NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Almost 25 years after Paul Simon’s groundbreaking album Graceland brought this South African men’s a cappella group to world prominence, Ladysmith Black Mambazo will appear at Bethel College as part of the Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts Series.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform on the Memorial Hall stage Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7:30 p.m., as their only south central Kansas appearance on the current U.S. tour schedule.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo represents the traditional culture of South Africa and is regarded as the country’s cultural emissary at home and around the world. Mambazo is considered “a national treasure of the new South Africa in part because they embody the traditions suppressed in the old South Africa.”
Paul Simon made his initial trip to South Africa in the early 1980s, where he met Joseph Shabalala and the other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a recording studio in Johannesburg. Simon was captivated by the stirring sound of bass, alto and tenor harmonies and incorporated these traditional sounds into the Graceland album, a project regarded by many as seminal to the subsequent explosion of interest in world music. Simon co-wrote two of the songs on Graceland with Joseph Shabalala.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings a traditional style of music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-me-ya), born in the mines of South Africa. Poorly housed and paid worse, black workers were transported far from their families to the mines and would entertain themselves, after a six-day work week, by singing songs into the wee hours of Sunday morning. When the miners returned to the homelands, the singing tradition went with them.
There began fierce but social singing competitions held regularly in communities and the highlight of everyone’s social calendar. Winners received a goat for their efforts, along with the adoration of their fans. These competitions are still held today in YMCA assembly halls and church basements throughout Zululand South Africa.
In the late 1950s, Joseph Shabalala sought factory work in nearby Durban. During that time, he first showed singing talent, and after performing with several groups in Durban, he returned to his hometown of Ladysmith and began to put together groups of his own. In the early years, Shabalala recruited family and friends. He taught the group the harmonies from his dreams, and his work began eventually to gel into a special sound.
The name Ladysmith Black Mambazo resulted from the group winning every singing competition they entered. “Ladysmith” is the Shabalala family hometown; “Black” refers to black oxen, considered the strongest on the farm; and the Zulu word “Mambazo” means “ax,” symbolic of the group’s ability to chop down the competition.
A radio broadcast in 1970 brought about Mambazo’s first recording contract. Since then, they have made more than 40 albums, selling more than seven million records at home and abroad and establishing themselves as the number-one-selling group from Africa. Their work with Paul Simon on Graceland, released in 1986, attracted a world of fans who never knew the sounds of Zulu harmony could be so captivating.
Simon produced Mambazo’s first album release for the United States, Shaka Zulu, which won a Grammy® Award in 1987 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Since then, Mambazo has been nominated for 12 more Grammys®, winning in 2005 and again in 2009 for Best Traditional World Music Recording, for Raise Your Spirit Higher and Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu, respectively.
Raise Your Spirit Higher celebrated Mambazo’s history and features Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Etheridge, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Zap Mama and friends from home, including Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela. Other recent special projects have included joining American singer Josh Groban on a recent recording as well as appearing at several of his concerts. In May 2007, Simon asked the group to come onstage with him when he was awarded the inaugural Gershwin Award in Washington, D.C.
The documentary On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps To Freedom, the story of Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Short Documentary Film in 2001 and for an Emmy® Award for Best Cultural Documentary on American television.
Other artists with whom Mambazo has recorded include Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Ben Harper, Mavis Staples, The Wynans and George Clinton, among others. They have appeared in Michael Jackson’s video Moonwalker and Spike Lee’s Do It A Cappella. Mambazo has provided soundtrack material for Disney’s The Lion King Part II, Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and Sean Connery’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, among others, and can be heard singing the theme song to the children’s TV show Land before Time.
Mambazo has worked in the theater as well. In 1992, the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago used the group’s singing and acting abilities in a play written about the apartheid era. After first premiering in Chicago, The Song of Jacob Zulu opened on Broadway in New York City in the spring of 1993 and was nominated for six Tony® Awards. In 1995, Mambazo collaborated in the staging of Nomathemba, a musical based on the first song Joseph Shabalala ever wrote. Nomathemba was performed in Chicago and went on to runs at the Kennedy Center and Boston’s Shubert Theatre.
The group has been invited to perform at many special occasions. In 1993, at his request, Mambazo accompanied future South Africa president Nelson Mandela to Oslo, where he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Mambazo sang at President Mandela’s inauguration in May 1994 and later for Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family at the Royal Albert Hall in London, again at Mandela’s invitation. The group has also performed for Pope John Paul II, at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and at many musical award shows around the world.
Over the past several years, the retirement of several members of the group has led Shabalala to enlist the talents of the next Mambazo generation – four of his sons. Mambazo’s current and future tours continue to spread the word of Shabalala’s dream of preserving South African traditional music and culture, which he also tries to accomplish through his appointment as associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Natal, South Africa.
Prices for single tickets for Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s appearance at Bethel College range from $23 to $10 depending on seating section and discount eligibility (students and senior citizens). Remainder-of-season tickets are also available, for any three of the remaining four concerts or for all four – in addition to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Glenn Miller Orchestra (Thursday, March 18), Chatham Baroque (Sunday, April 18) and the Lawrence Children’s Choir (Sunday, June 6) – at prices ranging from $56 to $21. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 620-327-8158 (Hesston College) or 316-284-5205 (Bethel College) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
This program is presented in part by the Kansas Arts Commission, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, which believes a great nation deserves great art, and is supported by Mid-America Arts Alliance with generous underwriting by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kansas Arts Commission and foundations, corporations and individuals throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
The Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts series started in 1982 as Hesston Performing Arts (HPA) with funding and planning provided by Hesston College and the Hesston community. In 1998, HPA planners launched a partnership with Bethel College, North Newton, and the series name changed to Hesston-Bethel Performing Arts. Hesston College and Bethel College host five performances by world-renowned or regionally acclaimed artists each year.