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Shabalala… In Death, The Soul Of Black Mambazo Lives

Shabalala with Paul Simon

The entertainment world was on Tuesday, February 11, thrown into mourning mood following the death of veteran musician Joseph Shabalala, the bandleader, who brought the South African vocal harmony group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to global success.

Shabalala, who had announced in January 2008, that his youngest son Thamanqa would take over as leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo when the time comes for him to retire from international touring, died in hospital in Pretoria, aged 78.

Xolani Majozi, the group’s manager, who broke the news to the world, said, “Our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace,” the choir said on social media. “We celebrate and honour your kind heart and your extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions, who you came in contact with, you shall live forever.”


Immediately the news of his death filtered in, the entire global media switched attention to the late African music veteran, giving reports of his musical exploits, as well as playing some of his vintage videos, particularly the ones the band recorded with singer Paul Simon.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who paid glowing tribute to the late musician, described him as a “veteran choral maestro.”

Ramaphosa added, “The inspirational leadership and passion of Joseph Shabalala ensured that Ladysmith Black Mambazo filled the hearts of humanity with their joyfulness, sadness, and poignancy – from the villages and towns of their origins in KwaZulu-Natal to the far corners of the earth.”


He noted that “Ladysmith Black Mambazo richly deserved the National Order of Ikhamanga, which the choral group was awarded in October 2008.”

The South African government shared its condolences to his family and paid tribute to him on Twitter, writing in Xhosa: “Ulale ngoxolo Tata ugqatso lwakho ulufezile” – “Rest in peace, father, your race is complete.”

Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said Shabalala “will be remembered as a giant of South African music and a pioneer of the industry”.


The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party said in a statement that the group’s “music spoke to the social realities of black cultural norms and traditions, and was able to bring to light the social conditions of black South Africans.”

Born August 28, 1941, and town of Ladysmith (eMnambithi district) in the Kwazulu-natal region, Shabalala started singing as a teenager with the groups Durban Choir and the Highlanders, before forming Ezimnyama in 1959. He later christened it Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Ladysmith for his hometown, Black for the local livestock, and Mambazo, the Zulu word for axe, as a metaphor for the group’s sharpness. Shabalala, who claimed that he heard the vocal harmonies the group became famous for in a dream, recruited his brothers, Headman and Joseph, and his cousins Albert and Abednego Mazibuko.

The group received airplay on Radio Zulu, which led to a recording contract with Gallo Records in 1970. Initially their repertoire consisted of traditional folk songs, but when Joseph converted to Christianity in the mid-1970s the group shifted their focus to gospel music. Their exquisitely harmonised a cappella songs in Zulu became hugely popular in South Africa after the release of their debut album in 1973.


However, they came to global attention after thru collaborated with Paul Simon on his 1986 album, Graceland, co-writing the song Homeless – its melody based on a Zulu wedding song – and singing the backing to Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.

Graceland is the seventh solo studio album by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It was produced by Simon, engineered by Roy Halee and released on August 25, 1986, by Warner Bros Records.

Following a successful, but fraught reunion with his musical partner Art Garfunkel, Simon’s marriage had fallen apart and his previous record, Hearts and Bones (1983), was a commercial failure. In 1984, after a period of depression, Simon became fascinated by a bootleg cassette of South African township music. He and producer Roy Halee visited Johannesburg, where they spent two weeks recording with South African musicians.


Recorded in 1985 and 1986, Graceland features an eclectic mixture of genres, including pop, rock, acapella, zydeco, isicathamiya, and mbagaga. Simon created new compositions inspired by the recordings made in Johannesburg, collaborating with African and American artists. He received criticism for seemingly breaking the cultural boycott imposed against South Africa because of its policy of apartheid.

Following its completion, Simon toured alongside South African musicians, combining their music and the music of Graceland. Graceland became Simon’s most successful studio album and his highest-charting album in over a decade; it is estimated to have sold up to 16 million copies worldwide. It was lauded by critics, won the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and is frequently cited as one of the best albums of all time. In 2007, it was added to the United States’ National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”


Over the years, they also collaborated with Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, and others, and also appeared in the Michael Jackson film Moonwalker. In 1993, they accompanied Nelson Mandela to his Nobel peace prize ceremony in Oslo.

Their theme for England’s 1995 Rugby World Cup campaign, a version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, reached No 15 in the UK singles charts, and a 1998 best-of compilation album reached No 2.

Shabalala retired from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014, though four of his sons perform in the current lineup. The group has been nominated for 17 Grammy awards, winning five, most recently for the best world music album in 2017. In 2002, Shabalala’s wife, Nellie, a church pastor who had her own group, Women of Mambazo, was shot and killed in Durban. Joseph was injured in the attack as he pursued the gunman. Mboneni Mdunge was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 2014, Nigeria’s Femi Anikulapo Kuti, who was nominated for the prestigious Grammy awards for the fourth time in his career, in the World Music Album category, for his 2013 album, No Place For My Dream, lost the award to this year’s winners. The award, which is a tie, was given to Gipsy Kings and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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