The birth of a global Zulu phenomenon

June Dowad

Albert Mazibuko is one of the founding members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African Zulu a cappella . Currently on a tour of the United States, he took time out to discuss his music.

J: Where does the musical style Isicathamiya come from?

A: It comes from the Zulu Delta and is form of music that includes singing and hand clapping. As part of it, there was a stomping dance, but when the mineworkers were entertaining themselves inside the camps where they were housed, they would try and be quiet, so they would lift up their feet high, but step down softly ‘- known as toeing. When these workers got back home they brought this style of music to their people and that is where it comes from.

J: When you first came together as a group, what sorts of venues did you perform at?

A: The venues that were around at that time were the Church basements and the halls in hostels. Most of the hostels for the workers had halls. The people were working in the city, and they only had permission to be in their working place, or around the hostel ‘- they cannot go wherever they please [during Apartheid]. On Saturday night they would entertain themselves and we were one of the groups who would sing to entertain the people in church basements and hostels.

J: Were your audience during the Apartheid years those people who came into the townships from the cities at night?

A: Yes, and that was a challenge for us when we became famous and wanted to leave our place and go to another place. The police would ask us to show them that we had permission and we would sometimes have arguments with the police.

J: Was it a challenge to market your music at this time?

A: Our music marketed itself really, because after people heard it they were going to into record stores and asking for it. People were frustrated that they couldn’t find it, and storeowners started to call Gallo to find out how to get the music into their stores. The music didn’t need any promotion after we recorded, although before this time this kind of music did not sell ‘- even the best groups in South Africa recorded this music and still it would not sell. At first they only took four of our songs to release, but the public demanded more ‘- they were furious because they knew we had a lot of songs ‘- so why only release four? So they called us back in to come and record more songs and then in the first two weeks it sold over 25,000 copies.

J: During Apartheid did you feel like you represented the voice of oppressed people?

A: Our aim was to encourage people in South Africa not to stay depressed, because they were losing hope because of Apartheid, and feeling helpless and hopeless as well. Our music was meant to encourage people and give them hope so that they could focus their attention on being positive and staying together. We learned from people afterwards that our music had accomplished that mission.

J: How did Paul Simon discover your music?

A: When he was preparing to come to South Africa a friend of his ‘- a radio announcer in Los Angeles, who had bought our records in South Africa and played our music ‘- told him about us. He suggested to Paul Simon that he had to try to find this group and bring them back, just as they are. So when he came to South Africa he contacted Gallo and they gave him our information. We got a call saying Paul Simon wanted to meet us.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo will perform tomorrow, 8 p.m. at the Plaza del Sol Performance Hall. Tickets are $45.