Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Celebrating the childhood sounds of a Zulu farm

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Monday June 06, 2011


Celebrating the childhood sounds of a Zulu farm
By Billie Odidi

A landmark moment in modern pop music history occurred in 1987, during the Graceland tour by Paul Simon.

Before a rapturous crowd at the Rufaro Stadium in Zimbabwe, the American singer introduces an ensemble of African acapella singers, clad in orange shirts and bearing the most extraordinary vocal arrangement.

One of the best-kept secrets of South African music had been unleashed on to the world stage against the backdrop of the cultural boycott of the apartheid system. There was a powerful defiance of the policy of segregation with the appearance of Simon alongside stalwarts like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ray Phiri and this ensemble that was barely known outside their home province of KwaZulu Natal.

Watching that multiracial crowd packed to the rafters, chant and dance along to the harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was a rebuke to the artificial racial barriers that existed in South Africa at the time.

‘Graceland with Paul Simon, enabled us to get into the international arena and to start enjoying Western music,’ says Joseph Shabalala, the founder, lead singer and musical director of the 9-man group. In fact, Shabalala wrote his first song in 1965 and Ladysmith Black Mambazo released their first album Amabutho in 1973, a good 13 years before they worked on Graceland.

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