The neck of my Guitar
CytyPulse-Laydysmith Black Mambazo CityPulse

When reliable rains have fallen for four decades, it´s hard to remember dry times.

Joseph Shabalala and Albert Mazibuko are the only founding members still singing with the radiant South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In 1960, 10-year-old Mazibuko would walk eight miles to visit his friend Shabalala in the South African township of Ladysmith.

´When I got there, we didn´t have anything to talk about,´ Mazibuko recalls. ´We would just sit and look at each other and have nothing to say, although we liked each other a lot.´

Shabalala´s mother teased them about it: ´Joseph, your friend is here,´ she would tell her son. ´What are you going to talk about today?´

Well, what could they have said? Let´s get together and form a vocal group that will someday sing for Queen Elizabeth´s silver jubilee, accompany Nelson Mandela on his trip to Oslo to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize and rock packed houses all over the world with Paul Simon? Let´s turn the whole world on to our obscure, pre-technological, a cappella folk music, born in segregated townships and sweaty mineshafts, and, by the way, change world history in the process?

Nobody, not even Mambazo´s founders, would have believed it, Mazibuko says. ´Although we knew the music was powerful, we didn´t know it would open so many gates and bring so much joy to the people,´ he says.

The ebullient ensemble comes to the Wharton Center Sunday to celebrate the release of a guest-star-studded CD retrospective, ´Long Walk to Freedom.´

´This is the 25th year we have been touring nonstop,´ Mazibuko says, ´and everywhere we go, people want us to come back and sing for them. It´s amazing. It´s overwhelming.´

Needless to say, the awkward silences between group leader Shabalala and Mazibuko are a thing of the past. ´Now we talk so much even the other guys say we should be separated because we don´t rest our voices,´ Mazibuko says, laughing.

When Shabalala formed the group in the early ´˜60s, the air in South African townships was thick with a harmonized whisper called isicathamiya (pronounced is-cot-a-ME-ya), a delicate yet forceful vocal style developed by black mine workers.

Shipped far from their families to work in cramped and difficult conditions, the miners sang traditional music they knew from home, some of it remembered from weddings and other occasions. Because there were no women in the mines, some of the men took the high parts.

Human lungs were the only readily available musical hardware, so the townships rang out with frequent singing competitions. ´There was no radio, no records,´ Mazibuko says. ´The other music around our ears was from the cows and sheep and goats and birds and waterfalls and all those things. That´s where we got our inspiration.´

Shabalala´s group, with Mazibuko and others, reached such inspired heights that it was barred from these contests. The group´s name advertised its competitive edge: Ladysmith, the name of Shabalala´s home town, ´black´ to invoke to the strength of an ox and ´mambazo´ for ´axe.´

Soon after, Shabalala became a born-again Christian, and the group´s music took on an ecumenical gospel flavor, with an urgent aura of peaceful revolution.

More than 40 years later, despite a host of guest-star collaborations (Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Nathalie Merchant and Sarah MacLachlan all appear on the new CD), Black Mambozo´s sound has never strayed far from the village well.

When Paul Simon wove the group´s harmonies into several tracks of his landmark 1986 album ´Graceland,´ the collaboration was so sensitively managed it was hard to accuse Simon of exploitation or Shabalala of selling out. ´He honored our music,´ Mazibuko says. ´He didn´t pollute it. He just took it as it is, and introduced it to the world.´

Simon´s album put the group on the world stage for the first time, when the worldwide wave of anger against the South African apartheid regime was at its crest.

One year later, Simon produced Mambazo´s first U.S. release, ´Shaka Zulu,´ which won a Grammy in 1988. The group´s sunny smiles, lush harmonies and weaving dance moves became worldwide symbols of optimistic resistance against oppression.

In the post-apartheid era, the group´s mission has shifted toward keeping traditional music alive. ´TV and radio brought the world into one,´ Mazibuko says. ´People copy one another, so they forget they have talents. What you see all the time becomes the pattern of your life.´

To keep the well from drying up, Shabalala formed the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation in 1999 to preserve, promote and teach traditional music.

´When you go to some archives, even in universities in South Africa, you cannot find any traditional music which is written down and recorded,´ Mazibuko says. ´The music that is recorded is commercialized, but in traditional music, the people are just sitting there, or just singing by themselves, and it´s amazing.´

For Mazibuko, the only thing more amazing than the trajectory of Ladysmith Black Mambazo´s career is the relatively peaceful evaporation of the South African apartheid regime. ´I was so pleased when I was home last December,´ he says. ´It was the school holidays in the townships (areas formerly designated only for blacks), and I saw some of the white boys visit their friends.

They didn´t just visit for the day. They stayed there and played with them. It was so much fun.´

The formerly whites-only suburbs, Mazibuko says, are becoming mixed too. ´It´s not just that they have their house in the same place, these people live together,´ he says. ´If someone has a function in their homes, they invite their neighbor. The kids play together, they visit one another.´

´This is the country I think Mandela was dreaming to see,´ he says proudly. ´It´s really a rainbow nation.´

Mazibuko credits the fast pace of healing to many factors, including the fortitude of Nelson Mandela and work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ´They talked about it publicly on the papers, on the TV, on the radio,´ he says, ´and we had time to grieve and put it behind ourselves and carry on with our lives.´

Mazibuko won´t suggest it himself, but many also credit a soft shower of sweet voices with watering this remarkable political transformation and calling the rainbow nation forth. ´It´s a healing thing,´ Mazibuko says. ´Sometimes when I´m not feeling well ´” not only me, but other members in the group ´” when we start rehearsing and start singing, I feel so complete and so well.´

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