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Tour: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
May 1, 2018
Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa was assembled in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala, then a young farmboy turned factory worker. Joseph took the name Ladysmith from his hometown, which lies in the province of kwaZulu Natal, halfway between the city of Durban (where members of the group live today) and Johannesburg. The word Black being a reference to the oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, Joseph’s way of honoring his early life on his family’s farm. Mambazo is the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of the group’s vocal strength, clearing the way for their music and eventual success.
The group borrows heavily from a traditional music called “isicathamiya” (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours on Sunday morning. When the miners returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.
A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract. Their philosophy in the studio was and continues to be just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment. In the mid-1980s, the American singer/songwriter Paul Simon famously visited South Africa and incorporated the group’s rich tenor/alto/bass harmonies into his famous “Graceland” album – a landmark recording that was considered seminal in introducing world music to mainstream audiences.