Joseph Shabalala, the renowned musician who led the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which has won five Grammy Awards, passed away in Pretoria on February 11, aged seventy-eight. Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo gained international recognition through their collaboration with Paul Simon on his Graceland album, released in 1986. Simon helped produce the group’s debut major-label record titled Shaka Zulu, which earned them their first Grammy. To late president Nelson Mandela, the members of this musical outfit were “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world”.
Shabalala was born in Ladysmith in the province of KwaZulu-Natal to parents who were farm workers. In 1958, he traveled to Durban in search of work, where he briefly sang with the group Highlanders before returning to Ladysmith and starting his own band in 1960.
That first group, The Black Ones, eventually morphed into Ladysmith Black Mambazo after Shabalala experimented with an a cappella singing style known as isicathamiya, which can be roughly translated from the Zulu as “stalking style”. The band’s version of isicathamiya was grounded in bass-heavy harmonies, call-and-response, dynamic contrast between loud and soft passages, and distinctive choreography, and the themes of their songs included love, Christianity, Zulu folklore, and rural childhood memories.
Shabalala and his choral outfit racked up a number of victories in local competitions throughout the 1960s. In 1970, they performed live through a radio broadcast in Johannesburg, leading to a recording contract.
During the 1980s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was invited to perform at German festivals and later appeared in the documentary Rhythm of Resistance, which is where Simon first heard them. The band grew in popularity and recognition. They appeared on Sesame Street and The Tonight Show, provided music for a 1993 Broadway production, and performed at Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 1993 and at his presidential inauguration in 1994. Shabalala retired in 2014.
He is survived by his wife; two daughters; seven sons, three of whom are members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo; and 36 grandchildren.