Joseph Shabalala, the leader and founder of South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has died at the age of 78. He passed away the morning of Tuesday, February 11th at a hospital in Pretoria with his wife, Thokozile Shabalala, by his side (via BBC).
Born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala, the singer was the eldest of eight children raised on a farm in Tugela, South Africa. Though his dream was to become “a teacher, doctor, or something like that” (via The Citizen), he left school at the age of 12 to work the family farm after his father’s death. He later found employment at a factory, but sang with a group known as The Blacks in his spare time. When Shabalala was 18, the group changed their name to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and he became their formal leader.
The group’s name was based on their hometown (Ladysmith), the color of Shabalala’s farm’s strongest oxen (Black), and the Zulu word for axe (Mambazo) as a sign of how they would cut down their competition. Their blend of indigenous Zulu songs and dance with South African isicathamiya (an a capella art form paired with a shuffling dance style) attracted label attention following a 1970 radio performance. Their first album, 1973’s Amabutho, became the first-ever African album to be certified gold.
In the mid-’80s, Paul Simon recruited the group to sing on his eventual classic Graceland. Shabalala himself co-wrote the album track “Homeless” with Simon, and the group joined the American folk singer on a world tour. In return for their willingness to work with him (a collaboration some considered a breach of the long-standing cultural boycott in place over apartheid), Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s next three international records for Warner Bros. The first, 1987’s Shaka Zulu, expanded their international presence greatly, going on to earn the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo would win four more Grammys and 10 additional nominations. They also earned Emmy and Academy Award consideration for their 2000 documentary On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom.
Besides Simon, the group collaborated with a number of American artists. They appeared in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, performing “The Moon Is Walking”, and recorded with Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, Mavis Staples, and more. Long Walk to Freedom, their Grammy-nominated 45th anniversary album, featured Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Emmylou Harris, and Taj Mahal.
Due to declining health, Shabalala retired from touring in 2014 shortly after performing at a Nelson Mandela memorial concert. He continued teaching traditional choral music in South Africa, while his four sons and grandson remained members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
In a tweet honoring his passing, the South African Government wrote in Xhosa, “Ulale ngoxolo Tata ugqatso lwakho ulufezile,” which translates to, “Rest in peace, father, your race is complete.”
Ladysmith themselves, who are currently touring the US, also tweeted a rememberance upon hearing the news. “Our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace,” they wrote. “We celebrate and honor your kind heart and your extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions who you came in contact with, you shall live forever.”
Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala
Our Founder, our Teacher and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace. We celebrate and honor your kind heart and your extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions who you came in contact with, you shall live forever. pic.twitter.com/2eDNFDUAGfAdvertisement
— Ladysmith Black Mambazo (@therealmambazo) February 11, 2020