Michelle Loewenstein
3 minute read
19 Nov 2015
6:00 am

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Old-school is cool

Michelle Loewenstein

Legendary group will be in Joburg for a one-off performance of their hits.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Image courtesy: HeadsUp

I meet with Thulani and Thami (Thamsanqa) Shabalala a couple of days after Ladysmith Black Mambazo won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Afrimma Awards.

The two have flown in from the Nigerian ceremony for a marathon session of interviews to promote their new show. I’d heard that the group has very specific protocol for accepting awards.

“We have an eldest member who joined the group in 1969. So we’ll let him do the talking and accept the award for us. Our father taught us that we must respect our elders,” Thulani explains.

This statement sums up the men perfectly. Unlike many of today’s artists, their ethos is based on being unpretentious and courteous. Even though they stepped off a plane that morning, Thulani and Thami answer my questions patiently and smile shyly when their fame is mentioned.

Mambazo’s story reads like a fairy tale. The group has enjoyed phenomenal success at home and even more so abroad. Their touring schedule is manic.

After two days of interviews in SA, the group will head to Brazil before returning here for a show at The Lyric Theatre. Thereafter it’s off to the US.

When asked about the secret to the group’s incredible success, Thulani’s answer is a humble one: “We pray a lot. When my father writes songs, his thing is to heal the soul and connect with people.”

While today’s youth seem to be all about rap, hip-hop and who is topping the US and UK charts, the group has found that kids are still interested in learning about isicathamiya, the traditional Zulu genre that is the trademark of the group.

Mambazo have an outreach programme which sees members visiting schools to teach them more about their heritage through music.

“It’s unfortunate because this is not shown on television or on radio. But there are people coming from abroad to research this kind of music. And people there are singing our music,” Thulani says with a smile.

“Even our kids rehearse with us. So we have a very strong hope that the music is going to stay alive. It’s just what you see and what you see of us…” his voice trails off. “We are hidden.”

It’s sad to imagine that overseas audiences are more appreciative of a group like Mambazo than we are.

“At home, you’re always seen as a kid. They don’t have that ‘hype’ like people outside of home. At home we are just one of many. But we like it that way. We don’t want to be called celebrities,” Thulani says.

Thulani and Thami speak of their father, founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo Joseph Shabalala, with reverence and it’s clear that the patriarch of the group still governs how it is run.

Joseph is still heavily involved in the creative process behind all of the group’s music. He still writes all of Mambazo’s music, but when he retires, his sons will take over this responsibility.