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The fall of a legend: Joseph Shabalala of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo passes

By Stella Sigcau

12 February 2020

On 11 February 2020 South Africans woke up to the sad news of the passing of a musical legend Joseph Shabalala, this when South Africa was celebrating 30 years since the release of the late former President Nelson Mandela from prison.

Mandela’s release was a historic moment in the history of South Africa which marked, according to President Ramaphosa speaking at the 30th anniversary of the release of Mandela from Victor Verster prison, “the end of apartheid”. The legend Shabalala fell on this historic day. Shabalala had shared a special friendship and bond with the late President Mandela. When President Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he was accompanied to Oslo by the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, founded and led by Shabalala. President Mandela referred to the group as South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world. The group also performed at his presidential inauguration in 1994. 11 February will thus forever be important to South Africans as it is synonymous with the release of President Mandela and now the passing of Joseph Shabalala.

Joseph Shabalala was born at a farm in Tugela near Ladysmith on 28 August 1941 to parents Jonathan and Nomandla Shabalala. He was the eldest of their children and upon his father’s passing; he dropped out of school to look for work. He grew up with a passion for music which led to him founding an isicathamiya cappella music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1960. It is said that Ladysmith represented his hometown, Black symbolised the black ox that was the strongest in the farm, and Mambazo was from the Zulu word for axe and it symbolized the group's ability to cut down the competition as the group was winning in most competitions. The group became a great success. They were like wild fire singing mostly in Zulu. Even when people couldn’t understand the language they identified and enjoyed the melody. The group, it is reported, gained national exposure on the radio and made its studio debut with “Amabutho in 1973 which was considered South Africa’s first gold record by a group of all-black musicians.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo entered the global platform when invited to perform during the festivals in Germany in the 1980s. Their luck was about to change when they were spotted by Paul Simon appearing in a documentary about South African music by Jeremy Marre called Rhythm of Resistance. Paul Simon recruited them on his Graceland album. Homeless, which Shabalala wrote with Simon became a global success. The band joined Paul Simon on a very successful tour which launched their international career. In 1987 they released the record “Shaka Zulu,” produced by Simon which earned the group its first Grammy Award. They became popular globally winning five Grammy Awards in all and 19 nominations. The group also collaborated with well renowned musicians like, Dolly Parton, Josh Groban and Emmylou Harris. They also reached number 15 in the UK charts with Swing Low Sweet Chariot, for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

In 2014 after a long and successful career Shabalala retired after performing at a memorial concert for Nelson Mandela and his sons and grandson son took over the group. Even though retired he continued to teach traditional choral music. After a long illness he succumbed to death on 11 February 2020. He is survived by his wife, Thokozile Shabalala, two daughters, four sons and 36 grandchildren. A musical legend has fallen leaving behind a huge legacy in the musical world. Through his craft he made his mark globally putting South African music and in particular traditional music on the map.




February/March 2020








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