Since Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland,’ Ladysmith Black Mambazo still lifts spirits with music

Joseph Shabalala’s last name is as mellifluous as his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s songs are deep and moving.

Shabalala was the face and voice of South African act Ladysmith Black Mambazo since the male choral group formed in 1960. The group borrows heavily from the traditional sounds of isicathamiya, which was developed in the mines of South Africa, and grabbed the ear of singer-songwriter Paul Simon a generation ago.

Simon hired Ladysmith Black Mambazo to add their unique vocals to his classic album, 1986’s “Graceland.” The group toured with Simon behind the acclaimed project in 1987 and has been an international headliner ever since. The group will perform Jan. 27, at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.

“It’s been a dream come true,” vocalist Albert Mazibuko says during a telephone interview from Durban, South Africa. “It’s all because of Joseph. If he didn’t form our group, we wouldn’t be here doing this.”

Shabalala, 77, left Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014, but the band recorded a pair of albums comprised of tunes penned by the patriarch of the act. “Songs of Peace and Love for Kids and Parents Around the World,” released in 2017, is the first album without Shabalala’s songs.

“It’s an adjustment for us,” Mazibuko says. “ We understand that he must retire at some point. The good thing is that his son is leading the group and he learned everything from his father. We’re in good hands.”

Thamsanqa Shabalala, 45, is Shabalala’s youngest son and now leads the group.

“We’re still doing what we’ve always done, which is preach love, peace and happiness,” Mazibuko says. “That’s what Joseph wanted. He took four of his sons and blessed them and told them to do this right and leave the music for the next generation. We’re all doing what we can to move forward. We’re just happy this all still exists.”

None of the group’s nine members have any formal musical training.

“We learned from our fathers and we do it our way,” Mazibuko says. “Maybe that’s why we don’t sound like any other group. The other important thing is that we always practice. We put in the time and just do all that we can to make the best music possible. Everybody in this group as talent and a desire to do great work. That’s something that you could say about this group when we started working with Paul Simon, and you can say it now as well.”

“Under African Skies” follows Paul Simon’s return to Africa 25 years after releasing his “Graceland” album. Simon collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa on the album. Luise Gubb

Mazibuko, 70, can’t help but refer repeatedly to Simon.

“Who knows if we would still exist if Paul Simon never worked its us,” Mazibuko says. “Working with Paul was the best thing to ever happen to this group. We were concerned about working with him because his music was different than ours.

“But Joseph went to meet with him and came back and told us that everything would be fine. It all happened at the right time for us since there was so much unrest in our country at the time. We needed something to lift us up. Nothing could have lifted us up more than Paul Simon.”

But its been many years since Simon plucked the group out of obscurity. The journey to record “Graceland,” during a tumultuous time in South Africa’s history, was featured in the 2012 documentary, “Under African Skies,” released on the 25th anniversary of the album.

Trends have changed dramatically but Ladysmith Black Mambazo maintains the same sound.

“We have to stay true to our traditional music,” Mazibuko says. “If we were to make changes that aren’t true to our music, we might not exist. We stay on course, and we hope that this group is still alive 100 years from now. But that will be dependent upon the people that come after us. Will they be dedicated like we are and keep the music alive? Who knows? But for now we’re doing all that we can to keep the music alive.”


Who: Ladysmith Black Mambazo

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 27

Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham

Tickets: $29.50 and $49.50

Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org

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