Any key works for S. African band
WEEKEND: AFRICAN A CAPELLA
By ANDREW S. HUGHES
Tribune Staff Writer
When Paul Simon called the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to ask them to collaborate with him, Albert Mazibuko says, the band's members were confused by the American songwriter's interest in them: "Bridge Over Troubled Water," after all, was so different from the South African a cappella band's own music that they didn't understand why Simon wanted to work with them.
"Joseph (Shabalala) went to meet him in Johannesburg and came back and said, 'This guy loves music,' " Mazibuko says by telephone from a tour stop in Traverse City, Mich.
Convinced that Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo should work together, the band flew to London to record "Homeless," which band founder Joseph Shabalala co-wrote with Simon. Later, they went to New York to record "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" with Simon.
Although Ladysmith Black Mambazo had been stars in South Africa for two decades, the band's singing on Simon's 1986 album, "Graceland," made it international stars.
"When we talk about that, we say our prayer was answered," Mazibuko says. "This was the right key to open the big gate to put Mambazo on the world stage. Without it, I don't think we'd have all this opportunity that we have."
Those opportunities include winning a Grammy Award in February for the 2004 album "Raise Your Spirit Higher -- Wenyukela" and a new album, "No Boundaries," recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra. The album contains Africanized versions of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and Schubert's "Sanctus" and orchestrated versions of "Homeless" and traditional Zulu songs such as the lullaby "Walil' Umtwana (The Child Is Crying)" and "Jabulani -- Rejoice."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs a cappella Sunday at the University of Notre Dame's DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts.
"We wish when we leave that the people who came to (the concert) would leave with a peaceful mind," Mazibuko says of the band's philosophy toward performance and its material. "You know we are living in a troubled world, and we want people to feel at peace and not to make trouble but live as one."
Tiptoeing to stardom
Shabalala, Mazibuko's cousin, formed Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1964. After winning numerous singing contests, the band's Web site says, Shabalala gave the band a three-part name whose individual elements added up to define the band's identity: "Ladysmith" is the name of his hometown; "Black" refers to black oxen, "considered to be the strongest on the farm;" and "the Zulu word 'Mambazo' refers to an ax, a symbol of the group's ability to 'chop down' the competition" in singing contests.
The foundation for Ladysmith Black Mambazo's a cappella singing is the traditional Zulu style known as isicathamiya (pronounced: is-cot-a-ME-YA). Isicathamiya consists of four parts: one lead, one alto, one tenor and multiple bass voices, although, Mazibuko says, the band has begun to double the alto and tenor voices in recent years.
"The lead begins the song," he says. "Whatever key he starts it in, everyone else has to relate to. We use our ears so much and just listen to each other to harmonize."
That approach, Mazibuko says, made the recording sessions for "No Boundaries" a challenge.
"In our music, when we sing, we don't stick in one key all the time," he says. "Every time before we started a song, someone had to give us the key. To us, any key works because you can adjust the voices. There isn't a wrong one. We had to focus our minds to sing in the same key in order to go with these other people. It was wonderful because it taught us something."
Isicathamiya means "to tip-toe" and was born in the mines and factories of South Africa and was sung by the workers in the compounds where they lived. Tiptoeing, Mazibuko says, refers to those performers' attempts to dance and sing quietly in the compounds so that they wouldn't wake their neighbors or alert the sentries who patrolled the compounds and enforced curfews in them.
"When Zulus do our music, we sing and dance and clap and thump the floor very hard," he says. "To avoid that, these people started to tiptoe so as not to disturb other people."
From apartheid to freedom
From the beginning, Mazibuko says, Ladysmith Black Mambazo's music has had a message to it, one that's changed with the times and circumstances in South Africa.
"We wanted to build a sense of unity and oneness," he says of the band's early material. "After that, we would sing to encourage people not to lose hope, to trust that things would be fine when we stay together. Now, we encourage people to do good things now that we have our freedom."
Eleven years after apartheid ended, much of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's work in South Africa now consists of helping to preserve traditional South African musical forms. To that end, Shabalala is attempting to found a folk music school that would teach all of the country's native music styles, not just isicathamiya.
"Western culture almost took everything away, but the people were so strong," Mazibuko says. "We are very, very fortunate because some people stuck to their culture. This wasn't taught in school -- Zulu culture, music, art -- but they kept it. ... We're going everywhere to teach in schools and universities, but we want to have a building."
On a large scale, Mazibuko says, freedom in South Africa means the black majority may now pursue artistic or professional ambitions without interference from the government. It's the tiny signs of freedom's effect, however, that matter more to him.
"Last year, during the school holidays, I'm living in a location, places that were designed for black people, (and) I saw white children visit black children in their homes in the location," Mazibuko says. "It told me that in South Africa we are going to have a nation that can live as one."
Youth's energy, age's wisdom
Although the Grammy Award for "Raise Your Spirit Higher -- Wenyukela" represents a triumph for the band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded the album in the shadow of personal tragedy. In 2002, Shabalala's wife, Nellie Shabalala, was murdered by masked gunmen outside the family's church in South Africa. Her killers have not been caught.
"This album is about inspiring people," Mazibuko says of "Raise Your Spirit Higher -- Wenyukela" and says its songs about forgiveness relate to Nellie Shabalala's murder. "Whatever your problem, be strong. It's about being above whatever is trying to press your spirit down."
Ladysmith Black Mambazo's lineup now includes four of Shabalala's sons and appears poised to continue for another generation, at least.
They are waiting for Shabalala's fifth son to join, Mazibuko says, and the grandsons like to sing, too.
"The boys in the band show so much talent," he says. "Almost 30 percent of the choreography in the show has been created by them. When they introduce it to us, we say, 'This is very difficult. You think we're still young?' They say, 'No, you're not old. Just try it.' "
It's encouraging, Mazibuko says, to see the younger and older generations working together.
"The young people have new ideas and energy, but the old people have wisdom," he says. "When you combine these things, you come up with something wonderful. Working together, young people and old people can make our world a peaceful place to be."