Ladysmith Black Mambazo is coming to Wharton Center Wednesday to perform their signature South African Zulu-style choral music. They began singing in competitions in the 1970s, and rose to world-wide fame when they appeared on Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” in 1986. They’ve recorded over 50 albums, and their latest tour has a stop in East Lansing. WKAR’s Melissa Benmark spoke to one of the longest-singing members, Albert Mazibuko, about the music his group performs.
ALBERT MAZIBUKO: The type of music that we sing is an a capella music—no instruments, just voices. Our voices are divided in four parts. We have lead; we have alto (sometimes we call it soprano); and then we have tenor, which I sing; and then we have basses. And we also have some other two parts that, they help when we are doing our thing. And it’s got a lot of dancing, just nine men on stage using their feet and their hands…beautiful voices. That’s how I can describe it.
MELISSA BENMARK: I’ve never been able to dance and sing at the same time. What is the trick to having enough breath to sing and dance at the same time?
MAZIBUKO: You know, the technique there is that, when you create a dance, you have to go with the rhythm of the song so that it helps you to breathe. It even helps you to sing better when you are dancing and also singing at the same time. But if the dancing is not created according to the rhythm of the song, it will give you a problem.
And this is a technique that our leader, Joseph Shabalala, learned from the dream when this choir was singing for him and dancing for him. They showed him how to do it and then, so, he mastered it and teach it to us.
BENMARK: Who showed him how to do it?
MAZIBUKO: Our leader, Joseph Shabalala, the founder of the group--he is still leading the group—he learned this way of singing from the dream while he was asleep back in 1964.
BENMARK: He was actually really asleep and he saw this in the dream?
MAZIBUKO: It was amazing. And then he told me that every night, when he goes to sleep, he knows that he is going to see the show. So it happened for six months, until he was mastering it, but he couldn’t learn the language these people were singing for him. But he got it all, the way of singing and combining voices and put the dances together with the singing.
BENMARK: Tell us some of what you will be performing at Wharton Center.
MAZIBUKO: We will be performing the most songs that have been a great impact in our struggle in South Africa. Because we look back now, we said, let’s see what we have achieved. So that will be all of those songs, the songs that are singing about hope, bringing people together. And also the highlight songs like “Diamonds (On the Soles of Her Shoes)” and “Homeless” that we sang with Paul Simon, and some songs that we sang when Dr. Nelson Mandela went also to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. All those important songs. So it will be a wonderful show.
BENMARK: You know, that’s got to be kind of mind-blowing to go from starting singing in the 70s and at the height of apartheid, to singing at the Nobel Prize for Mr. Mandela.
MAZIBUKO: You know that was…even now, when I think about it, it seems like a dream. Wow! That was amazing. And also we were so amazed that when Mandela was released and he invited us to be in his birthday party the first time in 1990. We were very honored, and then he just got into the stage and then he danced with us, and then after that he shook hands with us. And then he told us that he loved our music. Our music has been a great inspiration for him all these years. And so, we were so amazed! And after this so he invited us everywhere he goes. He went also to see the Queen of England, the Pope in Rome, and some other places also.
BENMARK: Your instruments are yourselves, essentially, since you don’t play with a lot of outside instruments—it’s singing. And as you’ve been singing over the years, and you watch some of the ways that music is around the world, do you ever wonder if maybe sometimes the technology gets in the way of the actual music that’s inside people?
MAZIBUKO: Yeah. The technology, it does get into the way of singing. Some of the people, in my opinion, they are attempting to be lazy, not using their voices and their talent. Like, you know, when people are recording now, you find that mostly they use the drum machine and the guitar machine. They don’t use the practical instruments they used to use.
I remember in the 1970s, I used to watch the groups when they are rehearsing and before they record. They sit down and then so they play their instrument until they get it right, and then the singing’s there. So now, they are just making it easy. But some people do still, using the olden ways.
But for us, it’s just as challenging that we encourage the young ones not to drift away from their cultures. Because it’s one of our missions, also, to encourage people to stay closer to their culture and try to believe in themselves. They don’t believe into the other things. You can use other things to help you, but you have to use your talent as it is.
BENMARK: It has to come from inside.
BENMARK: You’ve been full-time in the group since 1973, in fact, it looks to me, doing the research, that you are the only original member of the group besides Mr. Shabalala?
MAZIBUKO: Wonderful, you have done your homework very well! Yes, I have been full-time since 1973, because that was the time that we were fired from our work. I remember that in the group we were more than ten, but there was a shortage of gas, so every time when we went to sing on the weekend in far places, so we couldn’t come back on Sunday night to be able to be at work on Monday. So we were always absent on Monday. Tuesday, all of us, when we come in for work, we were given the notice that if we can be absent again, we’ll be fired.
BENMARK: Oh, my.
MAZIBUKO: We had a meeting. Some of the guys said, “No, we can’t afford to lose our work.” Because we left our homes and then come here in the big city to work for our families.
BENMARK: Like the song “Homeless.”
MAZIBUKO: Yeah. But the five of us, we said no, we are going to dedicate ourselves. We are going to plead with our parents and with our families that they should give us maybe, you know, a year. We want to try this because we believe what we have, it’s very important. It might be something big. So, they said, “Okay.”
So we were only five now left. And then I remember when we went to Johannesburg to do the concert, and the promoter was very worried, because he said, “You are very few. How are you going to perform?” And then we put on a performance, that, it was amazing. And I remember that concert--people, before we sang the last song, people, they just got onto the stage, they clap (for) us, then and there. It was a very, very, very powerful concert. So, from there, we have some other members join us until we were ten again.
BENMARK: How do you bring new things to singing, when you’ve been singing for all that time? How do you bring newness to what you do?
MAZIBUKO: You know, I think life itself, or our surroundings, they have all the materials that if you just open your eyes, and then, so, you listen, you see all these things. It’s a lot of material that you can write about.
And then there are lots of things that can encourage you to do good things. Because if you look around you see the challenges that you are facing, needs to be addressed. So the music is our tool to talk to the people. I think that helps us a lot. And also the love of the people around us, especially the people who are supporting us they give us the inspiration to keep going all the time.