In Conversation with Ladysmith Black Mambazo: "Each time we sang for the Apartheid police, they would let us go."
Courtesy of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

In Conversation with Ladysmith Black Mambazo: "Each time we sang for the Apartheid police, they would let us go."

The Grammy award-winning South African traditional music group talks about singing during the Apartheid era, collaborating with Dolly Parton and giving back to the music community.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an internationally-acclaimed traditional music group which has been around since the 1960s and was founded by the late Joseph Shabalala. The group's five decade-long career in the traditional sounds of isicathamiya and mbube, has earned them a total of five Grammys—a musical feat that no single South African artist or group has ever achieved. Last year, they took home the Grammy for Best World Music Album.

They have been instrumental in documenting the changing political landscape of South Africa from the racially segregated Apartheid era, the imprisonment of numerous struggle veterans to the victories and challenges of the country's fledgling democracy.

Their song "Homeless" is perhaps their most well-known record to date and their collaboration with Paul Simon on his Graceland album during the 80s, catapulted them into the international limelight and opened the way for them to work with the likes of Oliver Mtukudzi, Hugh Masekela, Stevie Wonder and Josh Groban. They have released over 50 studio albums to date and show no signs of slowing down as the older members pass the baton onto Shabalala's sons. From having performed for the Queen of England to the late anti-Apartheid struggle veteran and icon, Nelson Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have irrefutably solidified their place in music's great hall of fame.

They are currently performing at South Africa's biggest National Arts Festival in Makhanda at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.

We spoke to one of the group's long-time members, Albert Mazibuko, about the musical legacy of the group and some of the exciting projects they're currently working on.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You've been around since the 1960s. Do you think that your music has conveyed all you could have hoped it would?

Yes it did. Our aim from the beginning was to encourage South African people, especially the young people, that they have talent and are free to use their indigenous music and not try to be somebody else. Often they don't trust that if they are simply themselves, they can succeed. On the other hand, we have many people that have been influenced by our music, even those people who are not singing isicathamiya music specifically. But if you listen to maskandi these days, it's Ladysmith Black Mambazo's style with the addition of guitars. There are groups like The Soil that have also been inspired by us.

I think that a part of our mission has been completed, but we've said that we still have to motivate up-coming artists as well. Hence, we just launched our awards show where we're trying to influence people and give them hope that if you are true to your culture and you do it right, you can achieve a lot.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Homeless

Speaking about the Isicathamiya Awards that you have recently launched, how has that experience been for the group and your desire to give back to the music community?

This is the beginning of a new dream for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. When we would sit among ourselves, we'd sometimes joke about this. We said we wanted these awards to be big like the Grammys. The Grammys are too big but they say in life you have to aim higher because we want these awards to recognize all those people who have come before us, encourage those who have been sustaining the music industry and also those who are still coming. Just to show them that if you are doing something well, people notice.

It's all about fulfilling a dream that Joseph Shabalala had. He said that he wanted to build a school that would teach indigenous music but because that didn't happen, we came up with something we call Ladysmith Black Mambazo Mobile Academy where we go to existing schools to encourage the young people.

What have been the highlights thus far, the moments that have simply taken your breath away?

Wow. You know, it's very difficult to just name one group or two or three, but I can say that when we collaborated with Paul Simon, that was a time that we said to ourselves "Wow, is this doable?" And then after that so many artists came. The one that we always enjoy when we are talking was when we collaborated with Dolly Parton.

We heard that she wanted us to be on a song with her when we were in New York. It was amazing because Dolly Parton is a great fan and our wives used to play her music to us all the time. We took many pictures with her and when we came back home, we showed our wives. After that, we asked her to be a part of our recording the album called Heavenly. She was so humble and we were blessed to work with her.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Knocking on Heavens

Are there still artists on your wishlist in terms of collaborations?

Yes. We still want to collaborate with young artists. Whether they do house music or even amapiano, we still wish to collaborate with those artists. We see that they have great talent but that they forget that what they've got is so big. We want to be next to them and encourage them when they write their music—music that is going to empower people. That's why we are always happy when a young artist comes to us and says, "I want to make a song with you." I used to say to them that we are the only people in the world that have an opportunity to address kings and queens because we can stand on a stage and convey our message and it doesn't matter who's listening.

How would you say you've documented both the South African and the broader African political scenes in your music over the years?

Music is always political. We politicized our music in a way that wouldn't make somebody angry but make them aware of what is wrong and what is right. Our song "Nkosi Yamakhosi" which means the "King of Kings", that was one of the late Nelson Mandela's favorite songs. This song was asking for peace and asking God to help us build a peaceful nation.

There was a very violent period in South Africa. "Ngeke Bayiqede" was a song addressing the fighting among the political organizations in South Africa, especially between the ANC and IFP. In the song we talk about how you cannot fight somebody until you finish them, the fighting will continue. The best way is to sit down and solve your problems.

There's another song that Joseph also wrote that spoke about not killing your mother and father because you don't agree with them politically. You only have them in this world. The best way is to protect them and if you see your idea is better than theirs, try to influence them but in a respectful way.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Abezizwe ngeke

Was it difficult for you as musicians to communicate these powerful messages during Apartheid South Africa?

You know, our difficulty was traveling because at that time, you had to be in one particular city or town. I remember the ID reference book called a dompas that we had to carry with us all the time. Each area had a number assigned to it so when the police would open it, they would say, "You are allowed to be in 154 but now you are in 150. You have to be arrested because you crossed the boundary." For us, that was a challenge.

I remember every time we were stopped by the police, they would ask us where we were going and what we did for a living. Joseph always said to them, "Okay, let us show you what we do," and then we would sing for them. After we sang for them, they would let us go. Someone advised us to go to the magistrate and seek permission to travel. When we got there and sang, he said, "Okay, I can hear the beautiful music you are doing and it seems peaceful." So they gave us permission. We were the first group in South Africa to have the permission to travel around.

From the 1960s till now, members have come and gone. What would you say is the key to staying relevant, particularly in this day and age?

I think it is because Joseph came to us with this message: "Let's dedicate ourselves and our lives, and do our best to develop this music." So we cannot settle for less and are always trying to do our best. Any member that joins and has joined Ladysmith Black Mambazo knows that if they are here, they are not here just to do the music but they have a bigger mission that they have to fulfill as well.

Courtesy of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Are there any exciting musical projects that you guys are working on for this year?

We just finished recording an album which is going to be released in late September. When I think about it, I get very excited because the 12 songs have been written by Joseph's sons. It's going to be the first Ladysmith Black Mambazo album that's going to be written by them and I'm so satisfied, so glad. I think they wrote wonderful music.

Another thing that Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been so fortunate to be a part of, is a play happening in Chicago. We were invited there to write the music for this play. We will sing the music and then we will also be acting. We are very excited. Toward the end of July, we're going to go there, do some workshop and come back. In October, we're going to go back and we might be there until December or January. Of course, there's also the Joy of Jazz festival taking place soon.