Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 20th 2014

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The Soundtrack of Peace

By Jennifer Leigh

For the past 50 years, South African acapella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been dedicated to spreading the message of peace and love around the world.

“Our late president, Nelson Mandela, told us that we have to be cultural ambassadors from South Africa to the world since we have been blessed with the opportunity to travel all over,” said Albert Mazibuko, who has been singing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo since 1969.

Assembled in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has recorded music with Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris and most notably, Paul Simon on his famous “Graceland.” Simon also helped the singers produce their first worldwide release, “Shaka Zulu,” which won the 1988 Grammy for Best Folk Recording.

The group consists of ten singers. Some are the sons and grandson’s of former Ladysmith performers, including Babuyile Shabalala, the grandson of founder Shabalala. While the voices may have changed, the music has remained unchanged for the most part.

“Our singing is traditional singing, South African folk music,” Mazibuko said. “The subject matter has changed from singing about the struggles of apartheid and looking forward to a different country, to songs of encouragement and dedication for people to work together.”

According to their website, the group borrows heavily from a traditional music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. The men would live in hostels together, which is why the group has consistently comprised solely of men.

Their latest album, “Always with Us,” released earlier this year, features female voices, including Nellie Shabalala, the late wife of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s founder, who passed away in 2002.

“Before she died, she recorded several songs with her church choir,” Mazibuko said. “Joseph was very proud of Nellie’s singing, and we were so glad we had her songs to listen to. Music has always been a powerful tonic when life sends us sadness. At some point we wanted to do something to honor Nellie. We thought maybe we could take her recordings and add our voices to the songs. That we could sing with Nellie so the whole world could hear her beautiful voice and learn what a wonderful person she was. It was difficult to do, and we spent years trying to record with her songs. It’s Mambazo but with ladies too.”

After decades of music and dozens of albums, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has amassed quite a bit of awards.

“We have been blessed for many years with Grammy nominations. I think we have fifteen so far,” Mazibuko said. “It’s an honor that the American music people think so highly of our music and that they feel we have maintained a level of quality that warrants their attention.”

Their latest Grammy win was for “Live: Singing for Peace Around the World,” an album that held a special importance for Mazibuko and Ladysmith Black Mambazo fans.

“When we released it, we knew that former president Nelson Mandela was not going to be with us much longer,” he explained. “He was 94 years old and had not been healthy. As I said earlier, he bestowed on us the mission of spreading songs of peace throughout the world. When we titled the CD, it was inspired by him. We dedicated the CD to him. When we won the Grammy award, we naturally dedicated the award to him.”

“It’s so hard to describe what Nelson Mandela meant to the people of South Africa,” Mazibuko said. “Of course there were many important people in the struggle our country had for freedom, but Mandela was the light that shined the way for us. That when he was released from prison and became president, he sought to heal the wounds our people had suffered and not seek revenge, or anything of the sort, is an incredible message for the world.”

In 1993, when Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize, he invited the singers to join him in Oslo, Norway. It was a great honor, Mazibuko said.

“He wanted us to represent South Africa with songs,” he said. “This was an incredible honor for us. We had the fortune to sing at many events that he asked us to be at. It was always wonderful. After he passed away, we read an article discussing his love of music. The article said that of all his favorite music his top was Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Can you imagine how this has made us feel?”

Throughout years of constant touring, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has made its way to Northwest Florida before and will be making a return visit Friday, March 21, presented by local public radio station WUWF.

“We have been to this area of Florida, especially Pensacola,” Mazibuko said. “We love it there because it’s very much like our home, Durban, South Africa. There’s beautiful sunny weather and lovely beaches in each place. After being away from home for eight weeks, when we reach Niceville, it will be such a treat to enjoy life like we live it back in South Africa. We can’t wait to share our music with your people!”

No matter where they sing, the message has remained the same for half a century.

“Everywhere people are, we want peace for their families and for their lives,” Mazibuko said. “Life brings us struggles, but if people maintain a desire to love, to want to get along, then this will succeed more than it doesn’t. We think it is important to bond together everywhere in this way. We also love to share our culture, the culture of South Africa. We love our country and who we are and we sing and dance of our culture.”

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Friday March 21
WHERE: Mattie Kelly Arts Center, 100 E. College Blvd., Niceville
COST: $35
DETAILS: wuwf.org or mambazo.com