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Black Mambazo Still Singing for the World

Ever since Paul Simon brought them out of Africa and exposed them to the Western world on his 1986 “Graceland” album and subsequent world tour, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has been cultivating a growing international following.

They’ve released three albums for the world market, with particularly good sales in Germany, England, Canada and Australia. And they’ve been touring incessantly, on their own, all over the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and, most recently, Japan.

It’s something Joseph Shabalala, who founded the 10-member South African vocal group in 1960, has always dreamed of--"singing to the world.”

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“In my mouth, I was always talking like that, that one day I’m going to sing for the world, but I was just talking, just saying that because I felt like I wished to do it,” said Shabalala, whose group will perform Sunday night at Humphrey’s on Shelter Island.

“And now, all of a sudden, it has become true,” he said. “I am singing for the world.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo has gotten plenty of other exposure as well. They’ve appeared on television’s “Sesame Street,” “Saturday Night Live” and the “Tonight” show. They performed in the closing ceremonies of last year’s French Bicentennial.

They were featured in Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” video and had a song on the “Coming to America” movie sound track.

Another of their songs, “Rain Rain,” was even incorporated into a TV commercial for 7-Up.

“I think people like it because it’s something new to them,” Shabalala said. “They like the rhythm, that Zulu rhythm; it’s so powerful. And it’s really amazing and wonderful that they like the music very much.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music is rooted in the traditional “ isicathamiya " songs sung by black workers in the South African mines. After a six-day workweek, the miners would entertain themselves by singing and dancing in the squalid shacks where they were housed, far from their homes.

Shabalala formed the group in 1960, a few years after he had moved from his home village, Ladysmith, to the city of Durban, in the hopes of getting a job in a factory.

He got together with several of his fellow expatriate Ladysmithers and began singing, informally, at churches and private parties.

“They were all men from my village,” Shabalala said. “We grew up together, and we all liked to sing, even when we were children.”

The group’s name means “the black oxen from Ladysmith.” “I took that name from the span of oxen, because we grew up in the arid area where we used to plow with the black oxen, and those black oxen were so powerful,” Shabalala recalled. “I wanted my group to play the same way with their voices, to have powerful voices, like the ox.”

Before long, Ladysmith Black Mambazo was winning the popular competitions between a capella singing groups held on a regular basis in Durban and other urban centers of South Africa. Their big break came in 1970, when their growing popularity among the public led to a live radio performance.

“The demand from my people was so great that we went on the radio; we played live, and from there all the record companies were running up and down, looking for Black Mambazo,” Shabalala said.

“They drove down from Johannesburg to Ladysmith and got directions from my mother that we were in Durban, and then they all came to us. It was up to us to choose which company, because they all wanted Black Mambazo.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s popularity continued to soar throughout the 1970s; they sold more than a million records in Africa, and played to more and more people on each successive cross-continental tour.

In 1981, a radio station in Cologne, Germany, invited Ladysmith Black Mambazo over for a series of three concerts, two for broadcast.

“It was the first time we had been out of Africa, and the people were wonderful,” Shabalala said. “There were many people who wanted to see us again, who wanted our records, so we went back the next year, and in 1984 we went to Hamburg and Frankfurt, too.”

In the meantime, a worldbeat radio show had started in London, and among the most popular songs was Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “Hello My Baby.” Paul Simon happened to be in London one day when the song came on, and he was so captivated that he contacted Ladysmith Black Mambazo and told them he wanted to work with them.

“We knew him very well, because his records were very famous,” Shabalala said. “ ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ that was very famous in South Africa, and even on the news they were talking about him and Garfunkel, because they just sang in that New York park, for those half a million people.

“He asked me, ‘How can we work together?’ and I was very surprised--how did he know our music? He told us how he had been a fan ever since he heard ‘Hello My Baby’ on that English radio show.”

Simon flew to Durban and met with the group in person. They cut some sessions in South Africa, then flew to New York to cut some more. The result was the much-ballyhooed “Graceland” album, followed by a world tour.

And when the tour with Simon was up, Shabalala said, Ladysmith Black Mambazo--which by then had been signed to Warner Brothers Records, Simon’s label--went right back out again, this time on its own.

“From 1987, when we finished with Paul Simon, we carried on our own show, because of the demand,” Shabalala said. “People were demanding to see Black Mambazo on stage; to them that was not enough, to be on stage for three, four, maybe five songs--they wanted more.

“So now we play for 90 minutes, and we do 14 songs.”

These days, Shabalala said, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is on the road so much “that we tour, just in the U.S., more than we are home.”

And since parting company with Simon, the group has worked with various other Western pop artists, including veteran funkmeister George Clinton and gospel group the Winans. Both appear on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s latest album, “Two Worlds, One Heart,” on which several songs are sung in English.

“We are looking to work with anyone else who likes to work with us,” Shabalala said. “Working together with people like Paul Simon, the Winans and George Clinton, that funk music man--it makes us very happy.”


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