STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Albert Mazibuko has been singing and touring the world with South African a cappella singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo for 50 years. In that time, his country has gone through enormous transformations, shaping and sometimes shaped by the group’s music itself.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo takes the stage at Strings Music Festival on Saturday, March 16.
The ensemble was started in the early 1960s by Zulu teenager Joseph Shabalala, who was inspired by a dream in which he heard hymn-like harmonies he’d never heard before. Shabalala and several relatives and friends, including Mazibuko, had all grown up in a culture of traditional isicathamiya song, all taught informally by fathers, grandmothers and aunties — a common name in parts of South Africa for a woman who’s familiar and loving but not necessarily a biological aunt.
Forming a local singing group was a natural step.
If you go
What: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 16
Where: Strings Music Pavilion, 900 Strings Road
“The people have to sing every evening, singing, beating a drum, dancing,” Mazibuko said. “Music was all over when I grew up, working on a farm. All the aunties and moms, when they go to fetch water and fetch firewood, they’re always singing. If we go hunting, we sing; if we are plowing the land, we sing. The music takes the mind from the pain of the work.”
The name of the group includes a nod to the name of the farming village where Shabalala lived, in the province of kwaZulu Natal, and to the local black oxen, the strongest of the animals, to represent the strength of the group’s vocals. Mambazo, the Zulu word for a chopping axe, symbolizes their ability to cut down competition.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo practiced and grew for several years, and in 1970, a radio broadcast of a concert by the ensemble took them to the next level: a recording contract for their first album, “Amabutho,” which was the first African album to reach gold record status.
During the ’70s, Ladysmith Black Mambazo became known as the best singing group in South Africa and they won so many singing contests, they were soon barred from competing.
learn the lingo
Zulu vocabulary for non-Zulu speakers to better understand Ladysmith Black Mambazo songs
Yebo: A response to hello
Inkanyezi Nezazi: Star and The Wiseman
At this point, South Africa still maintained the system of apartheid, a policy that sanctioned racial segregation between the country’s white minority and the Bantu and colored majority. The system policed relations between races and enforced political and economic discrimination.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, composed of black male singers, sang their messages of peace, hope and kindness in protest of apartheid.
“We give people the idea that we can make our life better, no matter what the situation,” Mazibuko said. “We do that by the songs that we sing, about love, unity, being strong, being patient and going forward. We want people to be encouraged to do good things.”
In the mid-1980s, singer songwriter Paul Simon visited South Africa and partnered with Ladysmith Black Mambazo to incorporate their voices into his 1986 Graceland album. This collaboration marks the first time world music was brought into the mainstream, and it launched Ladysmith Black Mambazo into the international spotlight.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of captivity for his activism against apartheid. Mandela said he’d listened to the group while in prison.
“I was amazed to hear that,” Mazibuko said. “I’m amazed even now (29 years later).”
In 1993, Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the president of South Africa, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for dismantling apartheid, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo accompanied Mandela to the ceremony in Oslo, Norway, to accept the honor. He called the group “South Africa’s cultural ambassadors to the world.”
A year later, in the country’s first free presidential election, Mandela was voted into office as South Africa’s first black president. Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang at his inauguration.
“Music is the biggest tool to unite the people of South Africa,” Mazibuko said. “There’s no other place when you can have people be next to each other and all enjoy the same thing at the same moment.”
The members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo have changed over the years. When a member of the group has died, his role is often filled by a member of his family.
“It’s very good when you are singing with family,” Mazibuko said. “People who are related, their tone of voice is almost the same, so that is easier for blending. And when we’re traveling, it feels like we’re still at home.”
Mazibuko is now the only founding member of the group who still tours. Currently, the entire ensemble is related except for two members.
At last count, the group has released more than 70 albums. They’ve earned 19 Grammy Award nominations and five Grammy wins, the most of any world music group.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo has appeared on Broadway and recorded with Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban and Emmylou Harris. Their voices can be heard on the soundtracks to many movies, including “The Lion King II.”
Even after five decades and countless performances, Mazibuko still gets a thrill out of it all.
“I should be tired of it by now, but I enjoy it,” he said. “It is always exciting. When I am at home, I say to my children and my grandchildren, ‘I can’t wait to go on tour and reverse my age.’”