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It isn’t merely the grace and power of their dancing or the beauty of their singing that rivets the attention, but the sheer joy and love that emanates from their being.
Undulating rhythmic phrases that push and pull . . . harmonising that is both ethereal and earthy
—World Music, UK
South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala, then a teenage farm boy living just outside the small town of Ladysmith, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, halfway between Johannesburg and Durban. Shabalala used his hometown’s name to honor his family’s history. He added to his group’s name the word “Black” in reference to black oxen, the strongest of all farm animals. Mambazo is the Zulu word for “chopping axe,” a symbol of the group’s vocal ability to clear the path to success.
The group sings from a traditional music called isicathamiya (pronounced is-cot-a-ME-ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa. It was there that black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and 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 their homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.
In addition to their work with Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have recorded with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge, and many others. They have provided music for many movies, have appeared on Broadway, where they were nominated for a Tony Award, and even had a documentary film, titled On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, the Story of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, nominated for an Academy Award.