Even in the catch-all ecosystem of “world music”, few groups’ trajectories have seen their fortunes mirror their home country’s like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The all-male chorus, singing in the mbube and isicathamiya a cappella tradition (a tradition that took on new importance when industrialization and economic marginalization forced many African men to migrate to overcrowded cities for work), became locally renowned in their namesake city for tight harmonies and lively, stirring renditions of Zulu songs. Their founding in 1960 precipitated nearly two decades of internal development that, per the laws of cultural segregation, was relegated to African-exclusive spaces.
At a time in which the apartheid regime had forcefully isolated African artistic development (and the left-leaning artistic world had forcefully isolated that regime), Ladysmith Black Mambazo was hand-picked by Paul Simon to contribute to his career-reviving Graceland and subsequent tour. Inspiring exuberant praise and postcolonial criticism in equal measure, the album nonetheless propelled the group to worldwide acclaim and frequent festival-circuit tours as apartheid’s long shadow faded into the chaotic sunrise of ANC rule.
Even this most renowned of South African groups proved unable to escape the violence of either the 1980s Emergency or the contemporary crime epidemic. Several group members and their family members have been senselessly murdered. Stacked against the textbook rockstar-overindulgence tragedy, LBM’s struggles read more like tales of political dissidence or treason.
But years later, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, South Africa has embraced pluralism in all of its problematic and complex dimensions. Likewise, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has weathered trauma and evolved into a historic institution, dedicating itself to education and invisible boundary-crossing every time they perform or lead a workshop. With a nine-person line-up that now includes some children of older members, this group has worked itself into a timeless institution whose performances provide near-sacred ecstasy and musicological education in equal measure to audiences in every corner of the world.
Their latest album, 2013’s live album Singing for Peace Around the World, is a pretty logical destination for their career thus far. These 11 songs, recorded across the world during tours in 2011 and 2012, netted the group their fourth Grammy over their half-decade career. Moreover, there are plans to release another album (a tribute to Shabala’s slain wife) this year.
“So much has changed [from the beginning]. You can sing about anything freely. And we are so happy about how mixed our audience is,” says Albert Mazibuko, a tenor and (alongside Shabala, his cousin) one of only two original members still singing with the group. Despite all that they’ve endured, he and his cohorts continue to remain forward-thinking and relentlessly positive – a lesson that is especially resonant in the wake of Mandela’s passing.
“I think, especially now, after he passed away…people would really like to practice what he preached,” explains Mazibuko, adding, “Maybe his teachings will stay with us forever. I have a strong feeling that everyone will try to be like him.”
Part of LBM’s resilience can be attributed to a creative eye that tempers its adherence to hallowed traditions with a keen eye for contemporary trends. Contemporary South African music is eclectic, reflecting the myriad languages and cultures present within its borders, and LBM sees hip-hop and kwaito (house-inspired dance music, the JoBurg equivalent of dancehall or baile funk) as desirable territory. “I think that everything has an era, and this is an era of that kind of music,” says Mazibuko. Artists like Big Nux might seem better fit for a Diplo mixtape, but they just might open a path for a traditional group’s possible reinvention.
Ultimately, the loss of members to retirement or violence doesn’t matter. It’s not even so important that original members’ descendants keep things all “in the family”, although that certainly doesn’t hurt. The initial unsung heroes of isicathamiya, whose names evade the kind of consecration typically given for Western folk-heroes, have put an all-encompassing energy into the world that groups like LBM continue to channel and reinvent. It supersedes disenfranchisement, personal tragedy, fame, This is an energy that, truly, is built to last forever.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs tonight at the Annenberg Center with Penn a cappella group The Inspiration opening. Click here to purchase tickets.