For 50-year-old all-male South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the journey to winning four Grammy Awards has been a dream come true, but not without its challenges.
The group was started in 1964 from an actual dream that founder Joseph Shabalala had in which he taught members of the group to blend their voices perfectly, says Albert Mazibuko, original member and Shabalala’s cousin. They dedicated themselves to polishing the harmonies of the isicathamiya (Zulu music) style in a way that would make the genre competitive with other popular music of the time.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo were chased from competitions, he said. After winning five isicathamiya singing contests in a row, they were forbidden from participating.
“We knew we were going somewhere but we never dreamt that we would win four Grammys and go overseas and sing with many artists all over the world,” Mazibuko says. “This is upon us, and we are always amazed about it.”
When he started singing in the group, Mazibuko had to make many sacrifices; one of which was his job, and his wife and children weren’t happy with his choices, he says.
“I think the calling was stronger than everything else,” he says. “The music was joyful. Every time I was doing the music, I felt that I had everything. It’s only when I left rehearsal and I’m by myself when I’m facing the bills that have to be paid when I say, ‘Wow, it is a challenge,’ but I’ve never regretted anything.”
As black South African men rising in popularity during the racial segregation of the Apartheid, challenges in choosing a music career became more complicated than figuring out how to take care of their families. Traveling around the country, outside of their hometown, as black men required permission, but the invitations started flooding in when people started hearing about their local successes.
“Every time we traveled we were taking a risk,” Mazibuko says. “We might be arrested not being in a place we were supposed to be. So we said, ‘Let’s do it and just see what might happen.’”
They were stopped often, but as soon as that would happen, Shabalala would instruct the group to start a song, and they were let go.
“We were bribing them with our music,” he says laughing.
If you go
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is performing at 8 p.m. today at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. Reserved seating tickets are $35-$75 and are available at the Liberty Hall box office and libertyhall.net.
When they were finally stopped by a police commissioner and sang to be freed from permission, he asked them why they don’t get official permission from their town magistrate. Sending them with a note to permit them to travel, LBM went back to the Delbin magistrate and ended up singing for him, as well.
“I remember him taking his glasses and putting them down and saying, ‘This is beautiful,” Mazibuko says. “We were the first group in South Africa to have permission to travel freely but we had to renew it every two years until 1989.”
Once the Apartheid was extinguished, so were most of their challenges. Receiving their fourth Grammy last year for best world music album for their record "Singing for Peace Around the World," they feel even more blessed than ever before.
“It felt even better than the other three we won before it,” Mazibuko says. “These are the peoples’ choice. Our fans chose all these songs everywhere we go. Nelson Mandela, his favorite songs were on this album.”
LBM shared a special relationship with Mandela, having been told upon meeting him in 1990 that the late South African leader listened to their music in prison to lift his spirits.
“Our music inspired him,” Mazibuko says. “He said, ‘Everywhere I go I want you to come with me because you are representing South African culture.’”
The group went with Mandela to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, where he requested they sing at the ceremony.
“We were told that no one ever sang there, and that they don’t allow any sound system. And we said, ‘OK, we will do our voices.’ Amazing things have happened to us. They always feel like a dream every time.”
Performing from their latest album, "Always With Us," at Liberty Hall today, LBM dedicates this tour (and album) to Shabalala’s wife, who was shot and killed by a masked gunman in 2002. It was important to the group to pay tribute to the “mother of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.” The album takes old recordings of her church vocals — she led a female singing group called Women of Mambazo — and combines them with their harmonies.
“Our fathers used this type of music to sing with their families,” he says. “Now we have a chance to go back to our roots and sing this music.”
It will be a spiritual evening, LBM known for bringing peace and meaning to the lives of others worldwide. Mazibuko recalls hearing from people that happening upon their music kept them from taking their own lives.
“Music is a powerful tool,” he says. “It can make you do things you wouldn’t be able to do without the music. When the situation is bad and you are not feeling good, the music is always there. It lifts you up and gives you the power that you don’t realize exists.”