World-acclaimed SA music giant, Joseph Shabalala, dies at 78

Joseph Shabalala (PHOTO: Gallo Images).

The founder of the world-acclaimed traditional, cultural, scathamiya group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dr Joseph Shabalala passed away on the February 11 2020 at Life Eugene Marais Hospital in Pretoria at the age of 78.

Joseph Shabalala was born in 1941 and was the eldest of eight children. This eldest son of Jonathan Mluwane Shabalala and Nomandla Elina Shabalala, was named Joseph Siphathimandla Bigboy Mxoveni Shabalala Bhekizizwe Mshengu. He would follow his name Bhekizizwe translated “see nations” as his musical gift took him all over the world.

News of his death sent shockwaves all over the world, including to his four sons who are part of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo city to city tour in the United States of America. The group’s manager Xolani Majozi had the unenviable task of relaying the news of his death to his sons and the entire Ladysmith Black Mambazo family.

Joseph dreamt of getting an education but his ambition was thwarted when his father’s early death forced the 12-year-old Joseph to work at the family farm and later at a factory.

“When I was a young boy I dreamt of becoming an educated person; maybe a teacher, doctor or something like that,” he told South Africa’s The Citizen in 2014.

His musical journey started when he was a young boy. He would sing with his cousins and brothers to pass the time at the farm where his father worked. The mothers at the farm who listened to the young men would always shout: “Again! Again,” asking them to keep on singing.

When he was a teenager, Shabalala joined the groups Durban Choir and the Highlanders. Highlanders were led by his hero Galiyane Hlatshwayo who was instrumental in Joseph finding motivation to pursue music. It was through his encouragement that the young Joseph was confident to start his own group called Ezimnyama – The Black Ones in 1959. The members of the group were relatives  –mainly brothers and cousins that he had sung with on the farm.

Shabalala focused on singing acapella and dancing isicathamiya after a recurring dream where he would wake up hearing a peculiar sound. He tried to introduce this sound that he heard in his dreams to the group.

They started singing at weddings and entered every singing competition. They were banned from entering competitions after their group’s unbeatable winning streak.

Gallo signed them up and they released their first album in 1973. Since then, the group has recorded over 50 albums, many of which have received gold- and/or platinum-disc certification.

The choral group was later renamed to Ladysmith Black Mambazo with “Ladysmith” representing their hometown while “Black” represented a strong, black ox and “Mambazo” is a Zulu word which means an axe.

The group achieved international success and recognition through their collaboration with Paul Simon. Joseph Shabalala co-wrote the hit song Homeless with Simon on his iconic classic album Graceland. Graceland went on to win Ladysmith Black Mambazo their first Grammy Award in 1987. They have been nominated a record seventeen times, winning five Grammies.

The group joined Paul Simon on his world tour and he produced three of their albums, one of which was Shaka Zulu which won them a second Grammy. On meeting Paul Simon, Shabalala said: “He came to me like a child asking his father: ‘Can you teach me something?’ He was so polite. That was my first time to hug a white man.”

Dr Shabalala led his group to perform all over the world. They have performed for statesmen and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth. They accompanied Nelson Mandela on his trip to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. They were also part of the lineup of artists who performed when Mandela was inaugurated in 1994.

Over the years, they also collaborated with Dolly Parton, Josh Groban, Emmy Lou Harris and more. The group appeared in the Michael Jackson film, Moonwalker. Their reach and influence also saw them working on Broadway productions providing music for the anti- apartheid play The Song of Jacob Zulu and a musical named after his hit songs, Nomathemba. A documentary film about Ladysmith Black Mambazo, titled On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, was released in 2000. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Notable in his collaborations is a song Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang with Dolly Parton called Knocking On Heaven’s Door. The Christian Joseph takes the listener through a story as he narrates knocking on Heaven’s Door. He says he looks forward to being “Ezulwini (in Heaven) and that he will see us all in Heaven.

Joseph became a Christian in 1976 and after his conversion the group’s repertoire featured many Gospel songs. Mambazo’s first religious album, Ukukhanya Kwelanga, was released soon afterwards. It earned a double platinum disc award. Their 1977 LP Ukusindiswa became one of their most popular religious albums, selling double gold discs within three weeks of it being released.

Shabalala enjoyed a long, happy marriage with his first wife who he lost after 30 years of marriage when she was gunned down near their home. He has faced tragedy through death of loved ones — including his beloved wife and his brothers who were part of the group.

Shabalala was known for his Christian faith and those closest to him say his faith in God is what held him and kept him pressing forward through trying times.

Thokozile Shabalala, his second wife, remembers Joseph as a loving man. In an interview with Drum Magazine she said they shared happy times together and she often toured the world with the group. Thokozile says that her husband made her a better person. He believed in the power of prayer.

Shabalala retired from Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014 after he performed at a Mandela memorial service.

After the announcement of his death tribute messages came from legendary artists that Dr Shabalala had worked with.

Paul Simon wrote: “Joseph Shabalala took Ladysmith Black Mambazo and brought their music all over the world. Imagine! What a great accomplishment from apartheid South Africa. I admired him for his music and his Godly spirit. People love Mambazo. I love Joseph. We had a great time.”

Josh Groban says: “Rest in Peace, Joseph Shabalala. His voice touched my heart for so many years. As the founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, he brought the culture, stories and soul of South Africa to millions, including me. It was my great honor to collaborate with him on Lullaby and Weeping in my career. His warmth and kindness was just as beautiful off mic as it was on. Love to his family and country today. Peace will come to you in time, and I will sing this lullaby”

Celebrated playwright and creator of Muvhango on SABC 2, Duma Ndlovu, who was also a close friend of Shabalala, said the fallen isicathamiya singer was a genius.”Bab’Shabalala took South African music and put it onto the world map, and he bacame one of the most successful artists both locally and internationally, with five Grammy awards.

“There is no South African group that has travelled the world and achieved international success like Ladysmith Black Mambazo has. They have defied all the odds, coming from humble beginnings, without an education and a rich upbringing. Mshengu took the music to another level. A candle has dimmed in African traditional music.”

Indeed on February 11 2020 a candle did dim in the African traditional music arena. He knocked on Heavens Door and we will see him “Ezulwini”

One Comment

  1. Hugh G Wetmore

    His music style represents the Africa which I learned to know while living in deep rural Transkei. Their simple singing accompanied with a single-string isigingci had a similar haunting harmony that Shabalala’s choir demonstrated. His lyrics had an almost metrical rhythm which make them suited to sing-along. So different to the noise called music we hear on the radio these days. Thank God for his fame that spreads such listenable, singable music so widely!