From Apartheid To Amphitheater

You’ve heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo before. You may not recognize the name, but you’d recognize the sound – if from nothing else but the Lifesaver commercial. Their haunting a capella is based on traditional South African music, and it’s stood toe-to-toe with Paul Simon on his hit record Graceland, won them three Grammy awards, inspired Nelson Mandela during his incarceration, and has made them perhaps the most recognized African musical group in the world. They’ll be appearing at the Southern Theater on February 4th, and founding member Albert Mazibuko was kind enough to talk with (614) from abroad about their upcoming show and their unique journey through the world of music.

To American ears, your music sounds completely different from almost everything we hear, but in South Africa, there are many Isicathamiya groups. Can you explain a little bit about the origins of this musical style and the significance it holds with the Zulu people?
There are two styles of music that we’ve combined. The first is the traditional “call and response” style that is known as Mbube. This is something that many people consider to have been started by a gentleman named Solomon Linda in the 1930s. His song, called “Mbube,” eventually was used as the basis for the famous western song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” As well, in the 1940s and ’50s many men, who were away from their homes working in the mines and living in group hostels, would sing this style of music as they added many of their own cultural styles to it. They also began the dancing that was known as “tip toe.” It was called this because traditional dancing had a lot of loud stomping in it and the noise was so loud that the hostel guards would make everyone stop. So the men began stomping very quietly, on their tiptoes. These styles meshed together into something called Isicathamiya and this is what Ladysmith Black Mambazo began to do in the 1960s. We’re proud to carry on this traditional music and we are honored that people around the world still like to hear it.

Your group was founded in 1960, which means that during its genesis and for the first three decades you were together, you operated under apartheid in your home country. Did music serve as a gateway out of some of the struggles of the time or did the spotlight present its own challenges?
There were many people using music for many different reasons during apartheid. Some to fight, some to protest and others, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who sung to lift the people’s spirits and help them through these difficult times. As well, our singing was about keeping our traditional ways alive. Part of what apartheid was about was to destroy the traditional identity of black South Africans. We sang to stop this from occurring. Since the end of apartheid and the election of our government by all citizens, we still sing about cultural identity. We also sing to help bring people together. Our country is still learning to work with each other and we try to help the many different peoples work with each other.

I understand that Nelson Mandela once danced to your music in concert, and that he’d mentioned he listened to your music in prison and that it was a positive influence on him. What did that mean for you, as performers, considering Mandela’s significance both in your home country and around the world?
There aren’t powerful enough words to describe what Nelson Mandela meant to the people of South Africa. He embodied what we were striving for. He sacrificed as we all did, in our various ways. And then he led us out of our prisons and into our freedom, by showing us the truest way to better our lives, through peace and love. He asked us to join him on his trip, in 1993, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you imagine the honor for us in this? We dedicate our mission of singing for peace, love and harmony to this great man every night on stage.

Your work on Paul Simon’s Graceland was an international hit and introduced much more of the world to SA music. It was also steeped in controversy. Tell me a little bit about what it was like for you recording that album. Did you get resistance from other SA artists for recording with Paul Simon? I’m to understand from the documentary Under African Skies that when Joseph hugged Paul Simon on stage, he (Joseph) was a bit concerned.
Yes, Joseph says it was the first time a white man ever hugged him and he thought he would get into much trouble from the government. He didn’t though. However, there was some backlash to our singing with Paul Simon as some were of the opinion that the album Graceland and the concert tour for it would hurt the chances for ending apartheid. Others felt it was important to do so that it could put a real face, with names, as well as music out there for people to see. We didn’t get involved in any of that; we just wanted to sing with people. We knew it was important to do and we were willing to take the chances we were taking, we just didn’t get loud about it in a political way. When we were recording with Paul we just wanted to create the best music we could.

The first introduction many people in the U.S. had to your music is in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Coming to America. What do you think about the significance of that?
When we were working with Paul Simon it was all very unknown, what would happen. We knew he was famous but we didn’t know the album would be so successful and heard by millions and millions of people. When Michael Jackson asked us to be part of his project, well wow, it was Michael Jackson. Everyone knew how big, how famous he was. We couldn’t believe we were working with such a huge star. It was a great time, hearing our songs being used in many places. Can you imagine this: we were victims of this horrible system called apartheid and then over a few years our music is being heard all over theaworld. It was truly incredible.

If I tell someone about your group and they don’t immediately recognize who you are, I instinctively say “The guys that did the Lifesaver commercial” and they immediately recognize who I’m talking about. Is that something you like or dislike, as artists?
We love that. And it’s not just Lifesavers, but Sesame Street or Family Guy, or that Lindsay Lohan movie Mean Girls and other places. Now, the late night TV person, Jimmy Fallon, has a comedy sketch he does called Ladysmith Snack Mambazo, where his music group sing songs about food, where they are dressed like us and sing just like us. My goodness, all of these are incredible honors for us. Of course, we hope people will not just stop with knowing us from those different places. We hope they decide to come out and see us sing for real.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be appearing at The Southern Theater on February 4. For tickets and more information, visit