Dancing with Mandela, Singing with Simon: Albert Mazibuko on 50 years in Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Feb 21, 2019

Albert Mazibuko of Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Credit RNZ Music / Stan Alley https://www.radionz.co.nz/collections/u/music-festivals-and-events/womad/audio/201815807/interview-ladysmith-black-mambazo-womad-2016

Albert Mazibuko grew up on a farm in South Africa then found work at an asbestos factory. But since childhood he'd dreamed of singing with an innovative local ensemble, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In 1969, he was invited to join the group, and half a century later he has lost none of his enthusiasm. This Saturday afternoon at 2 PM, Mazibuko will be singing in Cedar Falls, Iowa, when Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. Last week, he took time out of a long North American tour to talk to IPR:


Mazibuko's cousin Joseph Shabalala had founded Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1964. That same year, South Africa's apartheid regime imprisoned Nelson Mandela in a tiny cell on Robben Island. No one could have imagined that 30 years later Mandela would become South Africa's first black president, in the country's first election with universal suffrage. And not even the most hopeful young musicians could have dreamed that Mandela would someday ask them to perform at his inauguration and his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Mazibuko says Ladysmith Black Mambazo met Mandela at his birthday celebration in 1990, four months after his release from prison. Mandela surprised the group by joining it onstage to dance with them as they performed. He told them that its music had inspired him during his years as a political prisoner.

When Mazibuko joined Ladysmith in 1969, they couldn't have known that the apartheid regime was about to enter an especially brutal era of militarization, extra-judicial killing, and forced "resettlements." Throughout, Ladysmith Black Mambazo grew artistically. Eventually it would achieve international renown and influence, release over 50 albums, win numerous awards including five Grammys, collaborate with leading artists from many genres, and star in TV, film, and theater. Mazibuko shares memories, explains the group’s name, and discusses how its music developed. He gives details of their first encounter with Paul Simon, including the creative collaboration that led to the song Homeless. And he speaks about the group's future, which includes a forthcoming album of songs written by three of Shabalala's sons, who now sing in the group.

The most admirable feature of choral music may be that the only equipment you need is built into your body. Not even the deprivations of apartheid could stop South African musicians from creating a new a cappella choral art form and raising it to ever-greater heights. Any day you get to speak to one of these artists is a good one, and I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Mazibuko. If you have the chance to hear Ladysmith in concert, I'd encourage you to take it, and since the Cedar Falls concert is a matinee, to bring a child or three.