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Music: Walk of a Lifetime

African music legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo continue to preach peace and raise awareness

By Sara Farr · February 21st, 2007 · Music
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  One of the most popular World music acts on the planet, Ladysmith Black Mambazo use their success to help others.
Cincinnati Arts

One of the most popular World music acts on the planet, Ladysmith Black Mambazo use their success to help others.



Twenty years ago, Albert Mazibuko had a hard time getting to a gig in his home nation of South Africa. At the time, the country was under apartheid, a government-instituted practice of racial segregation begun in 1948 under the leadership of ruling white Afrikaners, a legacy of British colonialism. Under the practice, the movement of blacks, who made up 70 percent of the population, was restricted and in many cases prohibited.

But eventually the country has become one of the most socially progressive and economically stable in Africa. Apartheid practices were officially repealed in 1990, and Mandela, who had been jailed for 27 years, emerged from prison a free man.

Now, when Mazibuko returns on his rare breaks off from touring with platinum recording artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it is as a fully enfranchised citizen and cultural ambassador to the world, helping to spread the gospel of positivity.

The stories and legacy of those struggles make up Long Walk to Freedom, the group's latest CD, which was nominated for two Grammys this year, one for best Contemporary World Music album and another for best surround sound (they lost both, to The Klezmatics and Donald Fagen, respectively). The nominations were the group's 11th and 12th; they previously won best Traditional World Music album in 1987 for Raise Your Spirit Higher and the best Traditional Folk recording for Shaka Zulu in 1987, the year after their famous collaboration with Paul Simon on his Graceland album.

The music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo has its roots in the mines of South Africa. Black workers, taken by rail to work far away from their homes, would sing a traditional form of music known as isicathamiya to entertain themselves.

"A long time ago, when our fathers were taken to work in the mines, they were from different cultures and tribes," Mazibuko says. "But the music changed, because there were no ladies, young men or girls to sing parts, so some of them had to sing the high voices. And in our culture, dancing was a part of singing, but the kind of dancing, a very loud stomping, was a disturbance in the compound, so they decided to 'tip-toe' instead of stomp. And they became known as the 'tip-toe guys.' "

Mazibuko formed his own group when he was 9.

"We were the best in the area until 1960," he says. "But when Joseph (Shabalala) came with his group, when I saw his group was singing so beautifully, I dissolved my group. I said, 'He is much better than me, so when I grow up, I will go and join him.' "

Nine years later, LBM founder Joseph Shabalala was led back to the village of Ladysmith because of a dream his grandmother had.

"He said that his group had failed to learn all the techniques he wanted them to, and his grandmother's dream told him we would help him to achieve what he wanted to achieve," Mazibuko says. "He wanted to do something different, to compose new songs that would talk to people, encourage people in our country to fight for their freedom."

Often, he says, the group was detained by police.

"Every time we were stopped, we would start a song to explain what we did," Mazibuko says. "And every time, they'd let us go. The music opened the gate."

When Mandela emerged from prison, LBM was asked to perform at his birthday party, Mazibuko says. The group also accompanied Mandela to Oslo when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

"To be there, in that time, and to sing in that ceremony, it was so wonderful. After we finished, he stood up and said, 'Black power, Black Mambazo.' It was so great, we were so honored," Mazibuko says. "We witnessed our country accepting peace. So often, when African states got their independence, there was a fight. But we accepted the peace, and so we believe it will remain peaceful. Peace prevails in South Africa even now."

The members of Ladysmith, however, say there is much left to do, with violence raging in Sudan, Rwanda and Somalia. Both Shabalala and Mazibuko participate in workshops designed for school children.

"We try to compose songs that will talk to them, especially young people," Mazibuko said. "We want to explain to them that AIDS will kill, so they should take care of themselves. We tell them they should work and use whatever they get to fight poverty. And it's not only just singing. We need education. They need awareness."

With guest appearances by Zap Mama, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Natalie Merchant, Taj Mahal and Emmylou Harris, as well as African musicians such as Lucky Dube, Hugh Masekala and others, Long Walk to Freedom, a nod to Mandela's biography of the same name, is a celebration of all that Ladysmith has accomplished.

The group chose to include a selection of the songs most requested at its performances, including "Hello My Baby," "Mbube," "Amazing Grace" and "Rain Rain Beautiful Rain."

"We chose them because they have something that people want to hear from them all the time," Mazibuko says. "When I was growing up, life was so difficult -- in fact, it was unbearable. My mother, when she was grinding corn and fetching water, chopping wood and working, she was always singing. Sometimes she was singing with tears in her eyes. When I asked her, 'Why do you cry?' she said life was so difficult 'but I cannot stop.' That woman, she never slept.

"So when she sang, she said she was easing the pain and gaining the energy that she needed to do the work. The music was so powerful. Music gives energy, power; you can go beyond what you think you can do. Even now, with true music, we can do anything."



LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO performs Friday at the Aronoff Center.
 
 
 
 

 

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