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From South Africa
Mention African song and most people think of South African practitioners of the vocal arts - Solomon Linda, Miriam Makeba and perhaps more than anyone else in recent memory, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It is Ladysmith Black Mambazo who have come to represent the traditional culture of South Africa. They are regarded as South Africa's cultural emissaries at home and around the world. In 1993, at Nelson Mandela's request, Mambazo accompanied the future President, and then South African President F.W. de Klerk, to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Mambazo sang again at President Mandela's inauguration in May of 1994. They are a national treasure of the new South Africa in part because they embody the traditions suppressed in the old South Africa.It's been more than fifteen years since Paul Simon made his initial trip to South Africa and met Joseph Shabalala and the other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a recording studio in Johannesburg. Having listened to a cassette of their music sent by a DJ based in Los Angeles, Simon was captivated by the stirring sound of bass, alto and tenor harmonies. Simon incorporated the traditional sounds of black South Africa into the Graceland album, a project regarded by many as seminal to today's explosive interest in World Music.The traditional music sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is called ISICATHAMIYA (Is-Cot-A-Me-Ya). It was born in the mines of South Africa. Black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, they would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours every Sunday morning. Cothoza Mfana they called themselves, "tip toe guys", referring to the dance steps choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards. When miners returned to the homelands, the tradition returned with them. There began a fierce but social competition held regularly and a highlight of everyone's social calendar. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts and, of course, the adoration of their fans. These competitions are held even today in YMCA assembly halls and church basements.In the mid fifties Joseph Shabalala took advantage of his proximity to the urban sprawl of the city of Durban, allowing him the opportunity to seek work in a factory. Leaving the family farm was not easy, but it was during this time that Joseph first showed a talent for singing. After singing with a few groups in Durban he returned to his hometown of Ladysmith and began to put together groups of his own. He was rarely satisfied with the results. "I felt there was something missing... I tried to teach the music that I felt, but I failed, until 1964 when a dream came to me. I always hear the harmony from that dream and I said 'This is the harmony that I want and I can teach it to my guys'." Joseph recruited members of his immediate family - brothers Headman and Jockey, cousins Albert and Abednego Mazibuko and other close friends to join. Joseph taught the group the harmonies from his dreams. With time and patience, Joseph's work began to reveal the colors of these dreams.The name LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO came about as a result of winning every singing competition in which the group entered. "Ladysmith" is the hometown of the Shabalala family; "Black" makes reference to black oxen, considered to be the strongest on the farm. The Zulu word "Mambazo" refers to an ax - symbolic of the group's ability to "chop down" the competition. So good were they that after a time they were forbidden to enter the competitions but welcomed, of course, to entertain at them.A radio broadcast in 1970 brought about their first record contract. Since then the group has recorded over forty albums, selling over six million records at home and abroad, establishing them as the number one record selling group from Africa. Their work with Paul Simon on the Graceland album attracted a world of fans that never knew that the subtleties of Zulu harmony could be so captivating.Their first album release for the United States, SHAKA ZULU, was produced by Simon and won the Grammy Award in 1987 for Best Traditional Folk Album. Since then they have been nominated for a Grammy Award six additional times, including a nomination in 2001 for the album Live From Royal Albert Hall. A documentary film titled "On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps To Freedom," which is the story of Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Documentary Film in 2001. In addition "On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom" was nominated for American television's Emmy Award in 2002 for Best Cultural Documentary.The group has recorded with numerous artists from around the world besides Paul Simon. These include Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, The Wynans, Julia Fordham, George Clinton, Russell Watson, Ben Harper, Des'Re and others. Their film work includes a featured appearance in Michael Jackson's video "Moonwalker" and Spike Lee's "Do It A Cappella". Mambazo provided soundtrack material for Disney's "The Lion King Part II" as well as Eddie Murphy's "Coming To America", Marlon Brando's "A Dry White Season", and James Earl Jones' "Cry The Beloved Country". Their performance with Paul Simon on Sesame Street is legendary - their appearance is one of the top three requested Sesame Street segments in history. Their list of commercial projects include CLIO Award winning commercials for 7 Up and Lifesavers Candy, as well as an "on camera" appearance for an IBM television campaign, "Solutions For a Small Planet".