For much of the world listening to Graceland in 1986, it was as though Ladysmith Black Mambazo had sprung fully formed from Paul Simon’s head. But while that was their big break, they’d had an impressive career for the previous 20 years.
In 1964, Joseph Shabalala dreamed of perfect harmony. Not in a Martin Luther King Jr sort of way. He actually heard specific Zulu harmonies in his sleep. For six months, he had a recurring dream of a choir singing in perfect harmony. So he formed a new group with the brothers and cousins with whom he’d been singing since the early 1950s and they started practicing. Their music was isicathamiya – traditional Zulu choral singing.
Their level of extreme awesome meant that they won nearly every local competition in Durban and Johannesburg. As a result, they were forbidden from entering but welcomed to entertain at the competitions. Also as a result, Shabalala changed the name of the group to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Ladysmith” for his hometown in KwaZulu-Natal. “Black” for the black ox, the strongest farm animal. And “mambazo” (“axe”) for their mad skills at chopping down their competition.
Their debut album, Amabuth (1973), was the first by a black musician or group in South Africa to go gold. In 1985 they collaborated with Simon on Graceland which sold 14 million copies. And their first album for US release, Shaka Zulu (1987), won a Grammy. They sang at Mandela’s inauguration and toured consistently for about 25 years.
Opinions differ on cultural boycotts. Simon got a lot of flack for breaking the one imposed against the apartheid regime to record Graceland with Black South African musicians. But they did it and in 1987, they performed together in Zimbabwe. Watching this concert 25 years later, the joy and strength, the sublime swagger and ebullient excellence will hit you like a warm wave. But it is merely an echo of what it must have felt like at the time.
In 1991, Shabalala’s brother Headman, a bass member of the group, was shot and killed by a white off-duty security guard. In 2002, Shabalala’s wife of 30 years was shot and killed in a church car park. Shabalala’s sons eventually joined the group and, in 2008, announcing that one of them would be the new leader, he said: “Thus, the dream I had over forty five years ago will continue well into the 21st century. Ladysmith Black Mambazo must continue as the message of Peace, Love and Harmony…We never will be silenced and we hope our fans and friends around the world will keep wanting to hear this message”.
The life of Joseph Shabalala, and that of his country – and of us all – is a story of hurting and healing and hurting and healing. Which is, perhaps, the lesson in a dream of perfect harmony and why it will always sounds so beautiful.