The other phone rings in Joseph Shabalala's Detroit hotel suite, and Shabalala laughs as if it's the funniest thing in the world to have two telephones to contend with. His speech typically bubbles with mirth anyway: Listen to the Ladysmith Black Mambazo leader's tenor voice gliding bird-like amid the majestic forest-thick bass harmonies of his group and you get some idea of the whimsy and musicality that also shapes his speaking voice. He doesn't pass up even the smallest chance to laugh.
It has been a dizzying five years since Ladysmith Black Mambazo went from singing in the dirt-floor meeting halls and churches of South Africa's townships--where one fellow musician was famous simply for having once flown in an airplane--to finding international fame with Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and tour.
Simon's endorsement allowed a mass audience to catch on to what African music fans had known for years, that the 10-member chorus's a cappella harmonies pull a piece of heaven to Earth every time they sing. The group (Ladysmith is their hometown. Mambazo means "ax") will perform Tuesday at the Coach House, in a "World Beat '91" package that also includes Jamaica's Third World and soca star Arrow. Shabalala, by the way, will turn 51 on Wednesday.
Shabalala grew up with seven siblings in a mud and wattle hut in Ladysmith, a farming town about 200 miles from Durban. Their father, like millions of other South African blacks, was only able to support his family by living in a hostel hundreds of miles from home so he could work in the whites' mines or factories. He'd get to return home once a year, at Christmas, when he'd teach his children the choral singing style that was popular in the hostels. Before he was out of his teens, Shabalala too was living in a factory hostel and singing as a form of release, when the six-day workweek allowed.
Although Black Mambazo harmonizes in a traditional Zulu male chorus style called Isicathamiya --which means "to walk on one's toes lightly"--their distinctive, richly harmonized approach to the style came to Shabalala in a dream in 1964. In that dream, he said, there was a group of children hovering between the stage and the sky, and the blending and harmonic motion of their voices became the sound he pursued for years. He achieved it six years later after another dream instructed him to start a new band with his relatives, which became Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Speaking from one of his two hotel phones last Friday, Shabalala, in thickly accented, bemusedly toned English, explained the intent of his craft.
"I believe that this is a healing music--I wish to heal the listeners," he said. "I want the people to be happy and healthy and love each other, to find reconciliation, and respect each other. This is music to sooth the people, to make them happy and to give them more ideas and capabilities to do things."
The group has become so popular and toured so widely in the wake of "Graceland" that it has only recently taken its first extended break--four months--at home since 1987. Shabalala said the group's success has changed life at home little.
"Life is different, but it's the same. Although we have things which we would not have before, like houses, and we built a house for my mother, I'm always with people. I love to see people all the time. They come to my house and we visit each other in church, even more than before. I don't want to put my mind in something like money. . . . I put my mind in God because, you see, I'm a Christian man."
Touring out of South Africa so much, the singers have only heard secondhand about many of the reforms taking place. But, as slow as change may be in making it from pen to practice, Shabalala said there are already some positive differences.
"The great difference we have now at home is we play for both audiences mixed now, black and white together. In fact, that's what the music was for, to bridge the gap in between. All along, when white people were afraid to come see us, there were some who did, and they would go back and tell them that this music has, what you call, a life to it. It is a teaching music, even for those who don't understand the language."
The group has received some criticism for creating music that is often celebratory and always pointedly apolitical, rather than songs that confront the injustices and inequities of life in South Africa. This argument has typically been voiced by people who are sufficiently removed from hardship so as not to realize that finding some joy in the face of oppression can itself be something of a triumph.
While Black Mambazo's music isn't political, Shabalala sees its tradition-rooted music as giving direction to politicians.
"The mission of Ladysmith Black Mambazo is to spread the culture and its traditions of our African roots. It is to spread the gospel of love, peace and harmony, and to identify our Lord as the answer to most questions.
"That is why we are not based on politics, because we are just like the founder of the politicians--like food to give the person strength to work. The culture, the tradition just remind the people where they come from, because when people were getting lost from their traditions, that's why they started to fight each other. That's why when people talk about politics, we say, 'Yes, we are politicians, but in spirit .' If you are politicians in flesh, that's OK. We are working together."
Outside of the current six-week U.S. tour, Black Mambazo's plans include recording a children's album, prompted, in part, by the success of the group's appearances on "Sesame Street." In October, it will participate in an "Africans for Africa" benefit concert in Nigeria. In April, it is scheduled to return to the United States to appear in the two-month run of "The Song of Jacob Zulu," a play in development by Chicago's esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Co.
According to the Steppenwolf's Bill Snow, the singers will act as a Greek chorus to South African expatriate playwright Tug Yourgrau's dramatization of a true story of a politically motivated South African youth who blew up a mall, killing several people. Snow said that while the play makes the tragedy of the apartheid system felt, its tone isn't divisive. That is in keeping with Shabalala's attitude.
"I'm always thinking it's not right to only be exercising those things that push us apart and ignoring those things that hold us together," he said.
Though he has enjoyed his collaborations with Simon, as well as more recent pairings with the Winans and P-Funk founder George Clinton on last year's "Two Worlds, One Heart" album, Shabalala said he isn't interested in letting other world-music styles dilute the Zulu base of Black Mambazo's music.
He said, "I'm just like a person who was sent by a dream to spread my culture . . . to encourage the musicians and the composers that their music should remain as close as possible to their African roots."
Toward that end, Shabalala has been working since 1987 to establish the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Academy of Music. Land has already been donated, and Shabalala believes he is on the verge of finding funding for an institution where South African children of all races could learn of their heritage.
"The purpose of the academy is to preserve and propagate the traditional music, also the arts, as a way to respect each other," he said. "All around after people learned what we'd call the Western life, then they are lost from their culture. Now they are all crying, saying, 'Why was all our culture thrown away?' Now we are going to teach there the life, learned from the grandfather, the grandmother, who know all those things.
"The dream is to spread cultures, to not only be based on one group (of people) but to help all different people. There are even Indian people there who have lost their culture, they are crying about their culture is vanishing.
"I think this is my life's dream now, as Ladysmith Black Mambazo was my dream. My brain is coming to include all those things. I believe that the gift from God is the spark of life. Now we must share that life, all of us."
Who: Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
When: Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. In a "World Beat '91" package with Third World and Arrow.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.