Touring can be a bitch: Joseph Shabalala, composer and founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM), can’t remember what month or day it is or which city he is in.
He is in Fredericks in the state of Maryland, according to the hotel receptionist. With that anodyne faux-cheeriness particular to Americans, she recited ‘It’s a fine day at the Fairfield Inn. My name is Nathalie, how-can-I-help-you?”
I heard this close to 30 times as I desperately tried to get hold of Shabalala.
He had gone walkabout and to exacerbate matters the tour management had confused his room number with one from a previous hotel. I’d been leaving messages on somebody else’s answering machine.
Touring can be a bitch, sometimes.
Finally, with Shabalala on the telephone, I had him rifling through papers in search of an itinerary for the group’s three-month North American tour: ‘Hold on, hold on, we have a book where we write this down so we don’t forget where we are,” says the 68-year-old.
It turns out that LBM had been on stage in Salem, Oregon, this weekend when they received news that their album, Ilembe: Our Tribute to King Shaka (Gallo), had won the 2009 Grammy for best traditional world music album.
‘Mitch [Goldstein, LBM’s business manager] called us from Los Angeles to say: ‘I have the Grammy with me!’ Oooh, if I had a camera then! It was a surprise for us and we celebrated with the crowd,” says Shabalala.
This is the group’s third Grammy victory. In 1988, the Paul Simon-produced Shaka Zulu scooped the best traditional folk recording award and 2005’s Raise Your Spirit Higher won a best traditional world music award.
LBM have also been nominated 13 times for the Grammys—no other South African artist or group has been able to match this record.
Shabalala’s conversation occasionally drifts off into song when he accentuates a point or idea. His voice quivers, growls and flies off on ethereal tangents, as though the harmony says so much more than mere words, as though the spirit he says inspires and possesses his compositions cannot be contained in language alone.
I ask why Shaka has featured so prominently in LBM’s work and he veers off on to a high-velocity poem in praise of the Zulu monarch.
Slowing down, he says: ‘It happened by itself from inside me, to encourage people nowadays, to tell black people to remember Shaka and Nelson Mandela and learn values from them. To learn about their own identity.”
Shabalala adds that as a young boy, his father, a traditional healer, encouraged him to learn to praise Shaka through izimbongi poetry, so as to glean lessons from an ‘amazing” life characterised by resilience, pride and a burning urge to improve one’s circumstance.
Later, he says of LBM’s brand of isiscathamiya: ‘We are not singing this kind of music to make ourselves famous—we are singing to remind our people of who they are.” He reiterates LBM’s role as teachers as much as they are vocalists.
Ilembe, as with many of its predecessors, is imbued with a morality drawn from traditional Zulu culture and Christianity.
Simple lyrics preach fidelity and loyalty in relationships (Vela Nsizwa), adherence to religious faith and teachings (This Is the Way We Do and Iphel’ Emasini) and, of course, learning from the life of Shaka (Ilembe).
LBM was formed after Shabalala woke up from ‘a burning dream in which my grandmother told me to go find Albert Mazibuko [a cousin] and my brother, Headman, to form a musical group. It took me four years to find the music that I had heard in the dream—which had come from the skies,” he says.
The group’s popularity burgeoned in South Africa during the Sixties and Seventies, but their international breakthrough arrived after collaborating with Paul Simon on his Graceland album in 1986. Simon and LBM were criticised for breaking the cultural boycott imposed on apartheid South Africa at the time, but the album was critically acclaimed.
Since then LBM have sold more than three million albums and their music has accompanied adverts for everything from baked beans to computers.
But with success has come tragedy. Shabalala’s brother, Headman, was gunned down in 1991 and his wife, Nellie, was murdered in front of him in 2002. At those times he says he ‘just stopped”, but he has a philosophical approach—his faith helps him through those periods.
With lessons of resilience compelling him to continue performing and composing, Shabalala says he misses his brother’s baritone, ‘which can’t be imitated”, and is buoyed by the thought that he will be reunited with loved ones ‘in a beautiful place up there where we will all end up”.
He says he still dreams, and although those harmonies might not be similar to the ones he dreamed of in the Sixties, it is enough that he is still dreaming.