Few bands stand at the nexus of art, live performance and history the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does. From humble beginnings in Ladysmith, South Africa, the band’s voices lifted them to international fame, garnering them an appearance on Paul Simon’s iconic Graceland album, and the honor of accompanying Nelson Mandela to Oslo for his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1993.
Now in their sixth decade, the critically acclaimed, decorated and adored band continues to tour extensively and represent South Africa on the global stage.
We caught up with Albert Mazibuko, who has been with the band since the 1960s, ahead of their performance at the L2 Church in Denver on January 17, presented by Swallow Hill Music.
When did Ladysmith Black Mambazo first tour the United States? How have audiences changed from when you first came here compared to your recent tours?
Albert Mazibuko: Well, when we first started touring the USA it was during the Paul Simon Graceland era. That was 1986-1987. So we’ve been coming here for thirty years now.
The USA has been wonderful in supporting our music. Back then the audiences were definitely younger as we were seeing people who learned about us from Paul Simon. It seems those people, from thirty years ago, are still following us as we do see older generations of people coming to our show. They tell us how long they’ve been coming to see us so it makes us very happy to know we have that effect.
However, over the past ten years we have started to see a new younger generation of fans coming to our shows. Young people who learned about us from their parents or who have their own interest in World Music. Also, we’ve sung with many people since Paul Simon so we get fans of Josh Groban and Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton and many others who heard us for the first time singing with someone they enjoy.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo is associated with one of the greatest human rights movements of all time – the struggle to end Apartheid in your native South Africa. How does politics play a role in your music? Has that changed over the years?
AM: There were many groups that were singing about the struggle to change the ways things were in South Africa. Music that was very political. We chose a different route for our message. We saw how dragged down people were, how defeated they felt. We wanted to uplift their souls, make them see there would be a better future. We wanted to uplift and build strength within. We also wanted people to feel their culture, history and roots were something to be proud of, something to celebrate.
This is what Ladysmith Black Mambazo did and still does throughout the world. When we started traveling outside of South Africa we saw the whole world had problems and people needed uplifting messages of peace, love and harmony. That has been our mission and message for over fifty years.
On a related note, we are experiencing a time of great debate and unrest related to race and racism in the United States. What role can music play in advancing that debate? How can music inspire people in troubled times?
AM: As we mention above, music can and should play an important part in any struggle. Music is a great healer and a great bridge builder. We all love music and it’s poetry. We need strong music to help us come together. We Shall Overcome.
You have performed with countless musicians over the years, everyone from Paul Simon to Stevie Wonder to Dolly Parton. Are there any particular artists you have not yet performed with that you would like to?
AM: We welcome all people to join with us. Last year we sang with David Guetta, the famous DJ. We were just recently asked to sing on a song with the singer from Yes, Jon Anderson. We simply love singing with other people, sharing music and styles.
Your website speaks of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s indebtedness to a traditional music called isicathamiya, “which developed in the mines of South Africa.” Do you hear any parallels between isicathamiya and any forms of music that developed in the United States?
AM: Definitely the American Blues as well as Folk Music and even Bluegrass. Though we are a cappella, there is a roots aspect we all share. Music that people sing and play anywhere they are, simply to share their feelings. Field music some would call it. We certainly are field music.
For a band with such a storied history, what does the future hold for Ladysmith Black Mambazo?
AM: We plan on continuing our mission of spreading Peace, Love & Harmony through our songs and message. We want to share our culture with as many people as we can. This is what is our future. To “keep on keeping on” as the saying goes.
This interview was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.