South Africa’s Cultural Ambassadors, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Come to Fairfield, CT

NYS Music had the honor and pleasure of speaking with Albert Mazibuko, an original member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the a cappella revolutionaries from South Africa. They gained global recognition from their collaboration with Paul Simon on his album Graceland and their careers have skyrocketed since. They worked with a variety of widely recognized artists from Dolly Parton to Sarah McLachlan and released a plethora of albums over the course of 50 years. Tickets are now on sale to see the group perform at the Fairfield University Quick Center in Connecticut, Sunday, March 12 at 7:00 p.m. Mazibuko tells NYS Music about their humble beginnings, stories of their time with Paul Simon and more information about their upcoming performance.

David Ostroff: When was the last time Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to Connecticut?

Albert Mazibuko: I cannot be specific, but it was maybe a year or two years ago. I cannot tell because we are always around the country

DO: That’s not surprising. Ladysmith has been performing constantly for years now. That being said, how do you and your team keep up your enthusiasm after 40 plus years of recording and performing?

AM: The music itself gives the energy that we need. Sometimes, I’m feeling tired before the show. But then we get together and we pray. After that we start a song to warm up ourselves and then the energy just comes. Before I hit the stage, I am a new person.

DO: I have to ask. I did some research and saw that in South Africa, before you came to the states, Ladysmith would perform in a cappella competitions. But you guys were so good that they wouldn’t let you compete. How did that happen?

AM: Wow, that is a good refresher! I’ll never forget that day. We were finally allowed to enter the competition (because their music was a different style than other groups). After we sang, the judges and audience stood up, and the other groups said, “You already won!” They decided the music was too good to entertain, so what (we) would do is sing from 8 to 12, and then after, the other groups will compete. We couldn’t believe it happened. We really missed the competition. But not anymore, after our success in our group.

DO: What were some of your best memories when working with Paul Simon?

AM: When we first received the message that Paul Simon was in Johannesburg to met Joseph Shabalala, we wondered why he would want to meet (Joseph)? We first thought it was someone who would sing American gospel, which is similar to our music. But when we heard it was Paul Simon, because we knew his music, it would play all over radio’s in South Africa, we said, “How?? Why does he want to meet him?” When Joseph went there, I remember he went there in the morning because we were around in Johannesburg on tour so he went to meet him in the studio and Joseph came back in the afternoon. We asked him what Paul said, Joseph said, “He is a man of music. He wants to do something with us.” So the concern was more than before. In two weeks time, he sent us a letter with a demo (of the track “Homeless”). Along with it came a piece of paper in Paul’s handwriting that said, “Dear Joseph, Don’t change this because I took it from one of your recordings.” Paul only sang two lines by himself which were “Homeless, homeless.” (The chorus) This was the right time to write the music because this would go with the situation in South Africa. Violence was all over the place. We then received a message that we had to go to London to meet with Paul. We went as a group and we were so excited. We stood behind the microphones, and Joseph told Paul we had been trying to work on the song.  We tried to record the song on the first day and it did not work at all. It was so much different with all the people trying to help and the song was not getting together. We were in the studio at two in the afternoon, and by six in the evening, Paul said let’s all go back to the hotel. We were very disappointed because Ladysmith Black Mambazo would usually record up to 12 songs a day. We practiced until midnight. The following day, we went into the studio. Joseph told Paul that that we had been rehearsing and to take a listen to this one. We sang the whole song, someone said, “This is it,” and in two hours we knew the song was there.

DO: Well it must have been worth putting that effort into that song, though. It’s absolutely beautiful.

AM: It was like a nightmare to us! One song for three, four hours?  But we understood that it was something else that was introduced to us. I appreciate that because, after that, everything was so much better for the group.

DO: I didn’t know much about your music aside from your work with Paul Simon and most of my generation have limited knowledge of Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well. What else would people my age recognize Mambazo from?

AM: We have worked with a song on Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” and we collaborated with artists like Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder and Ben Harper. There were so many others. Sesame Street (“Put Down the Duckie”) was a very famous one, The Lion King (“Upendi” from The Lion King 2) and the track for Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America” (“Mbube”).

DO: Aside from your generation, Americans most likely remember Ladysmith from their intro in Paul Simon’s “Diamond on the Soles of Her Shoes.” What is the rough translation of that intro in English?

AM: That one happened in the way that we used to do things. One day we came to New York to perform on Saturday Night Live. (The day before SNL) Paul Simon was recording and he said, “You can come in.” When we went in we found he was working on this song, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and he said to Joseph, “Just give me some blessings in my song.” We listened and said, oh this song is complete. But Paul Simon insisted that we do something. Joseph just took a piece of paper and a pen and wrote it down.  It translates to, “It’s unusual, the girls, they take care of themselves so they don’t depend on a man.” He was responding to the song about this girl who is rich. The girls have their own money so they take care of themselves. We recorded that on the last day, and it took not even 30 minutes. To tell you the truth, this is a song that after I heard it for the first time I thought, “Oh it’s one of those song where you said, ‘Okay I need 12 songs, so I’m going to put something that makes number 12’”. But I was mistaken, because after I played it the third time I realized, this song is good!

DO: One more question before we move to your performance in Fairfield. Your group has been recording and performing for more than half a century now. Many bands and musicians that stay together for even half that time were doomed to have conflict, like Simon and Garfunkel. How did you and your group keep such good ties with one another?

AM: I think something is helping us.  You see groups all over the world that have been together for two or three years and then they go separate ways which is sad, most of the time. But in ours, we are fortunate that we are all family. In our culture, the family will stick together, no matter what. And also, our culture tells us that the person who is in charge of the family is a leader of that group. We are bound to listen to that person and respect that person and also respect one another. We believe that (Ladysmith Black Mambazo) is a family and if I have a different opinion than my brother, or whomever, I represent that in a respectful way. So even if we have some disagreement in the group, we always tell it with respect. It helps us a lot because I can tell you the truth that we’ve never had something like a fight between us. We do have different opinions sometimes when we talk about things. But we find a solution and a common ground. If my way works, I will never say, “What did I tell you? Your idea was useless.” No you don’t say that. In our group, we will always find a way to agree with one another.

DO: On behalf of all people that love your music, thank you for thinking in such a way and staying together for as long as you have. Your contribution to American music was immense. Let’s move on to your performance at the Quick Theater. What kind of audience usually attends your shows?

AM: It’s amazing that we see all ages. All people. Older people up to the toddlers. All the nations and the colors enjoy our music. Joseph used to say, “Our music, it’s coming from the blood to the blood.” So everyone creature who is a human being in this world can relate to our music because we speak to the soul of the people. When I look to our audience, every time I will see a 90-year-old and then I see the toddlers, maybe three years, which we are so grateful for that.

DO: In a few of your albums and performances I hear some light instrumentation. Will we see a strictly a cappella or will there be a band accompanying you?

AM: No it will just Mambazo. When you get into the theater you will see 10 microphones lining up on the stage. You will see 10 guys, they walk to the stage with colorful clothes, white shoes and the song will begin. Some parts we will include the audience and so we engage them. We give them something and then we sing so it’s like a competition then after that we come together and we sing. It’s a very good lineup. It’s songs that are entertaining and uplifting. They are more encouraging with a positive message, especially in this time. It seems that this beloved country is in a conflict. We choose very specific songs for that. The songs that we sang for South African people, it helps them and encourages them. They were able to solve their problems. Hopefully the message is going to be held in America so it can open into its beauty again. Our music is about love, peace and harmony. We want people to take peace and feel that harmony. By doing that, we will make this world we’re living in a beautiful place to live