“It’s wonderful to be at home,” said Joseph Shabalala, the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The Grammy Award-winning musical group has just returned from touring the United Kingdom, and will be making their debut at the Festival tonight.
Embodying the traditional culture of South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo blends isicathamiya (traditional Zulu call-and-response vocal music with a choral sound) with indigenous Zulu dance. Shabalala, who formed the group in 1960, comes from Ladysmith in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Their polished performances and original style soon had the group banned from local competitions in order to give other performers a chance. ‘Mambazo’, meaning axe in Zulu, refers to this ability to ‘chop down’ the competition.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo has performed alongside Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton. Paul Simon’s 1985 album Graceland featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and acted as a platform for the group to gain international recognition. A year later, Simon produced their first US release Shaka Zulu, which won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
The song requested most often by audiences is Nomathemba, which means ‘hope’ in Zulu. “It’s a very strong song,” Shabalala said, describing Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music as “inexplicable, physical, spiritual and dramatic”.
The group has performed for the Queen of England, Pope John Paul II and, at his request, Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.
“We’re very happy to have them,” said Festival CEO Tony Lankester. He explains that the reason Ladysmith Black Mambazo is only hitting Festival for the first time this year is that the group’s schedules have been fully booked with overseas performances. After receiving their first invitation to perform at the Festival, Shabalala expressed his hope that the audience “will sing with us”. He describes the connection with an audience as “when you have your feelings in their mind”.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo wish to “get it together to make people happy”, said Shabalala. “My mind is full of collecting money,” he said, explaining the group’s ambition to start a school of music aims to promote and support African culture, including other musical performers.
PR Manager Romeo Qetsimani said that the group hopes to find time to be part of an audience themselves at Festival this year, and to enjoy the talent on offer.