Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at Spivey

By Joel Hall


On Friday, an iconic South African band with nearly 50 years of performance experience, will share its unique sound with listeners at Spivey Hall for the first time.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which skyrocketed to international fame in the mid-1980s while performing on Paul Simon's "Graceland" album, will perform in front of a sold-out audience at Clayton State University's premier concert venue, starting at 8:15 p.m.

On Friday afternoon, CNN will be on campus filming a feature segment on 47-year band-leader, Joseph Shabalala, as well the eight other members of the performing ensemble. The group consists mostly of Shabalala's sons and extended family.

Sam Dixon, Spivey Hall's executive director, said tickets for the performance have been "selling strongly from the minute we announced it."

"We've had a waiting list for about two weeks now," said Dixon. "They have a big following in Atlanta."

Dixon said Ladysmith Black Mambazo has performed several times at the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University. However, during this particular American tour, it worked out better for the Rialto Center, and the band, to perform at Spivey Hall.

"We're a small community of presenters and we do work together," said Dixon. He said Ladysmith Black Mambazo would bring a high-energy, singing and dancing performance to a stage normally reserved for instrumental and vocal performances.

Isicathamiya (is-cot-a-me-ya) -- the traditional music performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- comes from a Zulu word "to walk, or step, on ones toes lightly." The music was born during apartheid in the mines of South Africa, where many black laborers would work in all-male communes away from their families for many weeks at a time.

To keep themselves amused, miners would perform the gumboot dance, a South African tradition, which incorporates lively singing and dancing. As not to disturb the mine's guards -- who wanted the miners to reserve their energy -- the miners developed a quieter, modified version of the gumboot dance, which later became know as isicathamiya.

The 67-year-old Shabalala, who founded the band in 1960, rarely gives interviews, nowadays. Albert Mazibuko, Shabalala's fraternal cousin and a 39-year member of the band, said Ladysmith Black Mambazo has come a long way.

On Tuesday -- the third week of a nine-week bus tour across America -- Mazibuko recalled how Ladysmith Black Mambazo's performances and lyrics were once monitored by South Africa's National Party. The movement of all black South Africans was limited due to apartheid.

"We had to have permission [from the government] in every city that we went to in South Africa," to perform said Mazibuko. "We had to be very careful that we were not singing about something that was criticizing the government or the system.

"[Shabalala] wanted to empower people and encourage people by singing about whatever was around," Mazibuko continued. "I remember when [the National Party] refused to play our music on the radio. They said it was too powerful."

When apartheid ended in 1994, the group was able to expand the range of topics addressed in its music. Friday's concert will include pieces, such as "Long Walk to Freedom," borrowed from Nelson Mandela biography of the same title, "Homeless," a piece from the 1985 "Graceland" album about taking care of one's fellow man, and "Nomathemba," one of the band's earliest and most popular compositions.

The tour will also act as a turning point for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Shabalala is soon expected to retire and pass the torch of band leader to his youngest son Thami, one of four sons who performs in the band. The band is also recruiting new members to help carry on the band's tradition.

"We want these young people to carry on the group because we are not getting younger," said Mazibuko.

Thami Shabalala, 33, who has performed with the band since he was 19, was surprised to learn he would eventually be thrust into a leadership role. However, he said he was prepared.

"The first time I heard this news I was shocked," said the younger Shabalala. "Because I have been singing as a child, I think I can manage. It's the only music that we know how to sing.

"What keeps us going is the dream that my father had," he said.