hear this group. For example on the Long Walk To Freedom CD, in addition to Joe McBride and Melissa Etheridge there are appearances by Emmy Lou Harris, Taj Mahal and Natalie Merchant.
In addition to playing with these well known Western Artists, the group has included a sensational cut entitled "Shosholozo" featuring Hugh Mesekela, Lucky Dube, and Nokukhanya among others.
Lady Smith Black Mambazo played at Queen Elizabeth’s 50th Anniversary Celebration joining such notables as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. I asked Albert about this and he said, "It’s just a matter of time. Many artists ask us to collaborate with them and it is an honor, we are very grateful for that but sometimes we can’t accommodate everyone."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo has over 40 albums and they are all available. LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is a great starting point as it is a collection of the group’s favorite music and is sung by the group, as they will appear in concert over the next several months. The tour is going to start on the East Coast [at the time of writing the group is in New York] and then come west to California and Oregon. It will conclude in Dallas.