For more than a half century, the world has been blessed with the hauntingly beautiful voices of South Africa’s iconic singing group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The Zulu-based ensemble, winners of 16 Grammy Awards, are known for their distinct isicathamiya style of a cappella singing, which combines powerfully strident vocals with intricate harmonies and dynamic coordinated dance moves.
Formed by Joseph Shabalala in the early 60’s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (“Ladysmith” is Shabalala’s hometown, “mambazo” is Zulu for “axe”) developed a regional following in their native KwaZulu Natal by consistently winning all of the weekly isicathamiya competitions held in the mining hostels of Durban and Johannesburg. They dominated so thoroughly that Shabalala and his group were asked to refrain from competing. Shabalala’s intricate harmony arrangements and the precision of the group’s voices quickly gained the attention of South Africa recording companies and radio DJ’s. By the late 70’s they had become the most popular singing group in the country, their records going gold or platinum and their concerts constantly selling out.
Despite success in their home country, it wasn’t until they appeared on Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album in 1986 that they became global stars. That exposure led to international tours and a record contract with Warner Bros, which released Shaka Zulu in 1988. Shaka Zulu went on to win a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Over the course of their career Ladysmith Black Mambazo would go on to receive fifteen more nominations, winning four times.
With Shabalala at the helm, the group would go on to become one of the biggest recording stars in all of Africa. After apartheid was abolished in 1994, President Nelson Mandela named Ladysmith Black Mambazo official South African Cultural Ambassadors. Mandela also requested their presence at his inauguration and at the ceremony for his Nobel Peace Prize. In the more than fifty years of its existence, the members have changed, and just recently founder Joseph Shabalala has retired. Four of his sons remain in the group, including the new leader Thamsanqa Shabalala.
They have released more than 50 records, their most recent being 2014’s Always With Us. This year marks the 30th anniversary of their historic collaboration with Paul Simon on his revered Graceland album.
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