Change for the better

Change for the better

Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings its world-influencing sound to Caltech

By Carl Kozlowski 02/26/2014

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Albert Mazibuko never imagined how much his life would change when his cousin, Joseph Shabalala, invited him to join his new singing group back in 1960. But over the past 54 years, the tight-knit family spirit that lies at the core of their South African ensemble, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has taken them all over the planet and earned them four Grammys and riches beyond their wildest dreams. 

This Saturday, they’ll be performing at Caltech’s Beckmann Auditorium in a concert that will show that their rich body of work extends far beyond their classic collaboration with singer Paul Simon on the Grammy-winning 1986 album “Graceland.” According to Mazibuko, the venue is perfect for their music. 

“We are trying to spread a message that goes beyond the simple enjoyment of music,” says Mazibuko. “We want to elevate the spirit and the consciousness of our listeners, and Caltech is very receptive to new ideas.”

Joseph Shabalala formed the group as a means of breaking free from a humdrum life as a farm boy-turned-factory worker. He found that his cousin Albert was an eager recruit, as he sought to escape his own hard life working on his family farm from ages 8 to 15 and a subsequent job in an asbestos-making factory. 

While Albert joined Mambazo as a tenor, his brother Milton followed soon after as an alto singer. But decades later, Albert is the only original member, aside from Shabalala, who derived the name Ladysmith from his hometown, with Black referring to oxen, the strongest of all farm animals, and Mambazo being the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down” any person or group who would challenge their singing abilities.

“Our name was unique, but so was the music, because it came directly from my cousin’s dreams,” says Mazibuko. “He would wake up with the lyrics pouring out of his head, and then once he was done writing them down, he’d have the melodies float out of himself as well.”   

In fact, by the end of the ’60s they had surpassed the abilities of competing groups so much that they were banned from singing competitions. But they broke into radio play in 1970, leading to an extensive body of work that includes more than 50 recordings which are dedicated to preserving their country’s musical heritage as much as they are about entertainment. 

Mambazo was popular right from the start in their homeland, where they earned gold status for sales in South Africa from their debut album onward, through more than 50 albums to date. Many of those records document live shows at world-famous venues such as Carnegie Hall, drawing heavily from the fact the group tours more than six months each year. 

Mambazo focuses on a traditional music style called isicathamiya, which were songs that South African mine workers would develop as relaxation at the end of their punishing work schedules and then brought home to their villages. When Paul Simon was searching for a rich and unique style of singing as backup on his album “Graceland,” he fell in love with Mambazo’s mix of tenor, alto and bass harmonies and wound up creating a landmark album that introduced the group to audiences worldwide. 

“Graceland” won Album of the Year at the 1987 Grammy Awards and helped not only to introduce Mambazo to a global audience, but also to restore Simon’s reputation as a stellar songwriter, resulting in his biggest album sales in a decade. In 2007, “Graceland” was added to the United States National Recording Registry, along with another 24 significant recordings that year, and has been included on many “greatest” album lists created by prestigious magazines, including Time and Rolling Stone.

Since that breakthrough, Mambazo has recorded with such diverse artists as Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton and Sarah McLachlan and Melissa Etheridge. They have also performed in dozens of movie soundtracks. The story of their career was told in the documentary “On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. They have also been nominated for Tony Awards, and the group won a Drama Desk Award for its Broadway appearances. 

“We knew that working with Paul Simon would be a life-changing opportunity, as well as a world-changing one,” says Mazibuko. “He wanted to show the world that we’re all the same and can all unite through music, even in an officially divided country like South Africa. So much changed for the better as a result of that one record, because music is universal and it can change the world.” 

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $26 to $36, with $10 for youth. Call (626) 395-4652 or visit caltech.edu.

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