Joseph Shabalala, Founder Of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dies At 78

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 6:53 pm
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Fans of the Grammy-winning South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo are mourning the death of its founder. Joseph Shabalala died today. He was 78. No cause of death has been reported, but he'd been ill for a few years. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Ladysmith Black Mambazo bridged racial and cultural boundaries. The all-male choir performed for Nelson Mandela and the queen of England, recorded with Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton. Named for Joseph Shabalala's hometown of Ladysmith, the group of mostly brothers and other relatives became hugely popular in South Africa in the early 1970s with white and black audiences during apartheid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOMATHEMBA (MOTHER OF HOPE)")

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in Zulu).

BLAIR: The rest of the world got to know Ladysmith when Paul Simon asked them to perform with him on his 1986 album "Graceland." Shabalala co-wrote two of its most popular songs, "Homeless"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOMELESS")

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in Zulu).

BLAIR: ...And "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF HER SHOES")

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing) Ta na na. Ta na na na.

PAUL SIMON: (Singing) She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

BLAIR: In a 2003 interview with NPR, Joseph Shabalala described the power of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSEPH SHABALALA: The traditional music I'm talking about, it uplifts the spirit. It makes you respect yourself, respect your father, your mother. It makes you share ideas with your family at home. And then it takes you to church also.

BLAIR: With their colorful outfits and spirited, often playful choreography, Ladysmith's concerts are known for their infectious joy. But Shabalala's life was also marked by tragedy. In 1991, his brother, also a singer in the group, was killed by a white, off-duty policeman in South Africa. In 2002, his wife was killed by a masked gunman. Shabalala told NPR he learned the news of his brother's death while waiting for him and his family at church, and he felt that it was a message from God telling him to stop singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHABALALA: My mind failed to think because it was only one thing. God is telling me to stop singing. That is his way to talk to me. But after two or three days, about one week, and the spirit came to me at night just like, this is your talent. Carry on singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UZUBE NAMI BABA")

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in Zulu).

SHABALALA: Oh, yes, this is my talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UZUBE NAMI BABA")

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in Zulu).

BLAIR: After 50 years of performing, Joseph Shabalala retired from the group in 2014. He handed leadership duties to his four sons. In a statement, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Joseph Shabalala ensured that Ladysmith Black Mambazo filled the hearts of humanity with their joyfulness, sadness and poignancy. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NGELEKELELE")

LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in Zulu). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.